So you want to know what happens next? Don’t we all.
I happen to work in an industry built upon two things: reliable reporting about what has happened, and unreliable projections about what might happen in the future. It’s not that the projections are always wrong. It’s just that you would be a fool to believe that they are right.
Two weeks ago, no one knew what was going to happen with the fiscal cliff. Not Barack Obama, not Mitch McConnell and certainly not John Boehner, who didn’t even know how House Republicans would vote on his own bill. And yet for months, the experts offered up serious-sounding, faux-informed projections about what would happen. We were going over the cliff. We were not going over the cliff. A big deal would be struck. A small deal would be struck.
This sort of pontificating was most entertaining in the financial world, where lots of people in nice suits pretended for months to know what was happening. Watching CNBC the past two months sometimes felt like watching Glenn Beck’s Fox News program in its 2009 heyday. It was filled with guys like this, who had fancy numbers to back up their guesses.
Four days before the deal was cut, Stan Collender, whose credentials involve working for a large public-relations firm, laid out four possibilities for the fiscal-cliff outcome. He had exact, nicely rounded probabilities for each potential outcome. None came to pass. I feel a little bad picking on him, just because so many made the same sort of mistakes — and will do so again.
On Jan. 2, Karl Rove, the Republican consultant who spectacularly misread the 2012 tea leaves, wrote a piece in the Wall Street Journal boldly predicting that Hugo Chávez and Fidel Castro would die, that the Obama family would adopt a second dog and that Obama’s job-approval rating would drop below 53% by year’s end. He doesn’t know any of this. He is just guessing. So what do you get out of reading it? Why wouldn’t he write a piece about what he knows? It’s not as satisfying.
There are, in the end, two main ingredients to the serious prediction: hunches and evidence. It’s one thing for the Obama campaign or Nate Silver to predict the outcome of the presidential election a few weeks out. Both can base their predictions on enormous amounts of empirical data about the behavior of a large number of people. It’s another thing to predict whether or not Barack and Michelle Obama want to acquire another dog. The only bit of data Karl Rove has for that one is the President’s own statement on election night (“For now, one dog is probably enough”), which Rove evidently believes is just a bit of misdirection for an October surprise.
“Peggy Noonan and Dick Morris — these people take themselves seriously. And that’s harmful to people trying to be informed,” says Nate Silver in an interview with Joel Stein in the new issue of TIME. He’s right, but that won’t stem your hunger to know what will happen next.
“We all want to know what nobody knows,” sing the Japandroids in the first song on perhaps the best album of 2012, Celebration Rock. We have birthed an entire industry of people who pretend to know what nobody knows. But they are not the ones to listen to. Reality is a fixed thing. It is coming into being all the time, regardless of the empty predictions that precede it. But I will boldly predict, based on evidence gathered over the past several years, that this won’t stop anyone from guessing about next week tomorrow and sounding as if they know something others don’t.
The next round of fiscal catastrophe will either be averted or not. Evidence suggests that the most likely outcome, if past performance is indeed an indicator of future behavior, is a small deal at the last minute after markets become rattled. But that may not be what happens. In fact, no one knows. Not John Boehner, not Barack Obama, not Mitch McConnell and not pundits pontificating on the inner thoughts and secret motivations of any of them. There is no master plan for this thing. Human behavior will decide the outcome, and humans do not always behave rationally, especially these days, especially in Washington.