A Letter from the Conveners

Monday, October 7, 2019
Image credit: 
istock

Sharp changes are afoot throughout the globe. Demographics are shifting, technology is advancing at unprecedented rates, and these changes are being felt everywhere.

How should we develop strategies to deal with this emerging new world? We can begin by understanding it.

First, there is the changing composition of the world population, which will have a profound impact on societies. Developed countries are experiencing falling fertility rates and increasing life expectancy. As working-age populations shrink and pensions and care costs for the elderly rise, it becomes harder for governments to afford other productive investments.

At the same time, high fertility rates in Africa and South Asia are causing both working-age and total populations to grow, but that growth outpaces economic performance. And alongside a changing climate, these parts of the world already face growing impacts from natural disasters, human and agricultural diseases, and other resource constraints.

Taken together, we are seeing a global movement of peoples matching the transformative movement of goods and of capital in recent decades—and encouraging a populist turn in world politics.

Second is automation and artificial intelligence. In the last century, machines performed as instructed, and that “third industrial revolution” completely changed patterns of work, notably in manufacturing. But machines can now be designed to learn from experience, by trial and error. Technology will improve productivity, but workplace disruption will accelerate—and will be felt not only by call center responders and truck drivers but also by accountants, by radiologists and lawyers, even by computer programmers.

All history displays this process of change. What is different today is the speed of change. In the early 20th century, American farm workers fell from half of the population to less than five percent alongside the mechanization of agriculture. Our K-12 education system helped to navigate this disruption by making sure the next generation could grow up capable of leaving the farm and becoming productive urban workers. With the speed of artificial intelligence, it's not just the children of displaced workers but the workers themselves who will need a fresh start.

Underlying the urgency of this task is the reality that there are now 7.6 million unfilled jobs in America. Filling them and transitioning workers displaced by advancing technology to new jobs will test both education (particularly K-12, where the United States continues to fall behind) and the flexibility of workers to pursue new occupations. Clearly, community colleges and similarly nimble institutions can help.      

The third trend is fundamental change in the technological means of production, which allows goods to be produced near where they will be used and may unsettle the international order. More sophisticated use of robotics alongside human colleagues, plus additive manufacturing and unexpected changes in the distribution of energy supplies, have implications for our security and our economy as well as those of many other trade-oriented nations, which may face a new and unexpected form of deglobalization.

This ability to produce customized goods cheaply and in smaller quantities may, for example, lead to a gradual loss of cost-of-labor advantages. Today, 68 percent of Bangladeshi women work in sewing, and 4.5 million Vietnamese work in clothing production. Localized advanced manufacturing could block this traditional route to industrialization and economic development. Robots have been around for years, but robotics on a grand scale is just getting started: China today is the world's biggest buyer of robots but has only 68 per 10,000 workers; South Korea has 631.

These advances also diffuse military power. Ubiquitous sensors, inexpensive and autonomous drones, nanoexplosives, and cheaper access to space through microsatellites all empower smaller states and even individuals, closing the gap between incumbent powers like the United States and prospective challengers and giving potentially disruptive capabilities to non-state and terrorist actors. The proliferation of low-cost, high-performance weaponry enabled by advances in navigation and additive manufacturing diminishes the once-paramount powers of conventional military assets like aircraft carriers and fighter jets. This is a new global challenge, and it threatens to undermine U.S. global military dominance unless we can harness the new technologies to serve our own purposes. At the same time, the proliferation of nuclear weapons poses a serious global threat.

Finally, the information and communications revolution is making governance more difficult everywhere. An analogue is the introduction of the printing press: as the price of that technology declined by 99 percent, the volume grew exponentially. But that process took ten times longer in the 15th, 16th, and 17th centuries than we see today. Information is everywhere—some of it accurate, some inaccurate, such that entire categories of news or intelligence appear less trustworthy. The "population" of Facebook now exceeds the population of the largest nation-state. We have access to ceaseless and instantaneous communication with everybody, anybody, at any time. These tools can be used to enlighten, but they can also be used to distort, intimidate, divide, and oppress.

On the one hand, autocrats increasingly are empowered by this electronic revolution, enabled to manipulate technologies to solidify their rule in ways far beyond their fondest dreams in times past. On the other hand, individuals can now reach others with similar concerns around the world. People can easily discover what is going on, organize around it, and take collective action.

At present, many countries seek to govern over diversity by attempting to suppress it, which exacerbates the problem by reducing trust in institutions. Elsewhere we see governments unable to lead, trapped in short-term reactions to the vocal interests that most effectively capture democratic infrastructures. Both approaches are untenable. The problem of governing over diversity has taken on new dimensions.

The good news is that the United States is remarkably well-positioned to ride this wave of change if we are careful and deliberate about it. As an immigrant nation, we have always had to govern over diversity. Meanwhile, other countries will face these common challenges in their own way, shaped by their own capabilities and vulnerabilities. Many of the world's strongest nations today—our allies and others—will struggle more than we will. The greater our understanding of other countries' situations, the stronger our foundation for constructive international engagement.

This is why we have embarked on this new project on Governance in an Emerging New World. Our friend Senator Sam Nunn has said that we need to strike a balance between optimism about what we can do with technology and realism about technology’s dark side. So we aim to understand these changes and inform strategies that both address the challenges and take advantage of the opportunities afforded by these transformations.

To do so, we are convening a series of meetings and calling for papers to examine how these technological, demographic, and societal changes are affecting the United States (our democracy, our economy, and our national security) and countries and regions around the world, including Russia, China, Latin America, Africa, the Middle East, and Europe.

***

In past volumes, we have considered how new communication technologies are affecting elections and democratic processes, but their impact does not end there. After the election, you must govern, and these new technologies, alongside the other phenomena described above, are changing the governing process as well. Political activists can use social media to foment opposition to policy proposals. Information has become more readily available, yet unreliable, complicating the decision-making of both political leaders and voters. Is it harder to make constructive compromises, for example, when a decision-maker is judged instantaneously rather than on the portfolio of accomplishments over an appointed term? And politics becomes increasingly national as local newspapers close and politicians govern by tweet.

But these disruptive forces can also be used to make governments more effective, responsive, and honest. The connected world allows all levels of government to provision services more effectively and equitably, and it can increase transparency and accountability, for example in our primary and secondary schools. We need good governance now, and these social and political dynamics, while complicating traditional modes of governing, may help us get it.

We assembled a panel of experts—former and current political leaders, journalists, and intellectuals—to discuss this important issue and consider how we can improve the quality of governance in the United States. Three of the panelists prepared papers for the discussion, included in this volume.

Jeb Bush, the former governor of Florida and a national leader in education reform, writes that if government is to harness emerging technologies to improve its service to the American people, it will need to be fundamentally transformed. Drawing on his experience as governor, he calls for greater flexibility, accountability, and transparency in government and for a recommitment to federalism, which allows us to use our states as laboratories of innovation. In particular, he points to education as an area of great need, but also great potential for positive reform of this kind.

An important buttress of good governance is the press, but Karen Tumulty, a political columnist at the Washington Post, attests that the spread of social media and digital platforms has transformed the fourth estate. Hallmarks of the journalism profession have gone by the wayside with digital media replacing print, news organizations consolidating, and the traditional news cycle disappearing. Tumulty warns that we are still in the early stages of this transition but writes that we still see a hunger for reliable reporting, both locally and nationally.

City and local governments are the most "consumer-facing" governance entities; when the gears at the federal level grind to a halt, they are increasingly tasked to take on complex social and technological questions without the benefit of a sophisticated national apparatus to support it. At the same time, ballooning pension obligations are eating up their budgetary capacity to deliver anything but basic services. Can technology help? Amanda Daflos, chief innovation officer of the City of Los Angeles, writes about her experience employing technology to improve the quality of governance and public services. Her paper is provided separately.

In addition to these contributions, we have solicited the wisdom of three more panelists. Willie Brown, the former mayor of San Francisco and speaker of the California State Assembly, will share his thoughts on how the art and practice of politics may be changing in light of the penetrating spotlights afforded to those outside city hall or the statehouse by the tools of the information and communications revolution. Wall Street Journal columnist Dan Henninger will discuss three of his columns from 2019, “Gridlock Is the New Normal” and “Can the West Still Govern?”, and “Trump’s Fight with the ‘Globalists’”, which consider what the future holds for democratic governments who find themselves dominated by de facto veto powers. Finally, the Hudson Institute’s Christopher DeMuth will comment on the impact of the internet on government and the new nationalist revival, drawing on his February 2019 article in the Claremont Review of Books, “Trumpism, Nationalism, and Conservatism.”

We have written before that the emerging world is in need of good governance and leadership from the United States. If the United States hopes to play that role again—and we hope that it does—Americans will have to wrestle with these challenges.

We are excited to present these papers and to hear from this panel of experts and practitioners. We thank our friend and colleague Jim Hoagland for moderating this wide-ranging discussion of modern governance, and we thank our colleagues at the Hoover Institution, particularly Rachel Moltz and Shana Farley, for their continued hard work in support of this project.