Saipan— Some of the Northern Marianas’ high school seniors were asked recently if they plan to return to the islands after graduating from college.
I don’t see the point of that question.
We’re talking about asking teenagers what they plan to do four years down the road. Most adults can’t even say in the morning what they’ll be doing in the evening. Many of us can’t be certain that what we feel and believe about a certain issue today, right now, will be the same feeling and belief we will have tomorrow, a week, a year or two from today.
But we expect teenagers to know exactly what will happen to them in the distant future.
“Since ever since ever,” as kids today would put it, we want to be a step ahead of destiny. Some of us no longer believe in Divinity, but many still cling to a superstition that is just as old: that we can predict the future. We can’t. But we can always hazard a guess, and even though we can be wrong a lot of times, we can be right now and then — more often than a broken clock, to be sure.
In ancient Rome, Gore Vidal said the emperors studied omens, cast horoscopes and analyzed dreams. Today these “exotic” methods have been dressed in the guise of science. The soothsayer is now called an “expert” or “analyst.” And instead of “reading” the liver of a sacrificed animal, we’re shown data and graphs and charts.
In Future Babble, which was published in 2010, Dan Gardner noted that “since the dawn of the oil industry in the nineteenth century, experts have been forecasting the price of oil. They’ve been wrong ever since. And yet this dismal record hasn’t caused us to give up on the enterprise of forecasting oil prices…. [V]ast numbers of intelligent people continue to spend their days analyzing data and crafting forecasts that are no more likely to be right than all those that came before…. We never learn.”
Gardner also mentioned what the philosopher Karl Popper wrote in the 1930s: “It’s impossible to ‘predict, by rational or scientific methods, the future growth of our scientific knowledge’ because doing so would require us to know that future knowledge, and, if we did, it would be present knowledge not future knowledge. ‘We cannot, therefore, predict the future course of human history.’”
Michael Polanyi in The Logic of Liberty: Reflections and Rejoinders made the same point:
“The conceptions by the light of which men will judge our own ideas in a thousand years — or perhaps even in fifty years — are beyond our guess. If the library of the year 3000 came into our hands today, we could not understand its contents. How should we consciously determine a future which is, by its very nature, beyond our comprehension? Such presumption reveals only the narrowness of an outlook uninformed by humility.”
In The Art of Thinking Clearly, Rolf Dobelli wrote that University of Pennsylvania Professor Philip Tetlock evaluated, over a 10-year period, over 28,000 predictions from 284 experts. “In terms of accuracy, [they] fared only marginally better than a random forecast generator. …[T]he media darlings were among the poorest performers; and of those, the worst were the prophets of doom and disintegration.”
The same experts, however, “enjoy free rein with few negative consequences. If they strike it lucky, they enjoy publicity, consultancy offers, and publication deals. If they are completely off the mark, they face no penalties — neither in terms of financial compensation nor in loss of reputation. This win-win scenario virtually incentivizes them to churn out as many prophecies as they can muster. Indeed, the more forecasts they generate, the more will they be coincidentally correct.”
Here in the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands, policy makers, commentators, politicians and other concerned citizens are “worried” about the possible lack of workforce 10 years from now. They say that the CNMI must “prepare” for the end in 2029 of the federal CW program, which allows the hiring of foreign workers under certain conditions.
But how can we prepare for an event that is supposed to happen in a decade? The original CW program was for 10 years only. Yet it was renewed. We also have no idea what the CNMI and/or its economy would be in 2029. Did we know in 2009 what exactly would happen to the CNMI and/or its economy in 2019?
In the early 1990s, many highly educated concerned citizens on Saipan were worried about the influx of Japanese investors who were “gobbling” public land, and new businesses that were bringing in foreign workers. The island was “running out” of public land for homesteads, and was being “overrun” by foreigners, among whom were members of the dreaded Yakuza.
On June 7, 1991, Marianas Variety published a lengthy letter to the editor from a very concerned citizen. “Twenty-five years from now,” his letter stated, “most private land will be under long-term lease and public land will be gone. Unless we stop making babies right now, the question becomes, ‘Where will these people live?’” the letter-writer predicted “bumper-to-bumper ‘kids with no land’ and 250,000 aliens living here.”
Also in 1991, the business community expected tourist arrivals to hit the 1-million mark in 2000. Since then, hundreds of businesses have shut down and thousands of foreigners have left the island. Today, tourist arrivals are still nowhere near 1 million, and are declining again.
Saipan’s population is around 50,000, “aliens” included. There is homestead land but because the economy is down, there is no funding for homestead infrastructure.
Who knows what the CNMI and/or its economy would be 10 years from now? Is it likely that the current shortage of workers in construction/healthcare/hotel-restaurant jobs would be “solved” by doing what has been done “since ever since ever”? Training, chief among them. As if local residents are sheep that could be herded into vocational classrooms and forced to take jobs that they do not like.
A great American, Frederick Douglass, once said that freedom “is the right to choose one’s own employment. Certainly, it means that, if it means anything.”
Locals are Americans, and like their fellow citizens in the states, they can go to college or even move elsewhere in their huge nation — the world’s third largest — with a strong economy that continues to provide endless opportunities for those willing to seize them.
Come to think of it, the CNMI’s workforce shortage, more or less, mirrors that of the U.S. which has a population of over 300 million and whose wage rates are way higher and are still increasing. Employers in the U.S. cannot fill construction/healthcare/hotel-restaurant and other related jobs even though they pay so much more — but the CNMI can or should by 2029? How? By offering wages that are higher than the U.S. rates? The CNMI’s GDP in 2016, a good year for the local economy, was $1.24 billion. America’s was $18.6 trillion. No matter what politicians say, wages, especially in the private sector, are ultimately determined by the state of the economy that has to pay for them.
Even if we set aside basic arithmetic, do we really think that the CNMI could “attract,” say, 12,000 construction/healthcare/hotel-restaurant workers from the U.S.? That they would actually uproot themselves from their homes thousands and thousands of miles away to move to a remote island with a fragile one-industry economy in the middle of typhoon alley — and live and work here for a year or more?
Let’s ask our kids. Better yet, let’s flip a coin.
Zaldy Dandan is editor of Marianas Variety and author of We'll Kiss Like It's Air and We're Running Out of It, Die! Bert! Die!, and How I Learned What Really (Probably) Happened to Amelia Earhart — all available on amazon.com