"We are all interested in the future, for that is where you and I are going to spend the rest of our lives."
Most years, when our calendrical odometers turn over from a string of nines to zeroes, we take stock of the year behind us with some mix of satisfaction and regret, and set goals, make resolutions, and lay out plans for the year to come. On public questions plainly beyond our control — politics, the economy — we turn to pundits and other professional prognosticators to help us out, to better prepare for and take advantage of what the future will likely bring.
Any confidence we have in doing so is always partly an illusion. What we most want to know about — whether the stock market will rise or fall, who will win a competitive election — are precisely the most difficult things to predict, and we are all subject to the pundit fallacy, to talking our book, to inclining toward predictions that are emotionally resonant.
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That doesn't mean I'm not going to make predictions, of course. Here are four for the coming year, each specific enough to hold me to account, with rationales provided:
- The next Congress will be surprisingly productive, in spite of divided government, because — much as in the 107th Congress that followed the 2000 election — the leadership of both parties have powerful incentives to show accomplishment. Deals will be struck, and the group that will be most upset by those deals is the progressive wing of the Democratic Party, as they see their priorities repeatedly sidelined in order to win Mitch McConnell's support, even as successful dealmaking boosts the economy, and therefore Republican chances to retain control of the Senate.
- The current delays in vaccine distribution will lead to enormous popular pressure for a faster rollout, and governments will respond. Unlike the effort to contain the virus, governments will not be cross-pressured, and this really is a problem you can solve simply by throwing money at it — so money will be thrown. As a consequence, the coronavirus pandemic in America and Europe will be largely over some time between June and October, and the epicenter of concerns about the virus will move south — to Brazil, India, and other developing nations.
- Thanks to both of the foregoing, the economy will be very strong in 2021, a much more rapid and robust recovery than we have observed from other recent recessions. The contours of that recovery will be different from either of the last two recessions as well, with major cities like New York lagging relative to the suburbs and second-tier cities, and with the big tech firms lagging the economy as a whole as a consequence of market saturation and greater legal and regulatory scrutiny.
- Finally, the Biden administration will face an early and significant foreign policy test from China, which is coming out of the pandemic year stronger and wealthier and increasingly convinced of its superiority, while also aware of the significant demographic headwinds that will start to slow its growth in just a few years. The first months of a new administration is the perfect time for such a test, as it maximizes the chance of tripping up a new team still trying to find its feet.
Those are my predictions, and I think they follow logically from my sense of how things stand at year-end.
But let's get real. If there's one thing we learned from 2020, it's that sometimes the truly unexpected happens. And when it does, our best-laid plans, and most well-thought-out predictions, gang pretty fricking a-gley.
Not that the pandemic wasn't predicted. Many well-informed individuals, most notably Bill Gates, warned of the seriousness of the potential threat, and the degree to which much of the world was unprepared for a novel airborne virus in particular. But that's not the same thing at all as predicting this outbreak, at this time. And that makes all the difference — because we have limited resources, both material and in terms of attention.
After all, while we were inadequately prepared for the pandemic, we are also inadequately prepared for a rogue asteroid strike, a supervolcano eruption, a mega-tsunami, or any of the other potential disasters that we have already imagined (usually in a scenario that involves Bruce Willis or Dwayne Johnson). We are even unprepared for disasters that are essentially certain to happen. Even if we take drastic action to decarbonize the economy, for example, greenhouse gasses are going to continue to build up in the atmosphere for years to come, and while we can't predict the precise consequences or their timing, disruptions of agriculture and natural habitats along with more severe storms and coastal flooding are pretty certain bets. Similarly, even if birth rates in Africa fall dramatically, the continent's population is going to swell enormously over the next decades, with consequences for the environment, the world economy, migration, geopolitics, and culture that will surely be profound if hard to predict in their specifics. The tail risks in each case promise more profound disruption, even catastrophe, but some degree of disruptive change is all but certain, and we are not prepared for what is likely, much less for what is possible.
So what should we do? Should we embrace the Cassandras, as Washington Post columnist Megan McArdle resolved to do after her experience of the pandemic? Well, what about when the Cassandras disagree? I don't think David Wallace-Wells, Michael Anton, and Elon Musk are on the same page about much of anything. How do we heed them all? Meanwhile, you can go very wrong by listening to the Cassandras. After the 9-11 attacks, America embraced a doctrine of preventative war on the grounds that even a one-percent chance of a catastrophic terrorist attack was too high a risk to take, and justified military action. But the actions we took wound up exacerbating many of the conditions they were intended to redress.
We have no choice but to lay odds, and live by them. It's absolutely worth investing more in preparedness for catastrophic tail risks of various kinds (particularly now, when low interest rates make money nearly free), but we shouldn't delude ourselves that by so doing we will render the world predictable. We still need to be prepared for surprises, which is to say: adaptable to them.
To that end, it's worth reckoning not only with what surprises might be in store, but with how we are likely to handle them psychologically. The answer is troubling. The future is unknown, mysterious, unexplainable — and so we want to tame it into something predictable. We convince ourselves that the key to doing so lies in the secrets of the past, that traumatic events there, suppressed or forgotten, will rise again to afflict us in the future. And so when crazy, unexpected things happen, we naturally turn to even crazier explanations that allow us to believe the world remains predictable, even at the price of our sanity.
I began this column with a quote from the opening lines of Plan 9 From Outer Space, legendarily one of the worst movies ever made, but it's worth savoring the entire monologue in its full absurd glory:
What do I predict for 2021? I don't know. After 2020, grave robbers from outer space don't seem so outlandish anymore.
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