Tougher Challenges Ahead for Local and State Governments

'Linear analysis will get you a much-changed caterpillar, but it won't get you a butterfly. For that you need a leap of imagination.'

by / January 17, 2005
The National Intelligence Council (NIC) has now issued its third unclassified report, Mapping the Global Future , that offers a fresh look at how key global trends might develop over the next decade and a half. The entire process of producing the report, which the NIC dubbed the 2020 Project, lasted nearly a year and involved more than a thousand people. And to bring a truly global perspective to the report, this process included a series of regional conferences to solicit the views of foreign experts on regional prospects over the next 15 years.

The report isn't really an effort to predict the future, but rather a work in progress -- a flexible framework for thinking about the future. The NIC plans to update and revise it as conditions evolve. "Mindful that there are many possible 'futures,' our report offers a range of possibilities and potential discontinuities, as a way of opening our minds to developments we might otherwise miss," explained Robert L. Hutchings, chairman of the National Intelligence Council, in an introductory letter.

"As I used to say to my students at Princeton, linear analysis will get you a much-changed caterpillar, but it won't get you a butterfly," he added. "For that you need a leap of imagination. We hope this project, and the dialogue it stimulates, will help us make that leap -- not to predict the world of 2020, which is clearly beyond our capacity -- but to better prepare for the kinds of challenges that may lie ahead."

That is a noble objective, but one that might be missed by many in local and state government because of the international perspective presented in the report. It talks at length, for instance, about the continuing rise of China and India, and America's role in a changing international system. But you have to parse the document with state or local concerns in mind to draw conclusions about some of the mounting pressures on these levels of governance.

In other words, you have to view what the report suggests and extrapolate the ramifications for state and local government.

Overall the report does state quite emphatically that economic globalization and the dispersion of technologies, especially information technologies, will place enormous new strains on governments. "Growing connectivity will be accompanied by the proliferation of virtual communities of interest, complicating the ability of states to govern," the report noted. "The Internet in particular will spur the creation of even more global movements, which may emerge as a robust force in international affairs."

And because the international system will itself undergo profound flux, some of the institutions that are charged with managing global problems may be overwhelmed by them. This would certainly impact locally in some obvious areas. "Regionally based institutions will be particularly challenged to meet the complex transnational threats posed by terrorism, organized crime, and WMD proliferation," the report said.

"Information technology, allowing for instant connectivity, communication, and learning, will enable the terrorist threat to become increasingly decentralized, evolving into an eclectic array of groups, cells, and individuals that do not need a stationary headquarters to plan and carry out operations," the report stated.

Terrorists will primarily continue to employ conventional weapons, but will likely bring new, original twists to the way they use these weapons. Yet a continuing strong interest in acquiring chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear weapons also increases the risk of a major terrorist attack involving weapons of mass destruction. "Our greatest concern is that terrorists might acquire biological agents or, less likely, a nuclear device, either of which could cause mass casualties," the report said.

The likelihood, therefore, is that state and local governments will need to continue to further expand their terrorist prevention and response infrastructure and programs.

At the same time, given the other trends in the report, dwindling local and state budgets may well turn into a long-term problem as America's economic dominance continues to erode. The NIC study sees globalization as an overarching "mega-trend," a force so ubiquitous that it will substantially shape all the other major trends in the world of 2020. If Asia's rapid economic growth continues, it looks set to displace Western countries as the focus for international economic dynamism, according to the study, and China and India are well positioned to become technology leaders.

This globalization, the report suggested, will "profoundly shake up the status quo -- generating enormous economic, cultural, and consequently political convulsions." With the gradual integration of China, India and other emerging countries into the global economy, hundreds of millions of working-age adults will become available for employment in what is evolving into a more integrated world labor market. "The transition will not be painless and will hit the middle classes of the developed world in particular, bringing more rapid job turnover and requiring professional retooling," the report stated. "Outsourcing on a large scale would strengthen the anti-globalization movement. Where these pressures lead will depend on how political leaders respond, how flexible labor markets become, and whether overall economic growth is sufficiently robust to absorb a growing number of displaced workers."

All of which is to suggest that while the serious threat of terrorism will probably continue to grow (requiring much more from state and local governments in terms of prevention and possible response), the continuing rise of Asia as a technological and manufacturing power will also continue to erode many of America's traditional industries. The greatest impact will be on the American middle class which may find itself increasingly unemployed or under-employed. And while the report does not say it in so many words, this seems to add up to the very real possibility that what America has experienced in the first years of this century may well be a lot like the next 15 years could look like -- more terrorist attacks, more resources required for the war on terror, a shaky national economy, and continued erosion of middle-class standards of living.

So it is not a far stretch to suggest that the next fifteen years will hold even tougher challenges for local and state government. That is unless some grand shift in the future brings forth not just a changed caterpillar, but a butterfly.
Blake Harris Contributing Editor