Foundations of Crisis
Everybody wants predictions. The following article does a little better than that, in that I wrote it back in November of 1997, outlining several theories of history, and pointing to a logical way of anticipating what will likely happen to the world at large over the next generation.
As you will read, the methodology I relied upon for anticipating the events that are now unfolding – 11 years later – were actually quite accurate, confirming, in my mind at least, that now is a time to be very cautious in your personal and financial affairs.
The article is unaltered in its text from the original, though I have added some current commentary in bold italics.
Foundations of Crisis
“Don’t know much about the Middle Ages, look at the pictures an’ I turn the pages. Don’t know much about no rise and fall, don’t know much ‘bout nothin’ at all.“
— “Wonderful World,” Sam Cooke
The lyrics quoted above probably describe the average American’s knowledge of history about as well as any academic study. Not only don’t they know anything about it, and think it’s irrelevant, but what they do know is inaccurate and slanted. And they must not think very much about the future either if the amount of consumer debt out there, mostly accumulating at 18% interest, is any indication.
One point of studying history is that it gives you an indication of what’s likely to happen now, if you can find an appropriate analog in the past. This is a tricky business because as you look at factors contributing to a trend, it’s not easy to determine which ones are really important. Making that determination is a judgment call, and everyone’s judgment is colored by his worldview, or Weltanschauung as the Germans would have it.
Let me briefly spell out my Weltanschauung so you can more accurately determine how it compares with your own, and how it may be influencing my interpretation of the future.
I’m intensely optimistic about the long-term future. It seems to me a lock cinch that the advance of technology alone – and nanotechnology in particular – will result in a future of incredible abundance and prosperity, and that alone will solve most of the problems that plague us. Space migration, intelligence increase, and life extension will be commonplace realities. These things, plus the growth of both knowledge and its accessibility and the concomitant rise of the individual from the group, will constantly diminish politics as an element of life. The future will be much better than anything visualized on Star Trek, and will arrive much sooner. That’s the good news.
The bad news is that within the longest trend in history, the ascent of man, there is plenty of room for setbacks, and much of history is a case of two steps forward and one back. My gloomy short-term outlook, and my reasons for maintaining it, is recounted here monthly. Whether it’s right or wrong, from an investor’s point of view, the short term is more relevant than the long term. Notwithstanding Warren Buffett’s great success in going for the long term, Keynes was right when he said that in the long run we’re all dead. History shows that goes for civilizations as well as people. The problem is that our civilization is probably just now on the cusp of the long term.
Hari Seldon: Where Are You When We Need You?
Isaac Asimov’s classic Foundation trilogy centers around a scientist, Hari Seldon, who invents a science called psychohistory, which allows the fairly accurate prediction of broad trends in society going for centuries into the future. Seldon lives on Trantor, the planetary capital of a galactic empire; the entire planet is covered with a high-tech version of Washington, D.C., devoted to nothing but taxing and regulating the rest of the galaxy. Seldon forecasts that the empire will collapse and Trantor turn into a gigantic ghost town. And of course that’s what happens, because it’s a novel, and that makes for a good story. It’s a good story because it’s credible, and it’s credible because people know nothing lasts forever, and there is a cyclicality to everything; birth, youth, maturity, senescence, and death. These stages are shared by everything in the material world, whether it’s a person, a city, a civilization, or a galaxy. It’s just a question of time and scale.
From that point of view everyone knows the future, i.e., we all know that everything eventually dies. But we’d like a bit more precision on the timing of their lifecycles. Some gurus believe, or appear to believe, they can actually predict the details of the future; I consider them knaves. People who actually do believe them should be considered fools. That said – Nostradamus, astrology, channeling, tea leaf reading, and the like aside – I do think the best indicator of what will likely happen in the future is what has happened in the past. That may seem like an obvious statement, but it’s not. There have traditionally been three ways of looking at the problem; call them theories of history.
Oldest is what might be termed a chaotic view, which presumes mankind doesn’t have any ultimate destination but is wafted on the wings of Fortune or hangs by the thread of Fate. Subject to the arbitrary will of the gods, whether it’s the Old Testament’s Yahweh, or Homer’s Zeus, the future is unpredictable, and prophecy or an oracle gives you as good a read as anything else. I discount this theory heavily.
A second ancient view is that everything is cyclical, and therefore somewhat predictable. History may be viewed like a giant sine wave that’s possibly headed somewhere, but the direction is unknown. Or history is really a circle, constantly repeating itself, much like the four seasons of the year. There’s a lot of wisdom to the cyclical view.
The third view sees history as a linear sequence, one that’s actually headed somewhere. That view holds a special appeal for followers of evangelically oriented religions, particularly Christians (many of whose beliefs have an apocalyptic tinge) and Marxists (who were, until lately, given heart by the “scientific” inevitability their views would prevail). The linear view ties in with the idea of Progress, that (more or less) every day and in every way, things are getting better and better – although there’s also a subculture populated mostly by deep ecology, animal rights, and anti-technology types who believe things are headed to hell in a hand-basket. But they all believe we’re headed somewhere in a more-or-less straight line. There can be a lot of truth to the linear view, certainly if you look at the technological progress of mankind over the past 10,000 years, and this view prevails today.
My own view is a synthesis of the cyclical and linear theories. I see history evolving towards an incredibly bright future, but cyclically suffering setbacks, cyclically repeating the same patterns along the way. To me history looks like a spiral, heading off in a specific direction, but always covering the same ground in a different way with each revolution.
That’s one reason The Fourth Turning (Broadway Books, NY, 1997) by William Strauss and Neil Howe got my attention; we’re all drawn to those who see at least part of reality the way we do. The book is an extrapolation of their last work, Generations, and notwithstanding its literary faults, is simply brilliant. I’ve never met Howe, but did have lunch with Strauss once about five years ago. The way I see it, although they’re both conservatives, neither of them has any particular economic, political, or social philosophy, and they’re not trying to grind an ax. Their books are a value-free look at U.S. history, and their conclusions are more credible as a result.
Their basic hypothesis is one I suspect Hari Seldon would recognize, and my thoughts are built on the research Strauss and Howe have done over the years. I suggest you get a copy of The Fourth Turning while it’s still in the stores. That’s also true for my own Crisis Investing for the Rest of the ‘90s, which has several chapters on related subject matter, and Arthur Herman’s just-released The Idea of Decline in the West, which also bears on the subject. With 50,000 new books published every year, very few stay available for more than a few months. If something has appeal, you should buy it now, because it may be hard to come by when you have the chance to get into it. (Of course, I was wrong on that point — websites such as Amazon and Alibris.com now make it easy to pick up many older books.)
January 19, 2009
P.S.: I’ll be back tomorrow with more. See you then.