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Why We Fail To Plan For The Future

2020 January 26
by Greg Satell

I was recently reading Michiu Kaku’s wonderful book, The Future of Humanity, about  colonizing space and was amazed how detailed some of the plans are. Plans for a Mars colony, for example, are already fairly advanced. In other cases, scientists are actively thinking about technologies that won’t be viable for a century or more.

Yet while we seem to be so good at planning for life in outer space, we are much less capable of thinking responsibly about the future here on earth, especially in the United States. Our federal government deficit recently rose to 4.6% of GDP, which is obviously unsustainable in an economy that’s growing at a meager 2.3%.

That’s just one data point, but everywhere you look we seem to be unable to plan for the future. Consumer debt in the US recently hit levels exceeding those before the crash in 2008. Our infrastructure is falling apart. Air quality is getting worse. The list goes on. We need to start thinking more seriously about the future, but don’t seem to be able. Why is that?

It’s Biology, Stupid

The simplest and most obvious explanation for why we fail to plan for the future is basic human biology. We have pleasure centers in our brains that release a hormone called dopamine, which gives us a feeling of well being. So it shouldn’t be surprising that we seek to maximize our dopamine fix in the present and neglect the future.

Yuval Noah Harari made this argument in his book Homo Deus, in which he argued that “organisms are algorithms.” Much like a vending machine is programed to respond to buttons, Harari argues, humans and other animals are programed by genetics and evolution to respond to “sensations, emotions and thoughts.” When those particular buttons are pushed, we respond much like a vending machine does.

He gives various data points for this point of view. For example, he describes psychological experiments in which, by monitoring brainwaves, researchers are able to predict actions, such as whether a person will flip a switch, even before he or she is aware of it. He also points out that certain chemicals, such as Ritalin and Prozac, can modify behavior.

Yet this somehow doesn’t feel persuasive. Adults in even primitive societies are expected to overcome basic urges. Citizens of Ancient Rome were taxed to pay for roads that led to distant lands and took decades to build. Medieval communities built churches that stood for centuries. Why would we somehow lose our ability to think long-term in just the past generation or so?

The Profit Motive

Another explanation of why we neglect the future is the profit motive. Pressed by demanding shareholders to deliver quarterly profits, corporate executives focus on showing short-term profits instead of investing for the future. The result is increased returns to fund managers, but a hollowing out of corporate competitiveness.

A recent article in Harvard Business Review would appear to bear this out. When a team of researchers looked into the health of the innovation ecosystem in the US, they found that corporate America has largely checked out. They also observed that storied corporate research labs, such as Bell Labs and Xerox PARC have diminished over time.

Yet take a closer look and the argument doesn’t hold up. In fact, the data from the National Science Foundation shows that corporate research has increased from roughly 40% of total investment in the 1950s and 60s to more than 60% today. At the same time, while some firms have closed research facilities, others, such as Microsoft, IBM and Google have either opened new ones or greatly expanded previous efforts. Overall R&D spending has risen over time.

Take a look at how Google innovates and you’ll be able to see the source for some the dissonance. 50 years ago, the only real option for corporate investment in research was a corporate lab. Today, however, there are many other avenues, including partnerships with academic researchers, internal venture capital operations, incubators, accelerators and more.

The Free Rider Problem

A third reason we may fail to invest in the future is the free rider problem. In this view, the problem is not that we don’t plan for the future, but that we don’t want to spend money on others who are undeserving. For example, why should we pay higher taxes to educate kids from outside our communities? Or to infrastructure projects that are wasteful and corrupt?

This type of welfare queen argument can be quite powerful. Although actual welfare fraud has been shown to be incredibly rare, there are many who believe that the public sector is inherently wasteful and money would be more productively invested elsewhere. This belief doesn’t only apply to low income people, but also to “elites” such as scientists.

Essentially, this is a form of kinship selection. We are more willing to invest in the future of people who we see as similar to ourselves, because that is a form of self survival. However, when we find ourselves asked to invest in the future of those we see as different from ourselves, whether that difference is of race, social class or even profession, we balk.

Yet here again, a closer look and the facts don’t quite fit with the narrative. Charitable giving, for example, has risen almost every year since 1977. So it’s strange that we’re increasingly generous in giving to those who are in need, but stingy when it comes to things like infrastructure and education.

A New Age Of Superstition

What’s especially strange about our inability to plan for the future is that it’s relatively new. In fact, after World War II, we invested heavily in the future. We created new avenues for scientific investment at agencies like the National Science Foundation and the National Institutes of Health, rebuilt Europe with the Marshall Plan and educated an entire generation with the GI Bill.

It wasn’t until the 1980s that our willingness to plan for and invest in the future began to wane, mostly due to two ideas that warped decision making. The first, called the Laffer Curve, argued that by lowering taxes we can increase revenue and that tax cuts, essentially, pay for themselves. The second, shareholder value, argued that whatever was best for shareholders is also best for society.

Both ideas have been partially or thoroughly debunked. Over the past 40 years, lower tax rates have consistently led to lower revenues and higher deficits. The Business Roundtable, an influential group of almost 200 CEOs of America’s largest companies, recently denounced the concept of shareholder value. Yet strangely, many still use both to support anti-future decisions.

We seem to be living in a new era of superstition, where mere belief is enough to inspire action. So projects which easily capture the imagination, such as colonizing Mars, are able to garner fairly widespread support, while investing in basic things like infrastructure, debt reduction or the environment are neglected.

The problem, in other words, seems to be mostly in the realm of a collective narrative. We are more than capable of enduring privation today to benefit tomorrow, just as businesses routinely take less profits today to invest in tomorrow. We are even capable of giving altruistically to others in need. All we need is a story to believe in.

There is, however, the possibility that it is not the future we really have a problem with, but each other and that our lack of a common story arises from a lack of shared values which leads to major differences in how we view the same facts. In any case, the future suffers.

– Greg

Image: Pixabay

8 Responses leave one →
  1. January 26, 2020

    Thank you Greg, another set of factors in this is our tendency to look for blame rather than solutions. No matter the problem or issue, it seems we, our media and our politicians look at cause and who is to blame rather than looking for the solution.
    I will share with you this story from China where I met the Mayor of Dongguan. In China, this is not a political position, but a professional job and as I was told most of the people in these positions have engineering and scientific backgrounds. He was both mystified and amused by our focus on origin and blame. His point was that neither made any difference.
    For example, in the discussion of climate change he said they looked at the data and it was clear the climate was warming. Rather than ask why, or debate who or what is to blame; they instead made some decisions as to what to do. In his case, he gestured to say that “that area is now making solar panels, and this area is now making wind turbines. We will make a lot of money due to this while addressing the issue.”
    While we seem to practice the policy of division of views, and rejection of those who we do not agree with we become paralyzed. Yet, as observed by the past Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, we have not addressed these big issues in decades due to this.
    We are good at making messes, and also good at cleaning them up but the latter practice leaves a lot of damage. Time to put aside these fights and address the solutions.

  2. January 26, 2020

    Great point about focusing on causes rather than on solutions. I hadn’t thought of that but it’s definitely an important factor.

    – Greg

  3. Kuldip Singh permalink
    January 26, 2020

    We “Fail to plan for the future” because of vested interests.

    Cindy McCain admitting on television that everyone knew what Epstein was up to is extremely disconcerting, to say the least.

    What makes this admission more galling is stating that one of Epstein’s victims was her daughter’s classmate.

    Even Epstein’s death is being covered up at the highest levels of Government. The same can be said for Jamal Khashoggi’s death.

    Worldwide, at the very highest levels of Governments, almost all of the leaders are beholden to vested interests.

    There is no way these vested interests will let you plan for the future in any meaningful way.

  4. January 27, 2020

    I see what you’re saying, but I’m not so sure. There have always been vested interests against change, but it is only fairly recently that we have been so unable to act in the best interests of the future. Why were we able to go to build the Interstate Highway system in the 50s, but unable to maintain infrastructure today? Or go to the moon and pass civil rights in the 60s?

    Maybe I’m being naive, but I still believe that we have the power to choose.

    – Greg

  5. Jim Johnson permalink
    January 28, 2020

    Great article, Greg.

    Perhaps the elements of a solution are found in the comments here.

    On one hand, these difficult issues can be more effectively addressed, instead of by pointing fingers, by looking at causes. In other words, through systems analysis.

    On the other hand, a major cause of the issues is people and groups desiring to maintain their existing interests.

    This suggests the idea of applying systems analysis to the activity of maintaining existing interests.

    Existing literature, including your book “Cascades”, “Non-Violent Communications” by Marshall Rosenberg, and “The Power Paradox” by Dacher Keltner, could provide starting points for that analysis.

    Of course one of the behaviors that all people use to maintain their interests is to shape information to serve those interests, both in their internal psychology (the “superstitions”) and in their public relations efforts.

    However, this activity of shaping information could simply be more content for the systems analysis.

    No doubt many people avoid thinking about these issues because they are put off by the combination of finger-pointing, conflicting information and sheer complexity of the topics. At the same time, there are plenty of bright young people out there who have the potential ability to do the analysis and who also have ample passion for working on these challenges, including the reality of existing interests.

    Pursuing that, the next layer in this problem/solution cycle might be to design out how to enlist, enable, organize and motivate such people to exercise their systems analysis capabilities for these purposes.

    And the next layer, which could potentially be worked on right now, might be to ask: what is needed and what is in the way of making that happen?

  6. February 2, 2020

    Great points. Thanks Jim.

    – Greg

  7. Michael Breeden permalink
    February 3, 2020

    I think you certainly got one step of the problem right, but I’m not so sure about the cause. The tax cuts… whether you say it’s because of the end of PayGo or Laffer or Trickle down. Taxes are the price of civilization. You attribute that to superstition and I guess voodoo economics suggests that. Maybe, just maybe though those tax cuts came about not by superstition but by design and many many millions of dollars for well targeted lobbying. I mean… follow the money, it never sleeps.

  8. February 3, 2020

    I see your point. However, I was referring not to motivations, but to the general public’s willingness to accept them.

    – Greg

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