Op-ed: Why Assumptions Matter

Frank Schneiger
Frank Schneiger

Reading the Source recently has gotten me thinking about assumptions. We all make assumptions about things, mostly inconsequential, but some of huge importance. Really smart people, especially ones who make lots of money, will tell you that they are data, and not assumption, driven. But this is mostly false. The algorithms that drive the systems they use to make decisions are based on assumptions, many of which are buried in the consciousness of some programmer, as well as their own prejudices and biases.

In unsettled and bad times, assumptions become even more important, especially those that relate to our future. Usually these assumptions are implicit, and we are not even aware that we are making them. That is why it is so important to make them explicit. Possibly the single biggest untested and un-examined assumption is that the future is going to look pretty much like the present — that “the system,” whatever that system is, will be sustainable.

Virgin Islands leaders, along with many others, operate on the basis of this untested sustainability and consistency assumption. Buying into it leads to the assumption that tinkering around the edges will be sufficient. And, related to the tinkering assumption is another one, also implicit: that whatever mess is created will be left for the next guys to clean up. The “IBG/YBG” assumption that drives Wall Street and American business: “Don’t worry, I’ll be gone/you’ll be gone.”

On almost a daily basis, Virgin Islanders can find implicit and untested assumptions by reading the Source. Here are just a few examples: that having a “vigil” or “march” can have a measurable effect on the territory’s extraordinary levels of gun violence; that going forward with plans for a new cruise ship pier in the emerging environment makes sense; that the territory’s political structure, especially its electoral process and the Virgin Islands Senate, produce positive results for the territory’s citizens; that “divisible” policies that benefit “my” group, as opposed to “indivisible” ones that benefit everyone are normal and acceptable; that something good might happen to GERS; that current energy policies are sustainable; that landfill fires are one-offs, and that a landfill based economic model is sustainable; and that we have all of the talent we need right here in the territory.

So, here is a set of assumptions that could be tested in a large community setting, and, if acceptable, can serve as a foundation for long-term strategies that would transform the territory in a number of positive ways:

  • The core assumption: Tinkering around the edges or fantasy-based grandiose thinking are recipes for something between decline and disaster for the territory. There is a need to think big about big challenges. And, beyond thinking big, there is an assumption that the territory’s leaders need to address the Virgin Islands’ Achilles heel: inaction and the inability to execute plans for change. Ideas and execution are connected. They are not the same thing.
  • Health: The Virgin Islands government has recently announced a plan for health care. It is based on the assumption – correct as far as it goes – that sick people need first-class health care. It is also implicitly based on an assumption that there will always be large numbers of unhealthy people. That is a wrong assumption. The correct assumption is to build strategies and action, not around health insurance, health care or hospitals, but around health. Specifically, the actions needed – including dramatic reductions in violence – to produce healthy communities where less (and increasingly unaffordable) health care is needed simply because people are healthier, both physically and mentally.
  • Inequality: There is in the United States an implicit assumption that our extreme levels of inequality and deep poverty are sustainable. Based on history, that assumption is false and usually leads to massive violence and social disruption. The Virgin Islands is no exception to this historic pattern.
  • Circular and sustainable economy: There is – as in most places under the American flag – an assumption that tinkering around with issues related to climate change, and ignoring the need to move away from a use-and-dispose economy, is sustainable. That assumption is almost certainly wrong. And, if it is, the consequences will be fairly dire for those who don’t plan for a circular, climate-change focused future. Let’s say you board a plane in St. Thomas and the pilot comes on to say that there are some mechanical problems, but there is still a 75 percent chance that we won’t crash. Are you staying on that plane? Those staying on are making the assumption that current practices are sustainable.
  • Talent: Here is an area in which the Virgin Islands is a model for right-wing mainland politics — the assumption that we have all the talent we need right here, and no outsiders need apply. That assumption isn’t true anywhere. Correct assumption: we, whoever and wherever we are, need all of the talent we can find; that we should invest in young people at home to develop it, but also welcome outside talent.

In the end, there is a final assumption. It is that very few places, the Virgin Islands included, will be able to afford in the future, (groping for the perfect word here), the b——t that dominates life today. It starts with testing assumptions and ends with concrete actions that result in healthy, trust-based, sustainable communities.

Frank Schneiger was executive director of the Federal Region II Children’s Resource Center, which trained a generation of V.I. children’s services workers. He subsequently founded the St. Thomas/St. John Youth MultiService Center. In the past two decades, he has served as planning consultant for a range of Virgin Islands organizations and has been a columnist for the Virgin Islands Source. He is the author of two books, “The Arc,” under the pen name of Roberto Vincent, and “The Purge: The Future As History in the Age of Trump,” available on Amazon.