This action might not be possible to undo. Are you sure you want to continue?
from Richard Ostrofsky of Second Thoughts Bookstore (now closed) www.secthoughts.com firstname.lastname@example.org September, 2011 My column for the summer months ended with a request for some response to its evolutionary perspective on human sociality. I had hoped to write about the uptake of evolutionary biology and evolutionary psychology in the Ottawa South Community. Receiving no anwers, I have had to write about something else, and have chosen a remark by John Maynard Keynes – the title of this month's column. It's one of the most interesting comments I've ever read, and one I've thought about for years in connection with my own interests and writings – which certainly fall within the scope of Keynes' contemptuous dismissal. I'd like to speculate here on what he meant when he said that "The long term is for undergraduates.". The fact is that many years ago I dropped out of grad school (in mathematics), and so remained, in some sense, a life-long undergraduate. My BA from Columbia and my training in aikido were the extent of my formal education. Apart from that schooling I have been self-taught, for better and for worse – with the proverbial 'ignorant teacher.' Keynes was a very bright and very successful man, right much more often than he was wrong, so I find his dismissive dictum impossible to ignore, though on a gut level I reject it. In fact, all my life I have noticed that undergraduate students and the lay public (including myself) seemed much more concerned with the long term than the professional economists and sociologists, so in the purely descriptive sense Keynes was correct. But I think he meant his remark more broadly – to say that the long term is a waste of time for real professionals in the social sciences – which would explain, of course, why professionals avoid it, and why the public so distrusts them. Just why would the long term be a waste of time for the pros in fields like economics, sociology, and political science? Or, why did Keynes feel that way? I can think of
several reasons: A first, obvious point is that since no one has a presentday stake in the long-term, there will not be many clients willing to pay professionals to study and comment on it. After all, as Keynes said on another occasion, "In the long run, we are all dead." Why pay good money to get predictions and advice about a future you will not be around to see? More to the point, perhaps, why worry about events beyond the next election or the next financial report? A related point is that no one can do much about the long term, because too many other actors will play a role in it and too much happenstance may intervene. Clients pay for advice on how to manage what they can control, or hope to bring under their control. The long-term is common property and partakes of the commons' tragedy: What belongs to no one is cared for by no one, but exploited by all to the best of their short-term ability. Finally, the long-term is a guessing game, foreseeable only by extrapolation of its trends which are apt to 'bend' from unforeseen happenstance at any time, and certain to bend eventually once the trend has gone to its limit and a tipping point is reached. As no one can be sure when the trend will bend, professionals are loathe to stake their reputations on such guesses. As Niels Bohr famously said, "Prediction is very difficult, especially about the future." Or was that Yogi Berra? Yet trends are worth taking seriously, just because their tipping points can be predicted to some extent, and because the unforeseeable is just as likely to bump a trend line up as down. Cycles average out and short-tem fluctuations cancel. All we can know of the future is the trend line – not easy to read, but legible if an honest effort is made. I think I can see where Keynes was coming from, but beg to differ with him on this point. A tightly integrated world cannot afford not to plan for and attempt to manage its future. Or, if the long term is to be left to amateurs and undergraduates, then policy will need more amateur input – at least from amateurs who can think responsibly. Recent history is showing pretty clearly that the road to hell can be paved not only with good intentions, but with expert professional judgments.