Time Magazine's annual list of the world's "100 Most Influential People" has always said more about Time's editors than about people who have actual influence. And this year's list is no exception.
Their choices have long skewed towards the hot and the new, not necessarily those who move the needle. In 2011 it acclaimed Wael Ghonim, a young Egyptian executive who was a symbol of the uprising in that country that spring. Mr. Ghonim then receded into obscurity; Egypt watchers assumed (rightly) that he'd have no ongoing impact at all.
That edition also cited artist Ai Weiwei as the most influential man in China, while the country's president and central bank governor, who oversees China's $3 trillion in foreign reserves, didn't make the cut.
To be sure, many of this year's choices are hard to argue with. Russia's Vladimir Putin, India's Narendra Modi, Germany's Angela Merkel have all had outsized impacts on world events in the recent past and are certain to do so for the near future.
But among Time's 2015 choices are people with little influence at all. Abubakar Shekau, a shadowy figure presumed to lead Nigeria's Boko Haram terrorist movement, is selected as one of the world's top-20 influential leaders. Why? Time says it's because he's responsible for killing a lot of people.
Yes, Boko Haram has committed horrific crimes in northern Nigeria, and in the process has exposed enormous central government failings, both in terms of providing security and steering Africa's largest economy.
But what is Shekau's precise role in all this? No one really knows. Many believe he's long dead, and that "Shekau" lives on as a kind of horrific, real-world Dread Pirate Roberts. At any rate, there's no evidence to suggest that if he died Boko Haram's "influence," such as it is, would simply fade away.
Nigeria's President-elect Muhammadu Buhari is the only other Nigerian to make the "leaders" list, which seems a reasonable choice. But there are dozens of Nigerians who are going to exert more influence in future than Shekau or any other Boko Haram henchman, whether in politics, finance, or healthcare. He is merely the bogeyman du jour.
Frivolity, pioneers, and election cycles
Much of Time's 2015 list is either the frivolous or irrelevant. Kim Kardashian, the reality TV show star and the very definition of someone "famous for being famous?" Most influential. Actor Chris Pratt, who starred in the superhero movie "Guardians of the Galaxy?" Most influential. Actress Reese Witherspoon is deemed one of the 20 most influential "pioneers" – a category that appears largely reserved for inventors – for reasons that are left to the reader's imagination.
Univision's Jorge Ramos is the first name of their 31 "leaders." Time predicts he will have a major impact on the 2016 presidential election by swaying Hispanic voters to vote differently, somehow. Perhaps. For what it's worth, I predict that the Hispanic and Latino vote will continue to skew towards the Democratic Party in 2016 and that, as is almost always the case, the race for the White House will hinge on how Americans feel about the state of the economy.
The 2016 election is clearly on the mind of Time's editors. Both presumed frontrunners Jeb Bush and Hillary Rodham Clinton are on the list, though neither holds any power at all at the moment and will now spend the next 19 months begging donors for money, kissing babies, and making outlandish promises. And the loser will end up having very little influence at all.
Bob Corker, the junior senator from Tennessee, is one of 31 leaders with most influence in the world. Then there's the Democratic senator from Massachusetts, Elizabeth Warren, along with Joint Chiefs chairman Gen. Martin Dempsey, President Obama, NBA Commissioner Adam Silver, Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell, US Ambassador to the United Nations Samantha Power, and CDC Director Tom Frieden. All in all, Time deems Americans to make up 35 percent of the most influential leaders in the world.
The only French "leader" to make the list is Marine Le Pen, the far-right politician who came in third in the last French presidential election and whose party currently holds just two seats in the French parliament. President Francois Hollande apparently doesn't rate. Nor does Afghan President Ashraf Ghani – the only Afghan on the leaders list is his wife, Rula, who is a native of Lebanon and a Christian.
It's arguable whether a serious effort to determine who are the world's 100 most influential people even makes sense. But this is not a remotely serious attempt.