Monday, August 02, 2010

Do Borders Matter in Engineering?

Stephen Unger, one of the deans and founders of the field of engineering ethics, is concerned about the fates of engineering and high-tech employment in the U. S. He recently pointed out to me an article by Andy Grove, founder of Intel, in which Grove pointed out the current crisis in manufacturing employment in the U. S. It turns out that for every U. S. resident employed by many high-tech companies such as Apple, Dell, and so on, there are about ten Chinese employees who either work for the same firm or make the products that the company sells. This trend started back in the 1980s when what was then called “consumer electronics” manufacturing (mostly TVs and radios) went into a steep decline in the U. S. while Japan and then China took up the slack. To critics who say this doesn’t matter as long as the high-value-added jobs such as R&D and finance stay in the U. S., Grove says basically, “bunk.” He calls for a frankly protectionist tax on all imported high-tech goods, with the money coming from the tax going to people who are willing to scale up small startups into full-scale U. S. manufacturing efforts.

I will not comment on the political feasibility of such a solution, except to say that it would be quite disruptive if enacted. But sometimes a short, sudden disruption is better medicine than allowing a disease to go on and on until the patient can no longer recover.

The question I really want to address is: do borders matter in engineering?

On the one hand, modern science-based engineering is a truly universal profession. Go to an engineering conference of a hundred or more attendees, and you are very likely to meet people from all over the globe in just a few minutes. The technical language of engineering is the same everywhere: Ohm’s law, Maxwell’s equations, and all the rest. Even in the commercial world, unless strong political forces dictate otherwise, engineering teams are made up of people from many countries, ethnicities, and faiths, who can work together harmoniously without allowing their diverse backgrounds to interfere with getting the job done.

Would the world really be a better place if all engineers considered themselves as simply citizens of the world, taking no pride and holding no affection for their native lands? You can imagine some advantages to this. It would be hard to find any engineers to work on military projects, for instance, since all wars would then become civil wars and no upstanding world citizen would support such a thing.

The answer to the question reveals one’s core beliefs about the purpose of life and society. If there really is such a thing as true good (and therefore true evil), the ordering of life by a polis—a city-state, as Aristotle referred to it—is necessary to preserve good and combat evil. When I first began to study the classic texts of ethics seriously, I was somewhat dismayed to find that the ancient writers spent much of their time talking about politics, broadly defined as the right ordering of public life. And since the alternatives to citizenship in a particular country—namely, total anarchy or one-world government—are either unthinkable or impossible, every engineer has to decide how to relate to the government under which he or she lives.

There is no such thing as world citizenship, no matter how much people might like it if there was. The way the world is set up, people are born into a particular place at a particular time, and thereafter have to deal with the circumstances that life hands them, including the government of the country where they were born.

Most people have little or no choice as to where they live, and under what government they live. Most immigration around the world is internal, from countrysides to cities, which is why so many of the world’s largest cities are growing at an insupportable rate. Once in a city, sometimes people can accumulate enough capital to emigrate to a country that will take them in. In most parts of the world, emigration is not only possible but widely practiced, and for all its flaws, the United States seems to be one of the places that people all over the world would prefer to live in.

I think they’re right. Our polis is founded on principles that I find to be very compatible with my own system of ethics and religion, and I believe it is worth preserving and enriching. Part of the work of preservation and enrichment involves making sure that the people who live here can earn a decent living. And since so much of our economy depends on technology, perhaps some measures along the lines of what Andy Grove calls for would be at least worth considering. I am not an economist and can’t say whether Grove is right about his proposal. But I will say that I think his heart is in the right place, and borders should matter to an engineer—not in a jingoistic, my-country-right-or-wrong sense, but in a realistic sense that recognizes the great worth of good countries and the need to preserve them against forces that work for their decline.

Sources: The article pointed out to me by Stephen Unger, whom I thank for the information, is at the Bloomberg News website

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