Monday, January 4, 2016

Predicting the future

For the past few years, I have made predictions for each upcoming year and then reviewed the accuracy of my predictions at the end of the year (my most recent effort, for 2016, was my last Ethical Musings' post in 2015). In reflecting on that process this year, I realized that the preponderance of tectonic changes politically, economically, and socially occur gradually over a period of years.

For example, fifty years ago when I was in high school, the personal computer did not yet exist. The computer I used to learn programming filled a small room. I could slow its operations to a point where I could follow its execution of a program using lights on the computer's console. Today, a smart phone has more computing power than did that mainframe. However, the emerging prevalence of computers and their major role in early twenty-first century life was not at all obvious to me in 1966, perhaps because I gave little thought in those years to assessing large-scale social changes or perhaps for other reasons. Similarly, in 1966 I failed to predict the fall of the Berlin Wall, the Soviet Union's collapse, or the acceptance of same sex marriage.

Occasionally, I have identified the future consequences of current events. For example, during discussions of moving toward an all-volunteer military I argued, occasionally feeling like a lone voice in the wilderness,  that eliminating the draft would create a growing divide between civilians and the military. This has occurred. Few members of Congress or their children are veterans. Opinion polls show that growing numbers of US voters advocate sending ground troops to fight ISIS but that they are personally unwilling to serve.

I also argued that in time a professional, all-volunteer force would erode the underpinnings of democracy and make a military coup more likely. US political and economic dependence on the military-industrial-Congressional complex continues to grow. In a world with a diminishing number of wars and military threats, the US continues to spend exorbitant sums on its armed forces, buying weapon systems for which no demonstrable need exists. Concurrently, Congress avoids voting directly on resolutions to authorize the use of military force. Members fear the political ramifications of taking a stand should subsequent events prove that stand ill advised. Furthermore, Congress funded the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan through deficit financing, thereby dodging the political consequences of imposing taxes to pay for those wars.

While still in college, I recognized that the dominant economic model with its presumption of unending economic growth was flawed. First, the globe has limited physical resources. Second, people can only consume so much stuff. Third, automating production, whether with a steam engine at the beginning of the industrial revolution or through use of a robot in the information era, reduces the need for labor. Consequently, fair distribution of wealth will require a more equitable distribution of employment (e.g., fewer hours of work per day or week). Some European nations have already reduced the average workweek. In the US, failure to address these concerns has led to increased economic inequality. The affluent now rely upon low wage service providers to take care of life's menial and unpleasant chores such as yard work and, unfortunately, childcare.

This post's purpose is not to tout my prescience. Indeed, some of my predictions have been wrong. Other times, I have been oblivious to the first indicators of profound social changes. On still other predictions, the jury remains out.

The purpose of this post is twofold. First, I want to emphasize that most changes occur gradually, over a period of years. Discerning those changes and mapping adaptive strategies requires leaders to spend time reflecting and thinking. Second, although annual predictions have value, developing and acting upon longer range predictions – if accurate – can have far greater value. Tangentially, successful investors such as Warren Buffet and Peter Lynch who advocate a buy and hold strategy recognize the great value of relying upon longer-term predictions.

My next Ethical Musings post will enumerate some longer-term predictions. If you have some of your own, please add them as a comment or send them to by email.

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