If we could start from scratch, how would we design the U.S. government? Would we preserve the electoral college, the 18th-century creation that is so controversial today? Would we keep the Senate or the Supreme Court?
According to Parag Khanna, an author known for pushing boundaries, the answer is no. In a new book, “Technocracy in America: Rise of the Info-State,” Khanna takes on the task of radically redesigning the U.S. government for the 21st century.
It’s an apt time to undertake such a project. Trust in U.S. institutions has fallen to an all-time low, with 65 percent of Americans saying they are dissatisfied with their government, according to Gallup.
Khanna considers systems from around the world, from Switzerland to China, to suggest an ideal form of government that would reflect the will of the people, as well as the wisdom of experts and data. Khanna argues that the United States needs to evolve into what he calls an “info state,” in which experts use data to guide the country toward long-term goals — otherwise the country will be surpassed by countries that do.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
In many ways, the 2016 election represented a backlash against elites and experts. How do you reconcile that with your vision that technocrats should be leading the government?
What I derisively call ‘Martha’s Vineyard millionaires’ are not technocrats. Just because you’re an elite or expert, it doesn’t mean you’re a technocrat. A technocrat is a meritocratic, utilitarian civil service personnel.
In a country like Singapore, the civil service runs the entire country. You could decapitate the regime, and not even replace it for five years, and the country would run fine. You can do that in Switzerland, and maybe in Germany, but you can’t do that in America, because we have very few utilitarian-minded civil service elites who transcend administrations and have a lot of influence.
Why is it that Donald Trump has to appoint 4,000 federal appointees? It’s because, clearly, members of the civil service don’t occupy those 4,000 top jobs. In a technocracy, they would occupy 3,999 of them. So the U.S. is not a technocracy, it is an elitist clique that is rotating in and out of power.
So yes, there is an anti-elite backlash, and I’m totally in support of it. Occupy Wall Street, the Arab Spring, Brexit and Trump all fall into this pattern. The last 10 years have given us year after year, revolution after revolution, of anti-elite backlash. I think that’s a wonderful thing, because we’re holding people’s feet to the fire. But we’re not replacing them with the kind of regime the public deserves. That’s only going to be done if we replace elitism with technocracy.
By the way, just because Barack Obama is a law professor, it also doesn’t mean he’s a technocrat. You need to know how to run something to be a technocrat. Having a bunch of smart people around who happen to be Martha’s Vineyard millionaires does not make you a technocracy. We are so far from it, it’s pathetic.
Do you think the backlash in the U.S. election exposed certain faults with the government that were there all along?
The weaknesses have been there prior to this election.
After my first book, “Second World,” I got lambasted for arguing that America’s infrastructure, education and quality of life were deteriorating. I was looking at the publicly available information about where we rank internationally in a list of areas. People thought this was over the top, but I don’t think they appreciated how much we were falling behind. I’m pointing to the same data here, to say that if the data shows the government is not improving the state of the nation, it’s doing something wrong!
What did the election have to do with that? Almost nothing. Because the election is just one more chronological event that shows us not improving. I’m looking for all the institutional modifications, all of the evolution that would indicate that we are improving. And I’m not seeing that. No one is.
I take a strong view in the book that political systems should evolve over time. It represents almost indoctrinated willingness not to learn from other systems, or from your own history. No one would expect a football team today to still be wearing leather helmets. No one expects tennis players to play with wooden rackets. And I feel like our government is still a wooden tennis racket in a world where other countries are using graphite Kevlar.
In the book, I look at how the best executive branches, legislatures, judicial branches and civil services around the world are run. I tried to document as objectively as possible where the best institutions correlate to the best outcomes. It’s not by accident that I force you to read 70 pages about other countries before you’re allowed to read about America. Only by forcing you to read that do you see, oh, my god, it’s been done in all these other countries. It’s been done for so long, so smoothly and cost effectively. You need to be pulling your hair out. And then you might be willing to do something.
I’m a technocrat in my heart of hearts. I’m much more interested in institutions and policies than in specific people. I just don’t care who is president. I really don’t. I just want to see a better structure. There’s this line we use in other fields: Bad process, bad outcome. When you have a bad process, surprise, surprise, you get a bad outcome. So I want to see a better process, as I have in all these other countries.
So what is that structure? You call for a “direct technocracy” — what is that?
The term combines direct democracy and technocracy, which are two terms that rarely feature in the same conversation — other than in places where they’re already happening, which happen to be these two totally opposite countries of Switzerland and Singapore.
I certainly believe in direct democracy, and there is no higher symbol of democracy than directly electing your executive. And it should be done in a way that combines not only electing a leader at the federal level, but electing powerful leaders at the local level.
Then there’s the technocracy part. There are hugely technocratic aspects to the most successful countries in the world, as well as to countries like China, where we don’t respect their political systems but they have accomplished incredible things for their populations.
This new technocracy has to be meritocratic, and it has to be utilitarian. Maybe there’s no more important word that needs to be reintroduced into the American political conversation than utilitarianism. It’s a quantitative measure of how fair and decent leaders are.
There are a lot of interesting ideas in this book. But if you had to pick one that we could apply in the U.S., what would it be?
I’m really big on this assembly of governors — that instead of 100 senators, you should have 100 governors, two per state. One goes to Washington, and the other stays in the state capital, and they coordinate and rotate after a period of time.
If this book has one thesis, it’s that America suffers from a surfeit of representation, and a deficit of administration. And governors are administrators, they know how to run things. Their job is to run one state, but paradoxically governors think a lot about what will help all states. They are most supportive about national programs around infrastructural connectivity, because they know that any connection helps both states. But they’re not in Washington. They just have this National Governors Association that might as well be an NGO. So governors should have far, far more power in the political system.
Most senators used to be governors, but now most are former congressmen. Their only job, it seems, it either to get reelected or to seek funding for their own state. It’s no surprise that the Senate is basically just a more elitist version of [the House], which is to say utterly dysfunctional and not doing [anything]. When I stumbled upon that, it convinced me like never before that the Senate serves no useful purpose, and that we should replace it with the 50 states that actually do something.
You also talk about a collective presidency. What does that mean?
This is another example that I’ve seen it in practice in other countries, especially Switzerland. I firmly believe that there’s no reason in a complex world for one individual to coordinate everything in a government. How can one man actually juggle all the domestic and foreign challenges at the same time and come to a coherent, comprehensive decision about it? He can’t.
So I argue for creating an executive committee, where the president is more like the chairman of the board. We should structure this executive committee such that responsibilities overlap, and everyone is accountable for the overall success of the system, not just the president.
There are a few benefits. I don’t need to tell you about all the social psychology research that tells us it’s important to have a diversity of opinions to make decisions. It’s also a way of de-egotizing the presidency, since the president is just the first among equals. If six of your advisers disagree with you, there has to be some publicly defensible reason why you want to go it on your own. You can’t just shoot from the hip.
Another thing you’ve stressed in America’s ability to compete is infrastructure, and that’s something that more politicians these days seem to be recognizing as well, right?
It tells you something that infrastructure is the only thing that both Hillary and Trump agreed on. They talked all the time about roads, tunnels and bridges. They should have also included fiber broadband and so forth. And I propose Cabinet-level integration of various agencies around infrastructure.
There’s a lot of cynicism about how Trump would implement a big infrastructure plan. But looking at the countries that have good infrastructure, you don’t need to make it up as you go along. The road maps are all out there. Other countries show us the right and wrong way to do it.