Well, we did think that things couldn't get crazier after 2016, and yet I'm pretty sure almost everyone would agree that 2017 beat it in spades.
So what's up for 2018? Well, I can't predict the craziness (that's why it's crazy), but I want to look at a few things that could go wrong, and suggest things we might do about them, before they happen. 2017 hasn't been that bad, really, even if you're not Taylor Swift, what with record high stocks, super-low unemployment, and the defeat of ISIS's "caliphate." But craziness comes in all flavors, and it isn't always about the antics of gropey politicians.
So here are a few potential wild cards for 2018, along with the hope that my end-of-year column next year says that none of them happened.
Electrical breakdown. Earlier this year we saw what experts called a "game-changing" cyberattack on critical infrastructure. "The malware was most likely designed to cause physical damage inside the unnamed site ... It worked by targeting a safety instrumented system, which the targeted facility and many other critical infrastructure sites use to prevent unsafe conditions from arising." We have lots of important stuff, not just in the electrical world, but in all utilities, that's connected to the Internet. This turns out to be a bad idea. Sooner or later, someone is going to figure out how to bring large sectors of the American grid down -- or, I should say, someone who already knows how is going to decide that they want to do so. 2018 just might be the year.
People are talking about making the electrical grid more resilient. That means not only making it more reliable, so that it's less likely to fail, but also better at putting itself back together if pieces of it collapse. I think that this sort of thing deserves at least as much attention as cyberdefense efforts designed to frustrate hackers. All sorts of things besides hackers could bring down the grid: A massive solar flare, an EMP attack, a software "bug" rather than a hack. The better the grid is at recovering, the better it will be if any of them happen.
The Bitcoin bubble bursts: Bitcoin has been skyrocketing, and I confess that I wish I'd put, say, a thousand bucks into it a few years back, when my crypto-enthusiast friends were encouraging me to. But many people think it's in a bubble, and all bubbles burst. Perhaps they're wrong, but if they're right, many people -- especially in Asia, where millions of investors are driving up the price according to the Wall Street Journal -- will wind up losing their shirts and angry. Asia doesn't need destabilizing right now, with North Korea and China rattling sabers. (And for added fun, North Korea is hacking Bitcoin exchanges.)
There's not much bankers and regulators can do to stop a bubble bursting, but they should be ready for its possibility. And ordinary folks can prepare by keeping their debt and spending on a tight leash, which is a good idea anyway. Or maybe it's not a bubble, and I'm missing out by not buying Bitcoin even at its current soaring price. By way of comfort, that would be consistent with my investment performance.
Some sort of pandemic: We've had scares with SARS, bird flu, Ebola, etc., but so far none of these really broke through into a global threat. Sooner or later, something will, and the public health community's response to these earlier outbreaks wasn't entirely confidence-building. Over a decade ago, then-Senator Bill Frist was calling for a crash program to vastly speed up vaccine development and production. It's still a good idea.
War In Korea: 2017 was a crazy year, which means that Kim Jong Un was really in his element. Alas, that's likely to continue in 2018. There's some sign that U.S. efforts to get China to exercise a restraining influence might be working, but North Korea is in terrible economic shape, and Kim Jong Un is, well, kind of crazy. The U.S., South Korea, and Japan are already trying to get ready for this, but I'm sure more can be done. And now that he has missiles that might reach the United States, it's time to brush up on our "Duck and Cover" skills.
A singularity of stupid: Okay, this last seems the most likely. I don't think it's wrong to say that our politics have become increasingly foolish and hysterical in recent years -- in a recent column, I blamed social media for a lot of it. Like Nigel Tufnel's guitar amp in Spinal Tap, every issue today goes to 11. Every election is an existential threat, every politician people don't like is Hitler, every policy change is going to kill millions of people. As with Bitcoin I'm assuming (okay, in this case I'm hoping) that this trend will reach a top. But it's possible that the irrationality will grow to the point of producing actual social breakdown. Mass hysteria has afflicted societies for millennia, but we have created conditions that let it spread much faster and farther than ever before. It's the intellectual-hygiene equivalent of everyone sharing everyone else's toothbrush.
Sadly, I don't have any suggestions on what to do about this problem. When it comes down to it, 2017 may just have to hold 2018's beer.