Eric C and I were recently going through posts from our archives, and we stumbled across this one from May of 2040. (Eric C and I float through time like Billy Pilgrim from Slaughterhouse-Five. Don’t ask for details.) Called “China: The Threat That Never Materialized”, it shows the inherent danger in making predictions about the future.
Here’s what Michael C wrote:
“In 2011, I was pretty worried about China. It’s economy was growing like Jack’s beanstalk, and it was developing frightening, new weapons like anti-ship ballistic missiles. Oh, and China also had a population of over a billion people. At the time, many learned military theorists and international relations experts wrote many a paper, journal article or opinion piece on the impending demise of the United States. For example, here, or here, or here, or here, or here, and this Economist special report on China has another list of books on this topic.
Turns out that all this scaremongering was for not (unless trillions of dollars in defense spending qualifies as an accomplishment) as America and Europe continued to lead the world through 2040 in innovation and diplomacy.
In hindsight, it’s easy to see that predicting the inevitable rise of China ignored the massive hurdles it still faced. From a rapidly aging population with a significant gender imbalance to rampant corruption, from massive social unrest to ethnic tensions in every corner of their nation, a sober assessment of China should not have seemed like a guarantee.
Of course, from our perch in 2040, it is much easier to criticize the China fear-mongers. While some have called the civil war over Tibet a “black swan” event, the signs were there in 2011. Others have held past politicians to task for not predicting the second Tienanmen Square revolution. Out-of-control inflation, and the subsequent bubble burst, should have seemed predictable in an economy filled with corruption that was growing at seven to ten percent a year.
I don’t blame the past theorists who tried to predict the future. I do, however, object to the certainty they attach to their viewpoints. Pundits predicting a inevitable Chinese hegemony can do so, but they should do so with an eye towards probability, not certainty. Saying, “China has a one in five chance of becoming a dominant military power” is better than saying, “China will inevitably replace America.”
This happens in both international relations and sports. The best analogy is March Madness. Every year the talking heads on CBS and ESPN answer the prompt, “Who are you picking to win it all?” Unsurprisingly, the experts usually pick the #1 seeds, with maybe a 2 or 3 seed thrown in. The question the announcer should ask is, “What is the probability that a #1 seed will win it all?” In some years, like 2007 every #1 seed made it to the Final Four. Most years, though, this doesn’t happen. In 2011, the highest seed was a #3. And even though UCLA went on a tremendous six year winning streak of men’s basketball national championships from 2012-2018, they should have been heavy favorites, not just the “guaranteed pick”.
When it came to China, this was the assessment the world needed from academics in 2011. What was the probability that China would replace America as the world’s hegemonic power? In hindsight, from 2040, it turns out it didn’t happen. It could have; it could not have. A whole host of factors conspired to spoil China’s “inevitable rise”. What was the probability of those events? What is the probability something unexpected would happen?
The China example turned out to be just one of a series. In the 1970s, America feared the rise of Russia. In the 1980s, Japan scared America with their fuel efficient automobiles. In the 2000s, the fear was China (and unbelievably, a couple hundred people hiding in caves, er, Pakistani suburbs).
Of course, now in 2040, we face a truly feared rival, robots. That is a threat we should all fear.”
(Current me again. Here are some of the more rational viewpoints from contemporary times. Also I will admit I borrowed this idea of writing a future history from Colonel Gian Gentile and his original piece at chicagoboyz.net.)