Further thoughts about the foreseeable future

Some years ago,  five or six years after the 9/11 terrorist attacks on New York and Washington, I was asked to participate in a conference at Boston University’s marvelously named Frederick S. Pardee Center for the Study of the Longer-Range Future.

The details of the conference are swaddled in the mists of times gone by, but I do remember that part of my talk was devoted to some thoughts about our tendency to deploy language to emasculate surprise. In particular, I dilated on the curious phrase “the foreseeable future.” With what cheery abandon we employ it! Yet what a nugget of unfounded optimism those three words embrace!

How much of the future, really, do we foresee? A week? A day? A minute?

“In a minute,” as T. S. Eliot said in “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,” “there is time / For decisions and revisions which a minute will reverse.” So much of life is a juggling with probabilities, a conjuring with uncertainties, that we often forget upon what stupendous acts of faith even the prudent conduct of life depends.

Had I been asked, on September 10, 2001, whether New York’s Twin Towers would continue standing for “the foreseeable future,” I would have answered “yes.”

And so, in one sense, they did.

Only my foresight was not penetrating enough, not far-seeing enough, to accommodate that most pedestrian of eventualities: an event.

An event is as common as dirt.

It is also as novel as tomorrow’s dawn.

“There is nothing,” the French writer Charles Péguy noted in the early years of the twentieth century, “so unforeseen as an event.” The particular event Péguy had in mind was the Dreyfus Affair. Who could have predicted that the fate of an obscure Jewish Army captain falsely accused of spying would have such momentous consequences?

And yet this unforeseen event, as Proust observed in À la recherche du temps perdu, suddenly, catastrophically, “divided France from top to bottom.” Its repercussions were felt for decades.

We plan, stockpile, second-guess, buy insurance, make allowances, assess risks, play the odds, envision contingencies, calculate interest, tabulate returns, save for a rainy day . . . and still we are constantly surprised.

In a thoughtful essay called “What Is Freedom?” the philosopher Hannah Arendt noted the extent to which habit—what she disparages somewhat with the name “automatism”—rules life. We are creatures of habit, schedules, and conventions. And thank God for that. For without habit, we could never build character.

And yet we are also creatures who continually depart from the script. Human beings do not simply behave in response to stimuli. We act—which means that our lives, though orchestrated largely by routine, are at the same time everywhere edged with the prospect of novelty.

“Every act,” Arendt wrote,

seen from the perspective not of the agent but of the process in whose framework it occurs and whose automatism it interrupts, is a ‘miracle’—that is, something which could not be expected. . . . It is in the very nature of every new beginning that it breaks into the world as an “infinite improbability,” and yet it is precisely this infinitely improbable which actually constitutes the very texture of everything we call real.

Every moment of every day presents us with the potential for what Arendt calls the “miracle” of human action, so familiar and yet ultimately unfathomable. That is why we find proleptic phrases like “the foreseeable future” indispensable. They declare the flag of our confidence and the reach of our competence. They domesticate the intractable mystery of everyday novelty.

But they also serve to remind us that our confidence is deeply complicit with luck—that most fickle of talismans—and that our competence is instantly revocable without notice. Which is to say that our foresight is always an adventure, practiced at the pleasure of the unpredictable.

This is something that P. G. Wodehouse, a philosopher of a somewhat merrier stamp than Hannah Arendt, put with his customary grace when his character Psmith observed that “in this life . . . we must always distinguish between the Unlikely and the Impossible.” On September 10, it was unlikely that a small band of murderous fanatics should destroy the Twin Towers and fundamentally alter the political landscape of the world. It was not, alas, impossible.

The eruption of the unlikely is an affront to our complacency, an insult to our pride. We tend to react by subsequently endowing the unlikely with a pedigree of explanation. This reassures us by neutralizing novelty, extracting the element of the unexpected from what actually happened.

I think of Winston Churchill’s sly summary of the qualities that a budding politician should possess: “The ability to foretell what is going to happen tomorrow, next week, next month, next year”—and the compensating ability “afterwards to explain why it didn’t happen.”

Which brings me to our situation today.

Pollsters are busy taking the pulse of voters, and pundits are doing their owlish best to parse the data and take the auspices. It pains me to say that many of them are in the position of poor Publius Claudius Pulcher, commander of the Roman fleet in 249 at the Sicilian Battle of Drepana during the First Punic War.

It was customary, before a battle, for Romans to consult the sacred chickens. Some feed was scattered in front of them. If they ate, the auspices were good and the battle could proceed. If they turned up the beaks at the food, however, the prudent commander held back.

Pulcher scattered the food. The chickens didn’t eat.  He tried again. Same result. Finally, exasperated, he had the beast tossed overboard and is said to have remarked, Bidant, quoniam ēsse nolunt: let them drink since they do not want to eat! Pulcher, you will not be surprised to hear, lost the battle.

I sometimes wonder how much more reliable our tools of prognostication are. Everyone is scrambling to second-guess what will happen on November 5, 2024. Who will win, Joe Biden or Donald Trump?

I have my opinion. So do you.

But what makes us so certain that the contest will even be between Biden and Trump? Anyone who watched Joe Biden’s performance at Normandy on D-Day must have doubts about his fate.

Yes, he plagiarized Ronald Reagan’s words in his speech (or, as Biden’s Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre put it, “he didn’t plagiarize, he copied”).  But Biden conspicuously failed to copy Reagan’s vigor or his dignity.

The election is still five months away. Even a week, said British Prime Minister Harold Wilson, is a long time in politics. Five months is an eternity.

At the moment, most observers say that it is too late to change candidates; the Democrats are stuck with Biden. Are they? Maybe. But ask yourself this: do you suppose that Joe Biden would be able to complete another term?

Since you answered, “No, he couldn’t,” ask yourself this further question: How would you feel about Kamala Harris as president? All bets are that if Joe Biden is the candidate, Harris will be his running mate.  I suspect that the people who actually run the White House are desperately trying to figure out how they can remove Kamala from the ticket, but so far as I know, no one has been able to make her an offer she can’t refuse.

Then there is Trump.  A week ago, a jury in New York convicted him on 34 felony counts for… well, no one really knows, but now that he is a “convicted felon,” some Democrats chortle about it early and often. So far, it hasn’t seemed to have hurt Trump in the polls—quite the opposite, in fact. Moreover, it has done wonders for his fundraising; in just over a week, he pulled in some $400 million.

Still, one never knows.  It is possible that Judge Juan Merchan, who oversaw Trump’s criminal trial in Manhattan, may sentence him to jail on July 11.  What then?

My point is simply that the play we signed up to see may be canceled in favor of another performance with different protagonists. Of course, that is always the case. Events have a way of intervening in the most unexpected ways.  We seek to insulate ourselves from the unexpected through many expedients.

Often, we are successful, or at least things turn out in ways we expect (and then we conclude we are successful). Sometimes, though, we are in the position of Claudius Pulcher after he contemptuously dispatched the sacred chickens.  There is a moral there, too.

Get the news corporate media won't tell you.

Get caught up on today's must read stores!

By submitting your information, you agree to receive exclusive AG+ content, including special promotions, and agree to our Privacy Policy and Terms. By providing your phone number and checking the box to opt in, you are consenting to receive recurring SMS/MMS messages, including automated texts, to that number from my short code. Msg & data rates may apply. Reply HELP for help, STOP to end. SMS opt-in will not be sold, rented, or shared.

Notable Replies

  1. At the moment, most observers say that it is too late to change candidates; the Democrats are stuck with Biden. Are they?

    People who steal presidential elections are never stuck with anything as they get to make the rules up as they go along. If you doubt me, ask President Trump, or Steve Bannon, or Peter Navarro. Or, if you can get a visitors pass, ask any of the J6 political prisoners.

    Of one thing I am absolutely certain: the Ruling Class will figure a way to deny the White House to Donald Trump. While we can speculate on the how, the what is already determined.

    Its not that I dismiss the vagaries of chance, or of “events”, or even the vicissitudes of life which Mr. Kimball describes, but there is a universal constant in the political calculus of Marxists which is ever present and always unchanging; the lust for power at any cost.

    So while it may be folly to predict the future, it would be exceedingly unwise to dismiss or even underestimate the smoldering power machinations of our rulers in DC.

  2. I just read this and could not wait to post here. Judging from the various columns and comments across the conservative spectrum, it seems the wise are “wising up”!

  3. Avatar for task task says:

    Much of what the author describes can be demonstrated in a game of chess or for that matter in any game well played by a mind that drives the physical to make choices.

    My wife is extremely sequential when it comes to testing the fickleness of mundane human choices because she wants to maximize the bang she gets for her investment before moving to another alternative which may be better suited to deal with the many political consequences related to liberty and its economic derivatives. I, on the other hand, am comfortable while managing several outcomes simultaneously and thereby cover the bases even despite it costing me something at the end. I lower the risk associated with putting everything into one potentially bad choice before moving to alternatives that I might not have the time to even consider if I wait. It costs more to play the odds but success, in terms of the goal, becomes more likely. So, even if Trump wins and governs, I will lose on many fronts but the gain of liberty is what my end game is all about and that defines my overall plan(s).

  4. Since we are doing some crystal ball gazing, I thought I’d return to a theme I’ve been playing with the last few months which is the next major economic hit and how it will affect the 2024 election.

    The Biden Administration has abandoned its use of Bidenomics–which was originally touted as a Biden economic victory—because it is now associated by most Americans as an indication of Biden’s economic disaster. And with good reason. Americans are believing their lying eyes over Administrations claims of economic victory. Of the five things most voters are concerned with, variations of an economic theme dominate positions one and two. Positions three, four, and five rotate between crime, border security, direction of the nation.

    At the end of the fourth quarter of 2023, the FDIC had 52 banks on its stress watchlist. At the end of the first quarter of 2024, they upped the total by 11 banks to 63. All 63 banks are sitting on unrealized losses of $512 billion with the newly added 11 accounting for $82 billion of the total.

    The assets comprising these unrealized losses fall into three categories----commercial real estate, residential real estate, and US Treasuries. Inflation has adversely affected all three with remote working as an added issue with commercial real estate. The Federal Reserve and the FDIC have few tools at their disposal to keep these 63 banks from going off the rails, and the dangerous swaying of the cars is increasing.

    Commercial real estate first----
    Remote working during and after the pandemic have emptied office buildings and malls have been dying everywhere. This means rents are down—disastrously down. As the $1.2 trillion in notes come due the borrowers, unable to pay off the loans, are forced to roll them over at higher interest rates AND having to provide more collateral to guarantee the loans. Moody’s estimates that office values are down by 20 to 30 percent from the 2021 highs. Many CRE holders are choosing to walk away from the properties because they cannot meet the new obligations. When this happens, the banks are stuck with commercial properties no one wants and the banks have to pay utilities, upkeep, and taxes on buildings they didn’t want and are now stuck with.

    Residential real estate----
    Residential real estate mortgages have a different problem for banks. Most of the residential real estate loans they hold are at much lower interest rates. As interest rates rise, banks are usually able to offset losses by retiring older low interest mortgages with newer higher ones. The problem come in when those holding the low interest rate loans are not selling and few are buying at the higher interest rates. In other words, it isn’t occupancy that is the issue, it is a dearth of participants in a seller’s market. Even if one is a downsizing boomer holding a larger home and interested in cashing out and buying a smaller home------few can qualify for the cashout price and the smaller home costs almost as much as the home being sold. So why sell?

    US Treasuries----
    Banks hold US Bonds as part of their asset portfolio. Some of this is by choice, and some of it is because the FED demands banks hold a certain part of their assets in US Bonds. The three bank failures that made much news last year were brought down primarily because they were holding too many US Bonds at lower yields. Banks depend on US Bonds for meeting banking regulations on liquidity. Holding bonds at lower yields in times of rising inflation mean the “liquid” value of the held bonds drops. Banks that cannot meet the regulatory requirements of liquid assets on hand are declared insolvent and are taken over by the FDIC.

    Which leads how all three of these issues are all coming to a head and foreshadow the next great economic crises and which will likely start occurring this summer and will affect the 2024 election. (think of these as disappearing clouds in the crystal ball with resultant and increasing clarity).

    Economic issues are already one and two on the voter concerns list. If there is a series of bank failures and mortgage defaults on the horizon, EVEYONE will be affected—renters, home owners, small businesses, large corporations, regular banks depositors, commercial depositors----everyone.

    Why? Because bank bail outs are illegal now. So the last tool in the Fed’s and FDIC’s toolchest is bank bail ins-----meaning the depositors “own” money will be taken to keep the weak banks afloat. And those regular depositors thinking the FDIC has their back----think again. The FDIC is sitting on a mere 2 cents for every dollar they are pledged to protect.

    So, that’s my 2 cents worth. Those looking at this gain or that loss in the polls and projecting outcomes fail to take the looming economic disaster that will change the race Bigly—and not in Joe Biden’s favor.

  5. I still think investments in various metals–including brass–is both a good investment and an even better hedge.

Continue the discussion at community.amgreatness.com

16 more replies


Avatar for afhack73 Avatar for evans1586 Avatar for Maximus-Cassius Avatar for Roger_Kimball Avatar for task Avatar for Everett_Brunson