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Monday, Jan. 25, 2010

JAPANESE PERSPECTIVES

What if Clarke had embarked on an economic odyssey?


Special to The Japan Times

The movie "2001: A Space Odyssey," Arthur C. Clarke's epoch-making science fiction masterpiece, was first published in 1968. Its sequel "2010: Odyssey Two" came out in 1982. To put "2010" more precisely in its place, it was actually the first sequel among three. The ultimate resolution, if such it may be called, takes place in "3001: The Final Odyssey."

3001 is still somewhat in the future. Unless human beings develop the kind of life-prolonging technology science fiction authors like to write about, neither you nor I will be around at that point to observe how close Clarke's imagery came to the real thing.

2010, however, has arrived. To honor its advent, I decided to reread "Odyssey Two." While it is a manifestly less mesmerizing piece compared to its awesome pre decessor, one has to give it credit for futuristic perspicacity.

Clarke was not a space scientist for nothing. His portrayal of 2010 and its technological contours are remarkably in tune with what is actually happening around us today. He could almost be writing up the scenario for a documentary feature film on the status of space technology as it stands in January 2010.

Alas, manned flights to Jupiter are not yet within our grasp, but otherwise the overall tone has ringing authenticity.

It would have required courage to write about 2010 in 1982. The 28 years in between are sufficiently long to make prediction hard but sufficiently short to make verification easy. It is less adventurous to write about a date 1,000 years in the future.

The same thing can be said of economics. A 30-year prediction is fiendishly more hazardous than a 1,000-year one. One wonders what kind of a book would have emerged from a 1982 economist's effort at "2010: A Global Odyssey."

For one, that courageous (not to say foolhardy) author is highly unlikely to have used the term "global." It was still all about the international economy rather than a global one.

President Reagan was patting himself on the back for bringing America back from the inflationary abyss of the 1970s. He was also talking about the Evil Empire that lay to the east. He would defend America against this adversary with his "Star Wars" initiative to ward off nuclear missiles. Not a hint was there back then of the Berlin Wall collapsing in less than 10 years. Or that we would be talking about some dynamic people called BRICs.

The early 1980s was also a time when financial deregulation was all the rage. The high market interest rates that accompanied high inflation pushed the U.S. toward removing statutory interest rate caps on bank deposits. From then on, financial liberalization was a river of no return for not only America, but for more or less the rest of the world.

Who would have thought then that come 2010, the first black U.S. president would be trying to roll back that tide of deregulation and reinstate a more tightly controlled financial framework?

The trouble with economic odysseys is that nothing is ever evolutionary. Cumulative, yes. But never really gradual.

The house of cards will always collapse in one go. The final straw will always break the camel's back instantaneously. Change is abrupt and turnarounds are sharp. And the improbable invariably happens.

Economic history is a saga strewn with the victory of the improbable over the predictable. What wasn't supposed to happen always happens. And yet people will always suppose otherwise. The first decade of the 21st century was certainly no exception to the rule in that respect.

This should be kept in mind by anyone attempting to author "2050: Global Odyssey Two."



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