“Let’s be honest. Hillary Clinton is going to be the next president of the United States.” I uttered those fateful words on election day 2016 and then proceeded to lose a few hundred dollars at Predictit.org, where I had bet on a Clinton victory. The experience made me appreciate Yogi Berra’s maxim that “it’s hard to make predictions, especially about the future” even more. That experience combined with what I’ve read about experts’ lousy records making concrete predictions was chastening, to say the least, and now my default answer to, “What do you think is going to happen?” and, “What should we do about [whatever]?” is, “I don’t know.”

It’s a good lesson to remember as we mark the second anniversary of Russia invading Ukraine. I’d say allow more immigration, but that’s a good idea regardless. Reading Richard Hanania’s Public Choice Theory and the Illusion of Grand Strategy: How Generals, Weapons Manufacturers, and Foreign Governments Shape American Foreign Policy, convinced me sanctions will be ineffective if not counterproductive. They stand a very good chance of being worse than doing nothing, and the paradigmatic case for successful sanctions–the end of Apartheid in South Africa–was not due to sanctions but due to other causes.

Was the Russian invasion bad? Yes. Is Vladimir Putin a bad guy? Yes. Do those two facts alone mean we can make things better? No.

The world is filled with problems we do not know how to solve, and it’s unwise to try to keep up with all of them and foolish to try to solve all of them. I basically stopped keeping up with current events after reading Rolf Dobelli’s essay “Avoid News: Towards a Healthy News Diet.” Dobelli argues that news is to the mind as candy is to the body, and he explains that news takes our faulty ways of thinking about risks and makes them worse. As he puts it, for example, “Terrorism is overrated. Chronic stress is underrated.” Most of what you see on the evening news or read on your favorite news website is irrelevant to your daily affairs, and many of the confident pronouncements people are making about this or that will be wrong or correct only fortuitously. Checking the news is like going to the pantry for a bag of chips. It’s OK to do every so often, but just as chronic snacking on junk food ruins our bodies, chronic snacking on junk information ruins our minds.

I’m also inspired by Michael Huemer’s article “In Praise of Passivity” and Chris Freiman’s argument for why it is OK to ignore politics. I don’t think we’re at the stage in our knowledge of the social and moral sciences where we can confidently predict the actual, long-run consequences of many actions and interventions. We can make predictions based on models, which can be informative, but there’s enough randomness in the system that, once again, even the best forecasters aren’t very good at it. For someone who doesn’t specialize in a particular area, a citizen’s or observer’s Hippocratic Oath: first and foremost, don’t make things worse. As Hanania argues, many American military adventures abroad wind up with ad hoc justifications based on jingoism and short-run political expediency. Huemer is right: it’s OK to stand by and watch. Huemerian passivity, of course, isn’t the same as apathy. We should care about what happens in the world, but not to the point of distraction or neglect of our other duties.

In any event, politics is hard and the world is an unimaginably complex place. To the objection that it is not OK to ignore politics and that we have a duty to be informed citizens, Freiman responds by pointing out the overwhelming intellectual burden one needs to bear in order to really understand things and account for the consequences of different policies and proposals. It is hard enough for me to keep up with the scholarly literature in my very narrow field of specialization within economics, and even then, there is a lot I don’t know and end up missing. Christopher Freiman thinks it’s OK to ignore political debates even about very sensitive issues because of the sheer complexity of what is involved and because it’s by no means certain that we will make things better overall. I tend to agree.

So what are we to do? I am learning to pray with Reinhold Niebuhr for the courage to change the things I can, the serenity to accept the things I can’t, and the wisdom to know the difference. What’s happening in Ukraine right now is getting a lot of attention, but it’s almost certainly something I can’t change.


Art Carden is Professor of Economics & Medical Properties Trust Fellow at Samford University, and he is by his own admission as Koched up as they come: he has an award named for Charles G. Koch in his office, he does a lot of work for and is affiliated with an array of Koch-related organizations, and he has applied for and received money from the Charles Koch Foundation to host on-campus events.