The World If

An introduction to The Economist’s latest collection of essays that ask: “What if?”

BREXIT, President Donald Trump, President Emmanuel Macron: in Western politics, at least, it has been a time to expect the unexpected. Seemingly far-fetched developments turn out to be the new reality the world must to adjust to. Our own fanciful imagining of the first 100 days of a Trump presidency, published a year ago in The World If, our annual collection of scenarios, proved in parts to be uncannily close to what actually transpired, especially its speculation that Russian hacking of Hillary Clinton’s e-mails might have helped to swing the 2016 election.

So it would be tempting to suggest that readers should search our latest batch of hypothetical conjecture for signs of the next surprises about to upend conventional wisdom. Yet the point of asking “what if” questions is not to make predictions. It is to stretch thinking. Predictions are rightly constrained by a sense of probabilities; scenarios can leap enjoyably beyond that, to explore all sorts of possibilities.

Scenarios come in a number of different flavours. One variety imagines something that has no chance of actually happening but which nevertheless throws intriguing light on the world and ways to think about it. For example, countries around the globe are not about to open their borders to allow unlimited numbers of people from poor places to work in rich ones (if anything, they are tightening border controls). But what if they did? A policy that could make the world twice as rich as it is surely merits closer examination (see article). Similarly, there is no prospect of governments simply disappearing—but if they did, would an end to their role in redistribution result in greater income inequality? The answer, argues Sir Angus Deaton, an eminent economist, is not as simple as you might think (see article).

A second sort of scenario looks at turns of events that may not be the most likely, but that have far-reaching consequences and so are worth thinking through. The odds against President Macron pulling off his ambitious reforms in France look formidable, yet if he succeeds the impact, on his continent as well as his country, could be huge (see article). Or take Brexit. Most people assume that Britain will probably avoid crashing out of the European Union without a deal. But what if that happened: how might its economy respond? (See article.)

A third type deals with big developments that may be quite probable, though few people yet realise this. Technological upheaval is typically in this category. It is hard to get one’s mind around “blockchains”, the system behind bitcoin, a digital currency. But what if blockchain technology ran the world? Enthusiasts think it has the potential to disrupt one of the biggest but least noticed industries: the trust business (see article).

In which of these categories does our scenario of a second-term Trump belong? America’s president is typically hard to pin down. A case could be made that he straddles all three (see article).

A stretch of the imagination
Some of this speculation can be deadly serious (imagine America’s electricity grid being knocked out—see article), but escaping reality can also be fun. In what-if mode, you can indulge in historical counterfactuals: what if the Ottoman Empire had survived? (See article.) You can speculate wildly: what if people could control the weather? You can play with numbers: what if everyone lived to be 100, or if every country’s roads were as safe as Sweden’s? Such questions lend themselves to idle holiday-season musing. Yet the musing can be refreshingly mind-stretching.