Futurism has gotten something of a bad name. Serious thinkers think about the past more than the future. It’s so much more real.
You cannot look foolish for wrongly predicting the past.
In his great book The Black Swan Nassim Nicholas Taleb argued that we are so convinced that the past is bound to repeat itself—return of the repressed, eternal recurrence of the same and such—that we fail to prepare ourselves for the future.
And yet, the most important and decisive historical events are precisely those that we did not imagine. The events that are most likely to define our lives are the most improbable.
Of course, the terrorist attack of 9/11/01 is a black swan event. Everyone knew that Islamic terrorists were a threat to aviation. No one imagined that they would fly hijacked airplanes into the World Trade Center.
We think realistically; we prepare for what is likely to happen. And then, we get blind-sided by catastrophic events like Hurricane Katrina.
Of course, if you foresee a looming catastrophe and prepare for it, it is less likely to occur or, if it occurs, to be decisive.
Predicting the future is dangerous for your self-esteem. You will start sounding like a crackpot who gazes into crystal balls.
And yet, a prediction is like a scientific hypothesis. It will be proved or disproved by events.
Apparently, people who value their professional reputations would rather not subject themselves to reality checks.
On the other side of the argument, policy makers always prepare for future contingencies. Investors envision a future in which their investments will be profitable. Traders who buy and sell futures contracts—paying today for a commodity that will be delivered in the future—are focused on the future.
Today, Bret Stephens lays out a series of possible future events that could undermine the world order.
Stephens is telling us that the global order, the new world order, if you wish, can very easily become undone. He is not prophesying as much as he is recommending that we prepare ourselves for what might be ahead.
He is not quite saying how and why any of this might come about, but the subtext of his article is that this is the way the world might look under more failed leadership by Barack Obama.
The great unraveling might begin in the Middle East; it might begin in China or in Southern Europe; it might begin at the ballot box on November 6.
Stephens is being sane and sensible. We know, or at least we think we know, the dangers posed by a nuclear Iran. We should be well aware of the danger posed by the disintegration of the European Union.
Today, many people believe that the problems with Iran and Greece can be controlled. Some people are not quite so optimistic.
And then there is the Arab Spring. Most people have come to terms with the new reality in North Africa.
In a kind of nightmare fulfillment of George W. Bush’s freedom agenda, millions of Muslims are consenting to leaders who have long looked askance at the traditions and types of freedoms familiar to the West: freedom of speech and conscience, equality between the sexes, a tolerance for intellectual provocation and dissent.
“It is ultimately a cruel misunderstanding of youth to believe it will find its heart’s desire in freedom,” says Leo Naphta, the totalitarian avatar in Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain. “Its deepest desire is to obey.” In today’s Middle East, Naphta’s dismal proposition is being vindicated.
If those calamities are not sufficiently frightening, Stephens invites us to contemplate another nightmare scenario: the re-election of Barack Obama.
Here’s how he sees the day after an Obama victory:
On Wednesday, November 7, the Dow Jones Industrial Average fell by more than 1,600 points, forcing an automatic shutdown of the New York Stock Exchange. By the end of the month, the Dow had lost 30 percent of its value. The Federal Reserve had little to offer: Its third round of quantitative easing had done nothing to stimulate the economy. Hiring freezes became the order of the day. The unemployment rate moved above 9 percent. Unchecked federal spending and a weaker economy also appeared to guarantee a debt-to-GDP ratio well above the 100 percent mark. The economic shockwaves—instantly dubbed the Second Great Recession—were felt throughout the world, but especially in countries with export-dependent economies: Germany, Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, and China.
Perhaps America will become sufficiently futuristic to foresee the consequences of an Obama victory in time. Perhaps it will not.
Stephens remains optimistic about America. He channels Walter Russell Mead’s thoughts about America’s strengths and virtues:
Walter Russell Mead has observed that the United States continues to hold most of the good geopolitical cards—it’s just forgotten how to play them. Those cards include North America’s fracking revolution in oil and natural gas, which over time will mitigate (though not eliminate) the geopolitical risks in the energy markets and create new opportunities for domestic manufacturing and industry. They include America’s continuing appeal to hearts and minds in much of the world, including the East Asian periphery that China is so keen to bring within its sphere. They include the inherent weakness of all America’s principal geopolitical competitors, not only Iran and China but also Russia and the European Union. They include the natural resilience of the U.S. economy and the continuing innovative nature of our people, whose products others may imitate but whose soul, as it were, remains distinctively American. They include a political culture that, thanks to our federalist structure, is immensely varied and experiment-minded. They include popular attitudes toward politics that are individualistic to the core and disdain conformity and taboo.
We’re holding all the cards. We have not been playing them.
It would be more accurate to say that Barack Obama does not want to play them or does not know how to play them. He might think he is managing American decline, but the consequences of his failure will reverberate throughout the world, in ways foreseen and unforeseen.