Never underestimate the predictive power of inertia. To wit: It's a safe bet that Israeli-Palestinian relations will continue to fester; Pakistan will still be the tinderbox of tomorrow; and the United States will be highly indebted yet remain among the world's most prosperous countries.
The world is of course full of tumult, upheaval, and sudden change, but these shifts are extremely hard to predict. If pinpointing when and where the next revolution will appear is a task for sages, separating the wise men from the fools is a fool's game in itself: In a sea of predictions, it's hard to really know who really knows what's just around the corner.
Of course, some prognosticators occasionally turn out to be correct. Does that mean you should trust their next prediction? In this sense, picking one's prophet bears some similarity to trying to find a high-performing mutual fund manager. Every year, one in a hundred fund managers are, by definition, in the top 1 percent. They're celebrated as investment gurus; their funds swell in size. Yet there's little evidence of any persistence in fund returns -- next year, these top managers are back in the middle of the pack. High-performing fund managers are, for the most part, lucky, not smart.
It's similarly difficult to separate the wheat from the chaff in the fortunetelling market. After the fact, the lucky ones look like geniuses, and their predictions seem obvious -- we're all scratching our heads wondering why we didn't see the housing bubble or the global financial meltdown coming. On the other hand, the misfires look like Chicken Littles (think Malthus) or Pollyannas (Dow 36,000, anyone?).
One way to ensure you're right at least some of the time is to make the same prediction year after year -- after all, a stopped clock is right twice a day. "Dr. Doom" himself -- New York University economist Nouriel Roubini -- has been expecting a U.S. financial catastrophe for years. As Anirvan Banerji of the Economic Cycle Research Institute told the New York Times Magazine last year, Roubini's explanations -- increasing trade deficits, soaring current account deficits, Hurricane Katrina, skyrocketing oil prices -- have tended to evolve over time. But as we now know, he hit the jackpot by calling the housing bubble in 2006. Smart or lucky? Wait to see where his next predictions land.
Where does that leave us in predicting and planning for the future? Many changes are the result of slow-moving shifts in areas such as demographics, technology, or even global weather patterns that are somewhat -- albeit imperfectly -- predictable. So we need not get blindsided by sea levels rising 3 feet next century or America turning gray.
What's my prediction for what the world will look like tomorrow? Just take a look around you.