People Staff
December 24, 1979 12:00 PM


The Economist magazine of London, every decade or two, assigns an editor the job of predicting the major problems of the ensuing decade. The editor who executed that function in 1970 told an audience in South Carolina a secret: namely, that in his researches, he had discovered that the only absolutely safe prediction a futurist can make is that the body of his predictions will prove false. Having stripped himself of credibility, he proceeded to advise the audience chattily that the three major concerns of the year 2000 would be birth control, energy and Soviet expansionism.

By the way, the Economist’s futurist is not John Kenneth Galbraith, though Professor Galbraith would certainly qualify. In 1965 JKG predicted New York City could end all its problems by doubling its budget (we New Yorkers saw him, redoubled; and every day, in every way, New York proceeded to get worse and worse). In 1968 he predicted that the government of South Vietnam would fall in six weeks (he was seven years off). In 1972 he predicted George McGovern would win in a landslide (he was a landslide off). History is terribly mean-spirited about JKG’s predictions. Shortly after writing a book whose principal thesis was that the major industrial concerns in America couldn’t suffer (because they effectively controlled the economy), the Dow Jones collapsed, and some of the companies he spoke of damn near went broke. JKG has given soothsaying a bad name. But here goes:

What will it be like in the ’80s?

1. On the assumption Senator Kennedy is not elected President, the United States will still exist.

2. The women’s liberation movement will expire. What will bring that on isn’t a depression, or informal living habits, or a return to conventional sexual standards. What will happen is that someone—some unknown person, the kind of guy who gets asked questions by the Inquiring Photographer for the New York Daily News—will utter one of those truisms that suddenly stop the world in its tracks, like the fabled innocent who told the emperor he had no clothes on. My prophet will say: “Men and women are different.” And suddenly the force of that statement will wash away an entire literature and make pointless a crusade; and when that comes to pass, women will be so genuinely fulfilled they’ll have nothing left to fight for—though Bella Abzug will spend New Year’s Eve of 1990 picketing the men’s room at Grand Central Terminal.

3. For a while the economy will atrophy, along with the appetite for work. Right now we are headed for a long sleep in the noonday sun, ’cause Santa Claus is coming to town. In 1925 the average American worked 60 percent of all the days he lived. In 1978 he was working 40 percent of all the days he lived. That’s a “half-a—-d performance,” as they’d have printed it in the ’20s. Now that we feel free to spell out the word, we want typewriters that have a computer memory, so that we can depress a single key in order to spare ourselves the tedium of typing out the letters. But about midway through the decade something will happen. A disciple of Professor Galbraith will come up with that marginal form—maybe a questionnaire on whether you paid your son overtime for washing the dishes on Mother’s Day. Aroused citizens will descend on Washington, take all of Congress hostage against the delivery of the Secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services, who will thereupon be tried publicly for high crimes against the spirit of the Declaration of Independence. Tehran will offer him sanctuary.

4. Governor Brown of California will propose a law designed to appease the demands of gluttony and health, to wit alternate days for eating and exercising. No food to be served on odd days, which will be given over to exercise to compensate for the previous day’s excesses. Toward the end of the ’80s he will take his proposal to the people and run for President under the banner of the National Synergistic Party. But on Election Day his followers will be too busy either eating or exercising to go to the polls.

5. At the current level of dependence on energy, every American every day uses 95 times as much energy as his body produces. This means that each of us has the equivalent of 95 slaves working full-time. By the end of the ’80s, one-quarter of those slaves will be emancipated—they will be freed by insulated windows, smaller engines, a gradual southerly migration and an increase in the efficiency of electrical motors. Look for a move back to manually operated typewriters.

6. The Supreme Court will continue to be a problem, as it plies its penchant for writing into the Constitution what the Supreme Court would have written into the Constitution if the Supreme Court had been the Founding Fathers. Mrs. Madalyn O’Hair will file a lawsuit prohibiting prayer in churches and synagogues on the grounds that prayer committed on tax-exempt property is a violation of Church and State. The Supreme Court will ponder her petition and by a narrow majority agree with her; but there will be some confusion, because one member of the majority will hold that prayers offered up imploring providence to help separate Church and State should be allowed “because they are clearly compatible with the purposes of the Constitution.”

The American Civil Liberties Union will sue to give the Ku Klux Klan and the Nazi party equal time on television and radio, and Sen. Jesse Jackson of Illinois will file, insisting that the PLO should be granted equal rights. The Supreme Court will divide on the issue, but in a profusion of decisions that leave broadcast executives baffled. Congress will react by passing legislation turning radio and television over to private hands with no restrictions on the freedom of operators to put on whomever they want. Jimmy Carter, interviewed on his farm in Plains, Ga., will tell the press that windfall profits should be taken from the broadcasters, but the New York Times will argue, with that orotund logic for which it is renowned, that excluding Nazi propaganda oughtn’t to give rise to extra taxation. The Supreme Court will thereafter change the subject, turning its attention to the Department of Education’s ruling that all students who attend a publicly supported school must date only members of another race or ethnic group.

7. What is the worst thing that could happen during the ’80s? In international affairs, creeping acceptance of Soviet preeminence, with a corresponding loss in our own freedom of action. There’s a lot working against us, but there’s a lot that’s working for us. In 1987 the Soviet Union will experience the 70th consecutive drought since the revolution of 1917, forcing them to buy bread from the tortured farmers of the free world. Ilya Ehrenburg’s prediction may prove ripe, that when all the world is covered in asphalt, somewhere a blade of grass will break through.

8. Domestically, the great reversal will come as people realize that the government is the same creature that delivered you today the letter mailed 10 days earlier. People will look up, eyes wide open, and, verily, they will perceive the great congruities of state action all over the world. A few seasons ago I asked Professor Galbraith at lunch whether he would be free for an engagement during the first week in May. He replied, after consulting his appointment book, that during the first week in May he would be lecturing at Moscow University. “Oh?” I asked, “What do you have left to teach them?” Ten years from now will be the age of the prodigal son. J.K. Galbraith, Ralph Nader, George McGovern and Arthur Schlesinger Jr. will form a Draft Buckley for President Committee. I’ll run, win, and they’ll get their share of the windfall profits that will inure to all of America, from sea to shining sea.


When you read someone’s predictions for the 1980s, of one thing you can be sure. The response is not out of knowledge, but only because that person got asked. But if something predicted is already happening, one is on safer ground. My reference, I should say, is to serious predictions, not harmlessly effulgent rhetoric; no one, and certainly not William F. Buckley Jr., should be chastised for saying that Barry Gold-water (or now Ronald Reagan) would march to the Presidency, or suggesting that expenditures for New York City services could enjoy a large cut if Buckley were to elect himself mayor, or even for asserting, as Buckley has done, that a dip in the stock market prices somehow portends big trouble for big corporations.

My serious predictions for the next decade all center on the most interesting development of these last years—the great American movement to the right. Enough of its effects are now evident so that prediction is fairly safe.

The true prophets of the great conservative revolt are, of course, Howard Jarvis and Prof. Milton Friedman; the first the rough-hewn crusader, the second the masterful intellectual and moral force. In their wake swim a shoal of lesser advocates—Paul Gann, Prof. Arthur Laffer, William Simon, presidential candidate Meldrim Thomson Jr. of New Hampshire and Gov. Ed King of Massachusetts. I would add William Buckley to the list, but he has a sense of humor, which in this company is disqualifying. Also there is no known Buckleyism or other similarly designated regression. It is not that Buckley lacks courage: Rather, he knows the risk of being associated with something that might not work.

The basic theme of the great conservative revolt is that the rich in this country are taking a terrible beating from the poor. Elementary social justice now requires a positive defense of the very affluent. Only by paying them more can we get more out of them on the job. The work ethic of the average man is a matter of low moral tone made worse by union rules. The remedy is right-to-work legislation and a good stiff lecture on the need for a return to earlier values. But above the $100,000 level, the only answer is incentives—more money.

Two lines of action are needed to advance the conservative revolt: One is a drastic cutback in public services and taxes; the other is to leave the management of the economy to the Federal Reserve System.

Public services are most needed by those of average income and below. The affluent can afford private schools, have private golf courses and swimming pools, can often afford hospital care and can buy books. Those in lower or non-brackets need good public schools, public parks, public medical care, publicly assisted housing and public libraries. Those who are rich don’t need welfare; in the absence of income, a welfare check is very welcome, whatever the damage to moral tone. Thus my first prediction: These facts will not long remain a secret.

They are not now wholly out of sight. About two-thirds of the taxes saved by Proposition 13 in California, it is now known, went to larger property owners and corporations. The services most affected were those most used by the poorer urban dwellers.

The conservative revolutionaries hold that public services deny freedom of choice, a point soon to be made at length on public television by Professor Friedman. But do good public schools really impair freedom? Or clean water? Or a good police force? Doesn’t the Friedman thesis that liberty can best be measured in the modern metropolis by the depth of the accumulated garbage require not only an active imagination but also a strong nose? Taxes do subtract ineluctably from our freedom to spend money. But doesn’t income add visibly to the freedom of the welfare mother? All these questions, I predict, will eventually be asked—and answered.

The second weapon of the great conservative revolt is monetary policy. The conservatives are also having great present success here. Guided by Federal Reserve Chairman Paul Volcker, they have captured the economic policy of a Democratic administration. But here too the recent past is a fairly reliable guide to the near future.

Let no one succumb to the terrible mysticism of monetary policy. Faced with a strong demand for goods that is pulling up prices and contending with powerful corporations, unions, OPEC, and farm, tariff and other public policies that are shoving up prices, the Federal Reserve cuts back on demand by cutting back on the spending and respending of money borrowed from the banks. Thus the present astronomic interest rates. More equitable measures, such as higher taxes to moderate luxury spending, a strong legal hold on corporate prices, incomes and wages, a closer watch on indulgent defense expenditures, are deemed to be outworn liberal dogma.

This policy does serve the revolution of the rich. The initial impact is on the smaller businessman, the house builder, the merchant and the farmer, all of whom exist on borrowed money. Exxon with its ample cash from its own earnings is untroubled. The couple without much cash is denied its condominium or house. The family with ready scratch escapes. And the banks get the high interest rates. For no other business is a high price during inflation so completely righteous.

So now my next prediction: That monetary policy works well for the fortunate and not at all for the less fortunate will increasingly be noticed. And this will be especially so if the policy arrests inflation. For it checks inflation only as it creates enough idle plant capacity, excess-goods inventory and unemployment to put a brake on the upward thrust of wages and prices. It checks inflation at the expense of the man or woman who gets sacked, laid off or who never gets a job.

On this even the advocates of monetary policy agree. The New York Times recently carried predictions of Citibank and Chase Manhattan on the effects of the policy. I generously add them to my own. It will cost the New York labor market between 30,000 and 60,000 jobs. However, the banks were said to have struck “an optimistic note”: Enough people were fired from New York’s municipal payroll during the last recession so that fewer would need to go now.

The question is whether monetary policy will really stop inflation. During its last strong use in 1974 by Gerald Ford, industrial prices and wages never stopped rising. It did send up unemployment and it did help send Ford out of office. Controlling inflation by monetary policy will, most likely, get us both inflation and unemployment.

I would also predict, the present being our guide, that we will see the rich break ranks on public services. They ride in airplanes and do not wish to have the engines dropping off at random. So they—possibly including even Buckley—will want tighter regulation of air safety. They will also want atomic energy made safe for investors and the public too. And they will accept that while the government should get off the back of the automobile industry, it should lift Chrysler onto its back, along with numerous railroads and steel mills. Socialism will continue to come not from socialists but when a large bank tells a large corporation that Washington is its only hope.

The conservative revolt certainly should cause some soul-searching by liberals. We need to give more attention to the quality of public management. The test of what is needed in public services cannot always be what conservatives can be made to accept. But my tears are for my conservative friends. Their revolution, in contrast with their much safer academic advocacy of the past, is actually being tried; the effects will be a matter of hard experience. Thus my final prediction: These effects will be painful and not, in the end, very conservative. Deep in my own soul is a lurking desire for social tranquillity, something with suspiciously conservative overtones. But social tranquillity, alas, depends on the contentment not of the few at the top but of the many below.

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