Clark had a good go at estimating the “most probable course of world populations, industrial development, prices, capital movements and interest rates” 20 years out (he saw the US boom and Japan’s overtaking of much of the West). But a flick through reveals just how much human behaviour can mess with perfectly sensible-looking numbers. For example, Clark notes the “stagnancy” of the UK population and the misery that would result. He didn’t see just how long the war would last (he thought the post-war boom and depression would be over by 1945) nor how the West would react to its end (lots of sex) – our population was around 47 million in 1939 and 52.5 million by 1960.
Remember this in the coming weeks as you are told what will happen to housing, the US economy, markets and to the Brexit-bemused UK in 2019. It isn’t just the next 50 years that are mostly unfathomable, but the next 20, ten and five, too. It makes no sense to extrapolate current trends forever. But nor is it worth spending too much time on the mostly unknowable events that might disrupt those trends either.
On the plus side, one thing we do know is that little is more often wrong than the consensus – so for a hint of the future, it’s better to think about the things that others are not. In this week’s magazine, John Stepek talks you through some “grey swans” for 2019, and Matthew Lynn forecasts that Facebook will buy The Times (bold!). Then we look at the euro. Everyone recognises its horrible flaws. Everyone reckons it will muddle through. Will it? Our confused MPs seem to think they can legislate against a no-deal exit. They can’t – it is the default. So it is more likely than most think.
Finally, Bill Bonner has been telling you for years that the US market is ripe for collapse. This may be the year he is right (on valuation grounds, it should be). Or it might not be. Either way, that James found Clark’s book where he did shows two things. First, that everyone everywhere is always intent on learning what the future holds. Second, that the future is remarkably unco-operative.