The Engineered Society

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This winter the ongoing battle for control of the Reform party began to strain credulity—not to mention the adage that politics makes strange bed-fellows. In one corner was Donald Trump, who was supported by a former professional wrestler turned governor and was trying to become the first man to be elected President despite his reaching for a Sani-Wipe after every handshake. His main opposition was the onetime conservative speechwriter and commentator Pat Buchanan, backed by a pair of leftist cult leaders from New York City.

Neither Buchanan nor Trump, of course, had a very good chance of becoming our next President. But the fact that millions of Americans were willing to consider voting for them underscored an unusual dissatisfaction with mainstream politics in a time of general peace and prosperity. Reform party voters seem to reflect a wide disgust with the whole conduct of our politics and an unease over such specific issues as our rush into the brave new global economy.

It has been a long time since a major candidate in any party has run a campaign challenging the nation’s underlying political consensus. Probably the last one could really be said to be Barry Goldwater, back in 1964, with the race that ended up launching the modern conservative movement.

Yet we have never seen so many challenges to our basic institutions as we did during the Great Depression, our most sustained national crisis. The 1930s witnessed no less than the advent of two New Deals, one Liberty League, and innumerable socialists, communists, agrarians, and home-grown Nazis.

Some of their programs helped bring about valuable reforms. Others were pure flimflam. None, however, produced such a great tumult in such a short time —or appears quite so weird today—as the technocracy movement.

The technocrats were as much a faith and a grudge as they ever were a real political party. They worshiped “the myth of the engineer”—the new class of practical technicians and masters of the machines—and they believed that ever-more prodigious levels of productivity could he attained if only business were reorganized “rationally” and objectively by the engineers.

The technocrats’ prophet was one Howard Scott, who might have been created out of whole cloth by Ayn Rand. A large, rangy individual, he liked, according to his biographer, William E. Akin, to affect a “broad brimmed hat ... a big leather coat suitable to outdoor engineering, soft shirts with crumpled collars, a red necktie, and a red handkerchief.” But for all his bravado, Scott had decidedly shaky credentials as an engineer.

As documented by Akin in Technocracy and the American Dream , Scott seems to have had little formal education, and his most notable work as an engineer was at a Muscle Shoals nitrates project during World War I. A postwar government investigation charged him with “gross waste, inefficiency, and shoddy workmanship.”

This experience notwithstanding, by the end of the war Scott had become convinced that engineers should run the world. Many of his colleagues seem to have felt the same way, but in the prosperous twenties a fledgling organizing effort fizzled out. Scott moved to Greenwich Village, where he lived in a studio apartment dominated by what one visitor called “an appalling phallic water color” and happily tinkered away at his theories.

By 1932, with the United States laboring through its third year of a devastating depression and every bank in the country about to shut its doors, the country was hungry for ideas—any ideas. Scott by now was hobnobbing with a first-rate promoter, the writer Harold Loeb, and also with Walter Rautenstrauch, a professor at Columbia University’s engineering school who was suspicious of some of Scott’s theories but shared his general conviction that engineers ought to be running everything.

Scott’s basic idea was that all human endeavor could effectively be measured in terms of energy expended. Whatever it took to make anything could be translated into pure ergs and joules. Therefore, the first thing to do was to take a grand energy survey of all the nation’s industries, a project to which Rautenstrauch actually got Columbia’s venerable president Nicholas Murray Butler to lend his support. Once it was determined how much energy it took to make everything, the nation’s engineers could step in and eliminate the irrational “social motives” in business. That is, all the energy businessmen put into making luxury goods —or profits.

Scott was always vague about just what would happen next. When pressed, he and his associates finally theorized that some sort of scrip, equivalent to the energy the nation used in a year, could be distributed on a perfectly equal basis to all U.S. citizens. To keep everything balanced and that pesky capital from accumulating, people would have to use up their “energy certificates” during the year or see them become worthless. The result, Loeb asserted in a book he rushed into print by early 1933, would be such abundance that no one would have to work more than four hours or so, four days a week.