Square of 3 Billion

One of the mixed blessings of moving: Things that had become invisible become visible.

Books, for instance.

Titles that you haven’t thought about for years, maybe even decades, suddenly present themselves. In reshelving my library I found quite a few books about the future.

A few made me laugh out loud, including one of my own. (More about that later.) As the saying goes, predictions are hazardous, particularly concerning the future.

Remember “Dow 36,000”? This 1999 book by James Glassman and Kevin Hassett is a great historical end-piece, the cap for the longest and most hysterical bull market in history. I’m keeping my copy because it has become a valuable collector’s item.

According to Amazon.com, a few new copies are still available. They are offered for a mere $137. The price represents an annual appreciation of 18.5 percent from its publication at $25 10 years ago. Sadly the Dow Jones industrial average didn’t do as well. It peaked at 11,722 in early 2000. It recently closed at 9,847.

Most books about the future aren’t so upbeat.

Basically, we fret a lot about things that never happen. In the 1960s, for instance, futurists pondered automation and mass unemployment. Economists like Robert Theobald wanted to solve the problem by giving everyone a guaranteed income. If they had read “The Harried Leisure Class” (1970) by economist Staffan Burenstam Linder, they would have seen that taking care of a rising tide of toys would easily solve the problem.

In “The Year 2000” (1967), think-tanker Herman Kahn took a sabbatical from thinking about thermonuclear war and offered “surprise-free” projections. But in 400 pages he never mentioned Islam.

Others had more cosmic worries. Paul R. Ehrlich predicted the global population explosion would result in mass starvation by the turn of the millennium. Donella Meadows, who wrote “The Limits to Growth” (1972), used computer modeling to warn us that we were heading toward a resource-exhausted and polluted world.

Today many are worried about low birthrates and population declines in all of Europe, Russia, Japan and China over the next hundred years. Some say birthrates are falling because couples dread the cost of raising children. Others suggest it may be a side effect of television.

Harry Browne, Howard Ruff and others predicted worldwide depression, the fall of America and the destruction of the dollar. Ravi Batra predicted “The Great Depression of 1990” in 1987, and Harry E. Figgie Jr. predicted “Bankruptcy 1995” for the U.S. economy in 1992. Instead, his company, Figgie International Inc., vaporized.

In fact, we’re still hanging in there, even though the arguments for collapse become more persuasive with each new Treasury auction.

The future isn’t always dismal, but the upside gets little attention. No one made a fuss about Gunther Stent and “The Coming of the Golden Age,” published in the same year that charter members of the Aquarian Age met at Woodstock.

My own attempt, “Home, Inc.: The Hidden Wealth and Power of the American Household” (1972), explored an idea that economics ignored— the value of the family and household. The book documented the size and economic value of the household, the basic production unit on the planet. It pointed out that the value of all the work mothers did at home was greater than all the wages paid by all the manufacturing companies in America.

That was good, interesting work— and I should have left it at that. Instead, I went on to predict that both the market and government sectors would decline as we did more and more for ourselves in a rising household economy.

Yeah, right.  

Today, I have seen the future. It is best approached with humility: We have more of everything. Does this mean we should dismiss all prediction of the future?

No, because there are two good reasons to indulge. First, it’s good exercise. Imagining the future may help us understand the present. Second, while most views of the future are wildly wrong, a few offer us a good map.

One example is Alvin Toffler’s “Future Shock” (1970). It was absolutely on the mark. He predicted a future of accelerating change, overwhelming choices, ever increasing technology, overstimulation, and organizational ad-hocracy.

That’s what we’ve got— in spades.

Next week: The man with a geo-political map of the future.