Clairvoyants and Cassandras in the WQ

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Clairvoyants and Cassandras in the WQ

Michael Hendrix

Past articles are full of predictions—were they right?

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The theme of “the future” occupies an especially beloved space in The Wilson Quarterly’s history. The WQ’s 30th anniversary issue in 2006, “Reading the Future,” devoted itself to ruminations on things to come and the history of such forecasts. The authors waxed Nostradomically on everything from the global spread of English and advancements in human biotechnology, to the effect of pharmaceuticals on the future of love. It’s still too early to tell how these predictions will pan out, but the verdict is in on a handful of other WQ prognostications from past years.

In the Summer 1996 cluster on health care, C. Everett Koop's “The Future of the Hospital,” aired concerns about coming budgetary pressures on hospitals exerted by for-profit health management organizations (HMOs). The former U.S. Surgeon General also worried that the managed care system was failing to reduce healthcare costs. His worries now appear justified—the per capita national health expenditure more than doubled between 1997 and 2010. Eric J. Cassell argued, as many still do, that in an increasingly complex and expensive healthcare system, more support for primary care is “the only choice that makes sense.” The Obama administration shares Cassel’s view on the importance of primary care. (And, luckily, medical students are also going into primary care at higher rates than before.) Highly relevant today is Willard Gaylin’s warning that “health unlimited,” the complete absence of treatment “rationing,” could lead to an aging and health-obsessed citizenry overburdening the nation’s health care system. “The population at large must reach a consensus, through the messy—but noble—devices of democratic government.” Sixteen years later, the Right and Left are still busily engaging in the debate Gaylin hoped for.

Further back yet, in the summer 1994 issue, Douglas Gomery’s “In Search of the Cybermarket presciently characterized several aspects of today’s high-tech world. He foresaw the importance of fiber-optics to the growth of telecommunication networks, and his prediction of an “electronic future, in which every American is a potential creator (of videos, software, political tracts, etc.) and each home is a potential broadcast studio" aptly describes today’s world of personal blogs, app-programming, and viral YouTube stardom. Not bad for 1994.

Even in the magazine’s first issue in Autumn 1976, WQ authors speculated about the future. In an edited transcript from a Wilson Center debate on energy, minerals, and America’s economic future, Dennis L. Meadows, co-author of The Limits to Growth, claimed that “the United States will be forced to accept a per capita energy consumption level lower than it has today.” Meadows was right— though perhaps for the wrong reasons. U.S. per capita energy consumption peaked two years later. It was less high prices and regulation that turned the tide than increased efficiency. It’s almost unfair to note Meadows’ glancing reference to the higher costs of shale oil compared to conventional oil, as today’s controversial practice of fracking—the hydraulic fracturing of rocks to obtain oil and natural gas—turns received wisdom about energy on its head. Few saw this change coming.

Fracking hasn’t been the only curveball. Back in 1994, Douglas Gomery didn’t see the Web for what it was. And how could he? “The Internet,” he wrote, “will not work as a mass medium in the future. There is no revenue stream.”

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