Prophecy teaches the prophesier a pleasant lesson about the wild flux of events. The lesson is pleasant because it refutes doctrines which, by purporting to reduce history to the unfolding of iron laws, reduce mankind to raw material in an autonomous, utterly predictable machine.
Some prophets suffer from atrophied imaginations, as did the major general who in 1939 dismissed tanks, airplanes and other novelties: "There has been nothing except theory, conjecture and peacetime maneuvers to uphold the thought that the horse cavalry, which has stood the acid test of war, may be displaced by elements which have not yet demonstrated their ability in the same acid test." But in January 1982, it would have required clairvoyance, not just imagination, to have seen 12 months ago that a great event of 1982 would have been keeping the Falklands from becoming the Malvinas.
Twelve months from now the widespread sense of uncertainty may be deepened by the evaporation of what little now remains of our sense of economic understanding. A consumer- driven recovery, so devoutly desired, might erase President Reagan's two economic achievements--the decline of the inflation rate and the (related) rise in the savings rate. A recovery will reveal the extent to which both achievements have been produced by recession and are destined to depart with it.
Twelve months from now a few Democrats--those in the early primary states--will be just 10 weeks from choosing the party's nominee. We talk about the "interminable" primary season, but anyone who does not win (or almost win) a very early primary finds that his money dries up. So 1983 will be the year when the 1984 nominee does his winning work.
Twelve months from now Reagan will either be heading for a second nomination or he will be one of the lamest lame ducks of the modern presidency. Which it is depends on whether he can adjust gracefully to 1983 and a stressful confirmation of a general principle: presidents do not get to choose their agendas.
John F. Kennedy did not plan on struggling with the House Rules Committee. Lyndon B. Johnson wanted to concentrate on building the second stage of the Roosevelt revolution, not on "nation-building" in Indochina. Gerald Ford, after a career in the minority in the less glamorous half of the legislative branch, just wanted to work the levers of government; instead, he became preoccupied by Reagan's political challenge from the right. Richard Nixon and Jimmy Carter wound up utterly preoccupied with aberrational events (Watergate, the hostage crisis).
Belief in a balanced budget is the glue that holds the grass-roots Reagan constituency together. If Reagan is to avoid seeing that glue dissolved by a riptide of red ink, he must come to terms with an utterly uncongenial agenda: he must find revenue sources sufficient for the big government he rightly believes should be bigger (defense) and the big government the country will not let him make smaller (the welfare state).
As 1983 dawns, budgetary necessity is driving the Treasury secretary, Donald Regan, toward ideas that are sound as social policy--regardless of the condition of the budget. For example, Regan reportedly is interested in limiting the deductibility of consumer interest payments. (No major industrial country is so improvident as to subsidize consumption--thereby penalizing savings--to the degree that we do.) State governments are reaching the political and prudential limits of austerity and are searching for new revenue sources. State tax increases shall be--because of the deductibility of such tax payments from individual federal taxes--new holes punched in the federal revenue base.
Does it seem, peering into the future, that we need a miracle? Take heart. A James Gould Cozzens character notes that "every day is a miracle":
"The world gets up in the morning and is fed and goes to work, and in the evening it comes home and is fed again. . . . To make that possible, so much has to be done by so many people, that, on the face of it, it is impossible. Well, every day we do it; and every day, come hell, come high water, we're going to have to go on doing it as well as we can."
Actually, as marvelous as social organization is, it is no miracle. We are political animals, made for living collaboratively. Daunting as the future seems, there is a sense in which it requires nothing more difficult than what the world does daily.