Shift Happens

I need to explain what Future Brief is about, now that I am beginning to develop it as originally intended.

Prior to this, I have made a few comments, but they are not the purpose.  I have other blogs and websites.  I don’t need another one for casual commentary on immediate events. 

I realised that I had no place on the Net that could serve as a “repository” for past articles and essays I have written elsewhere. Someday,  they could disappear from the Net. 

So FB was intended as a place to put up some of those and I am perhaps half-way there with that.

Beyond that, I will use FB somewhat like a serious “notebook.”  I am working on a much longer piece for publication in the future. 

My posts here will be material that I think might be useful to me as I slowly work through the other project.  As a result of all of the above, I will post from time to time, but not on a stated schedule. I expect to post two or three times a week, but I will post when it makes sense. 

If you find FB interesting and worth reading, your best bet is to either subscribe to the email alerts or to the RSS feed in the upper-right corner of this page.  I again stress that, although “traffic” to this blog is no concern of mine, you are certainly welcome, as are your comments as long as they are not angry “flames” or the like.  I don’t have time for those and I doubt most of you do either.  There is no shortage of other blogs and sites for that kind of thing.

Enough said.

A very general overview of my outlook

This is provided without the mass of detail behind it, but it will give you an idea of my general thrust here at Future Brief.

I believe the world is well into a Shift every bit as significant and dramatic as the Industrial Revolution, likely more so.  I will call it the Shift until I come up with something I prefer.  Like all other shifts before it, this Shift is the natural outgrowth of human activity over thousands of years, therefore it is “natural” and, in that one sense, nothing to be afraid of.  This Shift will greatly benefit some people and greatly damage others, including you and me.  As humans, I do not believe that we are capable of accurately predicting the results, thus we do not know, for a fact, who will be hurt, how, and to what extent. 

I do believe that research combined with hands-on experience, common sense, and analysis may help us identify general trends. That in turn can help us adapt to and deal successfully with the Shift and its impact.  Future Brief is my initial attempt to pull together my 44 years of experience in economic and social development in four dozen or so nations and apply that analytically to a general future forecast of the Shift’s unfolding and how that might best be dealt with, but without an emotional, commercial, or political agenda   It will not be analysed from the perspective of any one nation, the US included, but from a global perspective. 

Gosh, that certainly sounds boring!  Well, I hope you will find it interesting as it unfolds here, but this is a brief overview and that’s all.

With that out of the way, I am going to speak on one “small” topic that can make a big difference.

Putting statistics in their proper place

Statistics are wonderful, if they are accurate.  Globally, well over one hundred nations are relatively new to the business of creating national statistics.  I have met more than a few government and private statisticians in some of these nations.  Without exception, every one of them has appeared sincere and basically competent or better.  But I also know they work with small staffs, often having to hire people with limited training, and are given small budgets that do not allow the more detailed and deep studies done in wealthy nations.  These are real limitations that they are very much aware of, but they have no choice and do their best.  Everyone (and I do mean, everyone) with an interest will lean on them heavily to provide something, anything, to meet the insatiable modern human appetite for precise statistics.

I have confidence in some statistics.  If I want to know the number of ships and containers passing through the Panama Canal and the amount of fees collected, I can go to the Panama Canal’s website and download the information.  I know that every ship has its paperwork (cargo manifests, for example) and that no ship passes through the Canal without the authorities knowing their cargo and how much they are to be charged.  Those stats are good stats.  Maybe there’s a tiny human error in there somewhere, but the Canal is very professionally operated and those numbers are good.  I expect the same with a supermarket’s sales figures, for example, and any of a long list of other reports where the raw data is available, accurate, and complete.

I have limited confidence, sometimes very limited, in other statistics.  GDP is a good example.  Most folks have no idea how statisticians come up with GDP figures (if you want a description that might leave you more confused than enlightened, Wikipedia provides an overview of at least three different ways that can be done).  Let’s just say that even in a very wealthy nation with decades of experience with this, any figure is a combination of hard data, a lot of guesswork, and the impact of an algorithm that may or may not be appropriate.  One thing is sure.  They do not normally include a line item for “criminal behaviour”, a factor in every nation and potentially a big one. 

Taken as a whole, I accept a GDP number as a guesstimate.  A US GDP of $14,889,476,372 (I just made that up, but it’s in the ballpark) is ridiculous, if you believe they can report it to the last dollar.  Of course, they can’t.  I accept it as being somewhere in the neighbourhood of $15 trillion, give or take 10% or so.  I am more interested in the trend of the numbers, assuming they were collected in the same manner each time.  I may have more confidence in the figures coming from the UK, US, and Germany than I do those coming from China, Zimbabwe, and Yemen, and I do take that into account, but they are all guesstimates.

Another good example in the US is the CPI (Consumer Price Index).  Every nation I’ve worked in has something along these lines as well.  Again, these are based on a combination of hard date, guesswork, and an algorithm.  Like GDP, they are guesstimates.  I find them interesting and useful, but I don’t fixate on the numbers and I don’t accept them as precise or even necessarily reasonable estimates, depending again on that nation’s government agency’s capacity to make a good guess.

Humans love to have statistics, especially those from nations with long histories of providing such statistics and with all the resources to do as good a job as possible.  Nothing frustrates such people than to find there is no statistic available that they expect to be available in another nation.  Nations quickly discover that they have to provide a lot of statistics, far more than GDP and an inflation index, or they won’t get any attention, much less development aid or private investment.  They do what they have to do and what everyone tells them is critical.  They create the statistics.  Once created (and blessed by some international agency, private or public) those stats will appear all over the world in table after table, report after report, analysis after analysis, and so forth, regardless of their accuracy.

These nations then discover that folks accept those statistics as accurate without knowing their limitations.  Amazingly, some of these people will argue that the statistics are not accurate, yet use them anyhow.  I can’t count all the times over the years that I have read financial commentaries, as one tiny example, where the writer severely criticises the way the US CPI is determined as inaccurate and most likely a serious under-estimate, only to use that very statistic in their own analysis that follows.  Why?  Because they have no other number that is widely accepted by their readers, so they use what they have.  If they don’t, they either have to find some other statistic that is also a guesstimate, or not use any number to account for inflation at all. 

Then there are the silly statistics that I ignore.  Someone comes up with a Happiness Index.  Nice art work, very colourful, totally useless.

My apologies to any reader who has nodded off during this explanation.  I do this to remind myself (it never hurts) not to ignore the non-silly statistics out there, but to put them into perspective and not focus on one or two, particularly those in which I have limited confidence, as indicative of the total reality.  They each may have a small role to play, but none are definitive, period, for an analysis of the global future.

I will use statistics here when it is appropriate and also charts and graphs based on stats, but I will treat them with care.  So must you.  Done properly, a graph or chart can say more than a thousand, or five thousand, words, but that means nothing if the underlying data are not good or at least represent a serious effort with logic and a justification behind it. 

We all have to fight a natural human tendency to place greater confidence in a chart than we do in text.  That Happiness Index mentioned above and dozens of others like it are so pretty and seem to be telling us something significant in a manner that is easy to comprehend that it and the others will pop up on dozens or hundreds or even thousands of blogs and websites and print publications.  Once they’ve been referenced many, many times, that gives them even more credibility.  It can be fun and the same chart can be referenced by people with opposite viewpoints who use the chart to “prove” something important to them at that moment, only to be forgotten a week later. 

Too many of these charts and graphs are what I call “cotton candy”.  Tasty to consume, but without any real effect other than tooth decay, or “analysis decay” if you like.  If you’re addicted to them, the Internet will provide you with all you can eat!  Unfortunately, you will go hungry sometimes at this blog.

And so I begin the real work of Future Brief, examining the Shift.  Because it will be useful to my other work, I will be sharing anecdotes and stories based on all those years of experience that I hope you may find interesting, but they will always be in service to the greater analysis

Some of it is bound to upset some people. But that’s the way it is. Shift happens.

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