Future Thinking

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The past is irrelevant.

Well, like most categorical statements, it’s not entirely true. The past can serve – if you approach it with a critical mind – as a guide to success. And failure. It can at least tell us how we got to the here and now.

Still, it is surprising how many people, on both the right and left, spend most of their time staring behind them, either with fond, if misguided, nostalgia or with bitter resentment. The past is a rich lode that can be mined to fuel present day prescriptions to restore a glorious era or overcome ancient wrongs.

But here’s the thing. While you may make tremendous efforts to re-write the past (so much easier than living in the present), you can’t actually change it. It’s over and done with. Despite aphorisms to the contrary, it’s dead, Dave.

More importantly, the past will always be that home to which you cannot return. As for those people who say ‘we should have done it differently…’ Well, you didn’t. In fact, for the most part, the speaker wasn’t even part of that mythical we; in some cases they weren’t even born.

So, while the past is not exactly irrelevant, it is largely unimportant to our current existence. You can’t change it and you can’t return to it. So grow up.

So what does that leave us? The eternal present and the envisioned future.

Which is plenty. By some metrics, there is now more ‘present’ than there has ever been. More people, more nations, more problems and more possibilities.

Everything we do occurs, by facile definition, in the present. But, at the same time everything we do extends into the future.

Ah, the future. Unlike the decaying body of the past, the future is pregnant with possibility and change. Indeed, every time we act in the present we create a different future. Science fiction fans will be familiar with the idea of ever-branching futures – each one shaped by the billions of actions taken by billions of humans every second. Most of those futures are indiscernible from each other, but no matter.

In truth, there is only one future – the one we all wind up living in. Almost nothing we do makes a bit of difference to that future. Even powerful people like Presidents and CEOs and public intellectuals and revolutionary leaders spend most of their days doing meaningless things. It is only in hindsight that we can ever say that this action or decision mattered.

Which might make life seem rather pointless and powerless. But it doesn’t.

We can have whatever future we collectively want. But that’s the thing – it is a collective decision. It’s not like some leader can take us to the future (any more than they can return us to the past) because they don’t know the way anymore than the rest of us. A book called Superforecasters recently pointed out that it is possible to make really good guesses about what the world will look like three months or even six months from now – but three years or six years. Not so much.

Maybe that seems pretty limited but still it does suggest a way forward. Conversation, dialogue, shared visioning – it’s not much but it may be the only way to get the future we want.

And that’s ten minutes.

Twitchy

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You’ve seen them. People with their faces buried in their devices as they drift down the street or grabbing their phone when if ‘bings’ – even if they are in the middle of a conversation. Their fingers drum impatiently on their desk if their computer takes a few seconds to boot up or connect. They growl when their texts or tweets or Facebook posts or Tumblr messages aren’t instantly answered. They hate waiting for anything; they don’t seem to know how to relax, even for a moment. Instant gratification gratified instantly.

You know who I’m talking about. The Twitchy generation.

Oh, not millennials or whatever generation comes next. A lot of them seem pretty laid back about everything – their love lives, their careers, the end of the world. They even read physical books. But that’s another story.

I’m talking about the forty-somethings (spreading into the fifty-somethings). They seem to think that history happened six months ago and the future had better get here pretty damn quick. And why can’t I get that show on Netflix!?

I think people under thirty actually understand that none of the programs which are supposed to connect our world really operate in quite the way they promised. At least their eye-rolls and shrugs when I ask them about it seem to suggest that.

No it’s the people who didn’t grow up with the highly connected and immediate (unmediated) world, that seem to have lost all sense of time, all sense of the slow changing nature of the world.

Take the current political world we live in. Nothing has really changed in the last fifty years. Governments have a life and elections – unless you are living in an unstable democracy or none at all – occur to a schedule. Presidents are almost never impeached; majority governments never fall before their allotted time.

Yet, to listen to the pundits, six months is an eternity. I saw a headline the other day asking if Justin Trudeau was the Teflon PM. For crying out loud, he’s been in office for less than four months – how much dirt do you think the world has generated in that time for any of it to stick? And as for delivering on his promises – why aren’t they all done right now? Why do we have to wait for consultation or debate or legislation or doing it right? If it isn’t here now it’s never coming, I tell you. Twitch.

Meanwhile in the USA people are moaning that Trump will be president and think how great/awful that will be. There won’t even be a vote for eight months. It’s not long but it’s not tomorrow. And when he gets there – if at all – all those things that he promised won’t arrive on February 1st. Twitch. Twitch.

I see this all the time. My boss – who is in his seventies – will leave a restaurant if there is a line of more than six to get in. My wife swears at her ancient computer every time it takes fifteen seconds to connect. People my age grumble whenever their favorite movie is rescheduled for a month – and heaven help George R.R. Martin if he delays his next book again.

We won’t stand for it. What do we want?  Everything and when do we want it? Now, goddamn it! Or yesterday.

Screw history. I want the future. And I want it before tomorrow.

Twitch. Twitch. Twitch.

And that’s ten minutes. Too late as usual.

The Future of Oil

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Kevin O’Leary should hold off on investing in the Alberta oil industry, not because Premier Notley isn’t going anywhere but because it just makes sense. Based on the precept of investing that you should buy low and sell high, he should wait until the properties become real bargains.

The price of oil has just dropped below $30 a barrel, a level unpredicted even six months ago. It may have a way to fall yet.

A number of factors are coming together to make a perfect storm for falling energy prices.

At the top of some people’s list are the faltering economies in China and some of the other BRIC countries. Falling demand for oil is certainly a factor in the price fall. While the American economy is picking up, its thirst for oil is not enough to prop up the price by itself.

But falling demand is only part of the picture. New technologies – notably fracking – have released a great deal of previously unrecoverable oil and, more importantly, natural gas, into the North American market. Energy reserves have seldom been higher. Meanwhile, solar and wind have become serious competitors as a source for electricity and are bound to become more so if the US keeps even half of its commitments to reduce greenhouse gases. While a Republican in the White House might change that – it will have little effect on other countries that aren’t in denial about the causes of global climate change.

Of course, the real culprit in the falling price of oil is Saudi Arabia which is determined to become, once again, the world’s dominant supplier of petroleum. They are willing to drastically cut their own revenues if only to irreparably damage the oil production capacity of other countries.

Things get a lot more complex now that the new deal with Iran will release billions of barrels of relatively cheap Iranian oil onto the already glutted market. Prices as low as $20, $15 or even $10 a barrel are possible. Think it can’t happen? During the late-90s, oil hovered in those ranges for over a year before the growing world economy and conflicts in oil producing regions drove the price up again.

Of course, what goes down is bound to go back up, right? But will the world economy ever rebound sufficiently to drive up demand for oil – especially in a world that finally seems determined to lower its carbon footprint?

Low oil prices are a terrible thing for some oil producing countries – Nigeria and Venezuela may see their economies and governments collapse in the wake of lost petro-dollars – and bad for some others, like Canada and England, who rely on oil to boost sometimes faltering manufacturing industries. Only Norway – which frugally set aside most of their past oil income – is likely to escape real problems.

For other countries – particularly those who have invested in their industrial infrastructure, low oil should be a good thing in the short term – and irrelevant in the long. Unfortunately, Canada has largely failed on that front and will pay the price for over-emphasizing oil and allowing corporations to hoard now devalued cash. It may be a tough row to hoe for any investor hoping to sell high somewhere down the road.

And that’s ten minutes.

The China Syndrome

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Stock markets in China (and as a result around the world) plummeted this week. Measures put in place by the Chinese government to calm such crashes seem to have had the opposite effect as traders couldn’t sell fast enough as markets fell. The government removed the measure and the market has grown calmer. They’ve also probably been fiddling around behind the scenes in order to try to control what is essentially a chaotic system.

Markets serve useful functions; over the long term they help shift capital from failing industries to emerging ones. Governments can influence markets – essentially use them – by changing tax laws and other arms-length measures to achieve certain public policy goods. Nothing new about that and nothing wrong either.

However, in the short term, markets are largely ruled by ‘irrational exuberance.’ This is what leads to massive overvaluing of some stocks and sudden crashes when the least little ripple hits the economic news. Perhaps this is not surprising. Eddie Murphy put it best in ‘Trading Places’ when he told a couple of crooked investment bankers (is that adjective redundant?) that they were ‘a couple of bookies.’ Which, on some days, is all the stock market is: an off-track betting shop.

It doesn’t help when clever fellows use high technology to game the system, gaining millions for themselves by using ‘flash trades’ to skim money from more legitimate stockholders and traders. And given the propensity for all markets to ‘phish for phools’ not as a reflection of intentional criminality but rather as a reflection of how unregulated or poorly regulated markets inevitably run, it is not surprising that useless investments may be promoted as rock solid.

So what is really going on in China? First and foremost we know that the Chinese economy is growing at a slower rate than it did over the last ten years. But it is still growing at rates that should make western nations green with envy. 6% is not a bad rate but it isn’t 10%. Simple math suggests that 10% was never sustainable but, hey, high finance is not for simpletons, right?

And that is part of the problem. Despite constant warning by investment houses (warning only there because the law requires it) that past results are not a prediction of future outcomes, most people – including bankers, business men and senior finance officials – don’t really seem to get it. Decisions made a few years ago to invest in sectors of the economy that were dependent on continued massive growth in China (and let’s not even get into the misreading of the economies of the other BRIC nations) are, at least in part, behind the current panic.

So, if you have a lot of money in the stock market, you are in for a rough ride. But as more than one person wiser than me has said – you shouldn’t invest in stocks if you aren’t prepared to lose all of your investment. So tough luck.

Unfortunately, a lot of us are dependent on pension funds that are also heavily invested in the stock market. Let’s hope those managers have their eye on the long term and not on the day to day exuberance of day-traders.

And that’s ten minutes.

Prognostications

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The best things about predicting what will happen in the coming year are, one, by this time next year no one will remember that you did it and, two, if they do, all you need to do is to get a couple right and you look brilliant. Statistically you need to get more than 50% right for your predictions to be more than random chance, but most people aren’t really that good at math. So here goes. I’ll start with a couple that I’m pretty confident about.

Despite the continued outrage of Conservatives from coast to coast, both Kathleen Wynne and Rachel Notley will still be the Premiers of their respective provinces. And Justin Trudeau will still be Prime Minister. There is nothing anyone can legally do about that.

The federal conservatives will still be led on an interim basis by Rona Ambrose but here’s the important part: people will realize that she is just Stephen Harper with better hair. Her shrill single note attacks on the government will wear thin everywhere but in the Globe and Mail and various Postmedia publications – all of which will see their readership continue to decline. See, three predictions all in one.

Now for the tough stuff. Senator Mike Duffy will be acquitted on most of the 31 charges laid against him. And he will serve no jail time for any of the ones they do make stick. He will return to the Senate and serve out his term – health willing. Charges against Patrick Brazeau will be stayed by a humbled prosecution and Pamela Wallin and Mac Harb will never see a day in court.

Donald Trump will not be the GOP nominee despite his continued lead in the polls. An alternative, either Ted Cruz or Mark Rubio, will be chosen at a brokered convention. The nominee will subsequently lose to Hilary Clinton who will easily secure her own party’s nomination despite Bernie’s loyal cadre of fans.

The economy will continue to be shaky but will not be as bad as the Bears suggest. Moderate growth in the USA and a mild recovery in China will raise most boats.  In Canada, Ontario will become the major driver of a weak economic recovery.

The war in Syria will be resolved – probably with some sort of coalition between Assad and the moderate opposition. ISIS/Daesh will be in retreat and its reclusive leader will be killed. Another leader will spring up but the movement itself will decline. This will not reduce the fear of terrorism, just the threat.

People will still be talking about climate change – mostly without effect. However, progress will be made by the major emitters and technological solutions that separate economic growth from energy consumption will begin to emerge. The price of oil will not significantly recover but, for many economies, this will not be a bad thing.

A new movie will break all box office records. Writers will still fight over self-publishing vs traditional publishing while their incomes – on average – continue to fall.

Some people close to you will die; other people will bring great joy to your life. In a few unfortunate cases, these will be the same people.

I will try to quite writing 10 minutes of words but will fail utterly.

And that’s ten minutes.

Resolutions

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It’s that time of year again. A time for looking back and summing up; for looking ahead and making resolutions. Some people claim not to make them; some people avoid resolutions the way bureaucrats eschew obfuscation. That is, not at all: they just say they do and take a course to prove it.

After all, who hasn’t woken up on the day after the night before and resolved: Never again! Who hasn’t looked in the mirror by accident after their shower and thought: Just 5 pounds. Who hasn’t come home from work tired and depressed and thought: I need to get a different job.

We do it all the time, whether we make a formal effort at New Year’s is merely a trivial detail. We all think that soon, we will work harder, look better and be a nicer person. Is that so bad?

If it were only so easy. Life, like everything else in the macro-universe, operates on the three laws of motion. You know, the ones you learned in high school physics and vowed never to forget. I can’t quite quote them verbatim but I do recall that things in motion tend to stay in motion (and those at rest sit on the sofa) until some external force comes along to change them.

You see, Red Green was right. I can change. If I have to. I guess. All it takes is a little shove. From someone. So why not me?

I think everyone should have a few resolutions but not ones that are too hard. After all, it hardly helps your reformation to fail right away, now does it?

Let’s start with a simple one.

I resolve to get up every day. There, that can’t be too hard. Well, unless you’re confined to a “hospital” and they have you strapped down for your own and others’ safety. It could happen.

But still, you get the idea. Start with the easy ones and work your way up. No point in going crazy with things like: I’ll go to the gym every day. That’s just a waste of money. Because what you will do is buy a gym membership. You think, if I’ve spent all that money, I’ll surely go more often. Nope. You will go exactly as many times a month as if you paid for it on a per visit basis – that is, about 5. Studies have proven this. Which is why gyms make it so easy to sign up for a membership and so hard to cancel it.

Free money for them. Which of course defeats YOUR resolution to be more careful with your cash.

So whatever you do, don’t promise to do what you know you can’t do. If you haven’t gone to the gym in a year, don’t plan on going three times a week. Resolve to go to the gym once. Just once. If you do that, you can make another resolution (there is no rule that it all has to be done at once). I’ve been to the gym once, I’ll go again some time. How hard is that?

Baby steps. After all, you are starting a new life.

And that’s ten minutes.

Revolution

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It has been suggested that radicalism cannot survive the aging process. A quote widely attributed to Churchill states: if you aren’t a communist at 20, you have no heart; if you are still one at 60, you have no head. The implication is that revolution is a game for the young and that, eventually, cooler heads will prevail. A greater (false) argument for the gerontocracy has never been made. Old men are very good at holding on to what they have.

Still, I find my own desire for manning the barricades has diminished with the passing years. I really never was much of a marcher; I preferred to plot my revolutions in ivory towers or, more often, in the back rooms of political parties. In my twenties, I was a Marxist of sorts but certainly no hardliner. I had a distaste for the more violent proponents of revolutionary change. I believed – still do – that change can be achieved through the ballot box as well as through direct, but peaceful action, through labour negotiations and strikes, the courts, social protests, boycotts. Gradualism was my mantra; evolution rather than revolution.

Now, as I pass through my sixties, I’m not so sure. The patience of youth has been replaced by the impatience of age. I no longer want change to occur ‘someday’ but ‘right now.’ I suppose I want to see it happen in my lifetime not in some mythical future that will, for me, not exist.

Not that there hasn’t been tremendous progress in the course of my life – most of it brought about through the lurching mechanisms of human progress, rather than through sudden upheaval and revolutionary destruction. Certainly some of the change that has occurred in Africa and South America and China has flowed out of the revolutions and wars, the social experiment of the Cultural Revolution and the greater evils of genocide and ethnic cleansing. But these changes were not because of the violence but in revolted response to its consequences. Perhaps the old ways had to be broken – perhaps – but the breaking did not in any way lead to the utopia promised by the breakers.

But I digress. In many parts of the world poverty has been reduced, the chains of serfdom have been thrown aside, women have achieved some measure of equality – more some places than others – the hold of ancient religions have been (mostly) loosened, the worst excesses of capitalism have been moderated. Yes, all that is true.

Yet, the forces of reaction – the power of old men – remain strong. Far too many people are too cowed or too easily bought with bread and circuses, are too easily frightened by the spectre of change (and after all, some of the revolutions I mentioned have been pretty fearful) to ever embrace the possibilities of real democracy, real liberty, real equality.

Some days, it makes me so angry… but I’ve also reached a place where ‘old men shouting at clouds’ seems particularly futile. So I do what I can. Propose changes to the status quo that move my part of the world towards a more just place; use my limited money and time and energy to do some good. And trust that the fire of youth will forge a better future.

And that’s ten minutes.