Making predictions is hard, especially about the future. It's a comment that seems to have been attributed to everyone from Nostradamus to Niels Bohr to Yogi Berra. But it's deeply true. Most of us have a tendency to make statements about the future with a high level of self-belief, avoid later reconsidering how wrong we were, and then make more statements.
Here's a nice vivid example from back in 2001. The Bush administration has just taken office, and a Department of Defense Linville Wells at the US Department of Defense was reflecting on the then-forthcoming "Quadrennial Defense Review." He wanted offer a pungent reminder that the entire exercise of looking ahead even just 10 years has often been profoundly incorrect. Thus, Wells wrote this memo (dated April 12, 2001):
The questions of how to predict for what you don't expect, and how to plan for what you don't expect, are admittedly difficult. The ability to pivot smoothly to face the new challenge may be one of the most underrated skills in politics and management.
A version of this article first appeared on Conversable Economist.
Timothy Taylor is an American economist. He is managing editor of the Journal of Economic Perspectives, a quarterly academic journal produced at Macalester College and published by the American Economic Association. Taylor received his Bachelor of Arts degree from Haverford College and a master's degree in economics from Stanford University. At Stanford, he was winner of the award for excellent teaching in a large class (more than 30 students) given by the Associated Students of Stanford University. At Minnesota, he was named a Distinguished Lecturer by the Department of Economics and voted Teacher of the Year by the master's degree students at the Hubert H. Humphrey Institute of Public Affairs. Taylor has been a guest speaker for groups of teachers of high school economics, visiting diplomats from eastern Europe, talk-radio shows, and community groups. From 1989 to 1997, Professor Taylor wrote an economics opinion column for the San Jose Mercury-News. He has published multiple lectures on economics through The Teaching Company. With Rudolph Penner and Isabel Sawhill, he is co-author of Updating America's Social Contract (2000), whose first chapter provided an early radical centrist perspective, "An Agenda for the Radical Middle". Taylor is also the author of The Instant Economist: Everything You Need to Know About How the Economy Works, published by the Penguin Group in 2012. The fourth edition of Taylor's Principles of Economics textbook was published by Textbook Media in 2017.