Jack's blog

Son-of-an-engineer Jack blogs about a sunday lunch discussion that leaks all over one of the major taboo subjects of polite conversation.

Scene: dining room table somewhere in the UK, Sunday lunch.

Time: early 21st century, with the results of the US presidential election just announced.

Characters: me (Muse fan and tragically unloved sixth former); Alice and Amy (precocious, bratty twins); Mum (IT person); Dad (yeah, still don't know what he does); Dad's brother Michael (lecturer in American politics - how spooky is that? If I was writing my own life story that's exactly who I'd have coming to dinner!); Michael's foxy partner Madison (who was one of his students over on an exchange - Mum thinks that's gross, but Dad talks loudly about chemical imbalances in the brain overriding the rational mind and stares dreamily at her when he thinks no one's looking).

Dad: When it all settles down, what the President needs to kickstart the economy is institute a massive building programme. Highways, power supply, the works - real things, not just instructions to brokers. He needs to be the new Eisenhower. He's going to deliver broadband but it's not enough.

Mum: Peas, anybody?

Dad: All they know how to make in America nowadays is plastic bins. I don't suppose they've even got enough engineers to deliver the goods.

Michael: Why do engineers always think that building something's gonna fix the problem?

Amy: Did you pick up an American accent along with your American student?

Mum (standing there with a spoonful of peas in her hand): I'm standing here with a spoonful of peas in my hand.

Dad: Because it does fix the problem. People need to make things. Countries need infrastructure. Governments pay for that infrastructure.

Madison: In tax dollars.

Dad: And improved infrastructure brings prosperity.

Michael: Engineers. Always looking for labour-intensive solutions.

Madison: Are they frozen? The peas? Well, no thanks. And the tax payer then pays twice over, in pork-barrel transport projects.

Me: Who said I wanted the peas?

Mum (glaring at Madison): Who would have thought Republicanism even had a future after the last couple of months?

Michael: The last time things were this bad, the engineer in the White House got jeered out of office.

Alice: Was he fixing the phones?

Amy (sniggers): Must have been a Republican engineer then.

Dad: Don't call them engineers, for the millionth time. They're technicians.

Michael: He was Herbert Hoover, Miss Smarty Pants. Mining engineer. Lost to Franklin D Roosevelt in 1932.

Madison: And let in 50 years of New Deal socialism.

Mum: I suppose you're so sweet, you won't want pudding, Madison dear?

Me: Wasn't he a cross dresser?

Mum: Wrong Hoover, darling. Potatoes, anyone?

Madison: You Brits really do pile on the carbs, don't you?

Michael: Hoover really thought the system would work things out, with a bit of nudging - he got all the banks together and asked the big ones to lend to the little ones to keep them afloat and the little ones would pay back with interest and the money would keep going round and round.

Dad: It sounds like a classic engineering solution employing negative feedback. Why wouldn't that work?

Michael: Because banking ain't engineering.

Me (suddenly perking up as I might have the answer here): Because banking is about choices, Dad. No big bank would choose to lend to a little one if it thought its money would disappear.

Dad: But it doesn't disappear! It's still in the system! It's just that the flow.

Michael: Jack's right. None of your neat little engineering solutions involves choice.

Dad: I'll give you a whopping great engineering solution if you like: introduce a closed loop controller, force the money flow valve open and take the choice out of it.

Madison: But that's Communism!

Dad: Er...

Mum: Time to move on to pudding?

Alice: Well, no, because Communism in its purest form is arguably a self-regulating system with no constraints at all and people choosing freely to combine their inputs and share their outputs.

Madison: Are you saying Herbert Hoover was a Commie?

Amy: If it helps, the current Chinese leader is actually a hydraulic engineer.

Alice: And Brezhnev worked in steel.

Mum (enjoying herself): Are you saying that prominent engineers who rise to power tend to be Communists?

Madison(nearly in tears): What are you guys on?

Michael: It's alright. Jimmy Carter was an engineer, too. And they don't allow Communists in the White House.

Me: Anyway, I know how this one ends because the big banks refused to lend unless they could end up owning the little banks and then Hoover imposed tariffs on non-American goods and so no one else would buy American and the whole world ground to a halt. Depression City, man.

Dad: Like I said, if only you would listen, feedback control would regulate the variables and ensure that...

Mum: Coffee?

And on and on for the next 40 years.

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