3 ways to make American politicians better at their jobs

When was the last time the U.S. saw meaningful innovation in its political system? Economist and author Dambisa Moyo thinks politics needs to keep up with every other industry and evolve. She outlines three proposals that would help American politicians be better at their jobs, drawing on examples from Singapore, the U.K., Mexico and Brazil. First up, Moyo suggests—brace yourself—that American politicians earn higher salaries and receive bonuses based on metrics like increased life expectancy and GDP growth. The U.S. president earns $400,000 a year. In comparison, the prime minister of Singapore earns $1.4 million. Moyo's second recommendation is to set minimum standards for entry into politics: experience in sectors beyond politics should be more heavily valued. And lastly, she recommends longer terms in office to avoid the perils of short-term thinking and counterproductive voter appeasement. Edge of Chaos: Why Democracy Is Failing to Deliver Economic Growth—and How to Fix It

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Dambisa Moyo: I am an eternal optimist about how and why we should continue to innovate every aspect of our lives, whether that’s science and technology imbuing more efficiencies in how we run businesses, but also how we deliver healthcare and education, so as far as I’m concerned I’ve adopted this same lens as we think about the political process.

So just to give you some flavor for some of the proposals, on the politician side I consider the argument that we should perhaps increase the pay of politicians and actually force them to justify their compensation. Singapore is a great example of this model. In Singapore, the head of state, the prime minister, earns over $1.4 million a year in compensation. But, to me, what’s even more interesting is that the ministers who are responsible for education and healthcare and infrastructure, et cetera, earn 30 to 40 percent bonuses based on certain metrics and outcomes—how GDP performs, whether life expectancy increases, whether inflation declines.

I think that that is a very interesting model for us to explore because I think it could impose discipline. By the way, a discipline around reward for performance which we already see, and it applies to many of us as we work in the private sector. So certainly worth consideration. I think that could actually force politicians to think a little bit more long term.

Another proposal on the politician side is to basically think about minimum standards for politicians. And this is an idea that really, for me, stuck out as I thought about how the British Parliament looked back in the 1950s and 60s.

In that period the average age was higher, on average about 60 years old, but also the skill set was incredibly varied. They had teachers, lawyers, doctors, farmers. People had had other careers and had a better understanding of how the economy works because they came to become parliamentarians having experienced different sectors of the economy. Today, some of the citations that I reference in the book, the average age is closer to 40 years old and many politicians actually have no experience except having been professional politicians, and I think that can be quite a disservice in terms of not really understanding the complexity of how an economy works.

A third—I’ll just very quickly give you one more example of what we might consider in terms of politicians, is we might think about extending the terms of political office.

This is essentially to get away from this idea of having elections every two years as we do in the United States. Mexico is an example of a country where the president is in office only once for six years. And so I think you get away from this desire of politicians to constantly court or tempt and try to seduce voters with policies that may be short-term appealing but over the long term are incredibly damaging for the economy and ultimately for generations to come.

In Brazil, the senators have eight- to nine-year terms. Again, it’s really picking on this theme of extending the thinking to better match the economic challenges and economic headwinds that the global economy faces.