Viewing the future in dark times – more engineers, fewer bookies
by Chris Zappone
In the past, confidence for the future in advanced democracies offered a counterpoint to endless security fears. The existential terror of nuclear Armageddon during the Cold War, for example, lived side by side with the promise and expectation of a better life, fundamental to the success of democracies.
Standards of living rose, lifespans extended and citizens enjoyed freedom of movement unimaginable in the past.
Now, instead of an optimism pegged to a concrete vision for a better future in Western democracies, there is wariness and doubt. The outlook is provisional, conditional, tentative.
It shouldn’t surprise anyone that future terror attacks are discussed in terms of risks, as is the style today. Risks, likelihoods and odds have become the de facto way to discuss, not just the chance of a terror attack, but a politician’s prospects of winning an election. Taking alongside the risk-based view of major economic or ecological events and it seems odds now dominate how the future is conceived and discussed.
But is a horse-racing form guide the best way to view the future that we can shape?
In past times, people looked forward to the future. Their optimism was grounded in specific expectations of a better world: financially, socially, physically. The Depression and World War II generation, after surviving those events, witnessed technological leaps that changed their world, giving people every reason to expect a better life ahead.
Achievements as mammoth and varied as penicillin, the Hoover Dam, the Brooklyn Bridge, computers, vaccines to inoculate against disease, intercontinental jet travel, the Apollo moonshot or even national healthcare schemes fundamentally reshaped the world.
Entrepreneur and investor Peter Thiel eschews the power of risk and luck in favour of the power of planning. He believes that from the 1700s to the 1960s, optimists with definite plans led the Western world.
Since the long bull market of 1982 began and the string of major technological advances seemingly dried up, “finance eclipsed engineering as the way to approach the future”.
In Australia, you could argue that the mining and housing booms have further enshrined the concept of risk, chance and odds as a way to understand the future.
Individuals manage “risk” in their retirement savings. They “future-proof” their careers against as many different outcomes as they can. For a decade, the economic outlook of the Lucky Country, relied on the puzzle of what was going on inside China’s economy.
Australia’s real estate market placed further emphasis on sentiment and luck for the winners of auctions. Quite tellingly, Malcolm Turnbull, upon becoming PM, noted it was a “turn of events I did not expect.”
Even on the national security front, Australia “hedges” its risk, simultaneously hoping against but planning for an eventual China-related war in Asia. All of it, a risk-based future.
Perhaps Thiel is right in saying that “if you expect an indefinite future ruled by randomness, you give up on trying to master it”.
Watching politicians in Australia and in democracies beyond, one can only conclude that many have given up on trying to master the future.
Politicians govern from poll to poll in fear of voter or party revolts, while businesses can only see ahead to the next quarter in trying to placate the market. In the throes of the current US primary season, notice the absence of future plans and how abundant polls are.
Everyone fancies themselves an armchair statistician. A Nate Silver. A 538er. And so the future vision of a nation extends ahead only weeks, rather than years. This is particularly true on the Republican side, as the GOP contends with a leadership vacuum being filled by Donald Trump.
Maybe the popularity of this risk-based view of the future accounts for how democracies generally have responded to the big challenges of the time. There is a lassitude, a wobbliness about decision-making in matters as diverse as the eurozone crisis, the migrant crisis, the war in Syria, Islamic State, and China’s island-building.
In Australia, mining taxes and climate change legislation have been enacted then reversed as governments watched their approval ratings oscillate. Even the national broadband network has somehow become a whipping post of successive governments.
If it’s true that Western democracies need new industries in order to keep incomes rising and employment full, then clearly a bit of engineering is in order. But let’s be honest: governments and people don’t embrace this kind of thinking unless they have to. Embarking on major projects means accepting a sizeable chance of failure.
The question now is, have we reached such an uncertain point, that we need to begin planning big for the future. Economic growth is uncertain. Great power politics are emerging again in Asia but also in Europe. Islamic State is active abroad and lurks within Western nations, too. Mass migration is reshaping politics. Meanwhile, rising and revanchist powers use their military to jockey for influence.
Rather than drifting towards a future with options continually held, bets hedged, hoping for lucky days ahead, democracies can create their own destiny: economically, technologically and socially. Setting ambitious national goals – concrete, tangible, but rhetorical and political too – would give the future shape.
Then, the optimistic world view that acted as an engine for Western democracies in decades and centuries past can be put back in place. It would be an counterweight to the parade of dangers democracies confront. If liberal democracies know where they are going, they will be able to shape their future. If they shape the future, they can bend it in a favourable direction. In uncertain times, this can’t help but offer hope of a better tomorrow.