Periodically the US government, or the West in general, faces a perceived threat to peace and security: From Germany in 1938, Russia in 1956 or 1968 or 2014, Iraq in 1991 or 2002, Syria in 2013, and ISIS in 2014. The consequent dilemma over what to do predictably produces two camps. One side says, Act and punish the bad men, and the other side says that military force rarely results in a positive outcome. The first group cites all the evil consequences of inaction, while the other cites, with equal assurance, the unintended consequences of acting with good intentions.
What they have in common is selectivity with the facts and with projected outcomes, as well as willful obliviousness to the other side's baleful predictions. But the biggest trait they share is ignorance of the future. The one immutable fact humanity can be sure of (besides death) is that no one knows the future.
We are only dimly aware of that reality because in everyday life we suppress it. Did we not do so, our lives would be paralyzed, as we continually have to make decisions based on faith in cause and effect relationships: We stop at the supermarket on the way home or face next day's breakfast without milk; skip paying a bill and face a penalty fee. But confronting the world of important matters quickly reveals the frailty of our powers of prediction.
To be sure, in policy disputes over politics, diplomacy, or economics, the advocates of either side talk with utter certainty. On all sides we are bombarded with people offering us their services on the basis of their expertise, which ultimately means knowledge of the future. Such confidence makes possible the prosperity of lawyers, doctors, engineers, politicians and, above all, stock brokers. That in turn enables civilization--especially in a capitalist society--to thrive. Yet the idea that guesses about the future are reliable is a necessary myth.
The experts in the various fields have a sorry record. Indeed, the book The Experts Speak, is one of the great comedic classics of all time, as the experts quoted on the eve of either World War, of the Great Depression and the Great Recession, of the Vietnam and Iraq Wars make fools of themselves. They are not guilty of deliberately lying; rather, we are guilty of being gullible. Their poor predictions do not undermine their expertise; we rather misunderstand what expertise means.
The trouble is that, when predictions are made, expertise is extended beyond its natural limits. The experts are in fact intelligent and erudite; they know much more than the average person, but what they know is the past (and perhaps the present) but nothing about the future. Expertise is based on analyzing empirical evidence, and the future unfortunately provides no evidence or facts whatsoever. We blithely assert that we will not repeat the errors of the past and ignore the question"Which past? The future does not repeat the past, or echo it; it is not an extrapolation from the past; it rarely even rhymes with the past. It is--if one wants an equation--the past + x, x standing for everything we do not know. Hence the reach of all expertise abruptly ends at this very instant.
In 1991 and 2002, the threat posed by Saddam Hussein was likened to that of Hitler in Munich 1938. To avoid a repeat of that debacle, we acted in both cases. The events of 1991 worked out nicely, that of 2002 not so nicely. So in a future alleged replay of 1938, should we act or not? The past is ambiguous.
The problem can be seen clearly in the world of finance. One cable TV talk show host had a long resume working in Government and finance. His daily show always contained a segment in which money managers and assorted Wall St. gurus discussed the economy. He did not let them leave until he had pumped them for some brief information about where to put one's money--be it in stocks, bonds, TIPS, gold, banks, or mattresses. And then one day, the host made a casual throwaway remark that inadvertently revealed the dirty little secret and undermined the raison d'etre of his show: He said he prefers index funds.
Index funds? They are the choice of disillusioned investors who, through harsh experience, have finally discovered that there is no easy way to make a quick killing or just time the market. Since you win some and lose some, it has often been pointed out--by some candid finance experts themselves--that flipping a coin to make an investment choice will be as productive as following the lead of brokers, advisors, economics professors.
Thus did the talk show host's index fund remark give the game away; despite his continual asking experts for hot stock picks; he himself had ended the mad pursuit for a killer stock and settled for safety first. Such funds, if held on to through thick and thin, will make no sharp advances nor suffer staggering losses, but they will coddle your money--in the long run.
After working hard to beat the market or seek that defining tip, the host had given up on trying to master the future. Eschewing expertise and predictions, he was left with two simple choices: hand himself over to pure chance by flipping a coin or, with an index fund, surrender to a defensive strategy and turn his analytic powers instead to art, chess, and sports.