Snake Oil Futures

I got a little bit of spam today from an acquaintance, someone who had been the moderator at a meeting I attended. I thought to myself, what a remarkable amount of chutzpah it takes to harvest email addresses from the minutes of a meeting you ran. As it turns out I was underestimating his bravado…

You see, he’s a “futurist”, one of those people who makes their living by predicting the future. That’s right, the same kind of people who read tarot cards, stare into crystal balls, and generally swindle gullible people out of their hard earned money.

Time was these people used to be shuffled off into the dark alleys and the county fair. But, because they are well spoken and wear a suit, “futurists” can ply their trade out in the open. No clearer example of the famous observation about fooling people can be found anywhere. These folks fool a broad swath of people, but not indefinitely. And me — almost never.

These folks fool a broad swath of people, but not indefinitely.

When I was first starting in business, I lived two doors down from another “futurist”. He was a very nice man, had a marvelous family, and was doing quite well. They had one of the nicest homes in town, drove very nice cars, and in general made me wonder exactly what he did for a living. So I befriended him to understand how one makes a living at this game.

His method was simple: print a monthly newsletter, give the odd speach now and then (always in exotic locales), write the occasional book, and in general make yourself into a name. And he milked the cow for all it was worth. He charged something like $1500 a year for his newsletter, and rumor was he had something like 2500 subscribers. That’s a clean $3+ million a year, just from the newsletter, the rest was gravy.

The person who spammed me today appears to be doing just fine as well. His mail today was about his latest book, published by a major house, so life must be OK. His website not only has what has to be the killer domain name in his business, but appears to indicate he’s doing just fine. Except that half of the links are broken, and the blog is dead. Seems like he couldn’t see that coming [ed: sorry, couldn’t resist].

Like most good psychics they scatter enough buckshot to hit something.

So how do these “futurists” pull it off? From what I can tell, they read the latest fiction, troll the internet, and in general ride whatever trend seems to be hot. Then, like most good psychics (best exemplified by John Edward), they echo what you say, and scatter enough buckshot to hit something. The best take on this was Will Farrel’s hilarious spoof of Edwards on Saturday Night Live in 2001. Five years later, I’m still in tears…

My acquaintence’s web site today is trumpetting his prediction of global warming back in 1987. I’m betting he was also predicting the end of the modern world in the late 90’s for the Y2K scare. “Missed it by that much…” [Don Adams, Get Smart]

But the main key to success in many areas like this seems to be to set a price that is just absurd. It appears that if you set a price in the stratosphere, people think “well, he has to be good, he must be right, people pay it…” And it works. Note to self: the more you charge, the less you have to justify yourself.

Note to self: the more you charge, the less you have to justify yourself.

To top it all off, and drive home the bravado angle, he has no credentials whatsoever. The only real job he’s ever had was teaching history at his alma mater. From those roots, he somehow has gained infinite insights into the future. Exactly how does one get credibility as a “futurist”? Best I can tell, you hang out a shingle, and crank up the crystal ball.

As I said, you can’t be short on chutzpah to be in the “futurist” game. Gotta admire the guts, but I wish I could keep a straight face when I think about it.