July 22, 2018

The Perils of Predicting

“We were promised flying cars, and instead what we got was 140 characters.”

Peter Thiel, PayPal co-founder[1]

Economic forecasts and policy solutions are based on predictions, and predicting is a perilous business.

I grew up in a small town in western Minnesota. Our family got the morning paper — the Minneapolis Tribune. The Stars ubscribers got their paper around 4:00. A friend’s dad was a lawyer — his family got both. In a childhood display of cognitive bias, I never could understand why anyone would want an afternoon paper. News was made the day before, so you could read about it the next morning, and that was that.

I remember one Tribune headline to this day: it predicted nuclear war in 10 years. That was 1961, when I was eight. The Cuban missile crisis was the following year, and for awhile it looked like it wouldn’t take all ten years for the headline’s prediction to come true.

The Tribune helpfully ran designs and instructions for building your own fallout shelter. Our house had the perfect place for one: a root cellar off one side of the basement — easily the creepiest place in the house. You descended a couple steps down from the basement floor, through a stubby cinderblock hallway, past a door hanging on one hinge. Ahead of you was a bare light bulb swinging from the ceiling — it flickered, revealing decades of cobwebs and homeowner flotsam worthy of Miss Havisham. It was definitely a bomb shelter fixer-upper, but it was the right size, and as an added bonus it had a concrete slab over it — if you banged the ground above with a pipe it made a hollow sound.

I scoured the fallout shelter plans, but my dad said no. Someone else in town built one — the ventilation pipes stuck out of a room-size mound next to their house. People used to go by it on their Sunday drives. Meanwhile I ran my own personal version of the Doomsday Clockfor the next ten years until my 18th birthday came and went. So much for that headline.

I also remember a Sunday cartoon that predicted driverless cars. I found an article about it in this article from Gizmodo:[2]

The article explains:

The period between 1958 and 1963 might be described as a Golden Age of American Futurism, if not the Golden Age of American Futurism. Bookended by the founding of NASA in 1958 and the end of The Jetsons in 1963, these few years were filled with some of the wildest techno-utopian dreams that American futurists had to offer. It also happens to be the exact timespan for the greatest futuristic comic strip to ever grace the Sunday funnies: Closer Than We Think.

Jetpacks, meal pills, flying cars — they were all there, beautifully illustrated by Arthur Radebaugh, a commercial artist based in Detroit best known for his work in the auto industry. Radebaugh would help influence countless Baby Boomers and shape their expectations for the future. The influence of Closer Than We Think can still be felt today.

Timing is Everything

Apparently timing is everything in the prediction business. The driverless car prediction was accurate, just way too early. The Tribune’s nuclear war prediction was inaccurate (and let’s hope not just because it was too early). Predictions from the hapless mythological prophetess Cassandra were never inaccurate or untimely: she was cursed by Apollo (who ran a highly successful prophecy business at Delphi) with the gift of always being right but never believed.

Now that would be frustrating.

As I said last week, predicting is as perilous as policy-making. An especially perilous version of both is utopian thinking. There’s been plenty of utopian economic thinking the past couple centuries, and today’s economists continue the grand tradition — to their peril, and potentially to ours. We’ll look at some economic utopian thinking (and the case for and against it) beginning next time.

 

Apparently timing is everything in country music, too. I’m not an aficionado, but I did come across this video while researching this post. The guy’s got a nice baritone.


[1]Peter Thiel needn’t despair about the lack of flying cars anymore: here’s a video re: a prototypefrom Sebastian Thrun and his company Kitty Hawk.

[2]The article is worth a look, if you like that sort of thing. So is this Smithsonian articleon the Jetsons. And while we’re on the topic, check out this IEEE Spectrum articleon a 1960 RCA initiative that had self-driving cars just around the corner, and this Atlantic articleabout an Electronic Age/Science Digestarticle that made the same prediction even earlier — in 1958.

 

Kevin Rhodes writes about individual growth and cultural change, drawing on insights from science, technology, disruptive innovation, entrepreneurship, neuroscience, psychology, and personal experience, including his own unique journey to wellness — dealing with primary progressive MS through an aggressive regime of exercise, diet, and mental conditioning.

Check out Kevin’s latest LinkedIn Pulse article: When We Move, We Can Achieve the Impossible.”

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