It’s a beautiful fall day. The leaves of summer are still on the trees rather than the ground. Faye of the Forest is perched on the deck railing.
I know what Faye wants. She is intent on telling me to provide you, the reader, with a forecast for 2017. “Admit it,” she says, “you’re being cowardly. At this time of the year, people expect economists like you to provide a reasoned outline of the likely future. You just don’t want to be caught being wrong.”
“No,” I respond, trapped into this annual argument. “No, I have no reasoned idea of what next year will be like, because I still don’t know what happened yesterday and certainly no idea what is happening today.”
“False humility,” Faye sneers, “is the transparent coat of the ‘expert’ who wants to be coaxed to share his/her expertise.”
“It is not,” I reply. “Genuine humility is knowing you have no ‘expertise’ about the future. Economics, politics, and other so-called social ‘sciences’ have little predictive capability. The best they can offer is conjecture that the future will follow some pattern of the past.”
“Come on,” Faye would challenge. “The world has egg crates full of economic forecasts. Mix in a few local ingredients and the egg-heads will offer up an omelet for entire continents or contained communities.”
Now on a roll, she won’t stop. “Don’t you see your responsibility? You’ve been supported for years to study economic behavior. You’ve taught courses for students of all ages on economics. You’ve lectured about economic morality as if it existed. But you won’t forecast the next year?”
Oh, she’s getting personal now. This is no polite banter, but a battle. Has she forgotten I founded Economists Anonymous where forecasters attempt to overcome their addiction?
Yes, I say to myself, she sits there in her green Peter Pan outfit, ready to flit away into the welcoming forest, without concern about the consequences of her words. But no forecaster has that privilege.
Responsible people who prepare statements about the future must constantly ask, “Where did we go wrong? Are the data for the past and the present accurate? Have the relationships between elements of our forecast changed? What have we left out? What did we fail to anticipate?”
I try to recover my composure. “Forecasting the economy is a serious matter.”
But she, recognizing her advantage, counters, “Don’t give me that line about people making decisions based on your forecast, investing or not investing, buying or not buying, effecting the lives of dozens, even millions of workers, because you say Up or Down.
“Today, economic forecasting is a form of entertainment. Corporations have their in-house economists as kingdoms had their court jesters. The White House Council of Economic Advisors serves the same function as the witches in Shakespeare’s Macbeth.”
It is too much. I retreat behind closed eyelids and pray when I awake, she is gone.
Morton Marcus is an economist, writer and speaker who may be reached at email@example.com.