The Trouble with Engineers in Politics

PARIS — Paris. -- The misfortunes of Vice Admiral James Stockdale in the vice-presidential debate were those of the amateur in politics, and he is no worse for them. But the success of Ross Perot in the first presidential debate, and in the earlier stages of his off-and-on presidential campaign, is also the success of an amateur. His amateurism has been his great strength, at a time when the public has decided that it hates professional politicians.

There is, however, a significant danger in his candidacy, as Mr. Perot's account of what he would do if elected clearly demonstrates. He promises to create immediately a series of task forces to make plans to solve the country's economic and social problems. He said in the first debate that he would reveal these plans to the public -- or the first draft of them -- as a Christmas present, and as soon as the inauguration was over he would "get off to a flying start in '93 to execute them."


The assumption behind this is the mistaken one that the problems to be solved in political policy resemble problems in engineering or even in business. It supposes that they are problems for which clear answers exist, which will become apparent when serious intelligence and effort are applied to finding the solutions.

There are, as Mr. Perot acknowledged, dozens of plans out there now for solving the country's political and social problems. They are "lying all over Washington," but "nobody ever executes [them]," he said. True enough; and the reason nobody executes them is that nobody can get enough people in Congress and the administration to agree on which of the plans is the right one, or the one they are prepared to pay for -- or to ask the public to pay for. There lies the political problem.


Jimmy Carter, who like Mr. Perot was educated at the Naval Academy, which is fundamentally an engineering school, had much this same view of government. Put the "best minds" to work to find the answers. When you have done that, the right solutions will be found. That's the way you do it in engineering and science. It may not be easy to find the right answer, but once you have it, every competent or trained person will recognize that it's right.

The search for engineering solutions to strategic and political problems has in the past made much trouble for Washington's policy makers. The reason for this is that political analysis is a matter of qualitative rather than quantitative thought.

It was the professional deformation of the postwar "think-tanks," set up to solve problems for the Defense Department, to assume that "operational research" -- an engineering technique for problem-solving through applied common sense, using a systematic review of alternatives and "scenarios" concerning future possibilities -- would work for strategy and other wider issues of national security. In fact, these efforts consistently failed to foresee what actually happened, or to provide appropriate solutions to problems that were political in nature.

If Mr. Perot were elected and were to try to govern through task forces searching for objective answers to problems rooted in conflicts of ideology and interest, and by means of his "electronic town-meeting" -- a form of on-going popular referendum, so far as one can make out -- his presidency almost certainly would end after four years in frustration and bitterness. And the country certainly does not need still another failed presidency.

On the other hand, Mr. Perot's great accomplishment is to have forced his opponents to concede that any solution to America's problems today will be painful.

He has insisted upon this repeatedly, stoutly defending his proposal for a tax rise on gasoline, going up to 50 cents a gallon by the end of five years. Of course that would hurt the ordinary man. But he is the first presidential candidate since Walter Mondale to say to ordinary Americans that the recession/depression of 1992 is the result of all those free lunches Americans were glad to accept -- while asking for more -- during the Reagan years.

William Pfaff is a syndicated columnist.