A Case for Technocracy in America
Policies grounded in ideology can’t help but ignore information that may upset that ideological foundation.
According to World Values Survey data, 49% of Americans (60% of these under the age of 29) rather have decisions be made by experts than the government. Considering that lack of experience is rampant in US leadership today, it seems like this 49% is definitely losing the battle. In fact, the views of Americans hungry for evidence-based governing are nowhere to be found. But they exist among the mostly young progressives who don’t fit into the quintessential radical-left mold.
If you’ve been reading any of the large news outlets since the 2016 election, you have probably been exposed to a broad array of various types of American conservatives — a smorgasbord of right-wing political figures and views. Reporters have spent weeks out in “Trump Country,” toiling in the hopes that they can show that the media has remembered these once forgotten people. Outlets have scurried to hire conservative voices to stave off the criticism that they are the “liberal media” and nothing more than “fake news,” as the president and his followers have dubbed them.
Take The New York Times, who hired Bret Stevens, the Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist from The Wall Street Journal, along with David Brooks, Ross Douthat and Bari Weiss. Meagan Kelly, the former Fox News anchor who promised us that Santa Clause is indeed white, secured a primetime spot at NBC. The Atlantic supplemented its preeminent #NeverTrumper and former George W. Bush speechwriter David Frum with the hiring of Kevin D. Williamson. While at the National Review, Williamson asserted that “women who have abortions should be hanged” and once described an African-American boy as a “three-fifths-scale Snoop Dogg,” harkening back to the time black Americans counted as three-fifths of the person in the Constitution.
In sustained efforts to regain the trust of Donald Trump’s constituency — the “real Americans” — the general public has been subjected to focus group after focus group from the heartland. Conservatives come in every flavor and class; they are as Trump-hating as Jeb Bush’s presidential campaign advisor Anna Navaro, as trolling as the cultural warriors Ben Shapiro and Jordan Peterson, and devout Trumpists like Paris Denard, Jefferey Loyd and Katrina Pierson. CNN hired Jason Miller, a Trump surrogate, just last year.
While it’s wonderful to see that free thought is alive on the right, what is worrying is the platform for the expression of various points of view has become restricted to them. This brings us back to that 49%.
In America, the left gets painted with a much broader brush, but there are differences. The point is to talk about one segment — a group that isn’t made up of cultural Marxists, social justice warriors and socialists. This a group has been quietly generalized, overshadowed by our peers who scream about neoliberalism and subscribe to ideologies that are a mix of political prefixes and suffixes. Plodding, working, moseying along in the American left is a group often derogatorily called the technocrats. Some may hide their technocratic virtues, while others just don’t know they have them yet.
The End of Democracy?
Exposure to the term technocrat usually comes from conspiracy theory propagandists like Alex Jones and Patrick Wood, who indict technocrats as leaders in globalist plots to control the masses. But outside of talk radio and conspiracy podcasts, technocrats are public servants with technical expertise — managers, budgeters. The term has often been associated with nerds or wonks. Technocrats do, while politicians give speeches. The 28th president of the United States, Woodrow Wilson, fit the bill. He was an academic — a political scientist who helped found the field of public administration, at a time when the discipline of public policy was fledgling and far from the science it is today.
Some would associate technocratic governance in the US with Michael Dukakis, the governor of Massachusetts, and the Democratic opponent of George Bush Sr. in the 1988 presidential election. He was mocked for his penchant for wearing tweed and bore the brunt of one of the dirtiest ad campaigns in presidential election history. Dukakis was not an adept orator or charismatic leader. But he was an incorruptible, efficient administrator, known as the architect of the “Massachusetts miracle” — a 1970-1980s era of growth that turned a state reeling from the manufacturing industry collapse into the economic powerhouse Massachusetts still is today. That is the kind of leadership that comes with technocracy.
In Technocracy: Rise of the Info-State, Parag Khanna explains why a little more technocracy would be good for America. Technocracy, he argues, “is government built around expert analysis and long-term planning rather than narrow-minded and short-term populist whims. Technocrats are not to be confused with the complacent establishment elites that were just stunned by Trump. Real technocracy has the virtues of being both utilitarian … and meritocratic.”
You may be wondering if Khanna knows what happened to Dukakis or has ever seen how the American “experiment” works. It’s often argued that generally the idea that democracy in and of itself is as good as it gets, needing no perversion or tampering. But polling data shows that Americans are beginning to lose faith in the idea that liberal democracy is all you need to have a good government. Not only do young Americans have a proclivity for expertise, like it or not, we’re not so sold on democracy as the solution to everything.
General dissatisfaction with government is currently very high. Some of it can be attributed to the economic crisis. Historically, economic worries have significantly attributed to a loss of trust in government, and millennials are characterized by their own Great Recession. But this time there is something interesting happening.
The charge for change is in the youth — as usual — but this charge doesn’t run counter to government rule but with government as the driver for change, with or without democracy. According to a report by the Journal of Democracy, “only about 30% of Americans born in the 1980s think it’s ‘essential’ to live in a democracy. That’s compared to 75% of Americans born in the 1930s.” Unfortunately, this disaffection has led to countries like Austria, France and Germany seeing a resurgence of the far right thanks to the support of the youth.
In the UK and the United States, the youth have gravitated toward populists on the left end of the spectrum led by Bernie Sanders and Jeremy Corbyn. Despite the cantankerous nature of Donald Trump, his politics mirrors those of other nationalist, conservative, anti-minority leaders across the globe, like the Philippines’ Roderigo Duterte, Japan’s Shinzo Abe, China’s Xi Jinping and India’s Narendra Modi. Millennials are at the helm of all these movements.
The young of today are not the flower children that their parents were, nor are they believers in democracy like their grandparents have been. While millennials have begun to distrust the government at rates similar to older citizens, for some reason the decline in trust has not been as drastic. Young Americans think politicians are corrupt, but still believe large government institutions can work. While it may seem like every young person is devoted to extreme ideas, one is reminded of Mark Twain’s definition of a patriot as “the person who can holler the loudest without knowing what he’s hollering about.” Just because you don’t hear technocrats, doesn’t mean they aren’t there.
So, Who Are They?
If you accept the premise that there is a technocratic variant lurking in liberal and some not-so-liberal bastions, how can you tell who they are? How can one know if the person next to them at a Democratic Socialist of America meeting is one? Well, firstly, it is unlikely that a person is a conservative and a technocrat. The religious, fiscal and anti-bureaucratic nature of Republicans puts them at odds with policy wonks. The technocratically-minded know better than to tie themselves to vague principles. Technocracy lives on the left, but what makes its supporters different than their progressive peers?
The budget issue is the perfect place to display the difference. We often expect the right to be hypocritically calling for balanced budgets while adding millions to an already bloated military. But, to be fair, no one has ever heard members of the Bernie Sanders left address the long-term budgetary issues we face — and this author has spent months aiding his presidential campaign online. Both the right and left engage in fiscal extremes when times are bad (balanced budget amendment versus unbound spending) and a carte blanche when times are good. No matter what either side promises, we are headed for a demographic and a budgetary crisis.
Deferring to the head of the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) Doug Elmendorf, as quoted in Red Ink: Inside the High Stakes Politics of the Federal Budget by David Wessel, “We cannot go back to the tax and spending policies of the past because the number of people sixty-five or older will increase by one-third between 2012 and 2022.” That means social security and Medicare spending will rise. A macroeconomically optimal budget policy would have a balanced budget on average — reserving the ability to utilize expansionary policies, allow automatic stabilizers to activate in bad economic years and to retire amounts of that debt during good economic years. But that’s not worthy of a political hot-take, is it?
They don’t just like data — they love it. They don’t care about “big government” versus “small government” — they want a government that can work well for the people.
It’s not provocative to consider Center for Budgetary Priorities (CPC) reports when talking about budgets. You won’t hear a political pundit talking about economist Eugene Steuerle ‘s recommendation to stop measuring “growth by the nominal change in spending and tax subsidies.” Steuerle claims that this is misleading because “programs can increase nominally and appear to be sharing in overall economic growth, when in fact they are declining in real terms.” There is no voting bloc organizing around his recommendation that the CBO “show all projected changes in after-inflation spending and taxes, clearly delineating automatic changes due to past legislation from new legislation.” This, he argues, will make the president and Congress more accountable for their policies.
But it’s more exciting to allow two polarized sides to frame spending numbers to support their own views. Using real dollars and considering not just what effects new laws will have but what effects they will have when considered with current and proposed laws are two ways in which the public and the lawmakers can be better informed about how to react going forward. These are not emotionally enticing fantasies, but they are the dreams of technocrats.
Every year we hear from Democrats and Republicans alike how evil or acceptable it is to run a deficit, increasing our ever-growing national debt. It is theatrical to hear them fight about it on panels and sensationalize it across the front pages of national publications. But seldom is the case made for aiming for something below 60% (debt to GDP ratio) and setting multi-year goals along the way to accomplish that. That’s exactly what economists like Jack Lew, Doug Elmendorf, Paul Krugman and Christina Romer would do, but they are just “elitist economists” with years of experience studying budgets and the economy. Who would follow them?
Say It Like It Is
To their credit, the American left’s concern for global warming has been unwavering — nothing else matters if there is no world to govern. But too often, American liberals give a partial story. They fight for health care for all and don’t mention that health care costs will continue to rise if we don’t completely re-organize the system and deal with the fee-for-service payment structures and disparities in care other than the class-based one. Britain’s socialized health-care system, the NHS, shows us that care for the elderly, prescription costs and systematic spending don’t just stop when you put an insurance card in every person’s hand.
The left calls for education for all while ignoring the evidence that education has proven not to be the great equalizer it was thought to be. Sending everyone to college does not mean ending inequality, and it means even less when factoring in racial inequality. These omissions are the key to technocracy — without ideology, technocrats have no trouble tackling racial issues without reducing them along class lines, as they are in most far-left narratives.
American socialists and progressives often have to obfuscate when talking about the market crash and the bailout. They are never honest about the fact that the Troubled Asset Relief Program didn’t cost anything near the $700 billion that was earmarked for it. In fact, the Wall Street firms paid the bailout back, with interest. It’s General Motors and the government housing corporations, Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, that owe the American people. In many ways, technocrats are willing to say things neither side can: There is nothing stopping the automation of American jobs. Infrastructure legislation is necessary, but it only takes so long to build a bridge.
Now, this is not to suggest that the American left is purposefully lying, but policies grounded in ideology can’t help but ignore information that may upset that ideological foundation. There are many on the left who feel that they belong in liberal spaces, but not for the same reasons as those that get all the limelight.
Technocrats in America see a system that logically leads to a celebrity becoming president, and they aren’t too happy with that. They don’t get why the first hundred days of a presidency is important or why Congress gives power over what laws are voted on to committee chairs — a position they get for being really good at fundraising. They don’t want to eat the rich, and understand that capitalism as we know it may need to be tinkered with due to declining birth rates and increasing retired populations. They don’t just like data — they love it. They don’t care about “big government” versus “small government” — they want a government that can work well for the people. If when you hear a leader say he relies on his or her advisors, and you are wondering why his advisors aren’t leading, you’re probably a technocrat or understand why technocracy can be useful. Despite what you see on television and read in the mainstream media, you are not alone.
In Technocracy, Khanna relays a vision for what a good government can do that most people will probably agree with: “Respond efficiently to citizens’ needs and preferences, learn from international experience in devising policies, and use data and scenarios for long-term planning. If done right,” he goes on to say, “such governments marry the virtues of democratic inclusiveness with the effectiveness of technocratic management.” He calls this marriage a direct technocracy.
Perhaps his vision of an America with a collective presidency of six executives, a strong well-paid civil service, multi-party legislature and a governors assembly to replace senators is a bit idealistic taking into account the nightmare of American federalism. But it’s pretty clear that efficient governance doesn’t come from two ideological sides constantly clashing. And while it may be fun to watch #NeverTrumpers rhetorically own Trump surrogates, and establishment Democrats do battle with socialists, it is about time the mainstream media let the grownups to the table.
*[An earlier version of this article erroneously referred to Michael Dukakis as vice president to Jimmy Carter. Updated: August 13, 2018, at 20:55 GMT.]
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.