Engines of Our Ingenuity

No. 329:
PRODUCTION AND USURY

by John H. Lienhard

Click here for audio of Episode 329.

Today, let's worry about the goose and her golden eggs. The University of Houston's College of Engineering presents this series about the machines that make our civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity created them.

We have a problem, you and I. We have a problem. America is slipping. We're living off the fat of our land, and we're giving its substance away. We staked a claim to world leadership a hundred years ago, but only after we'd become first in invention and production. Now we're trying to live in wealth without creating wealth.

We see a reflection of the problem in our universities. Too few Americans study science and engineering. The ones who do usually stop at a bachelor's degree. We have to seek out immigrants to take up the advanced intellectual work that we aren't doing ourselves.

When our engineers join industry, they're told about the two roads they can take -- management on the one hand, production and design on the other. Management leads to seven-digit salaries and power. Making things, it seems, is a dead end.

The situation gets worse: A recent Forbes editorial noted that business-school graduates come to the same fork in their road. The high-pay road leads to investment banking. Industrial production jobs mean second-class citizenship in the business world.

America was built on making and doing. But now we've quit asking where the cement comes out. Our machine isn't producing much cement these days. Ship-building has long since passed to Japan and Korea. We've given petroleum feedstock reduction away to the third world. We manufacture hardly any of our own electronic parts.

Worst of all, we're abdicating innovation. For example, we haven't initiated a new, large-scale transportation system in 40 years. Japanese innovation dazzles us. We fail to see that it flows from old-world values: the corporate good, knowledge, and daring. The American financial enterprise, its eye on security and short-term gain, has stopped taking risks. New technologies are too dangerous for organizations that want only to stay safe.

And so we go on killing the goose to get her golden eggs. Without the old virtues to nourish her, the goose will stay dead. What's the solution? Actually, you are the solution -- you with your dream-driven, earth-connected ability to ride your creative impulse. And today, a good idea has more elbow room than it ever did. An industrial gamble has a greater chance of success.

Trading securities might be a road to wealth. But quite another road leads to pleasure in the world of ideas. Quite another road leads to the satisfaction of knowing you've put more into the world than you've taken out of it.

I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston, where we're interested in the way inventive minds work.

(Theme music)


Shilling, A.G., M.B.A.'s With Blue Collars. Forbes, Oct. 16, 1989, p. 300.

The Engines of Our Ingenuity is Copyright © 1988-1997 by John H. Lienhard.


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