Getting it Wrong

October 1, 2008

I’ve spent a good amount of time giving my opinion about politics.  Sometimes for free to family and friends (who probably didn’t want to hear my predictions), and sometimes for pay (like when I worked as a political risk analyst for a company in London).  The great thing about being a political analyst is the complete lack of accountability.  People rarely come back and point out to you that you were wrong, because by that time, the world’s moved on to something else you’re being asked to give your opinion on.  And when that odd stickler for accuracy does turn up, you can usually justify the crapiness of your analysis by saying that “no one could have predicted that x would happen,” or that you got one piece right while the rest was (completely) wrong.

Last night though, reading an article about how Putin is doing away with even more press freedoms, I was reminded of a prediction that I once made about him that turned out to be completely wrong (that he would be an inspirational figure and do great things for post-Communist Russia).   In fact, I’ve made a number of political blunders.  For example, despite his obvious idiocy, I remember thinking that “nothing too bad” would happen if Bush was elected in 2000.  Shame on me.

Staying in the realm of presidential politics, I deeply believed that Mondale / Ferraro would win the 1984 Presidential Election.  Admittedly, I was six at the time with limited formal political science training, but I would still consider this to be one of my major blunders.  I was sure that the Democrats were going to win, and that Ferraro would become the first female Vice President.  It would have been helpful if someone had managed my expectations as they lost every state in the union except Minnesota (Mondale’s home state).  I wish that I could comfortably predict that come November we will again fail to elect a female vice president, but I’m not making any predictions just yet.

Then there was the time that I assured my brother that El Salvador was a politically stable, and therefore safe, place for him to spend Spring Break.  High personal cost on this one: my brother and his friend were robbed at machete-point on a Salvadorian beach (as my brother described it, “some guy almost put a rusty machete through my stomach”).  They lost their wallets, their passports and even their shoes.  I had to call a friend with some connections to get them safely escorted back to the city and put on a plane back to the US.

In terms of blunders I’ve been paid to make, I won’t reveal them (for fear that the client will catch up with me and demand some of those outrageous consultancy fees back), but I will say that most of them took place in countries I have little real expertise in analysing, particularly in Asia and Africa.  The calls I made on Brazil, Venezuela, Mexico, Argentina and other Latin American countries have on the whole been right (though I do remember calling the Argentine election of 2003 incorrectly, and see above on El Salvador).   Perhaps my poor track record on Asia should make everyone sceptical about my primarily positive views about the likely impact of China’s rise.  But that’s a post for another time.

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