Tuesday, November 11, 2008

The difference between may, might and will

Cicero does not believe in predicting the future- understanding the present seems complicated enough.

Journalists, on the other hand have no such scruples- they are quite happy to extrapolate to absurd conclusions and then print such conclusions as though they were definite fact. For example, for some time the conventional wisdom is that the UK and the Western world will suffer an obesity "epidemic". Now, leaving aside the idea that obesity could somehow be infectious, the numbers quoted for the overweight were generally forecasts, and were based on then-current trends. Usually the journalist would say something like "on current trends by X year 95% of us will be morbidly obese and as a result suffer from high levels of X", usually heart disease, diabetes etc, which are illnesses associated with obesity. Now, this story has become rather old and we now have stories that "obesity may have peaked". This is not a new story- it is simply the other side of the data that had already been published. The difference is simply the story.

The same now applies to journalistic commentary on the current economic position.

I am currently dividing my time between Tallinn and London. As a result I pay some attention to the international commentary on the Baltic economic position. Almost always there are serious mistakes in fact. For example, most journalists note that the three Baltic countries are now in a recession. They also note that they suffer from a current account deficit. However the deficit number usually quoted is 6-12 months old, while the GDP numbers tend to be the latest months. The result is that the journalists seem to believe that the economic situation here is like Iceland, and that like Iceland, the Baltic states will effectively go broke. The forecasts are usually made in the light of some discouraging economic news, such as a -rather overdue, in the light of global problems- credit rating downgrade. Almost never do journalists note that the current account deficit has halved in less than nine months. Partly this is simply because so few journalists understand why this is important, but also, this would get in the way of a good story.

How can Estonia's banking system collapse in isolation, when 90% of the banking system is Swedish owned?

If I listened to the commentators, I would guess that Estonia had been on an international spending spree, like Iceland, when in fact the reverse is true- Estonians have been selling their assets to international investors.

Meanwhile, the inky scribes presume to comment on the latest economic news in the UK as though they even understood it!

Reading the OP-Ed columns, I would now be investing solely in canned food and shotguns. But, in the same way that things were not as good as they were vaunted in the boom, it is increasingly difficult to take the Jeremiads seriously. Now, don't get me wrong- I understand that Britain faces serious economic problems, however I also know that- like the good times- the bad times will not last forever. While, "on current trends" the UK is facing economic annihilation, in actual fact we are most likely to face difficult but probably not impossible times. we will adjust, we will get by.

After all, these same journalists were predicting an easy win for the SNP in the Glenrothes by-election. Well, despite the really low opinion polls for Labour, they were able to win because, as I have often said, the Scots are by no means as interested in independence as the SNP- and the London media- want them to be. After Glasgow East- on then current trends according to the media- Independence was a certainty.

Well maybe, and maybe not.

As so often before, Czeslaw Milosz has it right when he quoted "an old Jew of Galicia" at the beginning of The Captive Mind:

When someone is honestly 55% right, that’s very good and there’s no use wrangling.
And if someone is 60% right, it’s wonderful, it’s great luck, and let him thank God.
But what’s to be said about 75% right?
Wise people say this is suspicious.
Well, and what about 100% right?
Whoever say he’s 100% right is a fanatic, a thug, and the worst kind of rascal.

1 comment:

kiki said...
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