The future rarely turns out as expected. Imagine, for example, two sets of economic predictions for the half-century that began in 1962. The first, the Blind Guide, is written with only the knowledge available then. The second, the Retrospective Guide, is based on what actually happened.
The biggest economic issue a half-century ago was the battle of economic systems: communism versus capitalism. The Blind Guide would have predicted a lively rivalry in 2012. True, communist countries were already falling behind economically in Europe, but political oppression would keep the system well entrenched. Besides, 50 years ago many Western experts still believed that communism’s social levelling and central planning offered poor countries the best hope of rapid economic growth.
In the retrospective volume, the future abject failure of communism has a prominent place. The decline would be slow, but the people would inevitably become increasingly disenchanted with the system’s incompetence, hypocrisy and cruelty. The will of the people ultimately prevailed.
Next comes the plight of the wretched of the earth, to use the English title of Frantz Fanon’s 1961 book on post-colonial society. Although the nascent Green Revolution in agriculture was encouraging, the blind prediction would be for another half-century of wretchedness. While the policies and practices which could eliminate abject poverty were fairly well understood, many generations would be needed to overcome the effects of colonial oppression and to spread industrial culture. In the interim, there would be social disorder, numerous wars and firmly entrenched repressive regimes.
It has not turned out that way. While the retrospective forecast calls for much shocking poverty in 2012 and some dreadful wars - Vietnam, Iran-Iraq, Congo - along the way, it also predicts tremendous improvements in living standards in most poor countries. For example, the share of global oil consumption accounted for by poor countries moved from a quarter to a half, while the proportion of young people in secondary education has more than doubled. Dictatorships have become scarcer and less secure.