In the early days of the 20th century, the progressive vision was that widespread war was simply not possible. A bestselling book of the time, The Great Illusion, argued that the cost of war was prohibitive. Slaughter had become too damned expensive. And, anyway, there was so much “progress” to be experienced. So many borders to be chipped away. So much prosperity to be enjoyed.
Then came 1914… and 20 million deaths in World War I.
Still, when the slaughtering was done, the world decided to give optimism another try. The League of Nations was established. Disarmament treaties were negotiated and signed.
Yet, 20 years later, the world was back at it. This time, it was even worse. More than 75 million died.
Still, the wars, genocides, and depressions weren’t enough to put optimism down for the count. By the end of the regrettable 20th century, the world was back at it, and this time we would get it right.
Like Wile E. Coyote in the Road Runner cartoons, we never learn. And, perhaps that is a virtue. Otherwise it might be impossible to go on.
Still, one does marvel at the way the word is taken by surprise over and over again. And how those who, by their station and claims to expertise, are so often the ones who find themselves fooled again.
As the 20th century neared the end of its disastrous run, a prominent intellectual published a book called The End of History. A better title might have been The Great Illusion, Redux.
The book’s author argued that several factors – the end of the Cold War, the fall of the Soviet Union, the steady move away from nationalism and toward unity in Europe, and China’s embrace of capitalism and trade – all signaled the arrival of a new and better world. One where, implicitly, there would be no more war. No big ones anyway. We would all become freer and more prosperous.
At the same time, there was a near-universal embrace of globalism.. along with the coming of the new, digital age with the arrival of the Internet. Toward the end of his first term, President Bill Clinton even asserted before Congress that “the era of big government is over.”
It was the dawn of a new, better, freer, and more rational age.
Pretty, anyway, to think so.
In the new century, the surprises came quick and hard and left the experts reeling, like a pug fighter who keeps taking hits but won’t go down.
The first great surprise was, of course, 9/11.
There had been warning signs. There always are. America was surprised at Pearl Harbor. Again, when the Chinese came across the Yalu and almost chased the Americans out of Korea. Then again at Tet, disabusing Americans who had been assured by their leaders that all was going just fine in Vietnam.
A reputation for “crying wolf” doesn’t earn you a promotion. So you stick with the narrative.
In each of those cases, the warning signs were ignored or brushed aside. Partly, one supposes, out of complacency. A reputation for “crying wolf” doesn’t earn you a promotion. So you stick with the narrative.
There had, of course, been warning signs in the days and months before the attacks on the World Trade Towers and the Pentagon. Al Qaeda had bombed hotels and embassies in Africa along with an American warship. And a few people were warning that more – and more deadly – attacks were coming.
Less than three months before the 9/11 attacks, ABC News reporter John Miller addressed a conference of the International Association of Bomb Technicians and Investigators in Albuquerque. Miller was one of the very few Western journalists who had interviewed Osama bin Laden.
Miller told the 700 people attending the conference that al Qaeda was planning “significant attack on the U.S… and soon.”
One of the bomb techs who attended the conference remembers, “sitting there and watching Miller’s video presentation. It showed bin Laden vowing attacks and cutting to images of the Pentagon, New York, and the Capitol. And I was thinking, ‘No way. There’s just no way they’re going to attack all these things.’”
And then, there was FBI agent Colleen Rowley, who sent memos to the director of the FBI telling him about Midlle Eastern males showing up with lots of cash at flight schools in Minnesota and Oklahoma, asking to learn how to fly an airplane but not how to land one.
Her warnings were ignored at headquarters, where she was no doubt viewed as a crackpot. Perhaps even as that “hysterical woman.”
Fighting the Last War
To make sure this sort of terrorist attack never happened again, Washington spent hundreds of billions, if not trillions, adding more layers to the national security bureaucracy.
The nation recovered, of course. Things picked up where they had left off, especially with regard to the economy… It sailed on winds of deficit spending, easy credit, and compulsive real estate speculation. What could possibly go wrong?
Nothing, according to elite opinion.
Oh, there were voices of warning and even alarm. For example, as explored in the September American Consequences magazine, Congressman Ron Paul warned the House Financial Service Committee that mortgage subsidies were dangerously distorting the U.S. housing market, years before the 2008 crisis. And financial publisher Porter Stansberry published a letter titled “Freddie Mac and Fannie Mae Are Going to Zero: How to Protect Yourself from the Greatest Financial Calamity of Our Lives” in June 2008… mere months before they plunged from $25 a share to less than $1.
And not all of the warnings were so easily dismissed as those of contrarians Dr. Paul and Stansberry. “Crackpots,” some experts said. Of course, one doesn’t write off legendary investor Warren Buffett easily. Instead, the experts labeled him with more polite “crackpot” terms… an outlier, an eccentric, or merely someone who was voicing the “minority opinion.”
The majority, you see, comprised the ranks of experts who worked for and even led those institutions with the most to lose if, and when, the bubble popped. Their mood was “no worries.” Outfits like Lehman Brothers, Merrill Lynch, AIG, Freddie Mac, Fannie Mae… and so on.
Soon, the economy was sandbagged by a collapse none of them saw coming or had taken precautions against.
These things do happen, even to the best of economies. And experts can’t always be right.
But for some things, they are almost always wrong. Particularly with the big, important surprises.
More than a year before the 2016 Republican Convention, Ann Coulter took part in one of those tedious, televised panels where experts talk politics. With great self-assurance, they explain to the plebes in the audience how things are and will be. Who will be nominated, and why. And of course, who will then go on to win the election.
People watch and, presumably, pay attention. And why not? These people are experts after all. And if you can’t trust experts…
When Coulter predicted Donald Trump would be the Republican nominee, the rest of the panel and the studio audience erupted in a burst of condescending laughter. You could almost read thought bubbles over the heads of the other panelists – the real experts. “Crackpot” was likely the most complimentary name they were thinking.
Trump, of course, did get the nomination. But, hey, experts can’t win them all. And every single “expert” went on to predict, when the election came around, that Hillary Clinton would win – easily.
It seems that even if you can’t win ‘em all, you ought to win at least some. Especially if you are
It seems that even if you can’t win ‘em all, you ought to win at least some. Especially if you are an expert.
But the experts who missed the election of Donald Trump also missed the vote in Great Britain for Brexit. Which came down, in the essentials, to a rejection of a big part of that End of History vision.
And contrary to expert predictions, China was not becoming an enlightened despotism, if any such arrangement were ever possible. It was turning into a hostile force and ignoring the rules and the standards of good global sportsmanship. It was stealing, cheating, and bribing its way to economic power and advantage. Among those it was bribing were a number of “experts” in their various fields of technical expertise.
Still, goods, money, and people were moving around the world. Oh, Trump was playing tariff games. But surely the tides of change, the great forces of history, cannot be held back, even if they are temporarily diverted.
Or so the experts assured us.
And then, the pandemic came.
Some experts had, of course, been predicting it. But many of them got it wrong when the virus first appeared. Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases and one of the most visible members of the White House Coronavirus Task Force, initially played down the danger as being less than that of an ordinary flu. He, and other experts, got it wrong.
The New York Times uncharacteristically distilled the pandemic experts at the Centers for Disease Control to their essence with this headline: “The C.D.C. Waited Its Entire Existence for This Moment. What Went Wrong?”
If the experts get it wrong at each turning point in history… then what good are experts?
If the experts get it wrong at each turning point in history… then what good are experts? We are reminded of Lord Melbourne’s observation:
What all the wise men promised has not happened, and what all the damned fools said would happen has come to pass.
Maybe we should listen less to the experts… and pay more attention to the crackpots.
Plainly, it couldn’t hurt.
Geoffrey Norman is the author of 12 books of fiction and non-fiction, and many articles for periodicals including the Wall Street Journal, Sports Illustrated, National Geographic, Esquire, Men’s Journal, the Weekly Standard, and others.
Read more of his work in American Consequences:
The Debt Trap: Paying for College Forever… The New School of Hard Knocks Schools realized they had a product that people wanted, no matter the cost. And the divide between those who had only a high school education and those who were college graduates became, increasingly, the central fact of American economic life. If you were on the wrong side of that divide, you would likely be left behind to live a life of struggle and worry, ending in frustration and despair.
But My Pension! That Was a Promise When public-sector employees are already being paid more than their counterparts in the private sector (where people are held accountable for performance and can actually be fired), their unions turn their sights to what they will earn when they are no longer working. That is to say, to pensions.
Here to Stay: Heroin My plan was to start there, drive south, and learn more about what I had begun to think of as a heroin “epidemic.” I saw the assignment, in part, as a road trip. I thought about taking my fly rod but decided against it. That turned out to be the right call. It was not a fun trip.