Monday, November 23, 2009

November 2009 Early Indications: Prediction Scorecard

As is our custom, every November we revisit the previous year's predictions. Given that one of the dominant themes of 2009 has been stagnation -- of reform legislation, of job growth, of the housing market, how well did last December's outlook see into the future?

The predictions were divided into global and domestic spheres. Taking the former first, we noted that "a globalized world creates a new category of issue that requires multi-lateral response well beyond the scope of traditional definitions of sovereignty" and predicted that "with so much room between the cracks of law, enforcement, and reporting, expect to see more global equivalents of dropped fly balls in 2009."

Score: Hit

On the climate change front, expectations for the Copenhagen Conference next month are being managed downward. At the juncture of international crime and terror, as we noted last year, Mexico's particular mix of drug trafficking, organized crime, and para-military groups leaves it with a unique problem blending terror, crime, and unstable diplomacy to both north and south. Civil institutions including hospitals, schools, the press, and of course law enforcement are under brutal and continued attack. Given that the drugs are destined for the U.S. and Canada and originate, in many cases, in South America, a multilateral solution is needed but has yet to take shape.

The new reality of global information flows that transcend jurisdiction was illustrated vividly -- in strikingly different ways -- by the role of electronic media in the Iranian protests and the Indian elections. So-called social media are continuing to challenge the role of the nation-state with newly-mobilized ethnic and/or virtual communities with impressive powers of persuasion and coordination.

In the use of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) such as the Predator to launch missiles at individuals suspected of terror connections, the U.S. is opening a new kind of warfare made possible by emerging technologies. The technologies and policies also illustrate the challenge of aligning innovation with written and unwritten rules of engagement. In the same year that Bush-era plans for targeted assassinations drew sharp rebukes, the fact that Obama-era UAVs often both miss or misidentify their targets and cause civilian casualties is a hot issue in Pakistan but little discussed in the U.S.; the attacks have been defined as "executions without trial" by Pakistanis and others.

The cost in political support and stability versus the purported benefit of killing terror leaders has yet to be debated or justified. The lack of debate notwithstanding, the situation amounts to a moral, legal, strategic, and tactical no-man's-land. In Pakistan last month, Secretary of State Clinton was confronted by angry audiences decrying the attacks, but she did not respond except to refuse to comment. The point here is that the combination of asymmetric warfare, new technologies, and new military tactics is raising entirely new sets of issues. For example, what is the U.S. liability for erroneous attacks? Under what jurisdiction and what laws do the operators and commanders of robotic assets fall? What are the human costs to contractors and other non-military personnel who in the morning drive to a nondescript air-conditioned facility, watch people (including civilians and children) die by their remote control thousands of miles away, then drive home at night to their families?

The Domestic Conundrum

In the aftermath of the Obama election, we "expect[ed] to see some combination of strong efforts that will have the effect of attacking boundaries between problems. Four key areas in particular are often attached: health care, demographics, consumer spending, and asset markets."

Score: Not much has happened.

We have more and better analyses outlining why health care reform is so necessary and so hard, but zero legislation to date. Regarding demographics, the high unemployment rate will affect all age groups, but falling fertility will counteract immigration in important ways, at least in the U.S. Even with the run-up in equity prices, I'm still quite worried about how the baby boom generation will retire: "It's not a 2009 prediction, but I believe a bail-out will eventually be required to address a massive shortfall between long lives and small retirement accounts. Unlike health care reform, or bank bail-outs, or wars, demographic change typically takes decades to unfold."

On consumer spending, retail continues to be depressed, nudged up temporarily by the Cash for Clunkers subsidies. Housing remains soft. Given high un- and underemployment and the sharp falloff in home equity cash-outs from the days of the real estate bubble, the pattern of change in personal consumption expenditures, as measured by the Bureau of Economic Analysis, is impossible to extrapolate.

As for soft asset markets, the climb in stock-market indexes remains somewhat mysterious. Systemic issues of risk and reward, executive pay, and bankruptcy are still live, and will not be settled for some time. I agree with The Atlantic's Andrew Sullivan: the massive burst of stimulus money that will be expended next year ($9 million for a pedestrian bridge at the [privately owned] Gillette Stadium complex outside Boston, to take a random sample) could well play a significant role in the midterm elections.

Five secondary questions

Score: too early to tell

I asked five questions that have longer timetables than one year. We got a few hints in 2009, but no clear answers.

-What will the civil rights movement of 2012 look like?
**While court-ordered recognition of same-sex unions was overturned by popular vote in Maine, heavily-Mormon Salt Lake City passed anti-discrimination legislation in the off-year election, and the state of Washington (led by Seattle-Tacoma) upheld Referendum 71, the "everything but marriage" guarantee of gay and lesbian rights. Might "everything but marriage" serve as a template for other same-sex-union ballot initiatives? The place, rights, and role of Latin Americans in North America, meanwhile, are all changing rapidly, and 2012 could well feature substantial debate over immigration, education, health care, and other issues as they unfold in the Latino/Latina community.

-How many non-profits will lay off social workers, administrators, and the like, adding to the unemployment rolls next year?
**Apart from the toll of the Madoff scam on non-profits, there's little regular reporting on the economic health of this sector. Food banks, job training centers, and alternative energy groups appear to be busy, but I have no sense of the long-term directions here.

-Can this semi-private philanthropic (e.g. Gates, Omidyar) sector outperform the NIH in finding a cancer cure, or the WHO in mass inoculations, or big pharma in breakthrough drug discovery?
**The global response to the H1N1 virus has been instructive. Social media, mash-ups (most including mapping), and online video are all in the arsenal of the CDC, the better to counter potential hysteria. (the philanthropic arm) is measuring search terms to extrapolate on influenza patterns. Thus far, activity appears to have peaked in October, whereas in six previous flu seasons, activity spiked in December (much more sharply) in 2003 and in February very other year. If it proves reliable, that kind of real-time tracking will introduce new elements to the practice of public health.

-What forces can reinvigorate American manufacturing?
**Many analysts propose clean energy as the key driver here: a short list might include windmills, smart electrical grids, mass transit, nuclear plants, batteries and charging stations, and energy-efficient building practices. For strategic or logistical reasons, all of these might be economically produced and deployed on home soil rather than be imported from China and elsewhere: shipping costs and the other implications of long, energy-intensive supply chains keep near-shore locomotive production, for example, viable. How government can best encourage this trend, however, remains to be seen: existing interests, such as GM, appear to have occupied far more attention than innovators and entrepreneurs.

-If present-day blogging isn't capable of replacing formerly great newspapers, what comes next?
**The key problem here was the formulation of the question: blogging and social media will not replace newspapers or cable networks. Rather, multiple media architectures will work in tandem. We saw this phenomenon last month in a particular college football broadcast: a University of Florida player gouged the eyes of a Georgia player at the bottom of a pileup, and the commentators saw and said nothing. Instant replay and high definition broadcasts, however, allowed a viewer in Pennsylvania to see the action away from the play, record it, and forward the clip. Thousands of Tweets and rants later, the action made it onto the highlight shows, the league and team took disciplinary action, and the party formally known as the audience, as Dan Gillmor put it, controlled the news cycle in one domain, for a few days. Big questions remain about investigative reporting, about foreign bureaus, and about credibility, but it's clear that the new media landscape will alter reporting, and entertainment, and leisure time, and institutional memory, and many other sectors besides.

Overall, the predictions that depended on the presidency were too high, underestimating the time it takes to form an administration, align congressional forces, and balance day-to-day crises with long-term vision. At the same time, the continuing rise of non-nation-state actors is facilitating new kinds of action, causing new kinds of problems, and challenging existing entities (whether the UN, the Indian navy, or the U.S. Department of Justice) to evolve.

Leaving behind the aughts, or whatever we end up calling this decade, what lies ahead in 2010? Watch for the annual predictions next month.