Prophets of doom

I’m always intrigued by forecasts of doom. The longer-term they are, the greater the confidence with which they are expressed. Once upon a time these forecasts stemmed largely from the kind of mumbo-jumbo spouted by the likes of Nostradamus – so vaguely worded as to be entirely plausible. Today the doomsters wear a Marks and Spencer suit, innocuous socks, an unmemorable tie, and answer to the name of Economist.

Don’t get me wrong – some of my best friends are (as they say) economists. It’s just that they occasionally lose sight of the fact that what they do is art, not science. They build models and extrapolate events and nothing they do can be falsifiable, which as we all know is (thanks to Karl Popper) the mark of a science.

For Gucci-style doom-forecasting by crystal-ball gazing economists one can hardly do better than turn to the Financial Times. A recent piece there was a doomsterism corker. It said: “Population ageing is so expensive that in just over 30 years there will be no money for defence, no police, no transport expenditure, no agricultural support, no new social housing, no science funding, no support for arts and museums, no business support and much more. Of course, there would also be insufficient funds for local authorities to do bins, libraries and parks.”

Gulp! Life will cease as we know it and dystopian hell beckons, all thanks to a “graph of doom” which “shows” that, thanks to an ageing population, national and local governments will face demands for services that they cannot possibly pay for.

Unless, of course, we all accept much higher tax rates and cuts to stuff we all assume we have a right to (such as free prescriptions for the over 60s). The FT continues: “Responsible politicians should study the graph of doom and learn one simple lesson. The next 20 years is no time for the politics of ‘read my lips, no new taxes’. We must be sufficiently mature to be able to discuss the need to raise everyone’s taxes and to talk about fair burden sharing.”

How should the Third Sector respond to this scenario? By preparing to step into the breaches as and when they appear and show the world that it can meet the changes. The fixed deadline of 2050 should not terrify – just reflect on the myriad technological and political changes that have occurred in the past 20 years. That’s the real problem with economics: it tells us what the problems are, not what the solutions might be.

John Swinney, Chair