2018 prediction: More unexpected things will come out of the White House

Sunday , January 07, 2018 - 4:00 AM1 comment

E. KENT WINWARD, special to the Standard-Examiner

As we embark on a new year, I thought it apropos to write a column that touches on what may be in store for us in 2018. I use the word "may" because I suffer from a condition that makes me woefully inadequate as a future prognosticator — I’m human.

The human mind is a prediction machine, but on the whole, we fail miserably trying to divine the future. Every few years, I see an analysis of predictions by media pundits. The consensus of those studies: pundits are usually full of … wrong. One particular analysis, done in 2011 by Hamilton College, showed pundits are about as accurate as a coin flip.

In an effort to keep me (and my profession) humble, the study concluded pundits had certain traits that impacted their reliability. One conclusion states: “The final significant factor in a prediction’s outcome was having a law degree; lawyers predicted incorrectly more often.” (In fairness, these were lawyers who, like me, made predictions in the media, not the courtroom or the office.) An attorney's job is to make accurate predictions on how the current laws will work on behalf of, or against, their clients. We usually do a fairly good job in that milieu. But that's quite different from predicting economic, cultural or political futures. The takeaway is this: listen to your lawyer on legal matters, but take us with a grain of salt in the media.

Most of the time, human beings end up doing what the pundits do: they flip a mental coin. Then, we call it out: heads or tails; black or red; Democrat or Republican; bull or bear. Pick a path, then move forward. To complicate things further, our predictions are clouded by our biases. So the only way to predict is to first acknowledge the serious limitations of most predictions. Second, recognize confirmation bias and adjust expectations accordingly; third, hedge your bets. Fourth, and finally, be prepared to be spectacularly wrong.

Despite the inability to predict the future, we all still crave the comfort of knowing what to expect. We devote a lot of time and attention to our imaginations, then act accordingly in order to control and shape the future to our benefit. A sense of certainty about the future is what allows us to plan and move forward. Our laws, social groups, governments, businesses and families are all organized around creating a certain predictability. However, we mustn't entirely dismiss educated guesses; predictions based on trends, history and processes already set in motion. Our desire to know what the future holds is closely tied to the desire to control our own fates, and our fates, to a degree, are tied to the choices we make.

So with that caveat, I'll flip my coin and give you a couple of predictions for 2018:

• What goes up, must come down. Yes, gravity and economic cycles are fantastic tools for predicting the future. Right now, the Dow is at an all-time high. Economic growth is steady. Real estate prices are approaching 2007 levels in many areas. Things are up. The United States is in an almost-nine-year economic ascent. The longest duration of U.S. economic growth, historically, has been between the years 1991-2001. That's 10 years. The safe bet is that the economy will go down. (Hedging my bets, I'm not saying the decline will be this year, but at some point in the future, it must come down.)

• More totally unexpected things will come out of the White House. This is actually one of those vague predictions that's paradoxically right on the money, but also shows why lawyers are awful prognosticators, e.g.: I'd have never predicted that personal legal counsel of the president of the United States would send a cease and desist letter to a book publisher. Although, given President Trump’s long history with unsuccessful libel suits, it should have been a softball. As his attorney, I would have advised something like this: “That would be completely pointless legally, as it will do the opposite of what you want: give the book unwanted publicity without a legal basis for stopping publication. The Constitution has this thing called the First Amendment.” Yes, most attorneys would never believe any lawyer would send such a letter. Yet the letter got sent because lawyers also know, from experience, that we have limited control over clients, but we don’t like predicting they will ignore us.

Last year was completely out of the ordinary if you've been watching the goings-on at the White House, yet, somehow, still predictable. Nothing normal seems to be happening; therefore, I see no reason why we should expect anything other than the unexpected.

• The Supreme Court will make a ruling that causes outrage. I know this is like using a two-headed coin, flipping it high, and calling heads. But remember, the odds are against us prognosticators, so we must even out the playing field. Odds on which Supreme Court decision will upset the most people next year? While gerrymandering and sales tax cases will have more actual impact on more citizens, the ruling in Masterpiece Cakeshop v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission will likely generate the most attention and press coverage.

So there it is, folks, my mental coin-flips. Happy New Year! And if, perchance, you dislike my predictions, I've a special coin two-headed coin you may borrow to make your very own, free of charge.

E. Kent Winward is an Ogden attorney. Twitter: @KentWinward.

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