Sunday, September 28, 2014

In 100 Years
Leading Economists Predict the Future
Ignacio Palacios-Huerta
MIT Press

A 1930 essay by legendary economist John Maynard Keynes made predictions for the next 100 years, mostly optimistic ones (especially considering the 1929 crash and ensuing start of the Great Depression.)  This 2014 book, following the economic smashup of 2008 and ensuing Great Recession, gets analyses and predictions from ten contemporary economists for the next 100 years.

These economists teach at the most prestigious institutions of MIT, Princeton, Yale, Harvard and the London School of Economics, with a lone rep from University Pompeu in Spain.  Among them are two winners of the Nobel Prize for Economics, and five past or present members of the Econometrics Society.

Often from the perspectives of their particular expertise, they discuss the issues of wealth and work, institutions, health, education and technology. (Notably there is little discussion of population, which used to be at the top of the list of the future's economic determiners.)

  Since the Keynes essay posited that increased total wealth will lead to more leisure and a less selfish society, some discuss ethics and human nature.  Most of the essays don't rely on jargon, so they can be read by non-economists.  On the other hand, it is painfully obvious that these are economists writing.  Their concerns, both abstract and narrow, don't adequately address the fullness of the future.  Nor are they up to the vision and writing of Keynes in his essay, "Economic Possibilities for Our Grandchildren."

People read these books of "predictions" basically to learn whether the future is brighter or darker, but there isn't much guidance here.  Most are guardedly optimistic, though mostly because they believe that present good trends will continue, change won't be overwhelming, and the challenges that scare everybody else will be somehow met.

For example, eight of the ten at least mention climate change, but only two call it the biggest threat and four minimize it as a problem.  Even the economist who devotes the most attention to it (Martin L. Weitzman of Harvard) ends up asserting a technological solution (sunshades.)  A review essay by Charles C. Mann in the September 2014 Atlantic suggests this is a pretty universal attitude among economists.  It also happens to (a) support the wealth of today's wealthy and (b) it runs counter to the findings of physical scientists and just about everybody else, who would consider this wishful thinking at best, or more pointedly, complacent ignorance and willful blindness.

Six mention income inequality as a problem, and five see it as an important one: a threat to democracy, for one thing.  But none puts these two together, climate crises and income inequality, which are likely to be happening at the same time, and will markedly affect each other.

They do attempt to at least summarize major factors and suggest how they might interact, but (with some exceptions) generally and blandly.  They mostly seem to apply conventional modes of thinking to a future that requires more imagination than this. Their discussions of technology are remarkably abstract and simplistic.  Even apocalyptic fiction, so prevalent these days, is more sophisticated in seeing how such factors might combine to affect the future.

Editor Ignacio Palacios-Huerta, who had the idea for this volume and solicited contributions, takes pains to discuss why he did so.  Apparently this is a very daring enterprise.  But the only precedent isn't 1930.  Such books were fairly common in the 1960s and 1970s, and even involved economists like Robert Theobald.  Back then (and in the more recent The Next One Hundred Years by Jonathan Weiner in 1990) such attempts acknowledged the folly of restricting the portrait of a complex future to the assumptions, observations, theoretical matrices and prejudices of a single discipline.

Perhaps I am unjust to the attempted breadth and subtlety of argument in these essays.  But all they basically seem to say is that, on balance, for their clients the future is a fairly good investment.

 That seems to be what economics is about now, and perhaps why economists by and large have a really bad record in predicting a year or even a month into the future.  Economics has possibly the least legitimacy of any claimant to actually being a science, though behavioral psychology gives it a run for its money.  

There was little or no awareness in these "predictions" that real scientists are demonstrating that humanity is using up the Earth and its resources at a much faster rate than replenishment.  Half the non-human vertebrae population of the planet that existed in 1970 was gone forty years later, in 2010, says the World Wildlife Federation study noted in the Washington Post.  Just about all of that depletion is a result of humanity.  We're destroying what sustains our lives, and ignoring that we're doing it--and we pay people handsomely for that ignorance, and we read their tedious books.  Until we realize that today and certainly for future the environment is the economy, all we'll have in one hundred years is the certainty of terminal solitude.

No comments: