Dan Gardner is the New York Times best-selling author of Risk, Future Babble, Superforecasting (co-authored with Philip E. Tetlock), and How Big Things Get Done (co-authored with Bent Flyvbjerg). His books have been published in 26 countries and 20 languages. Prior to becoming an author, Gardner was an award-winning investigative journalist. More >

The Man Who Predicted Reagan's Future

One of the most dazzling feats in the history of political prognostication begins with a mistake. "Today is February 6, 2011, and the nation is celebrating ex-President Ronald Reagan's 100th birthday. Mr. Reagan is spending the day quietly with his wife and some friends, cutting brush on his ranch in Santa Barbara." Clearly, Ronald Reagan will not be cutting brush on what would have been his 100th birthday. But bear in mind that those words were written in January 1983. The author was casting his mind forward to the distant date of February 6, 2011, and imagining himself looking back on the legacy of Ronald Wilson Reagan. And he was astonishingly accurate. "Ronald Reagan might have gone down as one of the worst presidents America ever had," he wrote. Too true. In January 1983, the outlook was grim. Stock markets were tumbling and the economy was taking the second plunge in a double-dip recession. Unemployment was in double digits and rising. Many feared worse to come. In a long essay published in the New York Times, a young writer named Ben Stein compared Ronald Reagan to Herbert Hoover and explained how Reagan may be leading America into another Great Depression. Reagan's approval rating was a dismal 37 per cent. And falling. Numbers like that made Jimmy Carter a one-term president and plenty of pundits were sure Reagan would join him in that ignominious club. Lou Cannon, Reagan's longtime biographer, even predicted Reagan wouldn't run for re-election -- because that's what Nancy Reagan told him. But unlike almost everyone else, our futurist saw better days ahead. "It was in early 1983 that things took a dramatic turn for the better in the first administration of Ronald Reagan," he wrote. The economy roared back to life. Stocks soared. "During the first three years of Reagan's administration, interest rates were so high that even rich people couldn't afford to borrow money from the banks. But by 1984 the economy was so good in America that rich people were in the majority and they re-elected Ronald Reagan in a landslide." Best of all, unemployment disappeared. "In January 1987, there were only nine people out of work in America. Unfortunately, the president's son, the dancer, was one of them." Now I've given the game away. This isn't a serious forecast. It's satire. The author is Andy Rooney. It was funny in January 1983 because times were so bad for Reagan and America it was absurd to think they would get better. Ronald Reagan re-elected in a landslide? A knee-slapper, Andy. And yet, if we discount Rooney's hyperbole, his forecast was exactly right. The pundits struggled mightily to see the future but failed. Rooney went for laughs and nailed it. Two simple points follow. First, supposedly successful predictions are often the product of nothing more than dumb luck. Andy Rooney didn't really forecast Ronald Reagan's future, just as Paul the Octopus didn't actually call the World Cup. Winning the lottery isn't proof you're a psychic. And experts who claim to have made a big call need to provide better evidence than a winning ticket. Second, what seems abundantly clear, even certain, may not come to pass. That's a sobering fact when times are good and the future looks golden. But when things are as bad as they are now, and most experts see nothing but stagnation and decline ahead, it's a relief to remember the future is always uncertain -- and humorists are as likely as PhDs to call it.