Weisberg: What Else Are We Wrong About?

A lot of premises have turned out to be wrong lately. I'm not talking about evanescent bits of conventional wisdom, but about overarching assumptions that were widely shared across the political spectrum. For instance, before 1989, virtually all Sovietologists agreed the U.S.S.R. was highly stable. Before 2001, few Middle East scholars worried that America was vulnerable to a major terrorist attack. Before 2003, neocon hawks and French lefties agreed that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction. Before 2008, few economists doubted the fundamental soundness of the U.S. financial system.

So at a moment when everything we once assumed is suddenly up for discussion, it's worth asking: what other big stuff could we be wrong about? I'm looking for issues where the received wisdom may be entirely correct—but merits a stronger dose of skepticism than it usually gets.

Nuclear proliferation is bad.
It seems self-evident that countries joining the nuclear club—India, Pakistan, North Korea, maybe Iran—create a greater risk of catastrophic war or accidental launch. But in an influential paper, the political scientist Kenneth Waltz argued that nuclear rivalries help keep the peace because "they discourage states from starting any wars that might lead to the use of such weapons." In this view, nukes are inherently defensive—and the countries that want them do so for good reason. Waltz argues that possessing nukes induces restraint and caution, causing irresponsible regimes to behave more responsibly. His argument is buttressed by another: you can't stop proliferation even if you try.

Climate change will be catastrophic.
We all know civilization is doomed if we don't reduce carbon emissions, right? The physicist Freeman Dyson disagrees. Dyson doesn't dispute that human activity is causing warming. But he challenges the consensus that warming will be catastrophic. In a New York Review of Books essay, Dyson wrote that warming "is mostly making cold places warmer rather than making hot places hotter." Carbon emissions could make the earth more fertile and prevent harm from global cooling, which isn't caused by humans. And if it really turns out that there is a serious problem, genetically engineered carbon-eating trees might fix it. (Might.)

China is stable.
Twenty years after Tiananmen Square, the Chinese Communist Party apparatus shows every sign of being in control. The economy has continued to grow at 9 percent a year since 1978, fueling China's rise as a global power. There's little sign of opposition. But rising living standards tend to produce political discontent and have driven the democratic change throughout most of the rest of East Asia. Samuel Huntington, the late political scientist, argued that regimes become vulnerable at a level of per capita income that China is fast approaching.

Homeownership is better for us.
The assumption that owning beats renting has been the basis for American social policy since at least the New Deal, when Congress first insured and subsidized mortgages. It's a natural assumption that owners have more of a stake in their communities. But even if that's true, why should it outweigh the obvious disadvantages of homeownership? As many more people are discovering, it means taking on enormous financial risk. It diminishes labor-market mobility. It encourages longer commutes. And at least one study says it makes you fat and unhappy.

Stocks outperform bonds in the long run.
Jeremy Siegel's "Stocks for the Long Run" has been the most pervasive financial wisdom of recent decades. Siegel shows that since 1802, stocks have returned an average of about 7 percent a year, better than any other asset class, with less risk. Others have claimed that stocks outperform bonds for any isolated 20- or 30-year period since the late 1800s. But if stocks have really outperformed with lower risk over a long period, they've been undervalued. And now that investors recognize the undervaluation, there's no reason for it to persist. As of this year, the 30-year Treasury index has beaten the chief index of global stocks over a 30-year period.

Detroit can't compete.
No one is optimistic about U.S. carmakers right now. For decades they've been losing ground to better-built foreign imports. But the Big Three's manufacturing practices have greatly improved in the past couple of years, and their labor costs have come way down. Shanghai GM is China's leading carmaker; Buick recently tied with Ford-built Jaguars in an owner survey as the most reliable car brand; and Ford has built what may be the best midsize hybrid, the 2010 Fusion. There's an argument that Detroit's real problem is its overhang of debt, high health-care costs and pension liabilities —all of which can be fixed—as opposed to a deeper inability to make products people want to buy.

The Cubs will never again win the World Series.
Oh, never mind.

Join the Discussion