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The Inexorable Future

When discussing the future, both mild and robust opinions abound. Most are best countered with an admonition to ‘review the data,’ which allows one to remain generally free of the many traps associated with putting stakes in the ground. Arguing about what may or may not be predetermined often promotes conflict and discord – neither of which proves useful by any measure.

On the other hand, what is more important than the future? It comes careening towards our communities whether we like it or not, rarely offering enough time for proper preparation. Of course, the tendency toward procrastination plays a role, allowing us to admonish others (and our young) with the ‘woulda, shoulda, coulda’ adage that does little to curtail or preclude events after the fact.

An investment in data would seem to be wise. For instance, we know that Greenland and Antarctic glaciers are annually losing over 50 and 24 cubic miles of ice respectively. Satellite images prove that a huge portion of sea ice the size of Luxembourg recently broke free from the coastal ice plain, joining other enormous ice floes spawned by warmer seas and an evolving atmosphere. Arctic sea ice has declined from 2.7 million square miles to 1.9 million square miles since 2000. As ice melts, the seas rise…that’s science you can measure.

According to the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE), close to $2 trillion is required merely to bring road and water system infrastructure up to basic standards. This number does not consider seaports, airports, waste treatment, air traffic control, and public transit – all systems and services taken for granted. Numbers associated with infrastructure maintenance and refurbishing are staggering, yet are dwarfed by numbers tied to defense, Medicare and Social Security. By the way, the U.S. defense budget has grown from $316 billion in 2001 to $693 billion in 2010 – more than the world’s 20 next largest national defense budgets combined.

Nationally, education ranks far behind many other developed nations yet is struggling to gain traction. Funding shortages are forcing tough choices; triage has become the standard fare of legislatures, commissions and city councils, yet many seem to have neither clear direction nor established criteria on which to base priorities. As we dawdle, the years roll by and the hole gets deeper, as Thomas Friedman noted this past week in his New York Times article. K-12 schools, universities, roadways, airports, water systems and even basic administrative services cannot be maintained without adequate financial support. And clearly, the ability to sustain long-term support at current or even previous levels is now questionable.

Referencing the recent and very simple argument about the federal deficit…it is a matter of arithmetic. A business cannot spend three dollars while generating two and expect to survive for very long. Yet the U.S. has done this very thing for 30 years. If you’re curious or masochistic, review viable data from the Congressional Budget Office, the ASCE, U.S. Treasury, and various non-partisan data sources. Looking at the data, you will be appalled, while wondering, ‘who the heck is in charge?’

So, here’s the deal: the future is coming. It is ours and it is our turn at the helm. We are the big kids who make (and break) the rules, make the decisions, and take the risks. Unfortunately, those decisions and risks will have a profound impact on future generations. The old adage, ‘Risk what you can afford,’ has merit here. GDP will end up at around 2.8% for 2010 and remain about the same for 2011. It’s not great, but it represents growth while the economy is re-centering. Unemployment will edge downward, interest rates will edge upward and generally, it will be a time of global recalibration. 2011 will offer opportunities to re-think old habits and preferences. Collectively, communities must reconsider how they spend, save, plan, and manage. When feeling the spin that comes with re-thinking, consider the Amish. They are virtually untouched by the economy. They eat well, collaborate, raise decent families, understand business, are amazingly efficient, and save money. Not saying everyone should pack up and move to Ohio or Pennsylvania, but at least consider the long view and establish a thoughtful plan to achieve a prudent community vision.

Times are changing, so look forward, chart a path, and focus on a destination that serves the common interest of all citizens. These are not dark times; but they are challenging us to rethink how we manage community affairs and how decisions are made. We can do this. We don’t have a choice.

With over three decades working in and with federal, state and local government, John Luthy understands public agencies.  Known for his real world, straight talking style, he is a leading futurist specializing in city, county, state, and federal long-range thinking and planning. Among other articles and essays, John is the author of Operations Planning: A Guide for Public Officials and Managers in Troubled Times, and The Strategic Planning Guide, both published by the International City/ County Management Association (ICMA). His new book, Planning the Future – A Guide to Strategic Thinking and Planning for Elected Officials, Public Administrators and Community Leaders, was released in October 2010. An innovative and dynamic presenter, John is frequently asked to speak and consult on how to prepare public organizations and communities for emerging challenges (public futures at http://www.futurescorp.com).

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