A DOG'S LIFE

Today's column is addressed to those popular oxymorons, our younger readers. Are you all sitting comfortably now? Good. Here we go. Children, don't be prophets.

Now, I realise you're no more likely to listen to a sexagenarian than I was at your age, but take it from me, kids, there's nothing in this prophecy business. Nothing except feeling unheard, unappreciated, unrewarded, un-everything. And it isn't going to change any time soon, which, as you smarter children will have noticed, is a prophecy of sorts. And when it comes true, which it will, when those of you who do become prophets see your prophecies come true and then discover that no one gives you the credit for them, then I won't get the credit either for having prophesied that it would be so. Which is my point. Prophecy's a mug's game. With two exceptions.

First exception: financial markets. By all means go in for financial markets prophecy. Prophesy crashes, downturns, corrections. Don't be precise about timing but do imply imminence. Every so often you'll be right. And when you are, flaunt it. Let people know. Boast like a Trump. People will forget the times you were wrong but notice the time you were right and for a while people will consult you in the hope of making money. You'll be no different from any other charlatan gypsy with a crystal ball and a line in mystic patter, but if your conscience can cope with that then go to it. Besides you'll be fleecing those who are both stupid and greedy and there's probably no crime in that.

Then there's the second exemption, the Nostradamus gambit, the nub of which is imprecision leavened with nonsense. Getty Images
Then there's the second exemption, the Nostradamus gambit, the nub of which is imprecision leavened with nonsense. Getty Images

The second exception: the Nostradamus gambit, the nub of which is imprecision leavened with nonsense. Never prophesy that in 2021 Indonesia will invade Malaysia because it can be wrong. Instead imitate the master and announce that 'an tigre shall erupt in the east and devore all for 20 red-river moons' and you'll be fine. Nostradamus' book of ravings has been perpetually in print since 1555. All of which says horrible things about our species and its insatiable fascination with, dread of and hope for tomorrow, but nothing much about the actual business of this column which is predicting the future, getting it right and getting no credit for it.

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Case in point: smoking. For the last couple of decades governments of both persuasions have been waging a war on smokers by increasing the tax on cigarettes by 10 per cent every January with the result that cigarettes are now $30 a packet.

It's the we-know-what's-best-for-you approach to governing based on the legislator's joy of thwarting people for their own good. It makes the patronising assumption that people cannot decide for themselves whether to take a risk and it defies the wisdom of John Stuart Mill. "The only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilised community," wrote Mill, in words that should written in letters a foot tall on the office wall of every elected member of government both local and national: "is to prevent harm to others."

The results of this moral bullying were readily predictable and I readily predicted them: that smokers would be demonised; that raising the price would create a black market; that tobacco theft would boom; and that the people who'd be most clobbered by this tax would be the poor who couldn't afford to be.

And I further prophesied in print that one day it would dawn on a benighted world that the smoker, rather than being demonised, should be honoured as an economic benefactor of society. I got abused for that of course. But nobody troubled to refute my reasoning.

I waited, children, and I waited some more, and then I gave up and took the dog for a walk. Children you have been warned, says Joe Bennett. Photo/Getty Images
I waited, children, and I waited some more, and then I gave up and took the dog for a walk. Children you have been warned, says Joe Bennett. Photo/Getty Images

And then this week, across the radio waves came the smug voice of an economist announcing, as though he'd just split the atom, that any smoker in hospital had paid for their medical care several times over through the additional taxes they had paid over years of smoking. And that was not to take into account the vast amounts that every prematurely dead smoker saved the state in pensions they did not collect post mortem. If the state were in any way rational it would be encouraging people to smoke.

And I waited for the economist to do a little acknowledging, to admit that his supposed discovery had been predicted years ago by a certain far-sighted columnist for whom, frankly, the term prophet did not seem wholly inappropriate. I waited, children, and I waited some more, and then I gave up and took the dog for a walk.

Children, you have been warned.