Making predictions for the future seldom comes out well for the predictor. Almost invariably, future readers get to gloat about how wrong these prophets proved to be — how someone once believed there would be no practical use for home computers or that we would all live in a Jetsons world of personal aircraft and monorails.
I am, however, confident in my prediction that in 25 years I will have faded into obscurity. If this article is read by anyone 25 years from now, the question they are most likely to ask is, "Who was this guy, and how did they pronounce that name anyway?"
The other thing about predictions is that they say more about our hopes and fears in the present than they do about the future itself. So this article, offered on the occasion of Madison's 150th birthday, is less about my actual predictions than it is about projecting my best hopes for what Madison might look like a quarter century down the line. And I am focusing on hopes because the spirit of Madison, despite the frequent contentiousness and interminable debates, is fundamentally about optimism.
So, with these things in mind, here are some predictions of how Madison will look at age 175, in the year 2031.
Growth and development
Your ankles are at risk from all the strollers on the Capitol Square. Those of us in the baby-boom generation kept buying those downtown condos until we ran out of aging boomers. Then the grandkids of boomers inherited or bought them and transformed the downtown, making it younger and more family-oriented. This is a good thing.
Amid national economic success, Madison still outpaces the nation in prosperity. Repeated defeats of proposals in the state Legislature to limit stem-cell research and domestic-partnership benefits have helped Madison maintain and expand one of the nation's strongest economies. Representatives from cities across the country flock here to study the "Madison Model" for economic success and hear Chamber of Commerce President Austin King explain how progressive social policies helped build a strong economy.
Poverty in Madison and elsewhere has all but vanished. When concentrations of wealth reached historic levels and competition from roaring Asian economies put even more pressure on the middle class, the "instant revolution" powered by blogs and instant messaging toppled the GOP grip on the national and state governments. A progressive state income tax system replaced the 2006 version, producing ample revenues for public education.
The resulting educated workforce was more productive then ever, which eliminated the need for much of the social welfare system, saving resources that were in turn invested in more education and a national health-care system based on the Canadian model. The resulting lower health-care costs made the U.S. economy more competitive than ever and wiped out the trade deficit, spurring even more prosperity.
Turns out that a little socialism was the best thing that ever happened to capitalism. Who'da thunk it?
The lakes are measurably better. Somebody who went to sleep in 2006 and woke up today would be astonished at the improvement in water quality. But nobody in 2031 is happy about it. Just as in 2006, despite the improvements that were happening then, everyone is still complaining, telling the mayor this is the worst year ever for the lakes and asking when is the city going to do something about it anyway? The problem is, it took us more than a century to get into this mess, and it will take us a century to get out of it.
The Blount Street power plant is entirely clean. As promised, Madison Gas & Electric stopped burning coal here in 2011. The city now gets much of its energy from wind farms in the windiest parts of the state. Buildings in the city, both private and public, are considerably more energy-efficient. Electricity produced by coal is still a major source of energy, but it is imported from plants elsewhere in the state that are much more modern, efficient and cleaner than the old Blount Street plant.
There are still farms in Dane County. Thanks to all those high-rise buildings on the isthmus, we have built up more than out and saved lots of farmland. In the elevator once in a while, someone mentions that some mayor lost his reelection for supporting taller buildings, but everyone figures he must have been an idiot in other ways.
The morning traffic reports are about bike paths. Reports like "things are moving along well on the Southwest path until you get to a backup at the Missing Link" are commonplace. The reason is that bikes are the only vehicles that move without the aid of smart transportation technology, which keeps cars moving at a consistent speed and a safe distance from one another.
People take the State Street Streetcar for granted. Once in a while, you will overhear somebody on the streetcar say, "Yeah, my grandmother said some mayor lost his reelection over this thing, but this is too cool. He must have been an idiot in other ways."
Madison's public schools are still among the nation's best. The unsustainable revenue limits imposed by the state finally imploded when people realized that good schools are worth the investment. However, referenda are now required for highways and Defense Department purchases. Last year, a referendum to allow the Pentagon to expand failed narrowly, but proponents hope to try again this fall.
The UW-Madison ranks first in research and affordability but has dropped to fifth-best party school. The most important research breakthrough on campus was a "reality enhancement" drug that, when given to state legislators, led to the realization that the UW is the state's biggest economic engine and deserving of support. As for the drop in party-school ranking, a doddering old former mayor whose name nobody can pronounce was heard to grumble, "Back in my day, we really knew how to party!"
Politics and society
The Legislature is still arguing about property-tax relief and campaign finance reform. State Sen. Mike Ellis, now 90, flirts for months with the idea of running for governor, heartening those who remain hopeful that progress in these areas can yet be made. He ultimately decides against it, saying he doesn't think he could raise enough cash.
Everybody has forgotten that same-sex marriage was once controversial. Members of the millennial generation never understood what all the fuss was about and helped overturn all those state constitutional amendments banning gay marriage. In fact, it all started in 2006, when Wisconsin became the first state in the nation to reject a constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriages, civil unions, domestic partner benefits and Lord knows what else.
Today, amendments meant to discriminate against gay people are grist for the same constitutional scholars who study Jim Crow laws and the Dred Scott decision. Married gays and lesbians argue over money and the remote control while spending too much time going to and from their kids' soccer games.
We are older and more colorful. In 2006, a little more than one in five Dane County residents were over 65. In 2031, it is one in four. In 2006, about 20% of Madisonians were African American, Hispanic or Asian. By 2031, we are one-third people of color. Today, more work is done by senior volunteers, and the local food, music and art scenes are all more interesting as a result of our greater diversity.
The Overture Center is the same. It was built for the ages and remains a nationally known and admired venue. Local arts groups have thrived in its new spaces; CTM Madison Family Theatre recently celebrated its 65th-anniversary season with a run of sold-out shows, thanks in part to all those families now living downtown.
Halloween on State Street is now peaceful. The difference came when a former mayor no one remembers with a name nobody knows how to pronounce replaced the pepper spray used to quell disturbances in the early '00s with biological agents that change the mood of the crowd. Now, after being sprayed, revelers drop their projectiles and give police a big group hug. Then everybody goes home to bed for a good night's sleep.