Sunday, October 15, 2006

Sara's Sunday Rant: The Culture of Planning, Part I

by Sara Robinson

Watching Dave unload on Condi Rice in the post just below brought to mind another one of the timeless quotes for which she will be long remembered:

"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." (May, 2002).

Brad DeLong once said that "'Nobody could have foreseen ______________' is the Bush administration version of 'The dog ate my homework.'" It does seem to be their handy-dandy all-purpose explanation for disasters that happen on their watch. We heard it after Katrina, when W got up in front of the country and said, "I don't think anybody anticipated the breech of the levees." You’d think that after the coast-to-coast derision that followed when everybody from the City of New Orleans to the Army Corps of Engineers revealed they'd seen this one coming for decades, they'd have gotten the hint and ditched this as a losing talking point. But, instead, they apparently clung to the hope that the third time might be the charm. So, when Hamas seized power in Lebanon early this year, Condi was out there once again: "I’ve asked why nobody saw it coming. It does say something about us not having a good enough pulse."

Moving to Canada has given me a fresh appreciation for what I've come to think of as America's "culture of planning." That's not a slam on Canada: when you've got just 33 million people sharing the second-largest country in the world -- and more of just about every resource than you can even imagine there ever being a use for -- there's just not a lot of need to be very organized or think very far ahead. More to the point, Canadians have never been called on to fight wars, run industries, or build infrastructure on the kind of scale Americans have, so the skill set isn't embedded in the Canadian culture to nearly the same degree.

There is a major north-south bridge (it's the Golden Gate's green baby sister, built by the same foundry at the same time) a few miles from my house, which links our far shore to Vancouver's downtown. This bridge's northern end comes to ground just 500 yards south of the city's one and only freeway, which runs east-west. Every afternoon, 50,000 homebound commuters come off the bridge and are dumped onto surface streets, causing total gridlock in our local downtown shopping district as they pass through on their way to the freeway (which is, for many, the only route out to the residential ends of town). This has been going on every weekday for 40 years -- because apparently, it never occurred to the traffic planners who built the freeway that they should cover those 500 yards with direct on- and off-ramps linking the region's major freeway to the region's major bridge.

When I ask my neighbors how something this bone obvious failed to happen, and why nobody's added the missing ramps in the decades since, they just look at me oddly. It's apparently a question that only an American would even think to ask. But, then, coming from a long line of Scots engineers, I'm a generational member of the culture of planning.

Another example. One of the most popular tourist towns on Vancouver Island was fully booked up this past Labor Day weekend. With just three days left to go before the hordes descended, their reservoir went dry. They'd known for 20 years they needed a new one, but never quite got around to building it. They'd watched it dwindle all summer, but never quite got around to matching up the remaining acre-feet against the anticipated number of users and the remaining days in the season. At the last minute, they brought in truckloads of water to tide them over, and you can bet they're planning new water storage now -- but this seems to be how planning gets done here. They react to events as they happen, rather than proactively trying to forsee what the needs will be years ahead of time.

You almost never hear stories like this in the US. Almost every county and region in the country, 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. 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 WWII, which was when the American culture of planning really took root. 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 victory in a two-front war demanded close planning to fully leverage that advantage. To this end, Arnold brought together the first teams that pioneered the field of operations research (which, after the war, formed the core founding group of RAND Corporation, which has continued to play a leading role in developing foresight techniques). This is where the American culture of planning really began.

From there, it spread. 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 track of thousands of items taught an entire generation to take the long view, think in big pictures, and visualize the concrete steps that would give them greater control of 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.

In the generations that followed, these skills and habits became an embedded part of American culture. The US 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. From the interstate highway system to the space program to DARPA and the Office of Technology Assessment, we became a nation of planners. 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 visions, 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.

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 come to the point where its catastrophic implications for all of us 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 Korean nukes are just a few -- than anybody currently on the scene now. I'd argue that this helplessness, this total inability for a nation of planners to mount an effective response to even small challenges, has deep roots in 25 years of right-wing anti-government corporatism. Because that's who's reaping the major benefits of our devastating inability to envision, organize, and implement any kind of public plan.

Futurists proceed from the premise that the future belongs to those who plan for it. If you are clear on what your vision for the future is, have a solid and accurate roadmap for how to get there, and have thought through how you're likely to deal with even the most unexpected occurrences that may upset your plans, the odds are good that you are, indeed, going to end up somewhere reasonably near your original goal. This works if you're planning for the next 60 minutes, or for the next 60 years. In short: 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. And there 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.) Their ability to take over the government depended on their ability to short-circuit government's capacity to exercise any kind of planning or foresight (or, importantly, oversight) on behalf of the people. 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 status quo was threatened by the statistical trends and emerging indicators these observers recorded. The engineers responsible for maintaining our existing infrastructure and planning future improvements were pushed to retire, or found jobs in the private sector. The land use commissions who enforced long-term regional plans were considered just another government 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, either metaphorically or 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 analyses 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 interest of the people 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 of 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. On one level, this may also be a manifestation of the id- and ideology-driven self-centeredness that the Boomers have been noted for (and which will become the subject of its own rant in the near future) accelerated and expanded as they reach their latter years and assume power. But, either way, the results of this are now undeniable.

On a practical level, the losses are now manifest. On 9/11, in New Orleans, in Iraq, in the diplomatic failures that led this week to North Korea's new nukes, in the debacles around a Homeland Security department that was apparently designed for theatrical impact rather than actually securing the homeland -- this is 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 -- a planning culture if there ever was one -- announces (as it did last week) that it has beat us by years in completing the national backbone for its second-generation Internet network. We feel ashamed, as we wonder where our vaunted technological greatness went.

Less tangible, but perhaps even more important, are the cultural losses. We have lost the personal skills and common resources that once empowered us to envision, advocate for, plan for, and manifest a future that expresses our best American values. For that matter, we have lost belief in the very idea of "the common good," let alone our grandparents' sunny confidence that such a good could be readily planned for and achieved. This is a tragic loss. 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 our trust in each other, 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.

Those someone elses will be private parties promoting a nihilistic and avaricious future that profits only a small group of elites. They will be other countries, rising in power, who don't share our historic (though admittedly imperfect and incomplete) commitment to democratic processes and human rights. They will be vast hordes of the world's poorest, displaced by environmental problems we no longer have the skills to address effectively. Our GI grandparents' greatest legacy -- the physical resources, the government institutions, and the cultural skills that enabled America to set its own course for half a century -- may be substantially gone; but the future is still out there, and we will still have to live in it regardless.

"Nobody could have forseen" this? Bull. The only reason the Bush Administration can't forsee 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. For 25 years, anybody who could forsee a future other than the GOP's preferred one has been systematically run out of town. It's gone on long enough now that the party has rendered itself totally deaf and blind. Their "we didn't see it coming" whine is nothing more than their own feeble admission of the way they betrayed us all.

But the rest of us see now, more clearly by the day. And in that clarity is hope.

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