Why the Future Doesn’t Get Funded
15 April 2014
Why be concerned about the future? Will not the future take care of itself? After all, have we not gotten along just fine without being explicitly concerned with the future? The record of history is not an encouraging one, and suggests that we might do much better if only provisions were made for the future, and problems were addressed before they become unmanageable. But are provisions being made for the future? Mostly, no. And there is a surprisingly simple reason that provisions are rarely made for the future, and that is because the future does not get funded.
The present gets funded, because the present is here with us to plead its case and to tug at our heart strings directly. Unfortunately, the past is also often too much with us, and we find ourselves funding the past because it is familiar and comfortable, not realizing that this works against our interests more often than it serves our interests. But the future remains abstract and elusive, and it is all too easy to neglect what we must face tomorrow in light of present crises. But the future is coming, and it can be funded, if only we will choose to do so.
Money, money, everywhere…
The world today is awash in money. Despite the aftereffects of the subprime mortgage crisis, the Great Recession, and the near breakup of the European Union, there has never been so much capital in the world seeking advantageous investment, nor has capital ever been so concentrated as it is now. The statistics are readily available to anyone who cares to do the research: a relatively small number of individuals and institutions own and control the bulk of the world’s wealth. What are they doing with this money? Mostly, they are looking for a safe place to invest it, and it is not easy to find a place to securely stash so much money.
The global availability of money is parallel to the global availability of food: there is plenty of food in the world today, notwithstanding the population now at seven billion and rising, and the only reason that anyone goes without food is due to political (and economic) impediments to food distribution. Still, even in the twenty-first century, when there is food sufficient to feed everyone on the planet, many go hungry, and famines still occur. Similarly, despite the world being awash in capital seeking investment and returns, many worthy projects are underfunded, and many projects are never funded at all.
What gets funded?
What does get funded? Predictable, institutional projects usually get funded (investments that we formerly called, “as safe as houses”). Despite the fact of sovereign debt defaults, nation-states are still a relatively good credit risk, but above all they are large enough to be able to soak up the massive amounts of capital now looking for a place to go. Major industries are also sufficiently large and stable to attract significant investment. And a certain amount of capital finds itself invested as venture capital in smaller projects.
Venture capital is known to be the riskiest of investments, and the venture capitalist expects that most of his ventures will fail and yield no returns whatever. The reward comes from the exceptional and unusual venture that, against all odds and out of proportion to the capital invested in it, becomes an enormous success. This rare venture capital success is so profitable that it not only makes up for all the other losses, but more than makes up the losses and makes the successful venture capital firm one of the most intensively capitalized industries in the world.
Risk for risk’s sake?
With the risk already so high in any venture capital project, the venture capitalist does not unnecessarily court additional, unnecessary risks, so, from among the small projects that receive venture funding, it is not the riskiest ventures that get funded, but the least risky that get funded. That is to say, among the marginal investments available to capital, the investor tries to pick the ones that look as close to being a sure thing as anything can be, notwithstanding the fact that most of these ventures will fail and lose money. No one is seeking risk for risk’s sake; if risk is courted, it is only courted as a means to the end of a greater return on capital.
The venture capitalists have a formula. They invest a certain amount of money at what is seen to be a critical stage in the early development of a project, which is then set on a timetable of delivering its product to market and taking the company public at the earliest possible opportunity so that the venture capital investors can get their money out again in two to five years.
Given the already tenuous nature of the investments that attract venture capital, many ideas for investment are rejected on the most tenuous pretexts, rejected out of hand scarcely without serious consideration, because they are thought to be impractical or too idealistic or are not likely to yield a return quickly enough to justify a venture capital infusion.
Entrepreneurs, investors, and the spectrum of temperament
Why do the funded projects get funded, while other projects do not get funded? The answer to this lies in the individual psychology of the successful investor. The few individuals who accumulate enough capital to become investors in new enterprises largely become wealthy because they had one good idea and they followed through with relentless focus. The focus is necessary to success, but it usually comes at the cost of wearing blinders.
Every human being has both impulses toward adventure and experimentation, and desires for stability and familiarity. From the impulse to adventure comes entrepreneurship, the questioning of received wisdom, a willingness to experiment and take risks (often including thrill-seeking activities), and a readiness to roll with the punches. From the desire for stability comes discipline, focus, diligence, and all of the familiar, stolid virtues of the industrious. With some individuals, the impulse to adventure predominates, while in others the desire for stability is the decisive influence on a life.
With entrepreneurs, the impulse to adventure outweighs the desire for stability, while for financiers the desire for stability outweighs the impulse to adventure. Thus entrepreneurs and the investors who fund them constitute complementary personality types. But neither exemplifies the extreme end of either spectrum. Adventurers and poets are the polar representatives of the imaginative end of the spectrum, while the hidebound traditionalist exemplifies the polar extreme of the stable end of the spectrum.
It is the rare individual who possesses both adventurous imagination and discipline in equal measures; this is genius. For most, either imagination or discipline predominates. Those with an active imagination but little discipline may entertain flights of fancy but are likely to accomplish little in the real world. Those in whom discipline predominates are likely to be unimaginative in their approach to life, but they are also likely to be steady, focused, and predictable in their behavior.
Most people who start out with a modest stake in life yearn for greater adventures than an annual return of six percent. Because of the impulse to adventure, they are likely to take risks that are not strictly financially justified. Such an individual may be rewarded with unique experiences, but would likely have been more financially successful if they could have overcome the desire in themselves for adventure and focused on a disciplined plan of investment coupled with delayed gratification. If you can overcome this desire for adventure, you can make yourself reasonably wealthy (at very least, comfortable) without too much effort. Despite the paeans we hear endlessly celebrating novelty and innovation, in fact discipline is far more important than creativity or innovation.
The bottom line is that the people who have a stranglehold on the world’s capital are not intellectually adventuresome or imaginative; on the contrary, their financial success is a selective result of their lack of imagination.
A lesson from institutional largesse
The lesson of the MacArthur fellowships is worth citing in this connection. When the MacArthur Foundation fellowships were established, the radical premise was to give money away to individuals who could then be freed to do whatever work they desired. When the initial fellowships were awarded, some in the press and some experiencing sour grapes ridiculed the fellowships as “genius grants,” implying that the foundation was being a little too loose and free in its largesse. Apparently the criticism hit home, as in successive rounds of naming MacArthur fellows the grants become more and more conservative, and critics mostly ceased to call them “genius grants” while sniggering behind their hands.
Charitable foundations, like businesses, function in an essentially conservative, if not reactionary, social milieu, in which anything new is immediately suspect and the tried and true is favored. No one wants to court controversy; no one wants to be mentioned in the media for the wrong reason or in an unflattering context, so that anyone who can stir up a controversy, even where none exists, can hold this risk averse milieu hostage to their ridicule or even to their snide laughter.
Who serves on charitable boards? The same kind of unimaginative individuals who serve on corporate boards, and who make their fortunes through the kind of highly disciplined yet largely unimaginative and highly tedious investment strategies favored by those who tend toward the stable end of the spectrum of temperament.
Handing out “genius grants” proved to be too adventuresome and socially risky, and left those in charge of the grants open to criticism. A reaction followed, and conventionality came to dominate over imagination; institutional ossification set in. It is this pervasive institutional ossification that made the MacArthur awards so radical in the early days of the fellowships, when the MacArthur Foundation itself was young and adventuresome, but the institutional climate caught up with the institution and brought it to heel. It now comfortably reclines in respectable conventionality.
Preparing for the next economy
One of the consequences of a risk averse investment class (that nevertheless always talks about its “risk tolerance”) is that it tends to fund familiar technologies, and to fund businesses based on familiar technologies. Yet, in a technological economy the one certainty is that old technologies are regularly replaced by new technologies (a process that I have called technological succession). In some cases there is a straight-forward process of technological succession in which old technologies are abandoned (as when cars displaced horse-drawn carriages), but in many cases what we see instead is that new technologies build on old technologies. In this way, the building of an electricity grid was once a cutting edge technological accomplishment; now it is simply part of the infrastructure upon which the economy is dependent (technologies I recently called facilitators of change), and which serves as the basis of new technologies that go on to become the next cutting edge technologies in their turn (technologies I recently called drivers of change).
What ought to concern us, then, is not the established infrastructure of technologies, which will continue to be gradually refined and improved (a process likely to yield profits proportional to the incremental nature of the progress), but the new technologies that will be built using the infrastructure of existing technologies. Technologies, when introduced, have the capability of providing a competitive advantage when one business enterprise has mastered them while other business enterprises have not yet mastered them. Once a technology has been mastered by all elements of the economy it ceases to provide a competitive advantage to any one firm but is equally possessed and employed by all, and also ceases to be a driver a change. Thus a distinction can be made between technologies that are drivers of change and established technologies that are facilitators of change, driven by other technologies, that is to say, technologies that are tools for the technologies that are in the vanguard of economic, social, and political change.
From the point of view both of profitability and social change, the art of funding visionary business enterprises is to fund those that will focus on those technologies that will be drivers of change in the future, rather than those that have been drivers of change in the past. This can be a difficult art to master. We have heard that generals always prepare for the last war that was just fought rather than preparing for the next war. This is not always true — we can name a list of visionary military thinkers who saw the possibilities for future combat and bent every effort to prepare for it, such as Giulio Douhet, Billy Mitchell, B. H. Liddell Hart, and Heinz Guderian — but the point is well taken, and is equally true in business and industry: financiers and businessmen prepare for the economy that was rather than the economy that will be.
The prevailing investment climate now favors investment in new technology start ups, but the technology in question is almost always implicitly understood to be some kind of electronic device to add to the growing catalog of electronic devices routinely carried about today, or some kind of software application for such an electronic device.
The very fact of risk averse capital coupled with entrepreneurs shaping their projects in such a way as to appeal to investors and thereby to gain access to capital for their enterprises suggests the possibility of the path not taken, and this path would be an enterprise constituted with the particular aim of building the future by funding its sciences, technology, engineering, and even its ideas, that is to say, but funding those developments that are yet to become drivers of change in the economy, rather than those that already are drivers of change in the economy, and therefore will slip into second place as established facilitators of the economy.
What is possible?
If there were more imagination on the part of those in control of capital, what might be funded? What are the possibilities? What might be realized by large scale investments into science, technology, and engineering, not to mention the arts and the best of human culture generally speaking? One possibility is that of explicitly funding a particular vision of the future by funding enterprises that are explicitly oriented toward the realization of aims that transcend the present.
Business enterprises explicitly oriented toward the future might be seen as the riskiest of risky investments, but there is another sense in which they are the most conservative of conservative investments: we know that the future will come, whether bidden or unbidden, although we don’t know what this inevitable future holds. Despite our ignorance as to what the future holds, we at least have the power — however limited and uncertain that power — to shape events in the future. We have no real power to shape events in the past, though many spin doctors try to conceal this impotency.
Those who think in explicit terms about the future are likely to seem like dreamers to an investor, and no one wants to labeled a “dreamer,” as this a tantamount to being ignored as a crank or a fool. Nevertheless, we need dreamers to give us a sense as to what might be possible in the future that we can shape, but of which we are as yet ignorant. The dreamer is one who has at least a partial vision of the future, and however imperfect this vision, it is at least a glimpse, and represents the first attempt to shape the future by imagining it.
Everyone who has ever dreamed big dreams knows what it is like to attempt to share these dreams and have them dismissed out of hand. Those who dismiss big dreams for the future usually are not content merely to ignore or to dismiss the dreamer, but they seem to feel compelled to go beyond dismissal and to ridicule if not attempt to shame those who dream their dreams in spite of social disapproval.
The tactics of discouragement are painfully familiar, and are as unimaginative as they are unhelpful: that the idea is unworkable, that it is a mere fantasy, or it is “science fiction.” One also hears that one is wasting one’s time, that one’s time could be better spent, and there is also the patronizing question, “Don’t you want to have a real influence?”
There is no question that the attempt to surpass the present economic paradigm involves much greater risk than seeking to find a safe place for one’s money with the stable and apparent certainty of the present economic paradigm, but greater risks promise commensurate rewards. And the potential rewards are not limited to the particular vision of a particular business enterprise, however visionary or oriented toward the future. The large scale funding of an unconventional enterprise is likely to have unconventional economic outcomes. These outcomes will be unprecedented and therefore unpredictable, but they are far more likely to be beneficial than harmful.
There is a famous passage from Keynes’ General Theory of Employment, Interest and Money that is applicable here:
“If the Treasury were to fill old bottles with banknotes, bury them at suitable depths in disused coalmines which are then filled up to the surface with town rubbish, and leave it to private enterprise on well-tried principles of laissez-faire to dig the notes up again (the right to do so being obtained, of course, by tendering for leases of the note-bearing territory), there need be no more unemployment and, with the help of the repercussions, the real income of the community, and its capital wealth also, would probably become a good deal greater than it actually is. It would, indeed, be more sensible to build houses and the like; but if there are political and practical difficulties in the way of this, the above would be better than nothing.”
John Maynard Keynes, General Theory of Employment, Interest and Money, Book III, Chapter 10, VI
For Keynes, doing something is better than doing nothing, although it would be better still to build houses than to dig up banknotes buried for the purpose of stimulating economic activity. But if it is better to do something than to do nothing, and if it is better to do something constructive like building houses rather than to do something pointless like digging holes in the ground, how much better must it not be to build a future for humanity?
If some of the capital now in search of an investment were to be systematically directed into projects that promised a larger, more interesting, more exciting, and more comprehensive future for all human beings, the eventual result would almost certainly not be that which was originally intended, but whatever came out of an attempt to build the future would be an unprecedented future.
The collateral effect of funding a variety of innovative technologies is likely to be that, as Keynes wrote, “…the real income of the community, and its capital wealth also, would probably become a good deal greater than it actually is.” Even for the risk averse investor, this ought to be too good of a prospect to pass up.
Where there is no vision, the people perish
What is the alternative to funding the future? Funding the past. It sounds vacuous to say so, but there is not much of a future in funding the past. Nevertheless, it is the past that gets funded in the present socioeconomic investment climate.
Why should the future be funded? Despite our fashionable cynicism, even the cynical need a future in which they can believe. Funding a hopeful vision of the future is the best antidote to hopeless hand-wringing and despair.
Who could fund the future if they wanted to? Any of the risk averse investors who have been looking for returns on their capital and imagining that the world can continue as though nothing were going to change as the future unfolds.
What would it take to fund the future? A large scale investment in an enterprise conceived from its inception as concerned both to be a part of the future as it unfolds, and focused on a long term future in which humanity and the civilization it has created will be an ongoing part of the future.
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