Monday, January 16, 2006

Inspired by a Niall Ferguson OpEd

What needs to be understood is that the think-tank military philosophers and counterfactual historians who dream up scenarios are no more likely to be right than the hack novelists who concoct the plots for the novels you buy in airports, which is to say, they all can be counted upon to come up with eventualities that are as sensational as they are wrong. One can indeed speak about the future in a meaningful way, but only to the extent that general trends indicate a class of outcomes. As in thermodynamics, the most likely future state can be described, but not the path that leads to it. Thus it’s a pretty good bet that the history of the next hundred years will revolve around overpopulation, environmental degradation, and energy shortages; but the human response to these challenges is literally incalculable. Or, to pick an example resolved at a slightly finer grain, it’s very likely that the State of Israel will be destroyed, not because one can devise some plausible just-so story about its downfall, but simply because it is such an impossible outlier. What nobody seems to notice is that there is something highly peculiar about a country that has a population roughly the same as Burundi or El Salvador, which somehow maintains the third largest nuclear arsenal on the planet crammed into a cultural and religious enclave surrounded by sworn enemies. When a bunch of 4th graders are playing with a live hand grenade, who knows (or much cares) if it will be Ernie or Alice who pulls the pin?

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