Stealing Our Future: Conservatives, Foresight, and Why Nothing Works Anymore

Sara Robinson

Brad DeLong once said that “‘Nobody could have foreseen ______’ is the Bush administration’s version of ‘The dog ate my homework.’” It does seem to be their handy-dandy Swiss Army Knife, all-purpose explanation for the various disasters that have happened on their watch.

We first heard this excuse all the way back in May 2002, when Condoleezza Rice blithely dismissed Congressional queries about 9/11 by saying, “I don’t think anybody could have predicted that these people would take an airplane and slam it into the World Trade Center, take another one and slam it into the Pentagon; that they would try to use an airplane as a missile, a hijacked airplane as a missile.”

A nation of Tom Clancy fans — and those who remembered Sam Byck’s too-close-for-comfort White House flyover back in the 70s — wondered what on God’s green earth these idiots were thinking. But the Bushies decided they were onto something.

In fact, they liked this excuse so much that they trotted it out again after Katrina. As New Orleans’ Ninth Ward vanished under the mud of Lake Ponchartrain, W went on the national airwaves to insist, “I don’t think anybody anticipated the breech of the levees.”

That was wrong, too, of course: everyone from the City of New Orleans to the Army Corps of Engineers had seen this one coming for decades. In fact, the New Orleans Times-Picayne had done an entire series on just this subject as recently as 2002. You’d think that the coast-to-coast derision that followed might have alerted Bush and crew they were reaching for an excuse that no self-respecting third-grader would touch.

America’s legendary facility with foresight and planning has all but vanished under 30 years of conservative rule.

But, instead, they clung to an earnest, childlike hope that the third time might be the charm. So, when Hamas took power early last year, Condi was out there pitching it one more time: “I’ve asked why nobody saw it coming. It does say something about us not having a good enough pulse.”

Close, Condi, but not close enough. This excuse is really a serious admission that America’s legendary facility with foresight and planning has all but vanished under 30 years of conservative rule. From the very beginning, we’ve been some of the biggest dreamers and most effective planners the world has ever seen. For better or worse, we settled up a continent, crossed it with railroads and interstates, dammed the West, dominated the skies, got water and power and phone lines into the most remote towns, fought a war in two theaters, and put men on the moon. Say what you will about the consequences of these endeavors; but they are not the achievements of a people who were afraid to look far ahead and imagine big things, who were unable to see all the possibilities, or who were ineffective at bringing those dreams into reality.

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Most Americans are so deeply marinated in this culture of planning that we don’t realize just how unique it makes us. We take it as a given that almost every county and region, and every state and government agency involved in land use and infrastructure, has a regional master plan on file somewhere. Planning commissions large and small are already working 20 years out, penciling in where the major roads will go, where the water will come from, where the houses and shopping centers will be, how many schools and firehouses and sewer plants they’re going to need, and how they’re going to finance it all. We have emergency plans for evacuations, disasters, epidemics, floods. When’s your road up to be re-paved again? Odds are that City Hall can tell you, up to 10 years out.

Most of these institutions have been doing planning at this range since shortly after World War II, which was when the American culture of planning came into full bloom. The basic tools for large-scale forecasting had been evolving since the late 1800s, accelerating with the Soviet five-year plans (the first of which famously took four years to write, largely because they were developing an entirely new set of planning tools along the way), and the awesome advances developed by the meticulously-planned Nazi war machine.

Allied generals — most notably Hap Arnold — realized early on that defeating the Nazis meant we’d have to become even better organizers than they were. The Allies had a massive resource advantage, but Arnold saw that fully leveraging that advantage in a two-front war was going to require a new generation of strategic planning tools. To that end, he brought together the first teams that pioneered the field of operations research (and which, after the war, formed the core founding group of RAND Corporation, which has continued to play a leading role in developing foresight techniques). Americans had always been smart about this stuff; but WWII was the event that drove us to the head of the class.

And every American, it seems, absorbed the lessons. The vast industrial planning that rationed strategic resources, the factories that put Liberty ships to sea and B-17s in the air, the logistical infrastructure that moved supplies from the farms to the front lines, and the company supply sergeants who kept the track of the thousands of items their outfits needed — through it all, an entire generation learned to take the long view, think in big pictures, and visualize future events. When the war ended, millions of men and women brought those skills home to the cities and suburbs, and applied them every aspect of their lives from building companies to running households.

These skills and habits became an embedded part of American culture. The U.S. was always a place where people could re-create themselves and seize new futures; but this sharp new set of tools allowed us to pursue that trait with a vengeance. It’s become a peculiarity of our character, this brash and pragmatic assumption that if you want to create a certain kind of future, you simply articulate the vision and start laying out the steps that will get you there. There aren’t that many cultures in the world that offer such strong support for big ideas, elaborate logistical and organizational planning, and long-term foresight — yet, until you’re outside America for a while, it’s hard to notice how special this trait really is, or how strongly it defines us as a people.

This whole “Who could have foreseen it?” question reveals so much about what’s gone wrong in Bush’s America.

Which is why this whole “Who could have foreseen it?” question reveals so much about what’s gone wrong in Bush’s America. It’s an admission of yet another secret piece of the right-wing agenda that’s been quietly, steadily moving along since the Reagan years, and has finally brought us to the point where its catastrophic implications can no longer be ignored.

For many of us, the furious response to “Who could have foreseen it?” is “How could we have screwed it up so badly? Can’t we do anything right any more?” We have the sinking feeling that, even in their youth, our grandparents would have been far more likely to do the right thing in response to almost any situation — 9/11, Katrina, Saddam, or Iran — than anybody currently on the scene now. It’s becoming obvious that this helplessness, this total inability for a nation of visionary planners to mount an effective response to even small challenges, has deep roots in three decades of right-wing anti-government corporatism. These are the only people profiting from our devastating inability to envision, organize, and implement any kind of public plan.

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Foresight is power. Organization and planning create the future. Those who have mastered these skills greatly increase the odds that they’ll be the ones to choose the future for everyone else. And therein lies the problem.

Corporate leaders understand this power. (So does the religious right, which is why the largest department of strategic foresight in the country is now emerging at Pat Robertson’s Regent University. They’ve got a vision for the future, and are getting very systematic about implementing it.) Short-circuiting government’s capacity to exercise any kind of planning or foresight (or, importantly, oversight) on behalf of the people was a core piece of their rise to power. The War on Science that Chris Mooney so amply documents was accompanied, in a much lower key, by a War on Planning that gutted all the various methods the government used to develop large-scale plans, track leading indicators, and detect and adjust for disruptions.

And so it was that the thousands of public employees around the country who kept track of trends in labor, public health, ecosystems, water, soil, weather, and so on just sort of went away — defunded or discouraged at the behest of business patrons whose interests were threatened by the things these observers recorded. The engineers tasked with maintaining our existing infrastructure and planning future improvements were pushed to retire, or found jobs in the private sector. The land use commissions in charge of enforcing long-term regional plans were just another obstacle to building strip malls and big box stores, and either bought off or sued into compliance. The massive strategic and logistical efforts that supported the military were outsourced to Halliburton. The accountants who might have totted up the extra costs these changed inflicted on taxpayers (though they were almost universally sold as money-saving efficiency measures) were dismissed — sometimes metaphorically, often literally.

Silicon Valley — which through 50 years of careful investment had become the largest economic engine the world had ever seen, and was our ace in the hole for maintaining American technological dominance in this new century — was systematically dismantled and offshored because the free-market fundamentalists regarded any kind of governmentally-directed industrial policy (which might have prevented this loss) as heresy. Even Congress, which had relied since 1972 on the impartial, first-rate analysis of its science and technology planners at the Office of Technology Assessment, bagged the agency in a 1995 budget fight, leaving itself at the mercy of whatever self-serving data the proponents or opponents of various legislation could conjure.

In short, everybody who knew how to do anything — and especially those doing it in the service of the citizens of the United States, rather than for the benefit of one or another corporate profiteer — was gradually cut out of the process. Ridiculed and belittled as “the bureaucracy,” these people had once been the eyes and ears overseeing our common interest. For fifty years, they’d developed and maintained our visions of a future that included clean water and food, immunized kids and effective epidemic response, safe roads and buildings (and levees), good relationships with the world’s other nations, and (in more recent years) responsible environmental stewardship. They monitored leading indicators, tended the engines of our prosperity, and looked ahead to the changes that would be required to keep America competitive.

And now they are gone. “Where do we want to be in 20 years?” has been replaced with “I want it NOW.” Decisions based on sound science and good planning practices have been replaced with messages from George Bush’s gut. We can’t say he didn’t warn us: way back in September of 2000, still on the campaign trail, he was insisting that “We don’t believe in planners and deciders making the decisions on behalf of Americans.” Much later, of course, he changed his mind about that. Now, it turns out, he’s the decider.

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The staggering losses we’ve sustained from three decades of increasingly authoritarian, non-reality-based, Daddy-knows-best deciding are mounting up. On 9/11, in New Orleans, in Minneapolis, in Iraq, in a planet-sweeping range of diplomatic failures, in the debacles around a Homeland Security department that was apparently designed for theatrical impact rather than actually securing the homeland — we’re seeing what happens when you put government in the hands of people who believe that the only use for government is to arbitrage it (and they can’t even get that right: you’re supposed to auction assets to the highest bidder, not give them away to your favorite cronies). We look, astonished, at our shattered infrastructure and know that something has gone horribly wrong. We listen, stunned, as China — which is now far more serious about planning its future than we are — announces that it has beat us by years in completing the national backbone for its second-generation Internet network; that North Korea has nukes; that Europe has better, easier, more effective airport security than we do. We feel ashamed, and we wonder where our vaunted technological greatness went.

When we’ve finally lost our ability to dream big dreams, the skill to create the solid plans that bring those dreams into being, and the trust in each other that inspires us to act for the collective good, we have lost our entire future.

Less tangible, but perhaps even more important, are the cultural losses. Every day, people retiring from public service take with them personal and professional skills and the institutional memory of why things are as they are, and how to keep them working. Since there’s no budget to replace them, their knowledge is lost to the future. Worse: we’ve lost the essential sense of shared trust in each other and our collective future that once empowered us to envision, advocate for, plan for, and manifest a future that expresses our values. And worst of all: the conservative rhetoric of rugged individualism and private profit has discredited the very idea of “the common good,” stealing away our grandparents’ sunny confidence that those goods could be readily planned for and achieved.

This is a tragic loss. Government is the major tool we have to ensure that we determine our own collective future, instead of having private financial interests or other countries determine it for us. When we’ve finally lost our ability to dream big dreams, the skill to create the solid plans that bring those dreams into being, and the trust in each other that inspires us to act for the collective good, we have lost our entire future — for these are the things that our shared future is made of. If we can’t muster these resources and recover those losses soon — very soon — we will be the first Americans since the First Americans to live in a future of someone else’s making.

“Nobody could have forseen” this? Bull. All these events had been predicted, in considerable detail, by the people whose job it was to pay attention. The only reason the Bush Administration couldn’t foresee it is that they live in their own little ideological bubble, devoted to creating a future that benefits everyone except the taxpayers who pay their salaries. The bubble deafens them to all warnings, and blinds them to the evidence provided by experts. For 25 years, anybody who could forseee a future other than the GOP’s preferred one has been systematically run out of town. Their “we didn’t see it coming” whine is nothing more than their own feeble admission of the way their ideology has finally betrayed us all.