There is a deep-seated belief in America that the United States is approaching the eve of its destruction. Read letters to the editor, peruse the Web, and listen to public discourse. Disastrous wars, uncontrolled deficits, high gasoline prices, shootings at universities, corruption in business and government, and an endless litany of other shortcomings—all of them quite real—create a sense that the American dream has been shattered and that America is past its prime….

The odd thing is that all of this foreboding was present during the presidency of Richard Nixon, together with many of the same issues.

—George Friedman, The Next 100 Years

The Next 100 Years: A Forecast for the 21st CenturyGeorge Friedman does not subscribe to the gloomy view of a “Post-American World.”  In fact, Friedman believes that the United States is only now reaching the apogee of its power and influence in the world.  Sure, the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq showed that the country has its limits within its current military budget.  But America’s days of global dominance are far from over.

These are not the words of a motivational speaker or an aspiring politican.  Friedman is the founder and Chief Intelligence Office of Stratford, the private intelligence company Barron’s once called the “Shadow CIA.”

In The Next 100 Years, Friedman takes his lifetime’s worth of study and analysis and allows his imagination to run freely (perhaps a little too freely) in forecasting what paths geopolitics might take over the next century. At one point in the book, when discussing scenarios for the 2040s, he sees a resurgent Japan attacking American “Battle Star” space stations from secret bases on the moon.

I really wish Friedman hadn’t gone there.  I consider it a ridiculous distraction from what was otherwise a fascinating and insightful work.

Friedman, like any good forecaster, repeatedly warns against linear thinking and naiveextrapolation of current trends into the future. History, economics, and financial markets do not move in straight lines—of which our current credit crisis provides ample evidence—but tend to move in cycles. Political movements and entire nations rise and fall and rise again. History does not repeat itself per se, but it does, to paraphrase Mark
Twain, “rhyme.” A country’s current (and future) internal politics and relations with the outside world are a result of that country’s unique history (and geography too, Friedman would argue). For example, Americans’ ambivalence toward the assorted financial bailouts reflects a fundamentally unique national character, one marked by a general mistrust of the state that traces its roots to the Magna Carta in England. Other countries with their own unique histories have very different reactions to the crisis and the responses to it.

With all of this said, what are some of Friedman’s predictions?

For one, China could cease to exist as a unified state and could break down into warring factions as soon as the 2010s.

Sound farfetched? Yes, but it wouldn’t be the first time this has happened to China after a prolonged period of contact with the outside world. There has always been a tension in China between the richer coastal areas, which tend to have an outward orientation, and the vast interior of the country, which tends to be poorer and far more insular in mentality. These tensions, according to Friedman, were at work in the Chinese civil war that ended with Mao’s communist victory and are likely to be the cause of a new civil war within a decade. Time will certainly tell.

Friedman also sees a resurgence, albeit a short-lived one, of Russian imperialism that will eventually implode due to Russia’s shrinking population.

Friedman is correct to identify demographics as Russia’s Achilles’ heel, yet he strangely fails to draw the same conclusion for Japan. As we mentioned above, Friedman sees Japan reemerging as a military power a full 100 years after that nation was defeated in World War II and forming an anti-American axis with Turkey, of all countries. Friedman sees Turkey more or less recreating the old Ottoman Empire and emerging as the leader of the Islamic world, filling a power vacuum creating by constant infighting between the Arab states to Turkey’s south. Friedman also sees Poland emerging as a major military and diplomatic power in Europe, taking over the role traditionally played by France and Germany-Austria.

Many of Friedman’s forecasts sound too fantastical to be taken seriously. But then, it would have sounded fantastic in 1914 to say that the Austrian, Ottoman, and Russian empires would cease to exist just a few years later or that the United Kingdom would be reduced from the seat of a globe-spanning empire to a mere province of the European Union just a few decades later.

Time will be the ultimate judge of Friedman’s forecasts. In the meantime, he had several quotes in The Next 100 Years that we found worth repeating here.

Friedman gives a good synopsis of the world’s changing global demographics:

Underlying all of this will be the single most important fact of the twenty-first century: the end of the population explosion. By 2050, advanced industrial countries will be losing population at a dramatic rate. By 2100, even the most underdeveloped countries will have reached birthrates that will stabilize their populations.

The entire global system has been built since 1750 on the expectation of continually expanding populations. More workers, more consumers, more soldiers—this was always the expectation. In the twenty-first century, however, this will cease to be true. The entire system of production will shift. The shift will force the world into a greater dependence on technology—particularly robots that will substitute for human labor, and increased genetic research…to make people productive longer.

This could perhaps be called the “anti-Malthusian” demographic argument. Moving further into demographic territory, Friedman writes on the current housing crisis,

The decline in housing prices has many reasons, but lurking in back of it is a demographic reality. As global population growth declines, the historic assumption that land and other real estate will always rise in price due to greater demand becomes suspect. The crisis of 2008 was not yet really a demographically driven crisis. But it showed a process that will reveal itself more fully over the next twenty years….

Demographics explain much of the real estate boom of the mid-2000s. The early years of that boom were absolutely justified by the Baby Boomers entering their peak years for buying trade-up homes. The problem is that the underlying demographic trend supporting the housing market peaked in 2004…just before the boom reached its greatest frothy excesses. In those last two years before home prices began to reverse, reckless lending and speculative buying picked up where demographics left off, and we are still feeling the effects of this excess today.

The Great Wave: Price Revolutions and the Rhythm of HistoryAs Friedman concurs, due to changing global demographics, real estate simply will not be the profitable investment that it has been for most of the past 500 years or more. In a deflationary environment, real estate is perhaps the worst asset class to own. (For an excellent analysis of the effects of population growth on inflation and deflation in general and real estate in particular, we highly recommend David Hackett Fischer’s The Great Wave: Price Revolutions and the Rhythm of History.)

All told, Friedman’s new book is an interesting mix of critical analysis of current trends and a sometimes fantastic forecast of things to come. The book is engaging and in many places insightful. Just be sure to take some of his more controversial forecasts with the appropriate grain of salt.

Charles Lewis Sizemore, CFAThis blog is a free service of Sizemore Financial Publishing LLC, publisher of the Sizemore Investment Letter.

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