Why We Fail To Plan For The Future

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.

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Greg Satell

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3 Comments

  1. Jay Rao on April 7, 2020 at 6:13 am

    Dear Mr. Satell, I am a long time fan of your posts. As always, you go beyond the surface and unearth underlying issues. I would add two more: (1) overall R&D spending in the US has gone up for many decades, however, the percentage of government R&D spending has come down significantly in the last several decades; instead it has gone to war (2) the age of superstition started when Ronald Reagan proclaimed in his inaugural speech that “government is not the solution, it is the problem.” This lead to a new generation of Reaganomics followers. Again, thanks for all your contributions. Jay Rao

  2. Fred on April 13, 2020 at 12:06 am

    “We need to start thinking more seriously about the future, but don’t seem to be able. Why is that?”

    Maybe because we are world champions in ignoring possible threats? After SARS was a thing 20 years ago, we had plenty of time to prepare for a pandemic, but what happened? Nothing. Because the threat was still too far away. Now, COVID-19 is hitting us the whole nine yards and 2020/2021 will be the years of an unexpectable financial breakdown.

  3. Marc Ruppenstein on April 13, 2020 at 2:26 pm

    Fred, well said. The solutions are too difficult and will be painful for a bit. So the world puts these problems off and it feels better to think they do not exist.

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