Category Archives: scenarios

Wall St. explained…

by Michael Lewis.  We need financial regulation, but I’m not sure there is any way to control really smart, greedy people.  But we all pay the consequences.

Whole Earth Discipline

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I went to the Long Now seminar last night to hear Stewart Brand talk about his new book, Whole Earth Discipline. Stewart is always cutting edge and thought-provoking, and I’m looking forward to reading this new book. Stewart has also made all of his research and notes available on-line, which should add to the experience.     

Cyber attacks and unintended consequences

I’m putting this in the new category “inevitable surprises” because I think it’s talked about but not appreciated or prepared for. We depend on the internet for everything now–big change in a very short time. And the bad guys know it. I’m glad the US government is starting to get prepared–hope they do enough.

Here’s in interesting story about a knew kind of “friendly fire” consequences–when you go after your enemies you can hurt a lot of spectators.

U.S. Weighs Risks of Civilian Harm in Cyberwarfare

It would have been the most far-reaching case of computer sabotage in history. In 2003, the Pentagon and American intelligence agencies made plans for a cyberattack to freeze billions of dollars in the bank accounts of Saddam Hussein and cripple his government’s financial system before the United States invaded Iraq. He would have no money for war supplies. No money to pay troops.

“We knew we could pull it off — we had the tools,” said one senior official who worked at the Pentagon when the highly classified plan was developed.

But the attack never got the green light. Bush administration officials worried that the effects would not be limited to Iraq but would instead create worldwide financial havoc, spreading across the Middle East to Europe and perhaps to the United States.   (…)

Mark Seiden, a Silicon Valley computer security specialist who was a co-author of the National Research Council report, said, “The chances are very high that you will inevitably hit civilian targets — the worst-case scenario is taking out a hospital which is sharing a network with some other agency.”

And while such attacks are unlikely to leave smoking craters, electronic attacks on communications networks and data centers could have broader, life-threatening consequences where power grids and critical infrastructure like water treatment plants are increasingly controlled by computer networks. (…)

Another kind of speculator…

Scifi writer Bruce Sterling does his State of the World 2009 at the WELL.

2009: A retrospective

Historian Niall Ferguson, noted historian (Harvard) and author (Virtual History), published an intriguing “Imaginary Retrospective on 2009” in the Financial Times (registration required). We’re all focused on how bad things could get this new year, and Ferguson speculates for us. Not sure I accept all of his conjectures, but it’s a reminder how quickly things can change in a complex and tightly wound world.

What economists missed

I’m fascinated by the failure of economists to foresee the meltdown. Brad DeLong lists the things his failed to see coming, which is an important lesson for scenario thinkers about the kinds of little and unexpected things that turn out to have huge consequences.

Why I Was Wrong…

Calculated Risk issues an invitation:

Calculated Risk: Hoocoodanode?: Earlier today, I saw Greg “Bush economist” Mankiw was a little touchy about a Krugman blog comment. My reaction was that Mankiw has some explaining to do. A key embarrassment for the economics profession in general, and Bush economists Greg Mankiw and Eddie Lazear in particular, is how they missed the biggest economic story of our times…. This was a typical response from the right (this is from a post by Professor Arnold Kling) in August 2006:

Apparently, the echo chamber of left-wing macro pundits has pronounced a recession to be imminent. For example, Nouriel Roubini writes, “Given the recent flow of dismal economic indicators, I now believe that the odds of a U.S. recession by year end have increased from 50% to 70%.” For these pundits, the most dismal indicator is that we have a Republican Administration. They have been gloomy for six years now…

Sure Roubini was early (I thought so at the time), but show me someone who has been more right! And this brings me to Krugman’s column: Lest We Forget

… Why did so many observers dismiss the obvious signs of a housing bubble, even though the 1990s dot-com bubble was fresh in our memories? Why did so many people insist that our financial system was “resilient,” as Alan Greenspan put it, when in 1998 the collapse of a single hedge fund, Long-Term Capital Management, temporarily paralyzed credit markets around the world? Why did almost everyone believe in the omnipotence of the Federal Reserve when its counterpart, the Bank of Japan, spent a decade trying and failing to jump-start a stalled economy?

One answer to these questions is that nobody likes a party pooper…. There’s also another reason the economic policy establishment failed to see the current crisis coming. The crises of the 1990s and the early years of this decade should have been seen as dire omens, as intimations of still worse troubles to come. But everyone was too busy celebrating our success in getting through those crises to notice…

[I]n addition to looking forward, I think certain economists need to do some serious soul searching. Instead of leaving it to us to guess why their analysis was so flawed, I believe the time has come for Mankiw, Kling and many other economists to write a post titled “Why I was wrong”.

Let me say what things I was “expecting,” in the sense of anticipating that it was they were both likely enough and serious enough that public policymakers should be paying significant attention to guarding the risks that it would create:

(1) A collapse of the dollar produced by a panic flight by investors who recognized the long-term consequences of the U.S. trade deficit.

or:

(2) A fall back of housing prices halfway from their peak to pre-2000 normal price-rental ratios.

I was not expecting (2) plus:

(3) the discovery that banks and mortgage companies had made no provision for how the loans they made would be renegotiated or serviced in the event of a housing-price downturn.

(4) the discovery that the rating agencies had failed in their assessment of lower-tail risk to make the standard analytical judgment: that when things get really bad all correlations go to one.

(5) the fact that highly-leveraged banks working on the originate-and-distribute model of mortgage securitization had originated but had not distributed: that they had held on to much too much of the risks that they were supposed to find other people to handle.

(6) the panic flight from all risky assets–not just mortgages–upon the discovery of the problems in the mortgage market.

(7) the engagement in regulatory arbitrage which had left major banks even more highly leveraged than I had thought possible.

(8) the failure of highly-leveraged financial institutions to have backup plans for recapitalization in place in the case of a major financial crisis.

(9) the Bush administration’s sticking to a private-sector solution for the crisis for months after it had become clear that such a solution was no longer viable.

We could have interrupted this chain that has gotten us here at any of a number of places. And I still am trying to figure out why we did not.

RAND’s list of emerging challenges

Here’s a good list of driving forces and wild cards for your scenarios.

Eleven emerging challenges

To celebrate the 60th Anniversary of the RAND Corporation and to uphold its tradition of taking on the big issues of tomorrow, a call went out to all RAND staff around the world, inviting them to propose essays on “important policy issues not currently receiving the attention they deserve in the public debate” — issues, in other words, that might be on the back burner today but will likely become front-burner issues within the next five years.

More than 100 issues were raised. The final product: the 11 essays published here. These were selected either because they highlight major public policy problems that have eluded the mainstream media radar or because they point toward major public policy solutions that have been likewise overlooked — or both.