Our brains want to categorize the world in binary terms: good versus evil, rich versus poor, old versus young. We sort everything into two piles whenever we can because our tiny brains can't handle the complexity of life otherwise. It's no surprise that here in the United States we're stuck in a Republican versus Democrat mindset that just might kill us all. It's simply easier to think of politics in terms of two choices, and we like simple.

Lately I've been wondering if the Republican versus Democrat model does the best job of explaining our governmental gridlock. Could there be another binary sorting that is the root cause? Let's start with a little pattern recognition test and I'll circle back to my point.

Compare the relatively successful economies in the first group of countries below to the economic zombie nations in the second group. Other than economics, what characteristic does the first group have that the second group does not?

Group 1

United States
Great Britain

Group 2


The first thing you might notice is that the weaker economies have nicer climates. In the United States, productivity always drops through the floor when ugly winter weather gives way to nice spring days. I assume evolution created some sort of trigger in humans that tells us good weather means fruit will drop from trees and bad weather means you'd better start collecting some acorns for the winter. I know that if I have a lot of work to do, I hope for a cold and rainy day. And I don't even have outdoorsy hobbies. My productivity drops just knowing it's a nice day on the other side of my door.

But weather isn't the only pattern in the country groupings. The countries with stronger economies have reputations for creating engineers and technologists. Where you have lots of engineers you have prosperity. Now let's circle back to my point about the United States being in a binary mindset with Republicans and Democrats. What is it that drives so many citizens who are infinitely different from each other to stuff themselves into one of two boxes? Some of the answer is our reflex for sorting everything into two boxes. But there's another answer: lawyers

I saw an estimate that 36% of our elected leaders have law degrees. That's notable for two reasons. First, and most obvious, lawyers are trained to see the world in terms of winners and losers. The legal game is not designed to be a win-win proposition. Lawyers don't say their clients are mostly innocent, or somewhat negligent. Lawyers say every bit of evidence is 100% supportive of whatever view they want you to believe. It's hard to imagine any sort of job training that would be a worse fit for the infinite nuance of government service. 

Second, and more problematic, lawyers are trained to convince other people that the gray areas they see are not gray at all. Lawyers are experts at turning ambiguous evidence into whatever confirmation bias serves their argument. And while lawyers aren't the only people trying to convince others of their worldview, they're generally the best at it. If you infect any group with 36% lawyers, you can expect it to evolve into two teams of haters.

Pulling all of this together, I think our brains have no choice but to sort things in two piles. But maybe we do have the choice of what kind of piles we pick. The lawyers in government would have us believe our two choices are Republican or Democrat. I think we might get better results by labeling our binary choices as Lawyer or Engineer. For example, a lawyer choice might be willing to shut down the government to win an argument and make the other side a loser. An engineer would look for an evidence-based solution that is best for the country on average. An engineer might test an approach in one state first, or look to other countries as examples of best practices. For every major issue there is a lawyer approach and an engineer approach.

Imagine what would happen if voters started sorting government plans into Lawyer versus Engineer. When the evidence suggests a win-win opportunity, we'd call it the engineering option. When we have a win-lose alternative, we would label it the lawyer approach. Perhaps that sort of worldview would help voters break free of the mental shackles of the two-party system that lawyers have created in our minds.
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Jun 13, 2012
You're assuming that all lawyers in Congress are or were litigators, i.e., people who advocate for one point of view over another. But a lot of lawyers want nothing to do with litigation (i.e., Barak Obama) and there are plently of people with law degrees that don't even practice. So they're not automatically those black and white people you describe.

Also, isn't the classic view of an attorney not someone who sees the world in black and white but someone who sees so many shades of gray that they can convince you things aren't what you thought they were? People don't usually think the criminal got off because they didn't do it--often it's because the government didn't have enough evidence (i.e., the Edwards jury). No one thinks Edwards is an angel, but the defense convinced the jury he wasn't bad enough to be convicted.
Jun 13, 2012
Lately, one of the more curious political exchanges is when some solution is proposed, but the other party responds "They only want to be re-elected".

At Engineering meetings, you never hear "Herb only wants failure rates down so he'll get a bonus".

Do firefighters stand around a burning home going "The Chief only wants this fire out so he'll get a promotion, the bastard"

Jun 13, 2012
It's our broken election system. In order for someone to win, they need the majority of votes. This means that any semblance of choice requires us to have two candidates. If you have three candidates, either you have gridlock -- because nobody can win by a little bit -- or you have one or more candidates who weren't really in the running.

And ultimately voting for even a slightly weak candidate, regardless of how much you agree with them, ends up working against you if you want to participate in the actual contest.

Instant runoff voting (aka alternate vote or ranked voting) changes this dynamic quite a bit. This is what we need to do with our election system. It will allow parties to splinter a bit, and you can pick the best version of a democrat or republican, or something else without compromising your role in an election.
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Jun 13, 2012
I'm going to take the lawyerly road and agree that we need to kill all the lawyers. According to Scott we can keep the lawyers and eventually fail, or kill the lawyers and win. ;)

Ok, that's not what he said, but how many think the world would be improved by eliminating 95% of the lawyers? How many agree that 95% is just not enough?
+6 Rank Up Rank Down
Jun 13, 2012
They don't vote in China but almost all of the leaders were trained as engineers. Hmmm.
Jun 13, 2012
Engineers are not comfortable playing politics so your only choice is lawyer vs. lawyer.
Jun 13, 2012
There is one duality that is most damaging, and that is the Us-Them duality. It makes people not only vote for 'Their' team in spite of reality, it also influences people in the way that they think. There is enormous pressure to be a part of 'Us' even if you know you will be exploited by 'Us'.

Thus a person in a commmunity that 'Always' votes for John Slimeball will vote for him (or at least say they do) even though they don't like him at all. Because voting against him lands you in the 'Them' camp.
Jun 13, 2012
This duality is so far ingraned that it would be difficult to change it without some sort of major cultural shift. But it is possible.

Here in Canada, one of the two federal parties self-destructed over some regional disputes. The Progressive Conservatives (wrap your head around that Americans) Split into the right-wing Reform Party in the west, and the regional Parti-Quebecois in Quebec. The remnant PC party was nearly shut out in the next election and gave rise to the Left-wing New Democrats.

After awhile the Reform Party was able to absorb enough of the old PC party to form the newly powerful Conservative Party, but for awhile people started thinking about other options.

Who knows, maybe Romney will be elected, do some stuff that causes the tea-partyers to rebel, and you'll have your very own political shift.
Jun 13, 2012
John E Sununu (i.e. junior) has a mechanical engineering degree from MIT. I read somewhere awhile back where he said that being an engineer in Congress and watching how the lawyers ran the place was extremely painful, because they were not in search of "solutions" but rather in search of ways to win their arguments.
Jun 13, 2012
The problem is that the "win-lose" mentality will, in a rhetorical knife fight, always beat the "shades of grey" mentality. Soundbites are more effective in rousing emotions than detailed analysis, and emotions are the key to political success. Don't make the mistake of thinking that people are doing any thinking when making decisions. Almost all decisions are emotional.

If EVERYONE agreed to stick to the Engineer approach -- and then actually stuck to it -- it would work. All it would take, though, is one quasi-attractive guy with nice hair and a knack for the offhand funny-on-the-surface-but-nonsense-if-you-really-think-about-it phrase, and we will be right back in high school laughing as the quarterbacks give wedgies to the future engineers of the world.
Jun 13, 2012
I never thought about the lawyer impact on our government gridlock before, but your logic makes a lot of sense.

I've always wondered how the political system always turns average people into nasty, mud slinging, egomaniacs that won't compromise on anything. But maybe those are the types of people who are most atracted to politics, and they are trained to be that way.

But I still dont' understand why the system doesn't self correct. Why does mud slinging and twisting the truth actually work to win a political campaign, while the polite, civil, straighforward (possibly engineer?) candidates get eaten alive?
Jun 13, 2012
Yes, and both parties have issues on which they're the lawyer or the engineer. It seems that people get so wrapped-up rooting for "their team" that they fail to scrutinize the policies themselves. They listen to "their" lawyers making the argument 100% for or against and see any contradictory evidence as an example of bad faith from the opposing team.

Unfortunately, I don't see an easy way to change this. How do we get the teams (parties) to sort themselves differently? And even if they do, who's to say that the "engineer" team who bases their policies on evidence would fare better in an election than the lawyer team? There's plenty of pandering already.
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