On Predictions for 2009

In our not so recent, yet first ever, podcast I presented a single adjective to describe what I thought entailed the near future of our ever increasingly connected world. I opined “unknown” and cited the general fallibility that entails human kind’s ability to accurately express what any given future holds.* In saying “human kind’s” ability I include not only the laymen or journeymen of geopolitics but also the widely accepted experts in any given field.

I’d opine that predicting the future of global affairs is, undoubtably, a rather dicey endeavor. A bit more akin to reading Tarot cards than anything resembling scientific method. The nature of human kind presents too many variables in such a spasmatic fashion that our understanding of what <i>happened</i> and <i>why</i> is oft challenged, to say nothing of what <i>will</i> happen and why. This isn’t to say that we are completely bereft of any ability to see future trends (though the current economic conditions might beg to differ) rather that what the world will look like ten years from now is, on the whole, a virtual mystery. We may see wispy outlines but the true form remains a fog.

And so I always enjoy Foreign Policy Magazine’s annual round up of the “Ten Worst Predictions.” Some notably failed predictions for our year, 2009:
The Swine Flu: Media hype had this thing on par with the Black Death. The Obama administration’s scientists admitted their ability to predict H1N1′s impact in 2009 was negligible. However their plausible (read that as worst case, I suppose) scenario was way overstated. Which, in terms of contingency, makes sense. But, on the whole, this thing has been blown way out of proportion, as I wrote about earlier this year (and Younghusband exemplified with this excellent image.) 1,445 flu deaths overall (this includes all strains of influenza) as compared to the “plausible” 30-90,000 from H1N1 alone.
McChrystal Resigns: Because of his abject partisanship, I’m not a huge fan of Krauthammer. However, in our podcast, I cited President Obama’s then indecision regarding the Afghan theater as an example of our fallible abilities in prediction and his seemingly increasing distance away from the campaign rhetoric of Iraq=”bad war,” Afghanistan=”good war.” Needless to say, General McChrystal hasn’t resigned, indeed President Obama nearly met his request for 80,000 additional boots on the ground. Of course there remains the 18 month timetable, which could be perceived as either a politically motivated caveat or a strategic effort to plant a boot on the neck of the obviously corrupt Karzai regime. The history books will likely decide where the President stands on that aspect. In the interest of keeping with the nature of this post, I won’t attempt any predicative opinions.
China will dominate Panama: The right wing vision of China as some fomenting, hidden dragon waiting to leap on the throat of America persists to this day. There’s a marked difference between a rival and a belligerent. China’s ownership of American debt is trumpeted by the more bellicose rhetoric of  American firebrands. Less mentioned is the symbiotic nature of America the debtor to China’s investment and China the debtor to American consumerism. No reports yet of Chinese missiles nesting along the canal.
I don’t resent the game of prediction. How could I, as I’ve played plenty of that game writing here? In fact, I consider it an obvious and important element of studying the issues that present themselves in the increasingly complex matter of world affairs. I do, however, counterbalance it with a hefty bit of skepticism. We are, by nature, a fickle species and our collective actions are subsequently, on the large part, unpredictable.
*I also imbued a sense of optimism regarding our future. I retain that optimism. However tough we are to predict, history does illustrate a general legacy of  progression away from (let’s say) Hobbes’ determination of “nasty and brutish.”
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10 Responses to On Predictions for 2009

  1. kushibo says:

    Those H1N1 numbers are way off. The CDC says US H1N1-related deaths up to the middle of November at 9807. And we’re still nowhere near the end of the flu season.

  2. Ralph Hitchens says:

    Strange with all this hand-wringing over China owning so much American debt, that we haven’t heard (or at least I haven’t) that old saw about if you owe the bank a lot of money you own the bank.

  3. Kushibo, thanks. That’s extrapolated data and carries with it the disclaimer “The estimated ranges generated by this methodology provide a sense of scale in terms of the burden of disease caused by 2009 H1N1. It may never be possible to validate the accuracy of these figures.” The FP citation (also the CDC) is more recent and states confirmed deaths not estimates.

    Ralph Hitchens, true enough.

  4. Thomas says:

    There is also the constant fashion in prediction to be some combination of alarmist and contrarian. Only very rarely does a qualified predictor choose to predict anything positive, unless, of course they work for a major technology company.

    I have to agree with and applaud your optimism. We forget too often that, despite dire predictions going back decades, the world is, in the aggregate, as good or better than it’s ever been. This is not to say that it even approaches perfect but rather that we tend to ignore the positives while fixating on the negatives.

  5. lirelou says:

    The right-wing view of the “Chinese” threat to the Panama Canal must come from reading too many Sax Rohmer novels concerning Dt. Fu Manchu and the ‘Yellow Peril’. I know some very nice and otherwise reasonable people who are totally convinced that such a threat exists. Two local residents who recently returned from a cruise that stopped off in Panama alluded to the fact that “the Chinese own both ends of the Canal”, and already Chinese residents of Panama are noticeable. When I mentioned my own experience with Panama dating back before the Canal Treaty, where virtually all the general stores in the small communities of the interior were owned by local Chinese merchants, the Chinese were the only ones to operate truck farms within the Canal Zone, sizable Chinese Nationalist communities inhabited both Panama City and Colon, and Panama City had a very large Chinese School (which the Nationalist flag flew over), they shook their heads sadly and gave me that “you poor fool, you don’t understand the threat” look.

    As for false predictions concerning foreign affairs, at least those with enough courage (or self-conviction) give us something that can be proven wrong (or right, in some cases). I’d much rather receive something from them, than from those cautious “let’s go with the majority opinion crowd” so prevalent in some communities. Yes, Iraq was loaded to the gills with weapons of mass destruction. Yes, Kim Jong-il wouldn’t last two years (in 1994). No, Jong-il and the regime will never collapse (2004). Granted, they usually err on the side of caution, but caution is not always warranted.

    (such people also tend to castigate Jimmy Carter for “giving our Canal away”)

  6. Sonagi says:

    “However their plausible (read that as worst case, I suppose) scenario was way overstated. Which, in terms of contingency, makes sense.”

    Makes $ and cents for vaccine peddlers. By the time our school received the first batch of shots, H1N1 and other respiratory illnesses had already made the rounds. “A second wave is coming, so don’t skip the vaccine!” experts warned. A CBS News reporter has done some interesting investigative reporting on the hype surrounding the Swine Flu. Way back when hospitals were still testing for it, a majority of patients with symptoms indicating possible Swine Flu were found to have other respiratory illnesses. Guess people didn’t learn from the global Bird Flu pandemic that never was.

  7. Roy Berman says:

    “Strange with all this hand-wringing over China owning so much American debt, that we haven’t heard (or at least I haven’t) that old saw about if you owe the bank a lot of money you own the bank.”

    I’ve seen that pointed out in those exact terms a couple of times, and in general terms a few times. I.e., as long as China wants to control the value of the RMB, and for their dollar holdings to retain value, they need to play ball.

  8. Aceface says:

    “The right-wing view of the “Chinese” threat to the Panama Canal must come from reading too many Sax Rohmer novels concerning Dt. Fu Manchu and the ‘Yellow Peril’.”

    Or maybe John Le Carre’s “Taylor of Panama”.But then,the threat plot in the novel came from Japan buying out the canal.
    Those good ol’ days……

  9. Curzon says:

    Good post, well-written and very true. You’ve selected only a few of the more believable predictions — there are plenty more utterly outlandish predictions that were way, way off that you could have ridiculed here.

    “Strange with all this hand-wringing over China owning so much American debt, that we haven’t heard (or at least I haven’t) that old saw about if you owe the bank a lot of money you own the bank.”

    I have — some of the more level-headed analysts have said something to the effect that, if you owe someone a million dollars, you’ve got a problem; if you owe someone a billion dollars, they’ve got a problem; and the US owes China close to a trillion dollars in treasuries, meaning they’ve got a big BIG problem.

  10. CZ, thanks and agreed but I generally find them to have already been ridiculed (i.e. the Russian academic who’s predicted the fall of America by 2008 or whatever year it was) and only taken seriously by conspiracy theorists.