I recently heard Parag Khanna on the A16Z Podcast and I was sufficiently interested that I bought and read “Connectography.” In this post I’ll give an review of the book qua book and also cover an outline of its big ideas.

Note:

In subsequent posts I explore some of those ideas further:

Connectography

It’s the Hegelian in me: I love a Europe-coming-to-know-itself through history (and economics) master narrative book. I’ve found the most predictive book for the last 15 years of economic and global theory has been (Marxist) Hardt & Negri’s Empire. Empire predicts a move to a global communist panacea only after global capitalism (i.e. multinationals) guts and obviates the nation-state. Accordingly to understand capital’s progression to this end, we should listen to the most passionate global capitalists.

In the early part of the aughts I found the leading writer on the topic to be (capitalist) Tom Friedman, NYT Op-Ed columnist and author of The World is Flat. While Friedman always had big ideas, I found his over-emphasis on who he knows and anecdotes a bit sloppy and frankly, taxing. Like Hegel, Friedman’s work benefits from being read at a swift clip: he’s meant to be enjoyed like the Romantics: with loud thundering emotions and sweeping torrents of vision.

Khanna offers an update on Friedman’s work but with considerably more economic data. While Friedman was occasionally insufferable in mentioning where he had lunch and with whom, Khanna’s core critical ideas occasionally get lost in maps or exhaustive detailing. Given a choice, I’ll take Khanna’s approach and take the data versus the Friedman’s social itinerary, but we lose sight of many of his core pillars in the sea of details about Malaysian trade agreements.

The big ideas I extracted from 390 pages follow:

The Big Ideas

The core ideas that I took away were the following:

  1. Many nation-states are held together by fiat or tradition but have no real internal attraction to one another: we should let these break apart or break them apart e.g. Iraq, Yugoslavia. In essence it’s applying the SOLID principles of object-oriented programming and the discipline of code refactoring to nations. I’ll explore this idea further in a subsequent post.
  2. Having broken apart, these small ethno-religious fiefdoms will find themselves without required resources (energy, port access, etc.) and will use their new state to broker trade agreements — often with the country they just removed themselves from.
  3. Smaller “nations” move closer to looking like city-states versus nation-states. This seems to align to the burgeoning sense of urbanism and civic identity (e.g. NYC-ID). In this way Constantinople has outlasted 2 empires; NYC 3, “European” possessors, etc.
  4. Smaller “nations” will have surprising (even international) connections. Corpus Christi, close to my home city, innovated in making itself a Chinese-compatible port city and brought itself from being, as it is in my memory, a small port town to a top tier trading outpost with Asia.*
  5. With smaller “nations” having more connections to each other, the global resource and trade map looks more like a mesh topology (to steal from networking) versus a star. As such, unilateral threats are easily avoided and routed around - like damaged nodes in the internet. An example is Russia cutting Ukraine’s natural gas supply. Apparently Germany bought futures and had pipelines back into Ukraine and was thus able to nullify the Kremlin’s agenda.
  6. Smaller “nation-cities” will band together into commonwealths and / or may result by the creation of “Special Economic Zones.”
  7. Organizations / nations attempting to leapfrog into the 21st century can do so by these “Special Economic Zones” which are, effectively, nation-state-lite sub-_polises_. In this way they escape the “Innovator’s Dilemma” as applied to sovereignty: winding back or amending a constitution is hard, establish an alternate model, let it flourish, and then let erstwhile opponents come to demand its freedoms and operating model.
  8. Again, like network damage, nations can create “friction” or they can create “flows.” Nations that create “friction” will be less-attractive than nations that provide “flows.” An Estonian computer science student may come to find a luxurious economic zone with lighter police presence with respect to social behavior in Dubai more attractive than begging for an H1B visa to go to Silicon Valley. The US has created “Friction” while Dubai has spent two decades learning to create “Flows.”
  9. !! Ancillary Idea: I believe the 2 party system in America is misaligned. Roughly 50% of each party needs to jump out of the current mold and hop into company with the other 50% of other party:
    • Silicon Valley millionaires have much in common with the free-trade, guest-visa, Ayn Rand Republicans. Where they find Republicans free of social conservatism (as more and more are headed), they belong together in a party I call “Big World:” low trade friction, low protectionism, etc.
    • Social conservatives find themselves looking more and more like the Rust Belt Democrats: weary of government intervention socially, tired of feeling sold-out by the free-traders (TPP, NAFTA) and China and increasingly angry. They are willing to accept government protectionism and frictions in order to maintain the American dream they believe they were promised as a birthright. I call this “Small World.”
    • This split explains the rise of Trump-ism and his hack of the Republican party. Did any of those establishment Republicans sound particularly far from Hillary Clinton in matters of economic or military policy? Not really.
    • News coverage of election 2016 is broken because it speak in terms of two parties, not realizing that there are actually 4 parties which, like blindfolded dancers are searching for each other
    • Members of large nations will seek to devolve into view-compliant sub- nations. This probably accounts for the growing animosity between urban powerhouse centers who “just don’t get” how so much of the electorate “can be so wrong” but yet who use their numbers to “shove down the throats” of the interior values which feel so foreign (e.g. bathroom bills as a cause of the moment).
  10. Embargo will become a more and more powerful weapon. No one has to trade with you and if you will not work to stay connected (keep friction low) you will cease to become a player by means of mere non-engagement by the global supply-chain. Then you’ll be forced to deal with B-team middlemen who create their value by dealing with your Frictions while building on the A-team’s Flows. It reminds me of a signature of a leader at Cisco: “If you don’t like change, you’re going to like irrelevance less.”

Most of the body of the book is hanging data to support these conclusions and to wrap up the reader in the sweep of these Big Ideas, generally. Ultimately I think the book could have been much lighter and it would have helped the majesty of some of the Big Ideas stand out better.

Most works of social economics suffer either a glut of non-specifics (Marx, Smith, Tom Friedman) or from burying the ésprit of the work in data. Connectography manages to suffer both ills. Of the former, a whole chapter is spent imagining several “peaces” created by these big ideas’ effects in specific geopolitical regions e.g. “Pax Americana,” “Pax Europa,” “Pax Ad Nauseam.”The trope of listing all the Paces is unnecessarily Latinate and an exercise in guided imagination of negligible benefit.

Falling in the other trap, in several places we are given wee trade / policy details which distract from Big Idea at play. I’m not sure who edits books like this but I don’t envy the editor’s task. It’s a good read, but the reader should feel quite entitled to breeze though some of the Aristotelian catalogues.

…Although I’ll note that Asimov foretold all of this in his “fiction” work Foundation. It’s a surprise that he got it so very right, in the mid-40’s, and in a mere 255 (entertaining!) pages.

Footnotes

*: I’m amused to imagine Chinese trading partners being taken for their first Whataburger amid cooking seas of F150’s in the parking lot.