Back in the late 1990s, the masters of the economic universe – Alan Greenspan, Robert Rubin, Lawrence Summers and Bill Clinton – promised us all that technological progress, deregulation, open markets, free trade and wise captains at the controls of monetary policy would produce a steady economic expansion, bringing prosperity to all.

What happened? A tech bust stock market crash, followed by a housing bubble fueled by an unfathomable flood of foreign money, followed by a global financial collapse not seen since the Great Depression of the 1930s, followed by an agonizingly slow recovery increasingly concentrated in the households of a new global elite of technological entrepreneurs, financial asset traders and cronies closely connected to political leaders.

So much for confident forecasts of the future by the brilliant masters of the economic universe!

Back in the early 2000s, the masters of the military universe – Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld, Colin Powell and George W. Bush – promised “shock and awe,” elimination of weapons of mass destruction and removal of an evil despot, followed by the immediate emergence of legions of grateful citizens welcoming their liberators and eager to plant and cultivate the seeds of U.S. forms of democracy.

What happened? The breakdown of civil society, looting, sectarian violence and a chaotic power vacuum soon filled by ideological extremists, followed by a spreading international conflict, the longest wars in U.S. history, destruction of the products of thousands of years of humankind’s highest cultural achievements and the creation of a humanitarian refugee crisis of enormous proportions that is coming to threaten the stability of the Middle East, Europe and the United States.

So much for confident forecasts of the future by the brilliant masters of the military universe!

If there is any lesson to be learned from observation of the past two decades, it is humility. Problems in real life are far, far more complex than our theories and the future they lead so many of our most brilliant and most confident leaders to project.

Small, unforeseen consequences grow to become major disasters not because we didn’t think of them from the beginning, but because the elegance of our theories and the comforting assurance of our ideologies beguile us into not seeing them or dismissing them as insignificant, as small incidences of collateral damage that can easily be solved once the overall greatness we anticipate is achieved.

If there is any theme to 2016, it is the emergence into undeniable reality (even for our most brilliant “masters”) of the unforeseen outcome. It is the emergence into a thunderous cry now audible (even to the most sheltered of our “masters”) of the voices of the “collaterally” damaged.

And it is in acknowledging that reality, in listening to those voices, that humility is most needed. It is easy, and perhaps true, to say that unforeseen problems could have and should have been foreseen and will be in the future, to say that those who have been damaged by unforeseen consequences can be made right in the future. Such statements can be made, but they reflect arrogance. In the face of the record of most public policy leaders over the past 20 years, the counsel of humility is the most apt.

We need not more assurance, but more listening. We definitely don’t need more boasting about a new set of “theories” and “answers” and “solutions.”

What we need instead is a broad admission of guilt, of failure to give the complexity of the universe its due. The last thing we need today is another loud voice giving us answers. We need instead some quiet time to talk patiently with each other, to speak and hear our ideas and, together, to find ways to make small steps toward solutions instead of more abrupt jumps into a promised future.

Charles Lawton is chief economist for Planning Decisions, Inc. He can be contacted at:

[email protected]