Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Well, it's that time of year again. Here's my annual assessment of the previous year's predictions, and a futile attempt to do better this year:
  • Hillary Clinton will be elected president in November, by a solid margin, in an election with relatively light turnout by recent standards. The Democrats will retain control of both houses of Congress.

Well, she would have, if her staff had been competent enough to pay attention to those caucus states...

  • The US counterinsurgency effort in Iraq will suffer significant setbacks in Iraq this year, but the political reconciliation process there will in fact make progress. Iran's nuclear program will last another year without either a military strike or a successful nuclear test.

The very first part was off, but the rest was on target.

  • The Taliban insurgency in Afghanistan will grind on without resolution, aided by safe havens in Pakistan, where Pervez Musharraf will continue to rule, in one guise or another, replicating his neighbor's stalemate with its Islamists.

Again, on target with the exception of one key detail (Musharraf's fate).

  • Ehud Olmert will survive another year in office. The Winograd report will criticize him harshly for being too recklessly aggressive during the Lebanon war, thus providing him with cover against his more hawkish main rivals. He will also authorize at least one fairly large-scale incursion into the Gaza Strip, which will achieve little but will further shield him against charges of dovish, indecisive softness. Meanwhile, Hezbollah's position as the largest single power in Lebanon will be consolidated and officially enshrined in the country's political power structure.

It was touch and go there for much of the year, and he's of course on his way out, but darned if he isn't hanging on to the bitter end, and charging into Gaza--almost as if to validate my prediction with his last ounce of strength...

  • The US economy will narrowly avoid recession this year, but will experience very sluggish growth. Inflation will stubbornly refuse to fall, preventing the Fed from easing enough to really boost the economy. The stock market will have a down year, and oil prices will fall modestly. The housing market will not recover, but the US dollar will, somewhat, from its recent plunge.

Rather too optimistic about the economy, but I figure I'm in pretty good company on that one, and possibly more on target than most prognosticators. Also, correct on the direction (if not always the magnitude) of the movements of the stock market, oil, housing and the dollar.

  • "Product placement"--advertising embedded into content such as music, films and television shows--will become more widespread and conspicuous, to the point where it becomes a subject of pop-culture irony.

Not this year (that I noticed), but then, I'm always ahead of the curve on these things...

And now for this year's reckless forecasts:

  • Barack Obama's first year in office will go as badly as his mentor's, as the sluggish economy and unresolved conflicts between the moderates and progressives within his own party undermines his popularity, making his cool, detached persona seem weak and indecisive. Republicans will be somewhat rejuvenated by being able to take responsibility-free potshots from the sidelines, although no particularly prominent GOP leader will emerge. More Keynsian "stimulus" spending packages and bailouts will be enacted into law, but other government initiatives popular among Democrats, such as health care reform, will fall victim to the party's internal rifts, with some Republican help.

  • Some time during the year, a reputable source--perhaps an intelligence agency or a defense think tank--will declare that Iran most likely has already produced at least one nuclear weapon, and soon will produce more. Little attention will be paid. Likewise, Iraq will all but disappear from the news, as will Afghanistan and Pakistan, despite continuing unrest there. Domestic issues--particularly economic ones--will dominate public attention, and foreign news will focus on trade and economic matters, such as the fate of China's export industries and the Euro's troubles.

  • Stephen Harper will continue to hobble along with his minority government in Canada. Bibi Netanyahu will become prime minister of Israel, but in a coalition with Kadima and other parties of the center and right.

  • Hamas and Hezbollah will lay low following Netanyahu's election, quietly building up their military strength as they did during most of 2008. They will take advantage of the inconclusive outcome of the current Gaza operation, which will have included a limited ground invasion that damaged Hamas but failed to dislodge its de facto government, and will have ended with a ceasefire agreement that effectively restores the status quo ante. Netanyahu will thus lack a pretext--or support from an exhausted, cynical Israeli public--for a more decisive engagement, even as the long-term threat on both fronts quietly builds.

  • The US economy will remain in recession for most if not all of 2009. However, Japanese-style deflation will not set in, and the CPI will be positive by the end of the year. Oil prices will rebound, but only modestly. The stock market will bounce around its recent low levels and end little changed from the beginning of the year. Likewise, housing prices will stabilize. Interest rates will fall on risky assets and rise on risk-free ones, as depression-panic subsides. Unemployment will continue to rise.

  • Environmentalism will "jump the shark" this year, as the cost of being green in a lousy economy turns off enough otherwise sympathetic folks to make the movement's excesses a target of mainstream ridicule.

As always, past performance is no guarantee of future results, although it's pretty good evidence that this blog's name is no idle boast...

Sunday, December 14, 2008

I've already noted that the extraordinarily successful are a poor choice of model for those who would understand how to achieve more mundane varieties of success in life. Now, along comes Malcolm Gladwell to devote an entire book to this poor choice, studying a few off-the-charts-successful cases such as Mozart and Bill Gates in order to try to understand how people in general manage to succeed. And his conclusion, apparently, is that the most successful people may well have all been extraordinarily talented, but they have also all been extraordinarily lucky. Gladwell draws the standard luck egalitarian conclusions from this supposed insight.

Much discussion has ensued in the blogosphere, all of it completely missing the point. Of course the most extremely successful people have all been extremely lucky--just as they've all been extremely talented, and extremely hardworking. That's precisely why they've succeeded far beyond the ranks of competitors who only excelled in two or fewer of these three respects.

The far more interesting question is what proportions of luck, talent and work typically contribute to the kind of moderate success that sensible, realistic people aspire to achieve. In those cases, I strongly suspect, talent and dedication weigh far more heavily than luck. Then again, that's probably not the kind of study that would help make Malcolm Gladwell the spectacularly successful writer that he's become.
Yossi Klein Halevi and Matthew Wagner have both written lately about the remarkable relationship between Chabad/Lubavitch and secular Israelis. Unlike other ultra-Orthodox sects, which all coldly reject both the state of Israel and secular Israelis as betrayers of Jewish law and observance, Chabad considers itself a kind of internal missionary organization, winning over secular Jews to piety through good works and generosity.

Unfortunately, Chabad's missionary service is rooted in essentially the same messianism as Christian missionaries': they believe that winning Jews back to observance hastens the coming of the Messiah. Ultimately, that motive can't sustain a generic service ethic, because it inevitably draws the missionaries towards more susceptible recruitment targets, such as the poor and the distressed. (Christian missionaries, for example, certainly follow this pattern.)

It's possible, though, that Chabad (or perhaps an offshoot, or a rival sect) could gradually evolve its beliefs in a way capable of sustaining its passion for serving fellow Jews in general. All it would require is a subtle shift away from believing in the need to convert all Jews to its brand of piety, and towards believing in its members' need to maintain its own brand of piety--including its practice of helping all Jews--as an end in itself.

I believe that such a shift would be of enormous benefit to the Jewish people. For the truth is that the fanatically observant, the fanatically secular, and the broad spectrum in between are all parts of a far stronger whole than any single one of those groups would be on its own. Other religions have discovered this, and typically maintain a pious class--priests, monks, monastics, and so on--that is respected for its dedication and service to its correligionists, but understood to coexist with a more worldly majority, rather than rejecting it.

Already, ultra-Orthodox Jews in general act as a kind of priestly class among Jews, devoting themselves entirely to study and piety at the cost of living on charity, and typically in poverty. They also perform a number of purely religious services to the community, such as recovering bodies for ritual burial (most famously after terrorist attacks). Unfortunately, rather than consider themselves a kind of spiritual elite serving a larger Jewish nation, they tend to view other Jews as apostates doomed to drift away from Judaism towards paganism of one kind or another. And of course, they denounce the state of Israel as a secular travesty.

That's strange, because the Jewish religion itself provides an admirable model for a "spiritual elite", rejecting both militant proselytizing and cultish insularity in favor of the role of duty-bound "light unto the nations". If only the ultra-Orthodox were to embrace that role themselves, they could become as valuable a resource for the Jewish people as the Jewish people have proven, time and again, to be for the entire world.