The least bad prediction of our post-coronavirus future
By Scott Sumner
I recall feeling sorry for New Yorkers immediately after 9/11. I assumed that New York would be seen as a future target of terrorists, and thus a less desirable place to live. I wondered if people would want to work in tall buildings. In those (paranoid) days many worried about terrorists getting their hands on a nuke. Hmm, which city would they target? (Today, we probably worry too little about that risk.)
How wrong I was! New York’s real estate market went into a huge boom after 9/11, extending a boom that began around 1980. (Indeed if the 1970s you gave an individual tens of millions of free dollars to invest in NYC real estate, it would have been very difficult not to become rich. Ahem. . . .)
Not only were people still willing to work in tall buildings, but in the 2000s it suddenly became trendy for billionaires (who could live anywhere) to buy penthouses 100 floors up in impossibly slim skyscrapers, which looked like they’d topple over in the slightest breeze.
The lesson here is don’t make predictions, especially about the future. But you wouldn’t be reading this unless you expected some sort of prediction. So I’ll make the least bad prediction that one can make after a very traumatic experience like 9/11 or Covid-19; nothing will change after the epidemic is over.
We’ll go back to eating in restaurants and flying to Italy on vacation. Cruise lines will start up again. We’ll go back to working in offices and learning in classrooms. We’ll get on crowded subways and sit in crowded basketball arenas. We’ll still buy our cheap manufactured goods from China.
Of course trends that were occurring before Covid-19 will continue to occur. More online shopping, more Netflix films, and so on. But a continuation of a trend is not a change caused by Covid-19, indeed it’s evidence of no effect.
Now for two more predictions:
1. I predict that my prediction in this post will end up being wrong.
2. I predict that my prediction will be less wrong than most of the grand sweeping predictions that you see on the internet, from pundits who are much smarter than I am. And that’s because no matter how smart you are, the future’s almost impossible to predict. That’s why someone who predicts tomorrow’s stock prices will be similar to today’s stock prices is usually more accurate than the prediction of a much smarter investor who goes out on a limb and predicts sharply higher or lower stock prices tomorrow.
That’s not to say these highly speculative predictions are useless; perhaps they have some value in thinking about what we need to do next. Just don’t take them as the most likely outcome. The most likely outcome is the same as what happened after 9/11; no change in the way we live in America. (Iraq is another story.) And the most likely outcome is the outcome that occurred in America in 1920 after a far worse epidemic; no change in the way we live in America.