Thursday, December 29, 2005

The turn of the year

Cicero has enjoyed the season of Saturnalia turned into Christmas- although the feasting and revelry have been kept to the statutory minimum, as Cicero wishes to fit his clothes in the new year- and not just the baggy ones. In this quiet time before the turn of the year, the news flow is small and the media in Britain concentrate on the surprising fact that winter comes in December. This, together with the annual release of government papers under the thirty, fifty, seventy, or two hundred year rule (ever get the feeling that civil servants take government secrecy a bit too seriously?) comprises the bulk of the news. All this and Bob Geldof making a fool of himself with Tories.

So, even though Cicero knows that the future is essentially unknowable, and that the limits to human knowledge make it entirely random as to whether predictions are accurate or not, he is tempted to think about what things might happen in 2006.

Even for events which are highly likely and highly disruptive, the details are as yet unknowable. For example the 70 year pattern of Kan-to earthquakes under Tokyo has been disrupted, but according to the previous pattern one is overdue. The North Anatolian fault could also unleash an earthquake under Istanbul, but as with Kan-to, the timing and magnitude remains unclear. As always the Californian "big one" could occur this year too. That earthquakes will take place is certain, that they will take place on the Kan-to, North Anatolian or San Andreas faults is not, even though the effects of such quakes are highly dangerous, they are equally unpredictable. Likewise it appears a highly dangerous and disruptive caldera volcanic eruption could be due, for example in Yellowstone National Park, but the time window for this could be out by ten or twenty thousand years. In other words, it would not be a complete surprise if such events were to happen, but there is a huge degree of imprecision as to when. Earthquakes and volcanic eruptions will happen, but their position, timing and size are not predictable in more than the most general way.

In the political world too, we can see some highly dangerous possibilities, but again these are uncertain. The "War on Terror" has already evolved in highly unpredictable ways- the invasion and occupation of Afghanistan and Iraq just being some of the side effects of the September 2001 attacks. However, the failure of the Bush administration to uphold the highest standards of moral conduct has eroded support for the USA dramatically. The scandals of Abu Graib, Guantanamo, "extraordinary rendition" and so on, have only added to the sense of unease that the failure to find weapons of mass destruction had already cast over the operations in Iraq. While further successful acts of terrorism may change the political outlook over a short period, there is an increasing sense of drift amongst the highest councils of the coalition, both in the US and the UK. The neo-con vision of a democratic and peaceful Iraq, is being replaced by a more realistic and more brutal vision, which still allows the withdrawal of the coalition forces. Meanwhile the gathering, and very real, threat of a nuclear armed Iran is concentrating minds both in Washington and in Europe. The delay to the withdrawal of Polish troops from Iraq may be the first sign of a more united resolve to face up to the problems of the middle east. However the precarious political position, both in Israel and the Palestinian territories, makes progress in this area hugely difficult.

Russia takes over the G-8 for 2006. The scandal of an undemocratic, increasingly obstructive, regime in Moscow will be highlighted over 2006 and the resignation of Putin's last, even faintly, liberal advisor- Andrei Illarianov- paradoxically underlines the increasing isolation of the Putin clique. The lack of transparency in Russia is a sign of great weakness. The consistent failures of the regime- losing control in the North Caucasus especially- may well have implications for the political support and success of the regime. The freedom of action that Putin has previously enjoyed may be abridged during Russia's year in the G-8 spotlight. Russian support for such twisted governments as Belarus' Lukashenko or the puppets in Transnistria, Abkhazia or Ossetia may be challenged more strongly. The subborning of Schroeder is a scandal amongst the chanceries of Europe, and Putin is under particular personal scrutiny. There is a real chance, given his KGB background, that he will not be able to cope- and his plans for peaceful retirement, running Russia from the offices of Gazprom, may still come to naught.

In Europe, the pressure on the broken backed regimes of Jacques Chirac and Silvio Berlusconi can only continue, but like Charles II, they may "spend an unconscionable time a-dying". By contrast, Angela Merkel's first steps on the European scene have been surprisingly sure footed- there is a chance that Germany can begin to shake of the lethargy that has afflicted her since re-unification. This has profound implications for the European Union and after the failure of the constitution, the British pragmatic vision of the European Union has certainly gained credibility, if not acceptance. The dynamic new member states continue to show impressive economic performance, but the effect of the huge numbers who have come overseas for work may begin to slow down their stellar progress- the United Kingdom has created more jobs for Poles than Poland has over the past two years.

As for British politics, these are more unpredictable than ever. The emergence of a Tory leader who does not actively repel voters is a first in over a decade, but while necessary, may not be sufficient to spark a real recovery in their fortunes. The suspicion that the new leadership is essentially vapid- relying on style and image, rather than substance- remains. My hunch is that the British electorate has tired of the highly spun and polished Mr. Blair just at a time when the Conservatives have chosen a leader who apes most of Mr. Blair's positions and even mannerisms. As for Mr. Brown, the humorlous intensity and control freakery in most of his positions is beginning to grate. The frustration with high taxation seems set to grow. Thinking more broadly, the increasing unpopularity of the Police is interesting- the Police are being given ever wider powers under terrorism and ASBO legislation- and the more thoughtful are very unhappy. The Police themselves, faced with an ill thought out and unpopular move to centralise control into fewer regional police forces may even emerge as a focus for some opposition to the illiberal polices of the current government.

We can not predict the effects of what Nassim Taleb calls "Black Swan" events- assassinations or epidemics- although doubtless the random swirl could throw up some of these too. It is therefore not so much the real future that we can think about, but the changes that may happen to "now". Perhaps that is the secret of good politics: not detailed forecasts which will inevitably be wrong, but rather a set of guiding principles about how to understand and how to react to change.

As I sat down to write this I examined various predictions- astrology, bible code and so on. Predictions about the "rapture" and "end times" have a vast discontinuity with what I understand about the universe about me. For myself I do not believe that the creator of the universe - quantum, fractal, and vast in scale- is likely to behave in the manner that Oklahoma rednecks- or dippy New Agers- seem to expect. Glimpsing the beauty and scale of the nearby star fields seems to make the "end time" predictions, whether based on the Book of Revelations or not, look like children's fairy tales, and even a thousand year rapture is the blink of an eye in such a place- these "predictions" are human stories, not divine ones and as we know, all humans are completely fallible.

Speaking personally, 2005 was a year of transition. I hope that 2006 can be a year of achievement. I wish everyone a happy and prosperous new year.

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