“Countries that lose their dynamics end up making serious mistakes”


“Is democracy the political form of the future, or just something that helps us administrate problems rather than solving them?” GDI’s CEO David Bosshart opened the conference “Tyler Cowen & Parag Khanna at GDI” with this question on 29 May 2017.

“Trump’s election makes some sense – you can understand it if you look at the background dynamics“, said US economist Tyler Cowen. His thesis: people are unable to imagine a future that is different to the current state. The old perception of Western Europe as slow and stable and the US as innovative and agile is no longer true. “The US is no longer the dynamic, innovative nation. It has become stuck. I don't think it will be stuck forever, but it is now.”

While Kennedy wanted to explore “new frontiers” in his election campaign, Trump was heading backwards to good old times, and wanted to “make America great again” by restoring bridges and roads. These are not the innovative ideas a troubled country needs right now, said Cowen.

The frequently invoked “gig economy”, in which more and more people seem to change their jobs more frequently, only seems to be one side of the coin. A large proportion of Americans seem to remain with the same company longer, experience little change in their lives, raise their kids much more conservatively, and don’t move very often. This is dangerous, according to Cowen: “We are building a trap for ourselves; we are building a country with no risk whatsoever.”

Other signs of pop culture also indicate that people are becoming more complacent: marijuana has replaced LSD as the most popular drug – a drug that puts people to sleep. While previously it was music that connected people, and called for sex, drugs and rock’n’roll, today it is food that people enjoy in their spare time. Social media is fostering a phony opposition, rather than animating people to go and protest on the streets. And even the most innovative and dynamic companies like Facebook, Google and Apple cannot prevent the US healthcare, educational and governmental system from slowing down.

At the end of his speech, Cowen warned us that “Countries that lose their dynamics end up making serious mistakes, like the US or the UK.” But he is not pessimistic: “Eventually we will get our dynamism back. We have become very good at making our lives better, but don't always think about what this means in the long run.”

Geostrategist Parag Khanna, another speaker at the event, approached democracy on more of a meta level, and described warning signs for the loss of democratic support. Americans' trust in government has declined from 75 per cent in the 1960s to 20 per cent in 2015. The US has become a “flawed democracy”. Khanna suggests enhancing the concept of democracy and building a technocratic government. “Currently, everyone is representing the country, but who is running it?” Technocracy means running with the help of data.

The heroes of his new book “Jenseits von Demokratie” are Switzerland and Singapore, who are already using their technocrats in a very effective way to run their countries – even if it is boring to create a bureaucracy. Khanna advised the audience: “Appreciate your technocrats, your civil servants – they run the country.” Had the UK built a technocracy before the referendum, the outcome would have been different, he is sure.

In the subsequent discussion, Tyler Cowen tried to resolve the contradiction that Switzerland was one of his role models despite the fact that the Swiss don’t move very often. “Switzerland has accepted a certain degree of complacency. Doing complacency right is a strategy. America is doing terribly at this strategy.” GDI’s CEO David Bosshart added: “We honour our technocrats as long as they deliver results. But we have probably also become more complacent when it comes to simplifying things. Switzerland is not yet there in terms of being good technocrats, but we are good at managing our democracy.”