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Opinion | Admit It: You Don’t Know What Will Happen Next

Since I don’t expect many of my commentating colleagues to do so, it’s best for you in the audience to remember this the next time you watch, say, veteran political pundits insisting that nominating Bernie Sanders would be insane: The world is strange! Odd things happen! And it’s possible, maybe even likely, that in 2020 nobody knows what they’re talking about. Like, at all.

I should note that there is some controversy about the thesis that black-swan events are increasing due to global complexity, and the claim is difficult to prove empirically. But there is theoretical backing to the idea that more-connected, complicated systems lead to more surprising, unexpected outcomes. And the claim makes sense intuitively, too. For instance, increased global connectivity is one of the reasons Covid-19 has been so hard to contain. (Authorities clearly weren’t prepared for the disease threat posed by the cruise industry, which has grown rapidly in China over the last decade.)

More than that, the growing unpredictability of human affairs is clear in the number of surprises we seem to be enduring lately. What was the 2008 financial crisis if not an out-of-the-blue event that stymied most prognosticators? Or, for that matter, the election of the first African-American president, America’s hyper-fast flip on gay rights, Brexit, Trump’s election, or the rise of Bernie Sanders?

And, sticking with politics, consider all the unknowns now clouding our picture of what might play out in 2020. Will Michael Bloomberg’s and Trump’s gargantuan levels of spending on digital ads substantially alter how elections work — or is it possible that we’re overhyping the role of ad spending? Will Americans really recoil from socialism, or do many of us not care so much about an outdated label? Will Sanders’s revolutionary army turn out, or stay home? Will our election survive malign interference or domestic ineptitude? How will the virus affect the economy and Americans’ sense of safety — and will that be good for Trump, or terrible for him?

I’ll lay my cards on the table: To me, Sanders is looking increasingly electable, the virus looks like it could reshape much of daily life at least in the short term, and the Trump administration’s response to it is bound to be bumbling and perhaps extremely scary.

Of course, I could be wrong. We all could be.

Farhad wants to chat with readers on the phone. If you’re interested in talking to a New York Times columnist about anything that’s on your mind, please fill out this form. Farhad will select a few readers to call.

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