Daniel Altman’s book Outrageous Fortunes is consistently smart, engaging, and counterintuitive. Ambitious in scope, it discusses several important forces shaping the global economy over the next few decades.
Very long-term thinking has two characteristic pitfalls. As the Village’s deficit obsession shows, sometimes panic over a distant threat can derail attention to much more pressing ones. There’s also little accountability for long-term prognosticators. A lot can happen between now and 2030, and as Philip Tetlock has shown, media and academic elites rarely lose visibility or credibility in the wake of even grotesquely wrong predictions. The futuristic novel can be a much safer place to conjure up ensuing decades.
But unlike speculative fiction, or the slightly less speculative macro-predictive fare of a “Megatrends” or “Bold New World,” Altman’s book is grounded in a deep engagement with current economic dilemmas. His analysis works on two levels. First, for a self-interested investor, it’s good to be aware of the long-run influences on productivity and power that Altman outlines. For example, his discussion of the new colonialism demonstrates both the short-term profits and long-term risks that arise when countries like China and Saudi Arabia start buying rights to agricultural land and other resources in poorer places. He also challenges conventional wisdom on disintermediation, making a compelling case that certain middlemen and arbitrageurs can only gain from market integration.
Outrageous Fortunes also succeeds as a work for wonks, taking its place in the often noble genre dubbed by David Brin the self-preventing prophecy. As Altman puts it, “a frequent goal of prediction is to alter the future – to warn of impending danger so that it can be avoided.” The book describes many impending dangers, including increasing inequality driven by global warming, accelerating brain drains, and an enormous financial black market that is developing outside of traditional financial centers. Altman’s description of that black market is particularly acute, and worth discussing in some detail.