Power: Mechanical, National, and Personal

James Boswell is of course best known as the great biographer of Samuel Johnson. But Boswell didn’t spend all his time in Dr Johnson’s company. In 1776, he visited the Boulton & Watt steam engine factory. Showing Boswell around, Matthew Boulton summed up his business one simple phrase:

I sell here, sir, what all the world desires to have–POWER.

Fast forward to 2009. In the United States as in Western Europe, politicians are conducting a vendetta against the energy industry. See for example this, which describes the closure of an aluminum smelter in Montana–because it can no longer obtain affordable electricity–and the probable exit of much of the nonferrous metals industry from Western Europe, for the same reason. (Link via MaxedOutMama)

So, was Matthew Boulton wrong? Have we finally found a group of humans–our present-day political leaders–who are NOT interested in power?

Hardly. Our present generation of politicans are at least obsessed with their personal power as previous political leaders were.

So why are they so willing to take actions that will clearly reduce the power of the countries they represent? Mechanical power is not identical to national power, but it is surely closely correlated.

Part of the answer is simple cluelessness. Most American politicians, in particular, have long been lacking in any scientific or technological knowledge. And, increasingly, they also lack both theoretical and practical knowledge of economics and business. They often make decisions without understanding the real implications.

But there is another and even less creditable reason for these political attitudes. Many politicians–and many of the academics and other “experts” advising them–simply do not identify closely with their own nations and with the people and culture of those nations. There is a strong thread of belief in the U.S. Democratic Party that America is too wealthy, too powerful, too dangerous–that it is country that is “just downright mean,” in the words of America’s current First Lady. And if you think these things about a country and its people, you’re not likely to want to increase–or even sustain–its power.

Especially if you decouple the power of your country from your own personal power. And I think “progressive” politicians, and many members of academic and even business elites, do see themselves as inhabiting a transnational space in which their personal well-being is not strongly coupled to that of their countries.

(Matthew Boulton quote appears in Boswell’s biography of Johnson; also quoted in this interesting essay)

7 thoughts on “Power: Mechanical, National, and Personal”

  1. The cluelessness part is really important, I think. I remember Bill Cosby’s hilarious routine about understanding electricity. I think it may be on this album. He knew as much about electricity as the politicians who want us to drive electric cars but have no interest in building power plants or upgrading the power grid. They are like Diane Keeton in Baby Boom when the plumber tells her that her well has gone dry. She says, “Well, there is hose right over there. Let’s get it and fill it up.” Just plug it in to the outlet. They have no understanding of basic rules of physics. These are the guys who took “Chemistry in the Community” instead of Chemistry in high school.

    The political class in this country, both parties, is as bad as I can imagine it has ever been. Mark Twain had jokes about them but the Congress in his day had little to do with the everyday lives of most people. The totalitarian movements of the 20th century adopted the methods of the French Revolution in examining the beliefs of ordinary people and that is what was so terrible about them. Now, we seem to have worked our way into a similar situation. George Orwell understood that good intentions were the way despotism would develop in free societies.

  2. These idiots think of electricity at the household consumer level only. They think the problem of less power can be solved with higher thermostat levels and fluorescent light bulbs. Industry what’s that?

  3. The only power thay care about is that which grows out of a ballot box or teh barrel of a gun.

    Mechanical or electrical power, only as a lever to gain more of teh other kind.

    Speaking of our political class, I am often reminded of an old saying that I first saw in Mad Magazine captioning a photo from the Nixon-Khruschev “Kitchen Debate.” Nixion was talking in the picture, and K had a thought bubble which said: “Old Russian proverb, whether the water is salt or fresh, shit floats.”

    To the top.

  4. The power went off twice at the MLS western conference championship game in Los Angeles on 13 Nov 2009. The game was broadcast on EPSN, and thanks to those delays, ran until after 2AM EST.

    California is a third-world country that can’t keep its lights on.

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