Let's Avoid an `Official' Version of the Future


SEN. Albert Gore Jr., who introduces himself these days as ``the man who used to be the next president of the United States,'' has a long and credible relationship with a think-ahead group called the Congressional Clearinghouse for the Future. He's now introduced a bill known as the ``Critical Trends Assessment Act.'' Its purpose: to identify long-term changes affecting the national welfare in order to construct public policy in the light of those changes. For $5 million a year, the act would establish in the White House an Office of Critical Trends Analysis. Every four years, it would publish a report that would include:

An analysis of critical trends and alternative futures for the next 20 years.

A study of the economic, technological, political, environmental, demographic, and social causes and consequences of those trends.

An evaluation of ``existing and alternative government policies'' on those trends.

In between reports, this office would provide ongoing advice to the President on the long-term implications of various existing and proposed policies.

A nice idea? Certainly. The refusal of the American political apparatus to think long term is legendary. Yet the issues confronting the nation are daily becoming more global, more complex, and less amenable to quick resolution. We may not need future-impact statements that are as hefty as environmental-impact statements. But the Tennessee Democrat's call for a review of ``Federal laws, regulations, programs, and other activities of the federal government to determine their long-term effects'' ought to become part of every legislative process.

Three things, however, argue against Gore's proposal. First, the needed analysis may not be doable for anything like $5 million a year. White House analysts would be called upon to become experts in life itself - in everything that will or might happen. Even American corporations, which spend hundreds of millions analyzing the future, don't exhibit that arrogance. They typically focus in on different sectors (usually ones relevant to their marketing plans) and study them in detail. Can a White House report replicate that effort and provide more than a superficial overview?

Probably not. Yet the very presence of the White House group will serve to centralize trend analysis into one office. And that leads to the second objection: This act could effectively squelch the dozens of small government offices where analysts study everything from the future effect of tax laws to the impact of television-watching on the nation's arts. Some of these analysts have amassed considerable expertise. Yet as the central office gains clout, it will be harder to justify the expense of these folks. Net result: less, rather than more, really good trend analysis.

Third, and most important, is the question of the dangerous authority that will accrue to this office. It will be viewed, clearly, as the repository of the ``official'' version of the future. And that smells of an Orwellian big-foot. Never mind that Gore's bill calls for a parallel futures process in Congress to ride herd on the White House version. Both emanate from government. And government, unless carefully watched, finds it all too easy to argue for a future that just happens to fit present policy - rather than to plan policy that produces desirable futures. Whoever controls your vision of the future, after all, effectively controls your thinking.

At bottom is a simple fact: The future is not one but many things, depending on your assumptions. It's like democracy: It needs millions of voices to shape it. To imagine that so vast an array of possibilities can be reduced to one authorized version is a gross, and dangerous, oversimplification.

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