The Better Letter: Nobody Really Knows

Nobody has a clue about the post-pandemic "new normal"

The great Aretha Franklin was always ahead of her time. She co-wrote and recorded the anthem of the coronavirus crisis all the way back in 1985. 

Who knew (who’s zoomin’ who)?

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Nobody Really Knows

“Years after Saturday’s Orange Bowl is over,” Darrell Fry wrote for The Tampa Bay Times on December 31, 1999, “it’s likely few people will be talking about Michigan quarterback Tom Brady.” Two decades later, Brady – by then widely regarded as the greatest quarterback ever – signed a $50 million contract with the NFL’s Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

Unable to film new commercials during the coronavirus crisis, advertising agencies turned to technologies that seamlessly alter old film, challenging and discomforting viewers who weren’t sure what they were seeing. During “The Last Dance,” the ESPN documentary series about Michael Jordan and the Chicago Bulls, State Farm ran a commercial featuring expertly doctored footage of longtime “SportsCenter” anchor Kenny Mayne. The producers layered video of Mayne’s 60-year-old mouth onto grainy old footage of his 38-year-old face.

A much younger Mayne is seated at the “SportsCenter” desk in 1998. He describes the Bulls’ sixth NBA championship win before seeming to forecast the future. “This is the kind of stuff that ESPN will eventually make a documentary about,” Mayne says. “They’ll call it something like ‘The Last Dance.’ They’ll make it a 10-part series and release it in the year 2020. It’s going to be lit. You don’t even know what that means yet.” A vintage State Farm logo appears in the background as Mayne adds, “And this clip will be used to promote the documentary in a State Farm commercial.”

Like that commercial, and like the unfortunate Darrell Fry, we humans are only good at forecasting the “future” when we already know what happened.

As Penn’s Philip Tetlock summarized, after an academic career analyzing expert predictions: “the average expert was roughly as accurate as a dart-throwing chimpanzee.”

From time immemorial, people have sought to play God, even to be God. We’re terrible at it. As the great polymath Freeman Dyson explained, the history of science is replete with those “who make confident predictions about the future and end up believing their predictions.” 

Spoiler alert: It’s not just scientists. ` 

Many huge Wall Street careers have been made by seeming to get big predictions right once in a row. I once had a financial advisor blow up at me after I made a presentation demonstrating the impossibility of consistently predicting market behavior. “Somebody has to be able to,” he shrieked. As the economist Alfred Cowles observed decades ago, people “want to believe that somebody really knows.”

Nobody really knows. 

Hundreds of researchers attempted to predict children’s and families’ outcomes, using 15 years of data (full research here). None were able to do so with meaningful accuracy.

Humans routinely make bad predictions. When I was a kid, in a small-town world where nearly everybody worked eight hours per day, at most, a school lesson told me that technology (though my teacher didn’t call it that) would soon make work a half-day prospect at most – that the future would offer us free time galore.

Over 50 years later, I’m still waiting for that promise to be fulfilled.

Hall-of-Famer Tris Speaker predicted that the New York Yankees were making a big mistake by converting Babe Ruth from a pitcher into a full-time outfielder. Legendary performer Charlie Chaplin thought the movies were only a fad. Famed movie producer David Zanuck thought the same thing about television. John Philip Sousa claimed that recorded music would destroy all musical ability. Time magazine thought remote shopping would never catch on. In 1955, Variety predicted that rock-n-roll would be gone by June

United Artists rejected Ronald Reagan in favor of Henry Fonda for the lead in a 1964 political drama called The Best Man because he didn’t have “that presidential look.” 

Nobody really knows.

Here’s the thing. If I read another article purporting to tell me what the world will look like when the current pandemic is over, I’m afraid I’m going to lose it. Nobody has a clue. Nobody really knows.

Sino-American relations may change dramatically. Globalization may become derailed. Trade may be more limited, may look different, and might be conducted with different rules. Strong balance sheets may become more important. Efficiency may wane in importance while redundancy waxes. Marriage may be different. Work-at-home may become routine. Commercial real estate prices may be at risk. American education may change radically. Porn, too.  

series of essays from notable figures and experts suggest other possible changes that may emanate from the struggle with COVID-19, such as the growth of telehealth systems and the effects of health surveillance decisions, new possibilities for learning, for balancing work and life, and habits of kindness that will endure. Torsten Slok, the chief economist at Deutsche Bank Securities, predicts the post-virus world will include a more risk-averse public that prioritizes savings, “similar to what we saw after the Great Depression in the 1930s.”

These ideas are plausible and interesting, perhaps insightful. But nobody really knows.

Here’s my prediction: Less will change than we expect, things will change less than we expect, and any changes will not persist as long as we expect.

Because human nature doesn’t change, I am skeptical of the incessant claims about how different the world will be after the pandemic. Here’s the reality: I don’t really know, either.

Still, I expect most of the changes we see will come in the ways we do things, in our routines, rather than in big cultural shifts.

Tina Fey described to Conan O’Brien (h/t Jonah Goldberg) the crazy, last-minute-all-nighter schedule for Saturday Night Live writers, and noted that it makes no sense until you understand that the schedule was set up in the 1970s, when it was (rightly) assumed that the writers would be ingesting huge quantities of cocaine. The cocaine thing is mostly a thing of the past, but the schedule is still set up as if it weren’t.

Similarly, things we take for granted as normal “because they have always been done that way” are no longer being done that way due to COVID-19, and may never return to “normal.” As Goldberg said, “I keep wondering – and worrying – about what stuff from before the pandemic is going to endure, what stuff created by it will last beyond it, and what the new normal will look like.” The “crawl” of headlines at the bottom of your television screen during cable news broadcasts began when the buildings were still smoking after 9.11 and stuck around thereafter, just like the TSA lines and taking your belt off to thwart terrorism.

So, I worry about the futures of restaurants, movie theaters, airlines, and traditional retail. I expect how we work to be different. I look for more supply chain diversification going forward.  

However, nobody really knows (I least of all).

In related news, I expect the unintended consequences of the coronavirus crisis to be remarkable.

The planning fallacy suggests that getting “back to normal” will be more difficult and will take longer than we expect. Nearly all of us overrate our own capacities and exaggerate our ability to shape the future [insert discussion of Friedrich Hayek’s warnings about the folly of planning here]. We routinely underestimate the time, costs, and risks of future actions while, at the same time, overestimating the benefits thereof.

We all love it when a plan comes together. 

But that’s not what usually happens. Except in the movies. Or in commercials filmed today that seem to have been filmed decades ago.

“Back to normal” might look remarkably normal. Or not.

Nobody really knows.


Totally Worth It

The most powerful thing I saw this week is the video below.

Consider this amazing tidbit of research-related data.

The question is a lay-up. Yet only three percent of “market professionals” — none of whom is likely to be a virologist — admitted they don’t know when a working COVID-19 vaccine might be available. That figure should have been 100 percent.

Nobody really knows.

If “market professionals” don’t know they don’t that, even to a rough approximation, the universe of “market professionals” is vulnerable to just about any silly thing that might come down the pike.

The Doobie Brothers performed a “live in isolation” version of “Black Water,” originally released in 1974, the year I graduated high school.

Steve McQueen’s heist thriller, Widows (which is a good bit more than just that), includes a continuous two-and-a-half-minute tracking shot that emphasizes the close proximity between the wealthy and poor in Chicago as well as the differences between their worlds. “The Jack Mulligan [Colin Farrell] character, who is a politician, gives a speech in a poor rundown area and then gets into his car and drives home,” explained McQueen’s cinematographer, Sean Bobbitt. “We’re outside the car that has tinted windows so we only hear conversation between Mulligan and his assistant Siobhan [Molly Kunz] but we see the slow transformation from poverty to wealth in real-time.”

That’s impressive filmmaking.


Benediction

Aretha Franklin’s 1972 recording, Amazing Grace, is still the highest-selling gospel album ever (over 2 million records sold and a Grammy win, too) and one of the great vocal performances of all-time. It is actually a greatest hits album from two days of concerts. It was recorded live at New Temple Missionary Baptist Church in Watts January 13-14 of that year with Aretha’s regular band, Reverend James Cleveland, and The Southern California Community Choir. Some songs on that album were only performed on the first night, some only on the second night, and some on both nights. The timeless album is the best of the best.

Those performances were filmed, and after 46 years of mistakes and legal wrangling, the finished documentary finally made it to screens last year. It is spectacular. Read Wesley Morris’s review in The New York Times here and Rembert Browne’s in The Ringer here. When you see it, look for Mick Jagger and Charlie Watts standing in the back on the second night, after word had gotten around that something truly special was happening.

1972 was a difficult and contentious time. It was an ugly time. Domestic terrorism was rampant. Bombings were common. The “generation gap” was wide. Vietnam was raging. So were American streets and campuses. The same day Aretha’s concert began, President Richard Nixon announced that 70,000 U.S. troops would leave Vietnam that spring, cutting American forces there in half. Also that same day, Alabama Governor George Wallace announced his candidacy for president.

It was a difficult and contentious time.

Aretha was a strong, black woman at the height of her prodigious powers, offering beauty and grace to a world desperately in need of both. For this week’s benediction, here is the magisterial Ms. Franklin, singing the classic 18th Century hymn by redeemed slave trader John Newton, Amazing Grace, from the album and film of the same name. It is as fresh as ever. We are all witnesses.

How sweet the sound.

Contact me via rpseawright [at] gmail [dot] com or on Twitter (@rpseawright). Don’t forget to subscribe and share.

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Issue 15 (May 29, 2020)