Soylent Green is Made of… Profit!

October 12, 2011

“People Over Profit!”

I keep hearing and seeing this phrase and can’t help but think of it as a caricature of college-stoner, Marxist-lite political economy.  It’s understandable that it would have gained traction among liberals of a certain streak: it’s pleasant, alliterative, and fits nicely on a bumper sticker.  But I do hate to see tens of millions of dollars of our nation’s collective (and publicly-subsidized) liberal arts education fail in the face of a catchy slogan.  Aren’t those of us with training in the humanities supposed to be, you know, enriching society with our critical thinking?  Wasn’t this sort of why those classes exploring the intersections of Japanese manga, the Cold War, and post-queer neo-colonial theory were worth spending several grand on, even though they didn’t exactly have a “practical” application?

How, exactly, does one put People over Profit?  Well, a good first question is: to whom is this exhortation addressed?

Any business consists of Owners and Employees.  Owners are the people whose capital is deployed (and risked) in conducting the affairs of the business, and who ‘control’ the business in the sense that they have certain contractual rights that are usually specified in the legal documents that govern the form of the business.  Employees are the people who actually do the work of the business from day to day, and who ‘control’ the business in the sense that they perform certain functions that interface with customers, suppliers, or the like.  It’s possible to be both an Owner and an Employee, say, if you’re a partner in a professional practice, or a shareholder of the corporation for which you work.

However, for modern businesses of sufficiently large size and scale – let’s call them, for the sake of argument, Evil Global Corporations – it’s unusual for an Employee individually (or all Employees collectively) to own enough of such a business to be an Owner in the sense that I describe it above.  The market value of the equity of Exxon Mobil Corporation – your typical EGC if ever there were one – is approximately $370 billion as of the moment I write this.  If you owned more than a vanishingly small percentage of this business, for how long would you choose to be an Employee instead of a Happy Retiree?

(As an aside, the distinction between Owners and Employees in the EGC gives rise to a whole host of complications that fall under the heading of “Principal-Agent Problems” — i.e., how do Owners who are not Employees get Employees who are not Owners to act in the Owners’ interests?  This subject is far deeper than I intend to cover here.)

So, to my original question: is the exhortation to put “People Over Profit” directed at Employees, Owners, or both?

It would be pretty fatuous to make this demand of Employees.  Imagine marching into a restaurant and demanding that your waiter put People Over Profit by serving you dinner for free.  Or staging a sit-in at Wal-Mart (another EGC!) until the Assistant District Sales Manager, the highest-ranking Employee you could find, gives you a discount on some clothing you really need.  It turns out that we tend to use words like “illegal” and “embezzlement” when Employees put People Over Profits.  So that can’t be the request.

What about Employees who have really fancy titles, like Chief Executive Officer, and who happen to be personally Rich?  Well, why does that change the analysis?  Should they be allowed, even expected, to give away the Owners’ property?  Perhaps if to do so were actually in the best interests of the Owners – but, in that case, isn’t it clear that the demand should be made directly of the Owners?

By the way, it doesn’t help if the Employee really passionately believes it would be in the best interest of the Owners to give away their property, but the Owners aren’t enlightened or compassionate enough to agree.  This is left as an exercise for the Reader.

So who are the Owners of the EGCs and their smaller but perhaps equally evil counterparts?  For publicly-traded corporations, it’s relatively easy to obtain a first-order answer.  Here’s an example for Bank of America Corporation, today’s poster child for corporate treachery.  The first-order answer for Bank of America, like most EGCs, is: “a whole bunch of financial institutions on behalf of their clients, and investment vehicles like mutual funds, exchange-traded funds, and hedge funds.”  In aggregate, the answer looks something like this.  But this first-order answer isn’t helpful.  A mutual fund, for instance, is itself owned by many Institutions and Individuals.  And who are these Institutions?  They may be endowments, foundations, pension funds.  And the Individuals?  Maybe the Rich… but also maybe (hopefully!) middle-class folks through their 401(k)s.

Point is: the Owners of EGCs come in all sorts of shapes and sizes, and serve a variety of constituencies – some of which sound Nice, like Retired Teachers; and some of which sound Bad, like Rich Financiers.  In this sense, it’s also fatuous to demand that Owners of EGCs put “People Over Profit” because, well… aren’t there people at the end of this chain, too?

To the extent that people are relying on the stock market to help them save for retirement, or were able to help afford college thanks to a university’s endowment, they are also just shouting at themselves.  But I suppose we all contain multitudes.

Fortunately, we have a more coherent framework at our disposal for expressing our desire that stuff be taken from some people and given to other people, whether the former party likes it or not – we call it Taxation.

“Tax Corporations!” is a marginally more coherent rallying cry than “People Over Profit” – but since Corporations are owned by People, we can reduce this even further:

“Tax Some People More Than They Are Currently Being Taxed!”

Not exactly the world’s most novel agenda for social justice, is it?  But at least it’s a prescription that can be coherently debated.


On Being Wrong (whether or not for justifiable reasons)

July 5, 2011

I’ve been eager to revisit my earlier thoughts on l’affaire DSK as the case against him began to unravel during the past few days.  As it turns out, we’ll probably never know for sure what happened in that hotel room.  It’s hard to imagine how a case can proceed in the face of questions about the alleged victim’s credibility.  This outcome would be understandable even though it may fall short of the ideal of justice (in the sense of objectively determining what happened and either punishing or vindicating the accused).  A witness’ credibility matters, but in theory it doesn’t map directly to truth or falsehood.  On the one hand, people may lie if they sense there could be something in it for them, no matter what the consequences for themselves or those accused – the Duke lacrosse case is one particularly salient example.  On the other hand, it’s also possible for people with questionable judgment or even bad intentions to be the victims of crime.  But as Citizens and Jurors, often the best we can do is handicap the likelihood that a given account is true, false, or somewhere in between, and questions of consistency and motivation matter in that calculus.

Given that my initial intuition about the case now appears much more likely to have been wrong, What have I learned?  The four heuristics that formed the basis of my intuition all still seem reasonable to me.  However, I think there were two probable sources of error that I underestimated at the time.  The first, which I think is the dominant source of error, is that the DA’s office was compelled to act on an accelerated timeline because DSK was in imminent danger of leaving the country.  I took the facts of an arrest and indictment as indications of the probability of the truth of the allegations (given the risks to various parties of “getting it wrong”) when in reality they may not have been more than a necessity to give the alleged victim a fair hearing.  The second is that I did not give sufficient consideration to the possibility that the alleged victim would act irrationally.  I had assumed that she would view her downside risk as being very high (in fact, it is – she may be headed for deportation or jail!) and would only take action if she were very sure she would prevail.  In reality, she may have either not been aware of the downside risks, or may have had unwarranted confidence in her likelihood of success.

My sense is that the DA’s office has acted properly throughout and has had the unenviable task of trying to balance the protection of a seemingly vulnerable accuser with fairness to a powerful international figure.  If they end up dropping this case due to the inconsistencies that have come to light, I don’t think it would be to their discredit.

Perhaps the DA’s next balancing act will be between the need to do justice to DSK to the extent that he has been wrongfully accused, and the desire to avoid chilling the powerless from speaking out against the powerful when they have truly been victimized.

Whimpers and Bangs

June 22, 2011

It has been a while, Dear Readers, and I apologize for the lapse in correspondence.  The past few weeks (really, months) have been pretty hectic.  Perhaps this has been a blessing in disguise, as I haven’t yet had a chance to succumb to the temptation to opine on the many reasons the World (as usual) is Ending. 

I have difficulty recalling any significant stretch of time where there haven’t been at least two or three imminent threats to civilization as we know it.  Right now, of course, we have the potential collapse of Europe, the potential descent of the Middle East into chaos (and not proximately because of Israel/Palestine this time!), and the potential nuclear meltdown of Japan, to name the first three catastrophes that come to mind.  This time last year, I think, the list would have been something like: fiscal oblivion in America, global warming, and loose nuclear bombs.  Thinking back through my lifetime in broad strokes, we had: the collapse of the global financial system, global food shortages, an inevitable and mutually destructive clash of civilizations with the Communists (i.e., China), Avian Flu, SARS, WMD and Islamist terrorism, the Asian and Russian financial crises, Ebola, the S&L crisis, AIDS, and of course another inevitable and mutually destructive clash of civilizations with the Communists (i.e., Russia)…

At some point there was talk of a giant asteroid destroying the planet.  Also, we’re probably going to run out of fish, farmland, and water in the next couple of decades.  If I spent more than fifteen minutes thinking about this, I could probably re-write “We Didn’t Start the Fire.”

My list of world-ending crises presumably reflects the sorts of issues on which I spend the majority of my intellectual energy: finance, geopolitics, health.  I’m sure there are others who worry about disasters on other fronts — for example, the erosion of the Traditional Family Unit and hence Civilization with all these gay people trying to get married willy-nilly, or the wholesale destruction of Human Dignity that might come from permitting informed end-of-life decisions for those who may want an alternative to becoming an exceptionally dignified (and collectively-subsidized) vegetable.

Perhaps I’ve become a bit jaded by the repeated failure of the World to End despite what seem to be humanity’s best efforts to push it there.  I’m reminded of the sport of ‘policy’ debate in high school, which when practiced poorly tended always to reduce to the question of whether the affirmative or negative position were more likely to lead to global nuclear holocaust.  Should the Federal government adopt a stimulus program?  Maybe so, because failure to stimulate the economy could lead to its collapse, which could lead to a resurgence of populist and nativist anger against those who are perceived to have stolen the American dream, which could lead to war with China as the world’s most prominent low-cost exporter, which could lead to global nuclear holocaust.  On the other hand, maybe not, because it could lead to unsustainable Federal spending, which could lead to a default on US Treasuries, which could lead to war with China as the largest holder of Treasuries, which could lead to global nuclear holocaust.  With so many policy decisions being made every day, it’s truly marvelous that civilization persists.

But I do remember how scary it looked from the front lines during the summer of 2008, when it seemed like one financial institution after another was destined to collapse.  It is easy to criticize in hindsight, as many pundits, politicians, litigators, and journalists have chosen to do.  We shouldn’t forget, though, that one reason the World hasn’t Ended just yet is that enough people throughout history seem consistently to make good-enough decisions under exceptional uncertainty.

Horny Frogs

May 24, 2011

As I count down to a long overdue vacation next week, I find myself in the bind of needing to close an excessive number of open loops while lacking even remotely sufficient focus to do so effectively.  Quelle tragédie.  But it is hard to feel as though I’m having a bad week when I compare my circumstances to those of Dominique Strauss-Kahn.  Prudence and fairness demand that I preface my remarks by noting that any allegations against the Monsieur remain to be proven before a court of law, and I’m sure that I’m not aware of all the relevant facts of the case.  From a legal perspective, DSK is entitled to a presumption of innocence with respect to the charges brought against him.

The issue that has captured my interest, however, is how an ordinary citizen, considering what he or she has come to know about the affair, forms an intuition about whether the alleged criminal “did it” or “didn’t do it.”  Or, to be a bit more provocative: to what extent are the accused entitled to a presumption of innocence in the court of public opinion?  I’m not really going to discuss the important question of whether media outlets bias their coverage in a way that sways public opinion (it’s inevitable that some will) or whether there’s a feedback loop between public opinion and the outcome of a particular legal process.  I just want to focus on one of the key distinctions between Citizen and Juror.  The Juror is supposed to arrive at trial with a blank slate.  The Citizen has no such obligation.  Under what circumstances does the Citizen form an intuition about the likely guilt or innocence of an alleged criminal?  When is that intuition reliable?  When do Citizens develop conviction in that intuition, given that they clearly aren’t privy to all the details of the proceedings?

To tip my hand: I rapidly formed a very strong intuition that DSK did something wrong to that maid.  What I believe to be my intuitive heuristics are relatively simple.  (I’m going to use ‘powerful’ and ‘powerless’ colloquially here, but since we’re discussing intuition I’ll allow my Readers to make sense of the shorthand.)  First, powerful people in cushy settings are usually forgiven their indiscretions.  Second, a powerless person usually faces highly asymmetric downside risk if he or she challenges a powerful person.  Third, powerful people usually have the means to create compelling positive alternatives for the powerless (i.e., the proverbial “hush money”).  These three prior beliefs about the world suggest to me that it’s highly unlikely that an allegation of the sort in this case would ever have seen the light of day.  If there had been meaningful uncertainty about whether or not a crime had occurred, perhaps the maid wouldn’t have reported it for fear of losing her job, or the hotel would have found a way to cover it up, or DSK’s people would have arranged for a discreet apology in the form of former Presidents.  In the state of the world where this didn’t happen, this framework would tell me that there’s likely to be very little ambiguity about what actually came to pass.

Putting aside the questions of power and privilege for a moment, I’d add as a fourth heuristic that allegations of sexual assault can be extremely costly from the perspective of the accuser, and I believe it’s widely understood that these crimes are generally under-reported as a result.  So I’m also intuitively more likely to believe the accuser in a case of sexual assault than I would be in, say, a commercial dispute.

I have a number of intelligent friends whose prior beliefs about the world are similar to mine, yet led them to an entirely different framework for assessing the likely merits of the case.  In their view, it is so improbable that a case of this nature would have been made public, the most likely explanation is that it was the work of a careful international conspiracy.  DSK is a powerful figure, after all, and the IMF has certainly not made any friends in certain parts of the world.  Wouldn’t he be likely to have enemies who were capable of orchestrating a set-up whose objective was not to have him convicted but to have him functionally removed from public life for the foreseeable future?  I can accept this as a reasonable starting point, even though it completely contradicts my own intuition.

As responsible Jurors as well as Citizens, it is essential to re-evaluate such intuitions in light of whatever evidence becomes available for consideration.  To the extent that corroborating details can be found, I think it would strengthen my (already pretty high) belief in my intuition, but it might or might not weaken the beliefs of those holding a conspiracy theory view (after all, what is a good conspiracy without corroborating evidence?).  But, if there were ever findings of mysterious liaisons between this maid and a Eurocrat in some shadowy back alley… that would dramatically lower my belief in my interpretation.

Another question that has plagued me is: why do some powerful people take such huge personal and professional risks for the sake of a little action?  I can’t imagine risking a lifetime’s worth of work and influence for something so fleeting… but I’d imagine neither could have a younger version of DSK.


March 22, 2011

Winning” is one of the many inexplicable (and, one hopes, short-lived) memes to emerge from the Charlie Sheen meltdown porn that has swept pop culture.  Something about the simplicity of the concept and its urgent, manic delivery seems to have struck a chord.  We like winning.  Winning games, winning prizes; even winning vicariously through sports teams.  We tend to think of winning in a clearly-defined and, usually, zero-sum context.  It’s not ambiguous whether you have a winning lottery ticket, or whether you won that game of Monopoly.  But the assertion that one is winning, full stop, has a certain audacity because of its ambiguity: What exactly is this person winning?  Am I playing, too?  Does this mean I’m losing?  And if this is apparently the worldview of a drug-addled celebrity, could there be something messed up about the pursuit of winning-ness?

I’ve been thinking about what a general formula for what winning, full stop, might look like.  I add a few constraints.  First, I think it should be actionable.  “Be happy” or “Reach a level of celebrity where you are sent to ‘Good Morning America’ rather than prison for your drug use” aren’t terribly helpful formulas because they are too vague and too specific, respectively.  Second, I think it should acknowledge the connotation of competition in how we use the word.  The formula: “Develop deep, meaningful, personal relationships throughout your life” seems like unambiguously good advice, but intuitively it feels more like a recipe for win-wins than for winning.  Third, I think it should be sufficient or nearly-sufficient, but it need not be necessary.  Sufficiency is a tough condition to satisfy — it’s hard to imagine how a self-destructive person would win even with a perfect formula — so I see this constraint as something like: “a reasonably well-adjusted person would set him or herself up for winning by following the formula.”  But this would rule out the tried-and-true formula of “Marry rich,” as that path is full of ways to lose (not least of all, the pre-nup).  Finally, I think it should be parsimonious.  Good formulas usually are.

My winning formula, for your consideration: “Possess and commercialize a scarce resource”

If you can do this, you will be equipped to win, full stop.  It’s not a guarantee — money can’t buy happiness, after all; although I think this formula is actually about more than money — but it’s a reflection of the reality that it’s just easier to think about an abstraction like “winning” when one isn’t concerned with the rent or the kids’ college tuition.

I think this formula is pretty self-evident, but I’ll parse it in reverse.

– A scarce resource.  Greater scarcity of a good generally creates a greater premium for it.  In this case, the scarce resource need not be tangible, but it might be.  Natural resources, talent, intellectual property, monopoly power, political influence, even celebrity — all of these count.

– Commercialize.  This is probably the most debatable premise, but I think it’s important.  Winning is about converting a scarce resource into whatever it is one desires.  A starving artist is not winning to the same extent as Damien Hirst because he or she is, well, starving.  He or she may be more talented than Damien Hirst, i.e., in possession of a more scarce resource; but to what end?  He or she may be happier than Damien Hirst, but my formula is not solving for happiness; although I think Damien Hirst is not likely to be less happy as a result of his commercial success.  Similarly, consider Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke.  He possesses some incredibly scarce resources (intellectual gifts, academic heft, and the ability to move markets by sneezing).  But I would argue he is not winning because he’s constrained (and, ideally, prohibited) from using those resources for whatever ends he may personally desire.  He will certainly be a bigger winner when his Chairmanship has expired and he is free to pursue intellectual interests unrelated to central banking, become rich on the lecture circuit, or whatever else he actually wants (see: Alan Greenspan).

– Possess.  I was debating whether “control” is a sufficient weaker condition, but I don’t think it is.  Mark Zuckerberg wins in a way a non-executive director of Facebook can’t; he owns and directly benefits from his ability to commercialize numerous scarce resources (the most obvious of which being an extremely valuable (at least for now) internet business).  A member of the Board nominally has more control over the company, since a Board generally has the (theoretical) authority to remove the CEO.  But this power is worth orders of magnitude less than ownership of the company.  Similarly, a musician controls his or her talent, but I’d argue he or she doesn’t really possess it if the record label, agent, iTunes, and the like are all taking huge cuts out of the fruit of his or her efforts to commercialize a scarce resource.

Some obvious conclusions follow from this rule; consider them corollaries to stay a winner. 

First, one stops winning when a scarce resource becomes common.  Business in particular is ruthless about developing ways to commoditize inputs as a way to reduce costs.  Well-compensated financiers, lawyers, and medical professionals may be set up to win today, but it is possible to imagine futures where their proprietary knowledge, powers, and privileges are diminished.  For example, software that is amazingly good at legal document review could conceivably displace the bottom quartile (or more) of legal professionals who currently command the scarce resource of “being better at document review than the best alternative” – but this in turn would create winning opportunities for the lawyers best able to leverage the new technology, and for the technology’s owners.

Second, one stops winning when a scarce resource loses its commercial potential.  The skill to repair a typewriter is very scarce, and it was probably quite valuable at some point to own the world’s greatest typewriter repair business; but good luck winning in that line of work today.

Finally, one stops winning when one dies from a drug overdose.  Food for thought.

Good Questions

March 7, 2011

As much as I use CNBC as the poster child for All That Is Wrong with: (1) the 24-hour news cycle; (2) financial journalism, or more accurately, financial journal-tainment; and (3) the way business and finance engage in public discourse – I have to admit that it’s a necessary evil to watch “Squawk Box” most mornings.  It delivers a pretty reliable and quick summary of top stories, including sports scores (which is a key for feigning interest in small talk during baseball season, if I haven’t watched SportsCenter recently).  And, as Pat Kiernan’s In The Papers segment is the crown jewel of the NY1 morning program, the Aflac Trivia Question (which seems to pop up between 7:25-7:30am) is both a nice way to acquire or remember a fun fact and a helpful prompt to get my butt off the couch once it’s over.

This morning’s Aflac Trivia Question was: “John Wayne never scored a touchdown while playing for what university’s football team?” 

I’ll provide the ‘correct’ answer at the end of this post, but because I am a smart ass, my first answer would have been: “All universities.”  It is unlikely that John Wayne attended more than one university, and the question implies that he didn’t score a touchdown while at the university he attended.  Therefore, there does not exist a university where John Wayne scored a touchdown while playing on its football team.

Of course, my ruse would fail if John Wayne actually scored a touchdown at the University X he attended, in which case the answer would be “All universities but X” – and this would be a very tricky way of accessing the piece of knowledge that the question presumably wanted to test (i.e., where did John Wayne go to university – although, fun fact, he didn’t graduate)?

The question could have been even more interesting if John Wayne had played football while attending both Harvard and Yale (say, because he transferred to the superior instiution in New Haven after his sophomore year) and scored a touchdown only during his Yale football career.  In that case, John Wayne never scored a touchdown while playing for any university besides Yale; but we might feel compelled to point out that he actually played football at Harvard, and so our attempt to be a smart ass might pull us in two different directions (in each case, revealing that we know at least one university that John Wayne attended and at which he played football).

Clearly the question implicitly applies the condition that  John Wayne actually have attended and played football at the university under consideration.  My point is simply that it’s really, really important to ask questions about our questions.  This is a much more complicated discussion than I intend to indulge here, but I think it’s a huge philosophical (and practical!) problem when a test ceases to measure comprehension or aptitude unambiguously, and confounds them with the ability to divine the intentions of the questioner (i.e., knowing to reject my smart-ass answers to the trivia question, even though I’d have given brownie points to a student with the chutzpah to point out such a flaw on a test I gave).

I’m good at taking tests.  I’m pretty convinced I could pass most multiple choice tests, no matter how specialized the knowledge, if I had a couple of practice tests that I could use to study patterns, and maybe a few weeks to cram definitions and un-fakeable facts.  This isn’t a matter of genius or aptitude; it’s just one skill among many I have, although it happens to correlate positively with very valuable signals (e.g., high SAT scores).  It clearly can be practiced – witness the test prep industry that inspires ordinarily well-meaning, liberal-leaning, at-least-moderately-affluent parents to throw up the walls of privilege to get access to another edge over kids who can’t afford the same services.  (Actually, I think it should be mandatory to disclose to the College Board whether you have paid for test preparation services, but that is another polemic for another time.)

Because I’m good at taking tests, my default assumption is that it is the responsibility of the person receiving a question to give the correct answer.  It’s helpful to be reminded that there’s a corresponding burden on the questioner to make sure the query is unambiguous and that it will accurately elicit the information or verify the competency that is its intention.

P.S. To do some justice to CNBC for a change, I’ll make two brief observations.  First, I think some of their “CNBC Investigates” longform pieces (or whatever the analogue of longform journalism is, in television) have been solid, particularly the ones that chronicle the growth of enterprises like McDonald’s, or that acknowledge the real economic activity (and innovation) that goes on in illegal trades(illegal forms of gambling, drugs, etc.)  Second, I think Becky Quick is by far one of the most competent anchors on business television, mostly because she actually knows how to moderate discussions between speakers as opposed to constantly inserting her views in the form of leading questions (i.e., Joe Kernan) or, even worse, whining uncontrollably when a commentator points out that this is actually what she is doing (i.e., Erin Burnett – great clip to show how low financial journalism can go).

P.P.S.  It’s USC.  Fight on, Trojans!

On Tea Leaves and Other Good Reading Material

January 4, 2011

Forecasting the future is another exercise often undertaken at the start of a new year, particularly in domains with high stakes and short collective attention spans (e.g., business, financial markets, politics, technology).  Much ink is spilled and carbon dioxide expelled in the ordinary course of business on attempts to identify trends and recommend courses of action, but the arrival of a new year seems to give everyone a license to prognosticate.  Inevitably, some forecasts will be true, and this will reinforce our faith and comfort that the future is predictable (perversely, given that some will be false, and some will be true for the wrong reasons).

From the perspective of the ‘content producers’ who create for mass consumption, I’d wager that confident forward-looking speculation (generally) sells a lot better than the humble admission that the world is complex and dynamic.  Even among those commissioned to forecast, there is tension between explication (often trite, heavily disclaimed, or TLDR) and sensationalism (which focuses attention on low-probability, if provocative, possibilities) that I suspect usually favors sensationalism.  A good way to get on CNBC is to look sharp in a tailored suit and predict that some boom or crisis is imminent, or that some market price or datum will reach a level widely outside of the ‘consensus.’  But in other contexts, the balance certainly shifts: a good way to keep your career as a Fed governor is to persuade the world that the economy’s engines are humming along within normal bounds.  It is critical to consider the motivations of the person making a forecast, and those of the owners of the medium in which it is distributed, as part of one’s analysis.

There is a lot of evidence that we often overestimate our ability (as individuals in our own lives, and as professionals) to divine the future, and I predict that I will return to this topic often in future postings.  Nevertheless, I find obscenely long-term forecasts particularly enjoyable, at least in part because their authors generally admit to the futility of the exercise for any end other than intellectual self-gratification.  One delightful read was this set of predictions for 2011 that were made in the year 1931, which was linked from one of my favorite blogs.  I enjoyed another piece that purports to be a set of predictions about the year 2000 from an issue of Ladies Home Journal in the year 1900 (I have not seen this debunked, e.g., on Snopes, but I’ve not looked hard).  These are helpful prompts to consider the limitations of my field of vision, as I think about the data, assumptions, analytical tools, and states of the art that informed these brave conjectures.

Fiction has a proud history of envisioning possible futures (or, more accurately, possible realities) and I’d claim that one marker of ‘good’ fiction is that it gives us plausible accounts of how people would respond to social structures, technologies, climates, and the like, that are quite different from our own.  There is naturally some amount of prediction in such efforts, although it is usually neither explicit nor a primary goal of the author.  For instance, it’s pretty easy for us to assume that in a future where there exist gigantic starships, there will also exist gigantic-starship warfare.  (Perhaps this is because gigantic-starship-industrial complexes simultaneously emerge on a variety of planets, all of which need continuous conflict to keep the middle-class employed, the lower-class oppressed, and the political elite in power…?).  I don’t consider these forecasts of the same sort as those described above, but it would nevertheless be a fun exercise to consider the implicit assumptions in fiction (particularly science-fiction).  To the extent that these may have changed over time (and I’m not sure how you would measure this) they may reveal other cognitive biases we bring to our own visions of the future.