“We were promised flying cars, and instead what we got was 140 characters.”
Peter Thiel, PayPal co-founder
Economic forecasts and policy solutions are based on predictions, and predicting is a perilous business.
I grew up in a small town in western Minnesota. Our family got the morning paper — the Minneapolis Tribune. The Star subscribers got their paper around 4:00. A friend’s dad was a lawyer — his family got both. In a childhood display of cognitive bias, I never could understand why anyone would want an afternoon paper. News was made the day before, so you could read about it the next morning, and that was that.
I remember one Tribune headline to this day: it predicted nuclear war in 10 years. That was 1961, when I was eight. The Cuban missile crisis was the following year, and for awhile it looked like it wouldn’t take all ten years for the headline’s prediction to come true. Meanwhile, the Tribune helpfully ran designs and instructions for building your own fallout shelter.
Our house had the perfect place for one: a root cellar off one side of the basement — easily the creepiest place in the house. You descended a couple steps down from the basement floor, through a stubby cinder block hallway, past a door hanging on one hinge. Ahead of you was a bare light bulb swinging from the ceiling — it flickered, revealing decades of cobwebs and homeowner flotsam worthy of Miss Havisham. It was definitely a bomb shelter fixer-upper, but it was the right size, and as an added bonus it had a concrete slab over it — if you banged the ground above with a pipe it made a hollow sound.
I scoured the fallout shelter plans, but my dad said no. Someone else in town built one — the ventilation pipes stuck out of a room-size mound next to their house. People used to go by it on their Sunday drives. Meanwhile I ran my own personal version of the Doomsday Clock for the next ten years until my 18th birthday came and went.
So much for that headline.
The article explains:
“The period between 1958 and 1963 might be described as a Golden Age of American Futurism, if not the Golden Age of American Futurism. Bookended by the founding of NASA in 1958 and the end of The Jetsons in 1963, these few years were filled with some of the wildest techno-utopian dreams that American futurists had to offer. It also happens to be the exact timespan for the greatest futuristic comic strip to ever grace the Sunday funnies: Closer Than We Think.
“Jetpacks, meal pills, flying cars — they were all there, beautifully illustrated by Arthur Radebaugh, a commercial artist based in Detroit best known for his work in the auto industry. Radebaugh would help influence countless Baby Boomers and shape their expectations for the future. The influence of Closer Than We Think can still be felt today.
Timing is Everything
Apparently timing is everything in the prediction business. The driverless car prediction was accurate, just way too early. The Tribune’s nuclear war prediction was inaccurate (and let’s hope not just because it was too early). Predictions from the hapless mythological prophetess Cassandra were never inaccurate or untimely: she was cursed by Apollo (who ran a highly successful prophecy business at Delphi) with the gift of always being right but never believed.
Now that would be frustrating.
As I said last week, predicting is as perilous as policy-making. An especially perilous version of both is utopian thinking. There’s been plenty of utopian economic thinking the past couple centuries, and today’s economists continue the grand tradition — to their peril, and potentially to ours. We’ll look at some economic utopian thinking (and the case for and against it) beginning next time.
Apparently timing is everything in country music, too. I’m not an aficionado, but I did come across this video while researching this post. Click here to give it a listen. The guy’s got a nice baritone.
 The article is worth a look, if you like that sort of thing. So is this Smithsonian article on the Jetsons. And while we’re on the topic, check out this IEEE Spectrum article on a 1960 RCA initiative that had self-driving cars just around the corner, and this Atlantic article about an Electronic Age/Science Digest article that made the same prediction even earlier — in 1958.