Thinking in Time Streams versus thinking What Ifs

The latest edition of The Economist has a new segment called ‘The World If’- looking at scenarios where certain ‘If’ statements materialized. This is an interesting way to think about the future.

President Donald Trump heeded the call. In 2020 he introduced a package of labour-market reforms which provided for the introduction of “dependent contractor” employment status. The package was backed by Republicans as a way to free companies from red tape, and by some Democrats as a way guarantee some basic rights to gig-economy workers. On the day the reform was announced, the share prices of the big online-labour platforms jumped. Other countries soon followed suit. High-unemployment countries in Europe saw deregulation as a way to boost jobs. Others hoped it would attract foreign investment.


Spending more money on current education systems would probably do little to improve what happens in the classroom. A review of 30 randomised-controlled trials, published in 2013 in the journal Science by Michael Kremer, Conner Brannen and Rachel Glennerster, found that “more-of-the-same” policies would have little or no effect on the quality of learning. These included interventions such as adding more teachers to reduce class sizes, or paying for more textbooks. By contrast, changes that did not cost very much but are hard to implement, such as changing pedagogical approaches or introducing short-term contracts for teachers, were associated with higher test scores for pupils.

An alternative is learning from history or thinking in time-streams.

Another instance of such thought on Marshall’s part comes five years later, during 1948. By then out of uniform, he was Truman’s Secretary of State. One of his main concerns was China. In the civil war there, the Communists seemed to be winning. Like just about everyone else in Washington, Marshall wanted the Communists to lose. He asked General Albert Wedemeyer, once his chief planner and at the end of the war commander in the China Theater, to review whether anything could be done. After touring the area, Wedemeyer recommended to Marshall that the United States dispatch a few thousand military advisers. Brigaded with Chinese Nationalist units, Wedemeyer predicted, those advisers could turn the

tide, perhaps even enable the Nationalists to win. Though Marshall respected Wedemeyer’s professional judgment, he concluded that the United States should not go beyond giving the Nationalists money and supplies. As he explained to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in executive session, he felt that anything more could involve “obligations and responsibilities . . . which I am convinced the American people would never knowingly accept.” In the long run, he added, the Chinese would resent foreign interference. Besides, he doubted whether there were enough qualified Americans. In all events: “It would be impossible to estimate the final costs. . . . It certainly would be a continuing operation for a long time to come. It would involve this Government in a continuing commitment from which it would practically be impossible to withdraw.”

Here again, Marshall looked at an issue in the present with a sense both of past and of future. Reading and experience alike had taught him that American public tolerance for war was short. His first assignment had been in the Philippines after the Spanish-American War, when public opinion, once exultant about the new empire, had shifted to sympathy with Filipinos resisting conquest. He had witnessed dire disenchantment on the heels of World War I and a dislike for even small-scale military actions, such as that in Nicaragua in the mid-1920s, once they lasted a little while. Recently he had spent his final weeks as Chief of Staff coping with “bring the boys home” demonstrations. Moreover, he had served in China more than once before World War II and spent a year there afterward trying to mediate between the Communists and the Nationalists. He thus had some sense of the history and character of China as well as of his own country. Though he shared the general yearning for a China not Communist, his judgment on what to do was disciplined by awareness of what had gone before and might arrive again, and also of potentials in the present. He knew firsthand that Chiang was out of steam while Mao was not. Calculating that he could not stop the change without unacceptable cost, if at all, he counseled living with it.

Marshall’s habit of thinking in time-streams did not always make him negative. Perhaps the boldest act of his whole career was espousal of what history remembers as the Marshall Plan. After less than six months in the Secretaryship of State, though little acquainted before with either international economic issues or the people allegedly expert about them, Marshall concluded that economic conditions in Europe called for drastic and unprecedented remedies.

— Neustadt, Richard E.. Thinking In Time

Richard Neustadt suggests three ways to develop our intelligence of thinking in time streams;

— The first is the Goldberg Rule. With some definitions of concerns in hand ask, “What’s the story?” How did these concerns develop. Take care not to pursue the wrong story. Recall how Carter’s staff served up to him the history of SALT negotiations when what he mainly needed was the story of how the two arsenals had expanded. Remember that the “issue” for your boss consists of the concerns appropriate to him, derived from his presumptions (or yours on his behalf) in face of knowns and of uncertainties before him.

— The second device is time-lines: Start the story as far back as it properly goes and plot key trends while also entering key events, especially big changes. Don’t foreshorten the history in ways that may distort it. Don’t neglect changes with high political content.

— The third device is asking journalists’ questions: As the timeline answers “when” and “what,” don’t omit to ask also “where,” “who,” “how,” and “why.” Answers can illuminate still further the potential incongruities in favorite courses of action. That is part of the point of invoking issue history: to get more thought on where to go and on how to get there before taking off.




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Ismail Ali Manik

Uni. of Adelaide & Columbia Uni NY alum; World Bank, PFM, Global Development, Public Policy, Education, Economics, book-reviews, MindMaps, @iamaniku