Beginning this week, Washington hopes that infrastructure, which is a product of civil engineering, will be much discussed. But if you find yourself in Oregon, keep your opinions to yourself, lest you get fined $500 for practicing engineering without a license. This happened to Mats Jarlstrom as a result of events that would be comic if they were not symptoms of something sinister.
Jarlstrom’s troubles began when his wife got a $150 red-light camera ticket. He became interested in the timing of traffic lights and decided there was something wrong with the formula used in Oregon and elsewhere to time how long traffic lights stay yellow as they transition from green to red. He began thinking, Googling, corresponding and — here he made his big mistake — talking about this subject. He has ignored repeated demands by the Oregon State Board of Examiners for Engineering and Land Surveying that he pipe down. So the board considers him to be, like Jesse James, Al Capone and John Dillinger, a dangerous recidivist.
Not that it should matter, but Jarlstrom actually is an engineer. He has a degree in electrical engineering, served in a technical capacity in the Swedish air force and worked for Sweden’s Luxor Electronics before immigrating to the United States in 1992. He is, however, not licensed by Oregon to “practice engineering” — design skyscrapers, bridges, etc. — so, according to the board, he should not be allowed to talk about engineering, or even call himself an engineer. Only those the board licenses are admitted to the clerisy uniquely entitled to publicly discuss engineering.
After Jarlstrom emailed his traffic lights ideas to the board, it declared the emails illegal because in them he called himself an engineer. The board investigated him for 22 months and fined him $500 for expressing opinions without getting a professional-engineer license. This would have involved a six-hour examination ($225 fee), an eight-hour examination ($350 fee), an application to the board ($360 fee) and a demonstration of “education and experience” that usually requires a four-year apprenticeship.
The board has tried to bully others, too. It investigated and warned a political candidate about calling himself an engineer without being licensed by the board. (He has Cornell and MIT degrees in environmental and civil engineering, and membership in the American Society of Civil Engineers.) For the same reason, the board is in its 12th month investigating a gubernatorial candidate who said “I’m an engineer” in a political ad. (He has a mechanical engineering degree from Purdue and was an engineer at Ford and Boeing.)
The Oregon board has until June 14 to answer the court complaint filed on Jarlstrom’s behalf by the Institute for Justice, the nation’s liberty law firm that a few years ago stopped North Carolina’s Board of Dietetics/Nutrition from silencing a blogger who dispensed his opinions about various diets. Oregon’s board will probably receive a judicial spanking for suppressing Jarlstrom’s right to speak and, were he to try to earn income from his work on traffic lights, his freedom of occupational speech.
William Mellor and Dick M. Carpenter, the Institute for Justice’s founding general counsel and director of strategic research, respectively, have recently published a book, “Bottleneckers,” about people like the officious nuisances on the Oregon board. The book defines a bottlenecker as “a person who advocates for the creation or perpetuation of government regulation, particularly an occupational license, to restrict entry into his or her occupation, thereby accruing an economic advantage without providing a benefit to consumers.”
Gargantuan government, which becomes so by considering itself entitled to allocate wealth and opportunity, incites such rent-seeking. And given today’s acceptance of increased regulation and censorship of speech, bottleneckers buttress their power (as incumbent politicians do with spending regulations that control the quantity of campaign speech) by making the exercise of a constitutional right contingent on government approval.
The Oregon board should remember Diane Hartley, who probably prevented a Manhattan calamity. In 1977, the 59-story Citicorp Center was built on Lexington Avenue. In 1978, Hartley, an undergraduate engineering student, concluded that the building could be toppled by strong winds that could be expected during the building’s life. After her math was validated, emergency repairs were made.
If busybodies like those on Oregon’s board had been wielding power in New York in 1978, Hartley would have been fined for “practicing” — that is, speaking her mind about — engineering without a license, and what then was the world’s seventh-tallest building might have fallen, full of people, into congested Midtown.
George Will’s email address is email@example.com.