Internet Explorer 11 is not supported

For optimal browsing, we recommend Chrome, Firefox or Safari browsers.

Wisconsin’s Bizarre Thrust into Futurist Fantasy

The state’s governor is trying to make policy for many generations from now. It’s hard enough to get it right for even a decade or two. How’s your flying car working out?

A high school in Fond du Lac, Wis.
A high school in Fond du Lac, Wis. With a few edits by Gov. Tony Evers, the new state budget increases public school funding annually for centuries. (Shutterstock)
Some of the things governments do are so preposterous that it seems almost pointless to ridicule them. Just reporting on them straight gets the point across well enough.

A couple of weeks ago, as you may have heard, Wisconsin Gov. Tony Evers signed into law a new state budget that stands to increase public school funding by $325 per pupil every year until 2425 — four centuries from now. Evers made this happen by using his partial-veto powers, deleting “20” and the hyphen from the legislation’s reference to the 2024-25 school year. I took this to be a joke, but Evers was serious. He said his action would “provide school districts with predictable long-term increases for the foreseeable future.” Perhaps he can foresee things better than the rest of us can.

Whatever the governor may have had in mind, the whole episode serves as a reminder of just how strange things can become when public officials decide to project into the unknown — not just 400 years, but four decades, or even less.

When it comes to dealing with decades to come, governments practice an odd sort of contradiction. They have little trouble making wishes and guesses about the years ahead of them. But they are notoriously unwilling to take actions in the present that will lead to an improvement in the public welfare.

One example of this is California’s Climate Change Scoping Plan, a set of energy promises updated most recently last year. Not only does the plan promise to achieve carbon neutrality by the year 2045, it does so by committing to an 85 percent reduction in greenhouse gas emissions, a 94 percent drop in the demand for oil and an 86 percent decline in the demand for all fossil fuels. All of this, it is forecast, will create 4 million new jobs and save the state $200 billion in health-care costs.

Are these things possible? I suppose some of them might be. But I don’t think it’s unfair to point out that instead of making ambitious predictions about a glorious carbon-free future, the state’s leaders could be taking tangible steps to deal with the problem right away, legislating reductions in automobile mileage or implementing a more systematic promotion of renewable energy. But they prefer instead to assure the citizens just how much cleaner the state will be in two decades.

Then there is retirement. If you look at the sweeping futurist documents that American government is fond of issuing, you will see that nearly all of them guarantee to our young people a comfortable and prosperous life as senior citizens. The single best way to do this would be to shore up Social Security by raising the retirement age to correspond with longer life expectancies. But Congress, fearing the wrath of the voters, is politically incapable of this; it contents itself with vague assurances about trouble-free old age.

Of course, none of this compares in sheer nuttiness to Wisconsin’s four-century commitment to public education spending. Although I promised above to refrain from ridicule, I can’t help imagining what such a promise might have meant in say, 17th-century England. A similar spending commitment made in 1623 might have included speculation about what the increased education money might be used for. Perhaps better techniques for ferreting out witchcraft. Or research into new methods of achieving alchemy. Projecting education funding into the year 2425 isn’t really much more sensible than that.

Even our most credentialed experts aren’t much good at figuring out what will happen in the future, even the near future. The psychologist Philip Tetlock has spent much of his career demonstrating this. After a careful review of “expert” political forecasting for a book published in 2015, he and his co-author concluded that “the average expert was roughly as accurate as a dart-throwing chimpanzee.” They noted the declaration by the president of Digital Equipment Corp. in 1977 that “there is no reason anyone would want a computer in their home.” And they cited the assurance by Microsoft President Steve Ballmer in 2007 that “there’s no chance that the iPhone is going to get any significant market share.”

IT MAKES SENSE, as I wrote a few years ago, for governments to have goals and to think about what might happen. But the reality of such speculation is that it’s not a reliable predictor of anything.

Back in 1894, a distinguished panel of New York citizens issued a distant early warning. By 1930 or so, they said, the streets of Manhattan would be virtually impassable because of the amount of manure dropped by horses pulling carriages. That prediction probably made sense at the time. It just failed to account for the invention of the automobile.

Seventy years ago, there were scientists at the nation’s leading universities speculating that by the end of the century Americans would be commuting to work in personal jet planes they could park on backyard landing strips. It didn’t seem far-fetched. We may laugh about it now, but “The Jetsons” looked to much of the mid-century engineering elite like a glimpse into an inevitable future. Once again, it was a bit off the mark.

Suppose your city had adopted a 30-year plan in 1989. It would have missed a few events, such as the arrival of the Internet and the threat of terrorism, let alone the coming of the coronavirus. In other words, it would have been essentially useless.

STILL, MAKING PROMISES ABOUT THE FUTURE actually became something of a fad in the 1980s, spearheaded by the Oregon Progress Board, which issued and updated a collection of boldly specific targets for the state to achieve over the next couple of decades. Some of them were reasonable, such as the commitment to immunize all 2-year-olds. But many were pieces of poorly thought out fluff, like a promise to cut child abuse in half. Nobody in Oregon knew how to do that, and they still don’t. Child abuse actually went up in Oregon in the ensuing years. The Oregon Progress Board was abolished in 2009.

Still, the exercise continued to spread, most notably in the Millennium Development Goals promulgated by the United Nations in 2000 as targets to achieve by the year 2015. Some were specific and achievable and actually led to progress over the decade and a half, mostly ones dealing with health and longevity issues. “Eradicate extreme poverty” was clearly a stretch, but it’s true that there was less extreme poverty in the world in 2015 than there had been in 2000. Whether this had much to do with the Millennium Development Goals and the money they provided to poor countries remains debatable. In some countries, more of the money went to debt relief and military enhancement than to ending poverty. Other Millennium Development Goals were simply too vague to measure reliably, such as “promote gender equality and empower women” and “promote the social, economic and political inclusion of all.”

But several American cities picked up on the approach of the Oregon Benchmarks and the Millennium Development Goals to come up with increasingly ambitious targets, often wrapped in vague predictions. The Minneapolis 2040 plan, for example, commits to “see all communities fully thrive,” “to eliminate deep-rooted disparities in wealth, opportunity, housing, safety and health,” and to guarantee that “the people of Minneapolis will be socially connected and safe.” The goals are noble, but the means of achieving most of them are never quite spelled out. Programs like these aren’t exactly the equivalent of promising a boost in education spending for the next 400 years, but they share some of the same essential haziness.

THERE’S A COGNITIVE MISTAKE, well-known to behavioral psychologists, that they sometimes refer to as prediction error: Whatever we are feeling or thinking at a given moment, we tend to project it forward. If we are depressed right now, we overestimate the likelihood that we will still be depressed a month hence. When we go shopping, we tend to assume we will want to purchase the same items much later that we are purchasing now. We just aren’t very good at guessing what the coming months or years will bring us.

Prediction error applies to governments and political leaders just as it does to ordinary individuals. They project the present into the unknown. That’s one reason they have so much trouble estimating the cost of building highways and transit systems as they are starting on them.

The truth is, none of us are much good at envisioning anything. That’s not exactly a tragedy when it comes to forecasting education expenses more than 400 years from now. If there are humans remotely like us on this planet in the year 2425, presumably they will need to educate their young. And that will take money, or whatever happens to be functioning as a medium of exchange at that time.

So perhaps there isn’t much reason to regard Wisconsin’s funding amendment as anything more than a bit of harmless fantasy. Still, it seems appropriate to conclude with the words of the economist John Maynard Keynes: “We have, as a rule, only the vaguest idea of any but the most direct consequences of our acts. … Our knowledge of the future is fluctuating, vague and uncertain.”
Alan Ehrenhalt is a contributing editor for Governing. He served for 19 years as executive editor of Governing Magazine. He can be reached at
Special Projects