Writers usually know better than to try to predict the future.  But sometimes, you just know what is about to happen. It’s a little like the old Sesame Street skit “What happens next?” Then, the kid steps into the puddle.

The prohibition against crystal-ball gazing was so strong when I was coming up at The Kansas City Star that we weren’t allowed to write, say, “A meeting will be held.” We were to write, “A meeting is to be held.” Then, if the meeting got canceled, we had not put out false information.

Still, sometimes prediction can be (almost) safe. Consider this. You’re at work. The unfamiliar guys standing off in a corner are introduced as “efficiency experts.” But, your boss assures you, “Your job is safe.”

Update your resume. You’re done. It happened twice in our family.

More than 20 years ago, my wife’s boss at Keyes Fibre in Waterville told Marilyn and three workmates not to worry, that the time-and-motion guys were not after their jobs and that all would still be working for Keyes when the efficiency guys left.

When I got home a few nights later to reload for the Fryeburg Fair, Marilyn said, “Take me back to Fryeburg with you. I got fired today.” Her three co-workers, too. The efficiency guys called their jobs redundant. Odd thing was that Marilyn had asked her boss if she could change jobs because she knew none of the Keyes suits around the country read the reports she had been hired to write. Her boss ignored that news until the efficiency dudes showed up.   


At a newspaper at which I was working in Ohio, an efficiency crew showed up from Houston. The same crew had been there a couple of years before, and their target, that is, the guy against whom the owner had hired them to build a case, was my predecessor. 

My boss, who reported directly to the owner, warned me a couple of days later that I was the target. I was ahead of him. I had already taken a copy of the company personnel manual to a lawyer. Not to save my job, because I would never work in a place that didn’t want me. But to get fair compensation so our family could move back to Maine.

The newspaper’s owner was angry, but she ponied up the money when my lawyer gave her an accounting of how she and the efficiency gurus had violated her own policy book.

Move to the larger world.

When news reports predict trouble in the Gulf of Mexico, fill every fuel tank you own. The price of anything made of oil is going up, long before any shortages occur.

Just before Hurricane Harvey hit the lowlands of Houston, the price of gasoline at a store I passed was $2.199. Most places around here then were about $2.239. A week or so later, gas around here was more than $2.609. It peaked at $2.869. Within two weeks, refineries in Texas were up and running, but gas was still costlier than before Harvey.


Sure, it takes time to recharge the supply. But the price went up in anticipation of the shortage, so why didn’t it come down in anticipation of a full supply? The price 49 days after Harvey hit was $2.399 to $2.539 around here. 

If you think back to the Nixon era — seems now like the good old days, doesn’t it? — you’ll remember the long lines at gas stations caused by an alleged shortage of oil. Nixon even lowered the speed limit on interstate highways to save fuel. 

Jim Steele and Don Barlett, reporters at the Philadelphia Inquirer, smelled a leak in the oil-shortage story. They talked to a million people, got pictures of loaded oil tankers at anchor offshore, waiting. They won their first Pulitzer Prize for proving there was no shortage, only a scheme by oil barons to raise prices. Nixon may not have been in on it.

That probably wasn’t the first time oil barons phonied up a shortage. So, when you see a disaster coming to the oil patch, you can predict that prices are going up, and they’ll stay up well after the shortage is past. You can take that to the bank.

Warren Buffett is called the “Wizard of Omaha.” For good reason. He makes headlines and billions of dollars with shrewd investments. His basic approach is to buy a company that is “underpriced.” He has figured out how the company can make a lot more money.

So, he buys it and, with his guys on the board of directors, he can lay off people, drop products that aren’t paying their way at the moment, or cut corners in such areas as maintenance and safety.


When Buffet announced that his Berkshire Hathaway company would buy a major share in the Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railway, I shuddered. BNSF is the successor to the Burlington Northern, itself a merger of four roads, and the Atchison, Topeka & Santa Fe.

BNSF has had one of the best safety records in railroading. It was known for not cutting corners. When I hear of a train wreck, I think first of CSX if it’s in the east, Union Pacific in the west. I’m almost always right. BNSF and Norfolk Southern generally have better safety records. But with Buffet driving BNSF, I fear, safety may take a back seat to cutting payroll and making more money for investors. Read Berkshire Hathaway.

Crystal ball gazing is risky. But sometimes, when you hear something you can figure for sure what happens next. Just like the kids on Sesame Street jumping into the puddle.

Bob Neal loved the Santa Fe Railway. He knew he had found the right mate when Marilyn happily went with him to watch Santa Fe passenger trains roll through HollidayKansas.

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