15 Huge Ideas That Flopped This Decade

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Nothing makes a person sound smarter than articulating some huge idea about how the world is going to change, or how they can change it, over the coming years.

A big idea can lead to countless books, TV appearances, and a nice stream of speaking fees at conferences across the country.

Big ideas — the likes of which you might hear from Malcolm Gladwell or the Freaknomics authors — make for excellent food for thought and intellectually stimulating discussion.

But don’t take them to the bank or make plans or investments based on them.

Big ideas are usually wrong.

At the turn of the century, we had all kinds of big ideas about how the world was about to change forever, whether it was due to information technology, energy, politics, demographics, or globalization. Not surprisingly, most turned out to be wrong.

This decade was nothing like how pundits expected. Just something to keep in mind as you read huge predictions for the coming 10 years.

Now, see the failed predictions — >

Taming The Business Cycle

In the late 90s, a combination of .com fever and Greespanism led many to believe that we had once and for all whipped the business cycle.

Others, like former Sun Microsystems CEO Scott McNeely believed that the internet would drastically shorten the business cycle.

Nothing of the sort turned out to be true -- the business cycle is as bad, slow, and vexing as it's ever been.

The Hydrogen Economy

Few remember it, but at the same time we experienced the .com bubble, there was also a flurry of enthusiasm in green tech, and in particular hydrogen fuel cells.

Pundits talked enthusiastically about the coming 'hydrogen economy.' Fossil fuels would be toast. The entire country of Iceland enthusiastically attempted to go all-hydrogen. By the end of the decade it was supposed to be a reality.

To say that hasn't panned out hardly needs pointing out. In fact, at this point, the car companies are backing away from long worked-on hydrogen cars.

Personal Mobility

The Segway. Enough said.

Compassionate Conservatism

After 8 failed years of George W. Bush, it seems hard to believe that when he ran in 2000, the former Texas Governor actually presented what seemed to be a different kind of conservativism -- one that he called 'Compassionate Conservatism,' a term dreamed up by University of Texas professor Marvin Olasky.

The term was always basically a marketing slogan -- one designed to counter the perception that Republicans in the 90s under Newt Gingrich and Bob Dole had embraced 'meanness' as a political philosophy.

But it also represented a form of big-government conservatism, one that paid lip service to free markets, but which also saw a huge role for government to help people out.

In fact, this concept was such a collossal failure that it actually spawned several other huge failures this decade, as will be clear in the next few slides.

Charter Schools

In the 90s, America thought it had finally figured out that if public schools could be run by private companies they would work a lot better.

The charter schools movement ended the last century with a huge head of steam, and investors poured hundreds of millions into a company called Edison Schools, which was supposed to save America's school system and make a lot of money at the same time.

It proved to be a huge flop. The schools didn't revolutionise anything, Edison captured a small part of the market, investors lost millions, and other similar ventures didn't go anywhere.

America's education problem would remain.

The Power of Homeownership

It's really hard to overstate our national obsession with homeownership prior to the bust.

It's not just that we thought we could all get rich buying a home.

Several folks, particularly on the right, really believed that owning a home would prove to be a key catalyst of social change for minorities (particularly Hispanics), vaulting them into the middle class (and ideally into the GOP).

It didn't work. Expanding homeownership with such ferocity created a devastating bubble, the economic gains of the aspiring middle class vanished, and GOP inroads with Hispanics (which started a little bit in 2000 and thereafter) quickly reversed course.

Nation Building

Another leg of the 'compassionate conservative' stool was the concept of nation building, or using war to create stable civilisation.

Ironically, George W. Bush ran on a platform of 'humble foreign policy,' but the selection of Dick Cheney as his running mate brought him under the influence of nation-building neocons, who thought, through arms, we could create stable democracies around the world.

So far, no dice.

Standardized Testing

Well, if private-public schools didn't work, perhaps then we could get more performance and discipline out of plain-old public schools by demanding more.

George W. Bush was a huge believer in in rigorous standardized testing to make sure that no child would be left behind.

This was supposed to ensure that every child was being educated rigorously, and that failing schools (and failing teachers) could be identified and eliminated.

But teaching to the test doesn't make kids any smarter, it turns out, and in the end, even a huge push from Washington couldn't battle failing, entrenched schools and teachers.

Global Capitalism Would Equal Peace

Back in the day, pundits were fond of pointing out that no country with a McDonald's had ever bombed another country with a McDonald's.

The insinuation: Capitalism, American style, was not in contradiction with peace. It was, in fact, the essence of it.

That dream basically ended with 9/11. It's not that Afghanistan or the Taliban or Al-Qaeda had a McDonald's, but it became clear that American-style capitalism and globalization would not proceed without a hitch. History was not over, and our attempt at non-violent hegemony (through our corporations) would run into violent opposition.

Personal Control Of Finances

The hot thing in the late 90s was taking control of your finances. The .com bubble led everyone to believe they were investing geniuses.

Not only did this lead to the rise of daytrading and such, but it also fuelled an explosion in interest in various personal investment vehicles, including, possibly, the partial privatization of Social Security.

Other expressions of this included health savings accounts, the IRA boom, etc.

But Social Security reform fizzled, and the crash has caused people to think twice about managing their own money. The broker lives. And even the good ol' defined benefit pension plan is winning back adherents.

Permanent Political Re-Alignment

Take a look at that map.

In 2000 it appeared that Democrats were screwed permanently by the electoral college

Red States seemed to be growing out from the middle, and that in order to win the Presidency, Democrats would need to dominate the two coasts, plus win Florida or Ohio.

But the permanent Republican majority proved fleeting. Several reliably red states like Nevada, Colorado, Indiana, Ohio, Virginia, North Carolina, and Florida proved flippable.

By 2008, there was talk of the Democrats building a lock -- thanks to favourable demographics -- on the political map.

And yet even now there's talk of Republicans regaining the upper hand, or at least clawing back some losses. Nothing is set in stone for the next 10 years.

Dependency Ratios

Pop thinkers like Malcolm Gladwell and the Freakonomic guys became super-invested in the idea that demographics was destiny, and that it could explain just about everything.

Gladwell famously argued that the Ireland boom was due to the country's low dependency ratio -- just 10 dependents for 22 workers.

Well... the dependency ratio can't have changed that much since Gladwell's essay in 2006 and Ireland has collapsed. Maybe we haven't quite figured it out yet.

Distributed At-Home Computing

Remember [email protected]? Maybe someone in your dorm room had set up his or her computer to crunch data about extraterrestrial life when it wasn't in use.

The project was supposed to be the beginning of a huge wave of distributed computing projects where we'd all donate our spare 'cycles' to solving the big problems of the world. Another similar project called [email protected] was designed to help analyse health problems caused by protein misfolding.

Well, cheap, utility computing has gotten huge, but not the variety envisioned by these projects.

Now, less and less computing is being done at home, instead transferred to big farms or clouds. It was a romantic vision. It just didn't happen.


When we 'cracked' the human genome, scientists and politicians enthusiastically declared that we could finally understand the 'language of God.'

Soon we would enter a world of medicine finely attuned to our personal genetic makeup, a 180-degree turn from the blunt, crude treatments of the past.

Well, not so fast. Genomics still holds plenty of promise, but for now, medicine is still pretty blunt and crude, and major advances are both limited and slow in coming. Let's hope for better in the coming decade.


In 2006, Mohammad Yunus won the Nobel Peace Prize for his pioneering efforts in microcredit lending.

The idea, which has been around for a while, is that rather than just giving the poor blank-check donations to improve their lives, it might work better if they were given loans, injecting a form of capitalism into global philanthropy.

The idea is not a total flop, but evidence that it's been transformative in any way or, on scale, any better than traditional aid, is limited.

Still, new internet-based players (like Kiva) continue to push the concept along, and it will continue in the next decade.

The Knowledge Economy

By now we were all supposed to be creative workers, sitting in Aeron chairs, manipulating the manufacturing and 'doing real stuff,' which was to happen overseas.

Well, part of that happened. The rest of the world gained a lot in terms of manufacturing and production. And, as expected, huge swaths of the US economy got hollowed out.

But what didn't happen was the evolution towards knowledge work. It turns out, a former textile employee in South Carolina can't quickly become a designer -- probably not ever in their lifetime, actually.

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