The Cipher Brief | February 10, 2017
On November 8 last year, Donald Trump upended the American political system with his surprising electoral victory over Hillary Clinton. That result has raised many questions about the U.S. political system. Most significantly, it revealed a deep and widespread frustration with a system of governance in the United States, which to many Americans seems irreparably broken. Bitter partisan battles between Democrats and Republicans in Congress have created unprecedented deadlocks – like the failure to nominate a Supreme Court justice to replace the late Antonin Scalia. And the slow economic recovery after the financial crisis of 2008-09 does not seem to have spread its benefits evenly across the country.
Parag Khanna, author of Connectography, asks why we keep trying to fix a system, which may simply be irreparably broken. In his new book, Technocracy in America, he looks at best practices from successful governments around the world to present an innovative and radical alternative to American governance. The Cipher Brief spoke with him to find out why he thinks this new approach is necessary, and how it can be implemented.
The Cipher Brief: When did you start working on Technocracy in America, and how does it fit in with your previous book, Connectography?
Parag Khanna: Primarily, Technocracy in America discusses what is the best type of government to manage the kind of complex world that I wrote about in Connectography. Technocracy was actually a section of the original book, and it explains the best way to run these complex societies that I talked about in Connectography. In a way this book is really a direct sequel to my last.
In the hyper-connected world that we live in now, there is a competitive dynamic. There is a race to be a better government in a world where government often feels powerless. And I’m saying in this book that there are instruments, mechanisms, institutions, and strategies that can work better in this new world.
TCB: You speak about the concept of “Direct Technocracy” in the book, specifically how it works in Switzerland and Singapore. Can you talk about what that is and how it applies to the United States?
PG: I didn’t survey the institutions of those two countries in order to build an exact recipe for governing. They don’t get you from point A to point B, but they can show you what point B might look like, which is a long way from where we are.
The concept of Direct Technocracy, as I lay it out in the book, is a combination of the direct democracy, which we see in Switzerland and other countries – or in provinces and cities – where citizens have a direct vote and voice on individual policy decisions; and the sort of technocratic model, which we see in Singapore and other countries, in which bureaucratic expert committees use electoral feedback, big data, surveys, and other kinds of analytical tools to determine policies that are in the long-term, utilitarian interest of society.
Direct Technocracy is a model that brings those two things together. Of course, you still get to elect your president, but the president is flanked by a committee of a half dozen, or a dozen, people who are also either elected members of Congress or the functional heads of major administrative entities. For example, in the framework I discuss in the book, I combined a number of cabinet agencies together to streamline them, and these executives also have a role in the cabinet. This way, the cabinet is not only composed of friends of the president. Therefore, you have experts to balance out an elected president who may or may not be all that expert in anything. For times like this, let me tell you, direct technocracy really does look like a better way to go.
The legislative branch in this system is also different because it’s a multi-party parliamentary system, unlike our two-party duopoly. As I point out in the book, all the governments in the world that are rated higher than the U.S. in terms of the effectiveness of their democracy are multi-party systems, like Canada or Europe, which is extremely important because these parties are much more effective at holding each other accountable. I also replace the Senate with what I call the “Assembly of Governors.” There are many historical reasons why I argue for that, but in essence, I think governors are more effective administrators who are better qualified to make national decisions than the Senate.
Finally, there’s the Supreme Court, which I would make a bit more activist in terms of evolving the Constitution.
Equally important to all of this is the creation of a strong civil service, which has really decayed in the United States, but which is vitally important to successfully administering policy.
TCB: The civil service aspect is quite interesting because we obviously already have quite a large civil service, but many deride it as largely inefficient. How would you fix the civil service?
PK: It’s a money and a manpower issue.
On the money side, we’ve been cutting the civil service for a long time. We’ve been slashing funding since the era of President Ronald Reagan and the congress of Newt Gingrich; The Gingrich congress really took an axe to the federal budget. Cumulatively, this means that the civil service is much weaker now, just when we need it more than ever. We need these technocratic entities, and we should be doing a lot more to fund them.
Then there’s the talent side of the equation. In other countries, civil service members get paid better, they have more career progression, and they are not as subject to leadership by political appointees as civil servants are here. You need to provide that kind of compensation and growth to attract the best employees. And this is not just about attracting high-flyers from the private sector, this is about attracting employees who will stay for the long haul and really learn how the system works.
TCB: Can you go into more detail about your idea of replacing the U.S. Senate with this “Assembly of Governors?” What advantage does this bring?
PG: This is one of my more controversial proposals in the book, and yet I think it’s totally logical. The bicameral structure of representatives upon representatives really is quite redundant, especially since most Senators are former house representatives.
But it didn’t use to be that way. Guess where most Senators use to come from? Governors. This makes for a better system, because governors will be better at getting things done given their experience implementing policy at a local level; they will want to find a common denominator in terms of the apportionment of public services; and there is a lot of cultural solidarity among governors that you rarely find among senators. Governors know that their states are interconnected and dependent on each other, so unlike senators who fight for pork barrel spending, governors are all about national priorities. I think governors – and mayors – are really the “secret sauce” if you will to getting the political system back on its feet.
TCB: You also talk about implementing ten-year terms for Supreme Court justices. What’s the idea behind that?
PG: I’m obviously not a legal scholar, but I’ve read widely on this issue and what many scholars have said that this is the best way to ensure that there are fresh ideas in the court, and that court nominations don’t become such a politically partisan issue.
In addition to the ten-year term limit, you also have a broader process of reforms in which you nominate the justices via a committee of judicial experts, you quiz them during the confirmation on the ways they believe that the constitution should be modified and evolve, etc.
There are many pieces to this issue, but the ten-year term limit is frankly not the most controversial among them. This judicial reform process is more about giving prerogative to the Supreme Court to pursue constitutional reform projects, rather than just wait for cases to rise to court.
TCB: Getting into the counter-arguments to your book, in the introduction you say that “democracy is not an end goal in itself, governance is.” Yet many would say that democracy’s very inefficiency is what prevents tyranny. How do you prevent this technocratic elite from becoming its own corrupt oligarchic elite?
PG: It’s very easy to lapse into the assumption that haphazard democracy is a guarantee against tyranny, because we have been using the word tyranny quite a bit recently on the basis that people are worried democracy is producing tyranny. The fact that these alarm bells are being raised tells us that democracy in and of itself doesn’t guarantee protection from tyranny.
In the book, I refer back to the Greek philosopher Plato, who warned that in the end, democracy does produce tyranny if not mediated or moderated by the “guardians,” which is the ancient way of saying technocrats. This is exactly my argument. If you really want to prevent tyranny, you would want to have an entrusted set of leaders. These would not be lifelong leaders – they may themselves be democratically elected – but you need to have some set of mechanisms that ensure the long-term national interest cannot be hijacked.
TCB: Another counterpoint that I could foresee is that this kind of thing might work in small states like Singapore or Switzerland, but the United States is far larger and more diverse. Can “direct technocracy” be effectively translated to the U.S.?
PG: Look, I see these governance systems as a menu. We have so much information about the world, and I was able to write this book looking at the political structures of countries around the world, able to look in detail at how they handled a wide range of issues. Anyone in the U.S. government can just google all of the ways in which other countries do things more effectively.
Ideas like a collective presidency, the reasons why multi-party parliamentary systems work better, and all these other things can be well researched, and we can take specific innovations from each country as we so choose. You don’t have to purchase off the shelf the entire China model, Swiss model, German model, etc.
The real question is, when are we going to be able to learn anything or adapt anything? And only when we open our minds to the possibility of doing that will we see this amazing wealth of knowledge, experience, and information that is out there, from which we can pick and choose.