Sense of Authority

Never have so few been so sure of their own rightness. That is my reaction to this morning’s meeting of the MN Futurists. I’m sorry to say this, because I like the principle of the group, but the reality today was a bunch of old white men exercising their sense of dudgeon.

The topic of the day was immigration, a sensitive issue to be sure. Some of the initial presentations raised good issues about the immigration policy of America but the discussion was quite different. For a group of amateur futurists there was a remarkable level of certainty about the nature of the problem and the possible solutions.

My jaw almost fell out of my head when one of the audience members told everyone that we had to look at the problem from a systems perspective and then, in the very next breath, linked the problem of affordable housing to the poor family culture of non-white people. He argued that housing requires a job, which requires an education, which requires a family structure that values education and therefore we should require all adult immigrants to participate in ESL immersion classes as soon as they arrive in our country.

A real systems perspective emphasizes all the parts of the system when looking for a solution or a point of intervention.

In the systems perspective, once one has identified the system as a separate part of the universe, one is not allowed to progressively decompose the system into isolated parts. Instead, one is obligated to describe the system as a whole. If one uses separation into parts, as part of the description of the system properties, this is only part of a complete description of the behavior of the whole, which must include a description of the relationships between these parts and any additional information needed to describe the behavior of the entire system.

Further, in a systems perspective one should be careful about considering the system in the context of the environment and not as an isolated entity. Thus one should include the interactions and relationships between the system and the environment.

The presenter to the group, Elizabeth Glidden, responded that as an expectant parent she would need to spend a minimum of $200 per week on childcare. The only way for a family to do this and afford housing is for both parents to work.

Our interlocutor from the audience replied that a significant number of people choose homeschooling. (2% to be precise. Does this person really understand the meaning of significant?) Some families “find homeschooling to be a cheaper alternative than the public schools.” Cheaper? In what possible way is homeschooling cheaper than public school or daycare.

When people say something is cheaper they usually mean that it costs less or saves money. So you have a family with two incomes. They spend 30% of their monthly income on housing. Then they have a child and they decide to homeschool. Is this really “cheaper?” At best homeschooling is only cheaper if you consider the labor of the stay-at-home parent to be completely uncompensated. A homeschooling family may indeed be spending less money per month because they don’t pay out money for childcare. But the tradeoff for that is a significantly lower savings rate.

The group dynamic in these situations is really interesting to observe. Most of the people who speak up in this group have been coming for a long time and each of them has a particular ideĆ© fixe into which discussions inevitably bend. People don’t listen to each other because they’ve heard all the arguments before.

The anti-immigration arguments boiled down to three points:

  • Immigration is bad because diversity causes cultural division and balkanization. See here for a refutation.
  • Immigration is bad because it leads to increased consumption of natural resources. A Hmong person driving an SUV in St. Paul has a much bigger carbon footprint than a Hmong person still living in Laos.
  • Immigration is bad because current federal policy is rooted in deception. The Immigration and Naturalization Act of 1965 led to a dramatic increase in immigration, especially non-white immigration, so therefore the people who wrote the law must have intended to change the cultural composition of America. I call this the conspiracy theory.

Refutations to take place on your own.

The only interesting argument in this bunch is the second. It’s clear that people in the United States consume much more natural resources and produce more pollution than people in the rest of the world. But to say that immigration is the cause or solution for this problem is a big jump.

All Americans have been living a cadillac lifestyle for many years, even before the legal changes of 1965. For any individual immigrant the marginal increase in resource consumption and pollution is trivial compared to the overconsumption we’ve all been living with. Shutting off immigration to this country isn’t going to solve the environmental problem. It might be part of the solution but it is hardly the end of the discussion.

I called this entry “Sense of Authority” because I was so astounded by the certainty with which all of these people spoke about the future. I’m not even sure if I can call this futurism because it bears so little connection to the complex systems view of futurism that I hold. I think it’s more accurate to say that the tropes of futurism and engineering (systems perspectives, statistics) became cloaks for political positions.

Given the age of most of the participants in this group my experience may be representative of what future studies used to be. If the profession were founded today things might be very different.

There were more silly things said today but they will have to wait for another post.