Great Expectations?


Encounters with the Future, by Marvin Cetron and Thomas O'Toole, New York: McGraw-Hill, 1982, 292 pp., $12.95.

At the outset of Encounters with the Future, Marvin Cetron and Thomas O'Toole state, "This book was written to offer the general reader a picture of the future. It derives from forecasts previously available only to the government, the executives of a handful of large corporations, and other highly specialized organizations." The authors have succeeded in presenting it for the general reader. It is free of jargon and is written clearly. It is also, however, completely devoid of any citations or references that might lead the reader to sources of additional information.

Are the authors qualified to tell us about the future? Cetron is president of Forecasting International, a Washington-based think tank, and is widely known in futurist circles. O'Toole is a national reporter for the Washington Post. Thus, even though there are no authorities on the future, the authors seem better qualified than average to say something about what is in store for us.

What do they foresee? They espy some wonders down the road. Widespread cable TV will bring some 30 channels of entertainment, news, and education into our homes and will reach about half of American households by 1990. There will be drugs for improving memory; for curing cancer, senility, schizophrenia, and gallstones; and for delaying the aging process. We will live in a cashless society, with electronic transactions verified by voice prints.

One thing free-market advocates may like is two-tiered minimum wage laws, with a lower tier for teenagers. There are some features they won't like, however. The government will hold successful antiaging drugs off the market for five years, to allow people time to get used to the idea. In the resource-short world of the future, the right to have children will be allocated just as oil will be rationed. And "slowly but surely we will get used to the idea that Big Brother knows everything about us."

The authors state explicitly that their forecasts do not reflect their own wishes and hopes. Instead, they are based on scientific analysis of trends and data, as they should be. All scientifically based forecasting, whether of population, the economy, the weather, or anything else, should be based on rational analysis of data. This means the forecaster uses some model of "how the world works" to transform data about the past into a forecast for the future. The forecaster's own wishes and hopes should not enter into the analysis. So the fact that free-market individualists won't like some of Cetron and O'Toole's projected future doesn't necessarily mean the authors themselves are opposed to freedom.

Even so, it's not so simple. We can't judge the all-important data that Cetron and O'Toole used, because none are presented. We can't judge completely their model of "how the world works," because they don't present it in full. Nevertheless, they do give us enough hints to allow us to infer some features of their model. And those inferences are sufficient to ensure that many proponents of individual liberty will part company with the authors.

Consider their views on New York City. They discuss its problems in terms of technological obsolescence and decay of physical capital. But in this they confuse cause and effect. They don't ask why this obsolescence and decay ensued. They ignore the destructive effect of rent controls on the city's housing stock; the effect of municipal employee unions, with their high wages and low productivity, on the city's budget; and the way high taxes have driven business and industry, not to the Sunbelt, but to Connecticut and New Jersey.

The authors' explanation of the energy problems of the last decade is straight out of Limits to Growth. We have used up the world's energy, supplies are growing short, and we must somehow accommodate. But while it's true that we are using up our fuel supplies, the authors overlook the major reason for the energy problems: government meddling.

For instance, they assert that prior to the OPEC oil embargo, energy was "too cheap." This is the conventional wisdom of the "limits to growth" school. But "too cheap" compared to what? From 1934 to 1973, the price of oil in the United States was artificially raised by a cartel of oil-producing states, backed by the federal government, which limited the import of cheap Middle East oil. We actually used too much capital and labor to conserve this artificially expensive oil. We would now be better off had that capital and labor been invested in more-productive activities, instead of being substituted for energy.

The authors also refer to lines at the gas pumps as though these were inevitable outcomes of physical shortages. Again, they neglect the role of government-enforced price controls in keeping demand greater than supply, resulting in rationing via waiting lines.

The authors are also optimistic about the future of nuclear power, even though they admit that most utilities haven't the competence to run nuclear power plants. But again they show no recognition of the effects of government intervention. As was pointed out in an article in REASON in August 1980 ("Who Caused Three Mile Island?"), the government's preemption of the insurance and security role completely eliminated private insurance companies from the safety-monitoring and safety-training role they perform so well in other industries that have an even higher intrinsic risk of accidents than does the nuclear power industry (even though the consequences of those accidents might not be as great). Moreover, the government then proceeded to botch that role in the nuclear industry.

These examples could be multiplied. In short, those who won't accept Cetron and O'Toole's model of how the world works probably won't accept the forecasts either, no matter how valid are the data about the past underlying these forecasts.

Most of the forecasts in the book are for the longer-term future. I have to admire the authors' audacity, however, in presenting a forecast of the 1982 election outcomes (aggregate, not in detail). They predicted that the Republicans would gain seats in the House and might even gain some in the Senate. As we now know, however, they lost 24 seats in the House and gained none in the Senate. The Republican losses were double those the Democrats suffered in the off-year election of 1978, under a Jimmy Carter already recognized as ineffectual. They were actually double the average first-midterm losses of the past four administrations.

This is only one forecast out of a large number; perhaps pointing out its failure is simply a cheap shot. Nevertheless, it's the only hard evidence we have. It, coupled with the authors' views of how the world works (a mixture of neo-Keynesianism and limits to growth) is sufficient cause to take the whole book with more than a single grain of salt.

Joseph Martino is senior research scientist at the Research Institute of the University of Dayton and technological forecasting editor of The Futurist.