First the bad news: The country is on the doorstep of disaster.
Recent runs on Savings and Loan associations in Maryland and Ohio are hairline fractures in a system about to snap. In the next few years, say some forecasters, banks will teeter toward collapse, debt defaults and bankruptcies will set all-time records, unemployment and inflation will soar, and living standards will go kaput. The second Great Depression will put a full nelson on the nation.
There's more: Scarcity will plague our lives. No buddy'll spare a dime. Uncle Sam will rob mass transit programs in Florida to pay heating bills in Minnesota. The plug will be pulled on Medicare and Medicaid. Social Security will be history. The ranks of hungry and homeless will swell.
Worldwide drought will be compounded by ground water that's contaminated with hazardous toxic waste. Drinking water and food will be rationed. A quarter of all American farmlands will be lost to poisoned topsoil and desertification. Congress will close the nation's borders to immigrants and pass laws restricting the number of children per family. Protests will turn to rioting as civil liberties here are revoked. Desperation will spread revolution like wildfire from South America north into Mexico. International tension will promote thermonuclear war from possibility to probability.
Now the good news: The people who forecast the bad news usually are wrong.
During the past two decades, doomsayers have conjured up dozens of fatalistic scenarios of the demise of the planet Earth. Appointments with the apocalypse have come and gone.
Predictions for the 1970s were flubbed: The rosy tint of most forecasters' specs blinded them to the runaway inflation and ominous energy crisis that came out of the blue. Tougher times brought tougher predictions. Respected ecologist Paul Ehrlich foresaw "the end of the ocean . . . in the summer of 1979" and envisioned that famine would kill 65 million Americans in the 1980s. A group of international scientists known as the Club of Rome forecast 10 years ago that world civilization had, at most, 30 years before overpopulation and famine ended it all.
While the public tried swallowing that much gloom, energy experts projected shortages into the mid-'80s that would lead to worldwide catastrophe. Meanwhile, fortunetellers cashed in on public panic with advice on how to survive and even profit from the financial fizzle scheduled for the early '80s.
As the late Danish nuclear physicist Niels Bohr once put it, "Prediction is very difficult -- especially about the future." Today's prognosticators have replaced the crystal ball, the bird entrails and stargazing of their predecessors with statistics and computerized analysis. But the results are hardly more accurate. And it takes only so many bad news bearers who get rich by getting it wrong to put off the public.
Yesterday's doomsayers may have cried wolf once too often, says Clement S. Mihanovich, professor emeritus of sociology at St. Louis (Mo.) University and a futurist who claims no forecast of a great depression has ever been correct. "You can continuously make doomsday predictions and frighten the hell out of people, and people will pay attention -- but only for a while."
And therein lies a national problem, predict some predictors: The mistaken glut of gloom proffered during the '70s and early '80s has made John Q. Public indifferent to warnings of coming crises -- even the most probable ones. The law of diminishing return has caught up with the doomsday business.
"I think it has," agrees Gov. Richard Lamm (D-Colo.), a futurist called "Governor Gloom" in some circles. This year Lamm will try to crack the public's hardened attitude toward coming calamities with his book Megatraumas: America in the Year 2000, an eye-opening collection of cataclysmic scenarios that publisher Houghton Mifflin is tagging as nonfiction.
"It is realism, not gloom," says the governor, whose candor defies his profession. "One problem my book will run into is that the disasters others predicted in the '70s didn't take place."
Lamm insists that what he articulates is a warning, not just a prediction. But nobody seems to be listening -- not a Congress whose apathy toward the mounting federal deficit, he says, amounts to "political malpractice," and not the public. "My bottom line is that man is a marvelously adaptable animal once a problem is defined," he says. "George Orwell was not making a prediction, he was issuing a warning. But how do you get people to address a creeping crisis? The deficit? The health-care crisis? The immigration problem?
"I'm just shattered when I look at public opinion polls and see how few people take these things seriously. We are a national Titanic speeding through iceberg-filled waters."
In 1974, Kenneth E.F. Watt, a zoologist at the University of California, Davis, theorized a potentially deadly crux of doomsaying impotence. He called his theory The Titanic Effect. Despite a fascination for the future, "there appears to be a basic human tendency to ignore warnings about such enormous disasters as 'unthinkable,' " wrote the human ecology specialist. "We must understand this tendency and guard against it.
"That the world could run out of energy is 'unthinkable,' and consequently it is difficult to interest people in ensuring that such a thing won't happen. Yet, if we examine history, an important generalization . . . can be discerned: The magnitude of disasters decreases to the extent that people believe that they are possible and plan to prevent them or minimize their effects."
That kind of logic recently produced a bill in the U.S. Senate that would require an executive-level U.S. Office of Critical Trends -- in effect, the president's soothsayers. Sen. Albert Gore Jr. (D-Tenn.) introduced the bill after he became convinced the quality of prediction and trend analysis on issues such as population, world food supply and environmental problems had dropped drastically in recent years.
"For all it's potential flaws, it's a terrific idea," says Lamm. "You're never going to get all the right answers, but even just asking the right questions makes something like that worthwhile."
Not everyone in forecasting agrees. Those who a decade ago stuck their necks out most are least likely today to concede a predictable future. With no ready public, doomsayers are turning timid.
"It's goofy . . . one more way to waste money -- and it could be dangerous if important decisions are based on it," Harry Browne says of the proposed Office of Critical Trends. A decade ago, Browne was headlined in the press as among the echelon of economic doomsayers. His 1974 book, You Can Profit From a Monetary Crisis, which sold more than 230,000 copies in hardback and occupied best-seller lists for nine months, recommended trading all real estate, paper money and real property for silver coins to bury "in a safe place." His 1981 best seller, Inflation-Proofing Your Investments, foresaw imminent business failures, unemployment and banking problems.
"I don't believe anybody can predict the future," says Browne from his northern California home where, after six years of living in Switzerland, he now writes his investment newsletter, Harry Browne's Special Report. At $225 a year for "about 10 issues," subscribers (in the low thousands, he estimates) get a balanced portfolio philosophy that isn't quite the dread and despair Browne is reputed for.
"It's true that a lot of the things I called attention to in the early '70s didn't happen," he admits, adding that most of his advice nonetheless paid off for investors. Browne says he and many in his business have been humbled by events and now channel their attention to making money rather than making predictions.
"I don't believe in forecasting -- I had become more conservative on that by the end of the decade," says Browne. The title of his upcoming book, Investing for Safety and Profit in an Uncertain World, reflects his current attitude. "I still think disaster is an ever-present possibility. But I feel strongly that what has happened in the last five years has demonstrated that things are not the same as they were throughout the '70s. The last five years simply should humble us all the more -- we simply cannot explain what is going to happen."
In 1980, Time magazine labeled Douglas R. Casey "the newest high priest of gloom and doom." The Arlington, Va., investment adviser's blockbuster book, Crisis Investing: Opportunities and Profits in the Coming Great Depression, sold 500,000 hardback copies and was No. 1 on The New York Times best-seller list for 26 weeks. His message was devastating: A depression of unprecedented magnitude would cut down the world by 1983. He warned that the bank failures, collapse of Social Security and pension funds, urban riots and return to bartering would make the Crash of 1929 "look like a technical error."
On his way from Hong Kong to Spain's Costa Brava via the Bahamas, Casey recently paused to assess the present: "It's a pretty good life." Still producing his popular monthly newsletter, Investing in Crisis, Casey provides insight on the world markets from six months abroad each year. He's a prophet of profits to 40,000 subscribers who pay $195 annually.
"It's important to emphasize I'm not in the future-telling business," he cautions. "I don't have a crystal ball. I didn't when I wrote Crisis Investing and I don't now. What I'm saying is that in the real world, actions have consequences, laws have effects. So I look at likely consequences of actions."
Casey defends the accuracy of his financial advice. Those who bought silver at $8 an ounce -- the price when the book urged the purchase -- and sold at its peak of around $50 "made a lot of money," he says. Same for gold: In at $200 an ounce, out at $800.
As for his doomsaying, he says, "I don't think I'd change anything I wrote in the crisis book -- only sometimes the things you expect to happen take longer to happen. It is very much as if somebody has jumped off a 50-story building -- you know he is going to hit the ground, but predicting when is tough. The economy is going to hit the ground."
Howard Ruff was once described in Money magazine as "to Harry Browne what chili peppers are to pimentos -- akin, but a lot harder to swallow." But like his colleagues, Ruff has mellowed. They prefer to be called investment advisers rather than investment forecasters. Doomsayers, they argue, was a mischaracterization of them by a press searching for the spectacular. But deep down, they think the worst is yet to come -- they're just not screaming it at the top of their lungs anymore.
"The only reason I make economic forecasts is to create an appropriate environment for investing," says Ruff, whose 1979 best seller, How to Prosper During the Coming Bad Years, predicted a second Stone Age by the early '80s. Among his recommendations: Store dehydrated food and gallons of bottled water, buy hard commodities that you can barter.
"There were 17 places in that book where I said I am not forecasting the end of American civilization or the end of the American dream," Ruff says from his Pleasanton, Calif., office where he operates what he claims to be the largest circulation financial advisory service in the country. He boasts 150,000 subscribers to his weekly newsletter that costs $79 a year.
But the newsletter's latest persona is evidence of the humbling of Howard Ruff. Three years ago, Ruff changed the name his newsletter had carried for six years -- Ruff Times -- to Financial Success Report. He admits wanting to cleanse his image, which had become soiled by association with brutish, hardcore survivalists who took up his book as their manual. "I'm not saying 'Here's what's going to happen, folks. Run for the hills," he sighs. "Giving up is very destructive."
Ruff says the difference between him and his colleagues is his political activism: He is trying to defuse the economic time bomb. He likens himself to Jonas in the Old Testament, whom God sent to Nineveh to warn the people they'd be destroyed if they didn't change their evil ways. "He is called a prophet of doom," says Ruff. "The people listened and repented in sack cloth and ashes. God decided not to destroy them.
"The function of the prophet of doom is to prevent doom. I've got nine grandchildren and I worry about their future. We escaped depression in '82 by the skin of our teeth. The essential message is that if we don't change our trends, it's still going to happen."
Is the message falling on deaf ears?
In a nation that in 1984 voted itself "better off than we were four years ago," it probably is, says Amitai Etzioni, a sociologist at George Washington University and former senior adviser in the Carter White House who has studied the futurist phenomenon for 25 years. Etzioni doesn't have a high opinion of doomsayers or of the federal government getting into the business of predicting the future.
"Why do people want to predict the future? Call it future angst," he says, explaining most gloom and doom is forecast during times of frustration, like during the energy shortages and hyperinflation of the '70s and early '80s. "We have a psychological need to be worried, to have unfocused misgivings that something terrible is going to happen. Doomsayers exploit that. The only way we can cure ourselves of this nonsense is to hold them accountable for their predictions."
Counters Gov. Lamm: "The Arabs have a saying: 'He who has the crystal ball eats ground glass.' I think anything that forces us to debate the future is good for us. Eating ground glass is still a necessary exercise."