Engineering’s Echo Chamber

America’s engineering profession is deluding itself. In their own propaganda echo chamber, they are blaming society for the messes they helped create and have perpetuated. They say we are spoiled. Short sighted. Clueless. They don’t understand why we don’t open up our checkbooks to their “no-brainer” solutions. This internal dialog is dangerous. It is weakening the profession. Some genuine internal scrutiny is long overdue.

This Wednesday I will be speaking here in Minnesota at the Ramsey County Library in Roseville. The event is free, open to the public and you do not have to be in any way affiliated (or even remotely sympathetic) with the Independence Party to attend. They are sponsoring the event, which begins at 6:00 PM following a Minnesota Twins win over the Oakland Athletics. Hope to see a lot of you there.

The May 2012 edition of PE magazine (a publication of the National Society of Professional Engineers) lead with this provocative statement:

In the 20th century, U.S. engineers became known for creating much of the basic infrastructure that helped propel the country to economic success. Now in the 21st century, the country is struggling to keep that infrastructure from falling apart. What happened?

The article, which was written by Benjamin Roode (a staff writer for NSPE), is titled Infrastructure: How we got here, and includes the perfunctory math:

Well-built bridges + a down economy = higher priorities than a crumbling infrastructure

My wife is a journalist and through her I’ve gotten to know many writers who work for trade publications. It is a tough job that frequently doesn’t pay well and comes with little time or incentive to dig deep or question conventional orthodoxy. I say this because I’m sure Mr. Roode is a swell guy (you can check out his website here) and while his article is well written, I’m certain he was not given the latitude or the guidance to challenge the engineering echo chamber. That’s unfortunate, particularly because the engineering profession desperately needs to ask itself some tough questions.

What happened? should be a tough question. When I started reading the article I was naively optimistic that it would include some mention of the return on investment problem, the lack of value capture in funding our capital improvement projects, the perverse incentive of the gas tax, the distortion of the standard cost/benefit analyses, the poor applicability of standard depreciation modeling, the failure to make maintenance a priority, the politicization of the capital improvement process, the blind adherence to standards, the propensity to over-engineer, the lack of knowledge within the profession when it comes to land use context and creating total value, the perverse incentives within standard engineering contracts or any of the myriad of problems that lie within the profession itself. These are things that, for the most part, engineers directly control or can heavily influence.

Such introspection should be an ongoing facet of any great profession. Unfortunately, years of plenty, and years of dominance where few challenged their advice, has not only weakened the internal dialog of the nation’s engineering profession but has created a nasty echo chamber that inhibits attempts at reform. This story is simply another example.

According to the article, there are two simple answers to the question, What Happened?, and they both center around the unquestioned premise of needing more money for infrastructure. First, engineers were so successful at taking care of our every need that we now take them for granted and thus don’t give them enough of our money. Second, society is just too short-sighted and cheap to properly fund infrastructure.

Let’s examine the first assertion, which feels similar to the parents of a teenager warning their wayward child that life will be a lot tougher once they leave the benevolent protection afforded them in their nest. From the article:

“As long as the commode works when you flush it, people aren’t worried about spending money on infrastructure,” says Bill Fendley, P.E., F.NSPE, who chairs NSPE’s Legislative and Government Affairs committee.

“It’s just not visible,” he continues. “We’re spoiled in this country. You’re used to being able to turn on the faucet and getting water, getting on the road and going and not having to worry about congestion, potholes, et cetera. It’s just people assume…that all that should come naturally.

Is it really this simple? We’re just spoiled? A county of people that seemingly understand that when they buy a car it requires fuel, oil changes, air in the tires and all kinds of maintenance just are not capable of grasping the concept of paying for maintenance? In a nation where most families own their own home — a long term investment that requires an enormous amount of ongoing maintenance — are we really incapable of getting the idea? I mean, we all get hair cuts, don’t we? Are we really this clueless?

Or could it be that the way we fund things — a system established hand in hand with engineers and continually promoted by their advocacy organizations — clouds the relationship between the service being provided and the cost for that service? This system helped funnel a lot of money into a lot of projects, many of dubious value that nonetheless generated tremendous demand for engineers, but these funding mechanisms are not so great at maintenance.

This was actually alluded to in the article, although not in terms of changing the system but in getting more money for it.

AASHTO polls show voters believe the gasoline taxes and water tap fees they pay go a disproportionately long way to funding the upkeep and expansion of infrastructure systems and therefore do not need to be expanded, especially in a limping economy, he says.

As prices for repairs and materials increase, and charges like gasoline taxes fail to keep pace, such payments do less and less to maintain an increasingly costly infrastructure.

“Most citizens have no clue what is needed in terms of cash flow in a given state to maintain highways, bridges, and other transportation,” he says.

Those voters also overestimate what they already pay for infrastructure maintenance and expansion. Combined, the viewpoints mean most voters believe there’s enough money in federal and state budgets to adequately maintain roads, bridges, and other infrastructure even though groups like AASHTO and ASCE have identified massive spending deficits.

Except for employing engineers, why should we pour more money into a system that so distorts the relationship between the service demanded and the willingness to pay for it? Wouldn’t a coherent argument from the engineering profession start by questioning that system of funding?

Perhaps society is not so much spoiled as dubious of the way the money is being spent. For example, take the St. Croix bridge project here in Minnesota. Here you have a $680 million bridge being built to “fight congestion” in a far exurb by moving 16,000 cars per day away from a town that has adopted an auto-centric land use pattern. At the same time this money is being appropriated, Minnesota has 1,149 bridges in a state of disrepair but little money to fix them. These bridges carry a combined 2.4 million cars per day and the cost of repairs is $500 million. When I hear Mn/DOT Commissioner Thomas Sorel, the highest ranking civil engineer in the state and the guy whose job it is to oversee our state’s priorities for spending transportation dollars, talking about how excited he is to be funding the St. Croix bridge, there is no way I am going to support an additional penny in transportation spending.

In this video, Sorel also talks about “sustainability”, states how Mn/DOT is committed to “sustainabilty” and how this project is “sustainable”. This is why I never use the word “sustainable”. What makes anyone believe that the money to fix and maintain this bridge will be there 50, 75, 100 years from now when it is not there today to build it in the first place, the project will generate no appreciable growth or wealth that will be captured for its maintenance and we don’t have the money to maintain the much higher return bridge projects we built 60 years ago? What exactly is sustainable about any of that?

Our system, which is run by engineers, is incoherent. Until the engineering profession grasps that, calling society spoiled is self serving, at best.

Let’s examine the second assertion of the article, that society is just shortsighted and cheap. From the article:

Taxes are immediate, and infrastructure’s returns are long-term. Therefore, an infrastructure tax, whether for a sewer system or development of a port, is viewed by most taxpayers solely as a cost to avoid, not an investment, says Andrew Herrmann, P.E., president of the American Society of Civil Engineers. And when taxpayers are still feeling the effects of a down economy, any new tax, and many existing ones, is the target of voter ire.

More investment in infrastructure could boost the amount of tax revenue coming into the system, Herrmann says. His group’s 2009 Report Card for America’s Infrastructure, the most recent, showed an increase of over 243,000 jobs if infrastructure investment is increased. Transportation costs for many industries would decrease, improving efficiency and, hopefully, productivity. Without needed infrastructure repairs and maintenance, quality of life, productivity, air quality, and ultimately employment, would all continue to decline.

Getting politicians and voters to think beyond the next month or next election is tough even with data like that, he says.

“It seems like a no-brainer, but it’s hard to get people to understand,” Herrmann says.

I don’t know as they hear their own condescension when they speak. It is a “no brainer” to spend literally trillions of dollars and a major part of their argument is that 243,000 jobs will be created. As I pointed out last year when ASCE released their propaganda piece, someone in the engineering profession needs to read some economic data. If we’re going to build infrastructure for the jobs it creates, we had 370,000 new jobless claims last week alone. We’ll spend a couple of trillion and put some of those people back to work, but what do we do once we get to Thursday afternoon?

This is condescension based on ignorance, and the ignorance comes from the self-reaffirming echo chamber this profession resides in. NSPE, along with their more propaganda-prone cousin the ASCE, need to initiate a program of internal self reflection. Tomorrow on the Strong Towns blog I am going to propose some questions that I would like to see the profession actually engage in answering.

But before I finish today, I have to share with you the ultimate quote from the NSPE article, which was made by construction lawyer and author Barry LePatner.

 “We’re not reinvesting in this country. We need to double-down on the commitments we make to restore this nation’s greatness,” [Barry] LePatner says.

Since we’ve been gambling on growth for two generations now, continually increasing our bets, going further and further into debt in this Ponzi scheme of exchanging nominal, near term growth benefits for enormous, long term obligations, the concept of doubling down is an apt analogy to what the engineering profession would like to see us do. Fortunately, we’re not going to do that.

That gives the engineering profession two real options. The first is that they can continue with these delusions, insisting that the profession’s heyday of the 1950’s can be recaptured if we simply spent more money, and watch themselves continue to become less and less relevant. Or, they can start to question themselves, the systems they have set up and perpetuated, the funding mechanisms they rely on and the standards they have developed and, in doing so, become important leaders in restoring America’s competitive position.

We need the engineering profession to join us in building strong towns.


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Charles Marohn

About Charles Marohn

Charles L. Marohn, Jr. PE AICP is the President of Strong Towns, a Minnesota-based 501(c)3 non-profit organization. He is a Professional Engineer (PE) licensed in the State of Minnesota and a member of the American Institute of Certified Planners (AICP). He has a Bachelor's degree in Civil Engineering from the University of Minnesota's Institute of Technology and a Masters in Urban and Regional Planning from the University of Minnesota's Humphrey Institute. Strong Towns supports a model of growth that allows America's cities, towns and neighborhoods to become financially strong and resilient.