OPED: Humorists offer best predictions

Justin Fox
Tribune News Service

A few weeks ago, when Walt Disney Co. announced its $52.4 billion acquisition of most of 21st Century Fox Inc., lots of people took to Twitter to point out that the merger had been foretold almost two decades earlier.

This was far from the first case of a joke from "The Simpsons" coming true. In the March 2000 episode "Bart to the Future," for example, newly inaugurated president Lisa Simpson complains that "we've inherited quite a budget crunch from President Trump," thus anticipating not only the presidency of Donald Trump but the now-almost-certain increase in the federal deficit during his time in office (although in the Simpsons version, the budget problems were caused by overspending on school breakfasts and midnight basketball).

There are many more such examples: Listicles about the times "The Simpsons" has accurately predicted reality have become an online staple.

This is not because Simpsons creator Matt Groening and his teams of writers through the decades are sinister geniuses. They are, of course, but the phenomenon of jokes coming uncannily true is not at all unique to "The Simpsons." So at this time of year, when lots of people are making forecasts or looking back at how last year's predictions went, I'd like to make the case that humorists may make the best futurists of all.

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I owe this belief mainly to a book that was one of my formative intellectual influences: "The 80s: A Look Back at the Tumultuous Decade 1980-1989," a bestseller published in 1979 by a team of writers led by humorists Tony Hendra, Christopher Cerf and Peter Elbling. Somebody in my family got it for Christmas in 1979, and I remember reading it over and over again during the subsequent months (it was very funny and somewhat off-color, and I was a high school sophomore). I also remember being astounded during subsequent years when many of its joking "reminiscences" of the 1980s seemed to more or less come true.

Most significant was the oil glut that the book said would begin with the December 1985 announcement by the government of Chad that it was sitting atop more than a trillion barrels of oil.

Other real-world phenomena of the 1980s and beyond that featured in the book included the turn to jihad in the Islamic world; the death of print; the rise and rise of gossip journalism; growing hostility to wind energy; ubiquitous TVs in elevators and other public places; no-frills air travel; snow at a World Series game; and the collapse of the Soviet Union.

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Writer Matt Novak, whose Paleofuture blog chronicles past visions of what is to come, has a post on satirical visions of the future advertising landscape that illustrates this nicely. A series of cartoons from the late 1800s and early 1900s, most from the humor magazine Life (which went out of business in the early 1930s, clearing the way for Henry Luce to acquire the rights to the name in 1936 and found that other Life magazine), show roads with garish billboards every few feet, skies choked with flying advertisements, and a Statue of Liberty covered with advertising slogans. All the cartoons over-predicted how bad things would get. But they were amusing, and they did accurately foresee some of the directions in which advertising would develop.

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The humorist's approach to looking into the future bears some resemblance to scenario planning, a practice developed in the 1950s and 1960s at the Rand Corp. and Hudson Institute and adopted most famously by Royal Dutch Shell Plc in the years leading up to the 1973 oil crisis.

Scenario planning involves coming up with alternative story lines of how things might plausibly develop in the future, and thinking about how a business or other organization can adapt to them. It's not about picking the right scenario, but about opening your mind to different possibilities. To make stories about the future funny, they usually have to be pushed beyond the bounds of plausibility. If they're not pushed too far beyond, though, they can sometimes come true — with the advantage that few "serious" forecasters will have predicted them.

The Trump presidency is a classic case of this. He had been talking about running since the late 1980s, but those in the media and political circles had learned over the years not to take him seriously.

So it was left to the jokers.

— Justin Fox is a columnist for Bloomberg View.