2020 was unpredictable. But Future Perfect is going to predict 2021 anyway.
Some of the most important work journalists and analysts do involves predicting future events. What will happen if President Biden implements a certain anti-poverty policy? How likely is a new study to be borne out in future research? If a new Supreme Court justice is appointed, how will that change how the Court rules on key cases?
No one is perfect, and anyone who makes dozens of those predictions every month will be wrong sometimes, but getting these predictions right — and, just as important, being right about your own level of uncertainty — really matters. If policymakers could rely on accurate predictions about the outcome of a foreign war or the advisability of a budget proposal, we could make much better policy decisions.
And being good at predictions is a skill like any other — you have to practice it. University of Pennsylvania psychologist Philip Tetlock studies forecasting, holding tournaments to identify the skills that make people better than their peers at predicting future events. He finds that the most critical skills are thinking numerically, being open to changing your mind, updating your beliefs incrementally and frequently instead of in rare big moments, and — most encouragingly — practicing. The best way to get better at prediction-making is to do it all the time, note your successes, learn from your failures, and refine your understanding of where you’re strongest at making predictions.
So for the third year in a row, the staff of Future Perfect will be providing predictions on the year to come. As with last time, we assign each event a probability between 10 percent and 95 percent (Tetlock found that the best forecasters thought in terms of probabilities rather than simple yes/no predictions). To say that something has an 80 percent chance of happening doesn’t mean it’s definitely happening; it means that if we make five predictions at 80 percent confidence, we’re expecting to have four of them come true. (This kind of probabilistic thinking can trip people up, as Nate Silver has documented.)
You can also read our retrospective on our 2020 predictions and on our 2019 predictions. We don’t speak for Vox, or even for each other, and we hope that where you disagree, you’ll weigh in with predictions of your own. If you want to try your hand, the site Metaculus is a good place; the successor company to Tetlock’s Good Judgment Project also runs competitions.
The United States
Trump will uneventfully leave office on January 20 (70 percent)
To be clear, there is at this point no doubt about whether Trump will leave office on January 20, the official inauguration date for the new president, Joe Biden. Biden secured more electoral votes. Trump’s campaign made a lot of noise but didn’t bring serious allegations of fraud to court, and no court would grant his proposed remedy of overturning the election. His backers have held alternate Electoral College votes and threatened the real electors, but that won’t change the outcome either.
There is likely to be some drama and potentially even violent street protests on January 6, when the Electoral College vote is read before Congress, but that, too, is nearly certain to be political theater that can’t overturn the legal election results.
The only part of this up in the air is the key word “uneventfully.” In December claims circulated that Trump has told his advisers he won’t leave. If the president has to be dragged by force out of the White House, or stages a protest to Biden’s inauguration on Inauguration Day, then I’ll be proven wrong. But my guess is that once every remedy has been exhausted, the president will retreat to Mar-a-Lago or a similar location, continuing to tweet that the election was unfair. —Kelsey Piper
Biden will have a treasury secretary, secretary of state, defense secretary, and attorney general confirmed by the end of the year (70 percent)
One of the more depressing political predictions I’ve seen floating around is that, should Republicans hold on to at least one of the two Georgia Senate seats, they will block Biden from assembling a Cabinet, and we’ll have four years of unprecedented political gridlock.
My general starting point for predicting politics is to predict that things will be bad, but not as bad as the gloomiest predictions circulating among pundits, and often mostly bad along dimensions they’re not tracking. Making it impossible for Biden to appoint a secretary of state or similar would be high-profile and divisive; I expect most gridlock to be introduced through less clear-cut strategies. Plus, there’s a chance that Democrats win both Georgia runoffs, which look like toss-ups in the polls.
Given all that, why only 70 percent? One lesson I’ve learned from doing these predictions is that the more detail they have, the more can go wrong. I would bet very confidently that Biden will have a secretary of state, or that he’ll have a defense secretary, etc. But this prediction specifies he’ll have all four, so I should be correspondingly less confident in it. —KP
At least one US state will have an abortion ban currently blocked by the courts go into effect (40 percent)
The Supreme Court, now dominated by justices who think Roe v. Wade was wrongly decided, might overturn it in the next year. More likely, they might technically leave it in place but hollow it out. I consider it pretty likely that they’ll aim to reduce abortion access only a little, and that they won’t overturn Roe or take any larger steps to allow states to pass sweeping abortion bans.
That said, there’s a significant chance this year will see sweeping changes in abortion access in America. Some 10 states have so-called trigger laws on the books to immediately ban all or almost all abortions if Roe is overturned, and nine other states have laws on the books that are currently blocked under Roe. In Kentucky, for example, one such law would make it illegal to get an abortion past six weeks, even in cases of rape and child molestation, even if the fetus is not viable and will regardless not survive, and even if the pregnant person’s health would be substantially harmed, if they’re not at risk of death or permanent organ damage.
In the long run, I expect very few US states to stand by such total bans — they’re overwhelmingly unpopular with the American public, most of whom want abortion available at least under limited circumstances, especially early in a pregnancy. But they’ve made their way onto the books, protected from public scrutiny by the fact that they’re currently unconstitutional, and if the Supreme Court lets them go into effect, millions of Americans will temporarily live under deeply unpopular, extreme anti-abortion laws.
I consider this somewhat unlikely — the Supreme Court tends to prefer not to take such strong steps when it can instead advance its aims more gradually by chipping away, rather than overturning, Roe — but still likely enough that it ought to be on everyone’s radar. —KP
No one in Trump’s immediate family will be indicted (65 percent)
Let me be very clear: I am not saying that Jared Kushner and Donald, Melania, Donald Jr., Ivanka, Eric, and the oft-forgot Tiffany Trump are innocent of any and all crimes. I’ve read a little bit on those folks and they seem a bit shady, to be honest.
What I am saying is that liberals right now are overestimating the enthusiasm that will remain for state-level investigations into the Trump family once Trump is out of office. Interest in Bush-era abuses vanished almost immediately in 2009. New York Attorney General Letitia James and Manhattan District Attorney Cy Vance are political actors and will notice that the voter demand for such investigations no longer exists come mid-2021. And the Biden Justice Department will likely be reticent to prosecute his predecessor, not least if Hunter Biden is still the target of legal scrutiny. —Dylan Matthews
Trump approval rating by year’s end will be in the 40 to 45 percent range (70 percent)
The president’s approval ratings have been flat throughout his term; no matter what he does, about 55 to 60 percent of the country dislikes him and 40 to 45 percent of the country likes him. An economic boom didn’t change that. A pandemic and attendant economic crash didn’t, either. His refusal to concede the election hasn’t done it. Will that change when he’s out of office?
My bet is on “no.” Most presidents experience a bump in popularity — from nostalgia — once they’re out of office, but it doesn’t seem likely to me that Trump will see such a bump, for the same reason that no other events have affected his approval ratings. Americans know how they feel about Trump, and at this point those feelings are barely responsive to anything Trump does. —KP
The US unemployment rate will stay above 5 percent through November (70 percent)
The Trump White House used to talk, back in the spring, about a “snapback” recovery: You lift social distancing restrictions, stuff goes back to normal, and the economy becomes what it was in January 2020, with unemployment at 3.6 percent and falling. I don’t see it happening.
Yes, the vaccine rollout will spur people to spend more again. But the rollout will also be gradual, and there will be tremendous uncertainty about what it’s safe for vaccinated people to do, when to stop wearing masks, when it’s okay to go on airplanes or to indoor restaurants, and so forth. All that will weaken a vaccine-driven recovery.
What’s more, Congress chose in December to pass real but inadequate stimulus measures. The $300/week bonus to unemployment insurance is good but not enough, and giving almost no aid to states and localities is ridiculous. The inadequate assistance, and lack of retroactive aid for August through December when emergency UI had expired, means there’ll be some debt overhang from people using credit cards and other kinds of loans to get by without congressional assistance. The low level of state and local aid also means hiring and purchases by state and local governments will be low, which will meaningfully hurt the recovery.
The Fed can, and should, ramp up asset buys (“quantitative easing”) and keep promising to keep interest rates low to aid the recovery, but the economy needs more drastic demand stimulus than that. With a closely divided Senate, possibly under Republican control, I don’t think that additional fiscal stimulus will be forthcoming after the December deal. The result will be a longer and more painful recovery than was necessary. —DM
US poverty will be higher in late 2021 than it was in late 2020 (80 percent)
I’ve written a lot about the rise in poverty this year since enhanced unemployment insurance (the $600 per week top-up included in the initial Covid-19 relief bill) expired at the end of July, and the projections that it will be rising more still by January. The basics are simple: The US is in a recession, the extremely generous stimulus policies of April through July were so extensive as to actually reduce poverty despite that recession, but since the federal government stopped helping things got progressively worse.
The end-of-2020 deal in Congress included a more modest, $300/week UI benefit boost and some modest direct cash payments to households, which should help reduce poverty temporarily. But I fear that the deal, which looks to expire at the end of March, will result in a similar dynamic as the 2020 stimulus: a brief improvement, followed by deterioration upon its expiration, and gridlock in Congress that prevents further progress.
To be specific, for this prediction I’ll be relying on two monthly measures of poverty: one from the Center on Poverty and Social Policy at Columbia, and one by economists Bruce Meyer, James X. Sullivan, and Jeehoon Han. —DM
The median home price in the Bay Area will fall 5 percent or more (70 percent)
For years, people have been declaring that the Bay Area — my home — is doomed, even as its housing prices and job market continued to boom. But 2020 may have really changed things. Many companies have moved out of expensive San Francisco. Many of their employees have, too. Most people agree that remote work isn’t quite as good — but it provides enormous advantages compared to having to hire in the most expensive market in the United States. I wouldn’t bet on a massive outflow from the Bay in the next year, but I think there will be a steady one, enough to continue this year’s depression in home prices and rents.
To be clear, I think this is a tragedy. With good governance, the San Francisco area could’ve risen to the moment and become a global city with affordable housing for both locals and new arrivals, demonstrating that its values create good places for people to live their lives. Instead, it demonstrated the opposite. It took Covid-19 to bring these consequences, but they were eventually going to happen. —KP
100 million Americans will be vaccinated, at least partially, against the coronavirus by end of April (70 percent)
Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, has predicted that the vaccine will be widely available to Americans by April. Some back-of-the-envelope math tells me there’ll be enough supply to fully vaccinate 100 million people.
Pfizer has agreed to give the US 100 million doses by the end of March; since each person has to get two doses, that’s enough to fully vaccinate 50 million. And Moderna says it’ll have 85 million to 100 million doses ready for Americans in the first quarter, providing full inoculation for perhaps another 50 million. Some other vaccines, such as AstraZeneca’s, may also start rolling in.
That said, it’s not enough for the US to have lots of vaccine doses on hand; it also has to distribute the doses efficiently. Distribution has been frustratingly slow in December and the early days of January, placing the country far behind its initial target. So I’m not highly confident that the US will manage to get two shots each to 100 million people by end of April.
However, I do think there’s a significant likelihood of getting at least one shot to that many people within that timeframe. Fauci says vaccination rates may accelerate soon, and he thinks the country can hit a target of 1 million shots per day. That rate would make Biden’s stated goal — distributing 100 million shots in his first 100 days as president — achievable. —SS
Restaurant reservations and consumer spending outside the home back to normal by the end of year (70 percent)
With the vaccine for the novel coronavirus widely available by next summer, I predict that the lockdown will extend longer than we’d like but certainly not through the next year. I expect that by the fall, consumer spending will be back to normal — plausibly even boosted by pent-up demand. I’ll look at this page of government statistics to see if I got this one right. —KP
A deadly new zoonotic outbreak will emerge (55 percent)
I know, I know, everyone is going to hate me for saying this. And to be clear, I’m not saying we’ll see an outbreak that rises to the level of a pandemic like Covid-19, which reached into pretty much every corner of the planet. But I do think we may see the emergence of a disease that starts in animals, spills over into humans, and causes at least a few dozen deaths.
Why do I think this? As Martha Nelson, who studies viruses at the National Institutes of Health, told us on the Future Perfect podcast, we’re “playing Russian roulette” with animals. Our environmental practices (like cutting down forests and destroying other animal habitats) and our factory farming system (where pigs, chickens, cows, and more are crowded together in unsanitary conditions) make zoonotic outbreaks increasingly likely.
No less than 75 percent of new diseases originate in animals, and they’ve been popping up with alarming frequency in recent years. H5N1 came from birds in 1997. H1N1 came from pigs in 2009. Ebola spread from bats in 2014. There’s also Zika, and West Nile, and several others. I’m afraid we’ll see a new killer zoonotic disease in 2021. I hope I’m wrong. —SS
The US will enact policies to hold China accountable for its treatment of Muslims, but the internment camps will remain open (80 percent)
In 2020, the Biden campaign referred to China’s repression of Uighur Muslims as “genocide.” In 2021, I have no doubt that Biden will repeatedly condemn the camps where more than 1 million of them have been held. I am also fairly confident that the US will pass at least one significant bill aimed at holding China accountable, especially given that Uighur forced labor has leached into the supply chain of American companies.
But I see no reason to think that China will shut down the camps in 2021. The government there has already proven that targeted sanctions do not have swaying power; although the US imposed sanctions on officials like Xinjiang’s Communist Party Secretary Chen Quanguo, the camp system persists.
Getting China to shut down the system would require much bigger incentives — financial as well as reputational. But China is simply so economically powerful that it’s hard to imagine the US being willing to hit it too hard financially. And the world is struggling to even get the reputational piece of the puzzle in place; the International Criminal Court recently decided not to investigate China’s repression of the Uighurs. —SS
The Hadi government and Houthi rebels in Yemen reach a peace agreement (60 percent)
This bet is motivated by a few developments that together make me think 2021 could be the year the devastating conflict in Yemen that has already killed more than 100,000 people comes to an end — or, at the very least, the year that a temporary ceasefire begins as peace talks get underway. My specific prediction is that there will be either a formal peace deal between the Saudi-backed Hadi government and the Iranian-backed Houthis or else a tentative ceasefire. The latter sadly seems more likely.
The biggest development is Joe Biden’s election. The US is not the main actor in the civil war, but it is an important actor for the support it has given Saudi Arabia (including actual special forces troops on the ground). Bipartisan pressure from Congress to end support for the Saudi air war has been mounting throughout Trump’s term, and a president less close to Saudi de facto leader Mohammed bin Salman seems likelier to yield to that pressure.
The Biden campaign in fact promised to end support for the Saudis in Yemen, and incoming senior administration officials — Secretary of State-designate Antony Blinken, Director of National Intelligence-designate Avril Haines, National Security Adviser-designate Jake Sullivan, and UN Ambassador-designate Linda Thomas-Greenfield — signed an open letter urging the same.
At the same time, Biden and his team are eager to have the US rejoin the multilateral nuclear deal with Iran and to more broadly reverse the Trump administration’s efforts to antagonize the country and reverse all diplomatic progress made under Obama. Iran is understandably hesitant to just let the US ping-pong in and out of agreements from election to election, and so withdrawing from Yemen and working to broker a peace between Iran’s proxies and Saudi Arabia’s would be an important show of good faith on the US’s part.
Beyond Biden, though, there have been encouraging signs on the ground in Yemen. Saudi Arabia recently signaled openness to a ceasefire (albeit on terms the Houthis may not accept), and unilaterally called a brief ceasefire in April. There was a large-scale prisoner swap in September. On their own, these are not grounds for unbridled optimism, but they suggest that an engaged and motivated US administration, newly distanced from Saudi Arabia, could help force a truce. —DM
LDP continues to govern Japan (90 percent), CDU continues to govern Germany (80 percent)
I’m grouping these together on the somewhat tenuous grounds that I’m predicting each major former Axis power will continue to be governed by the center-right party that has dominated its politics since shortly after World War II (this pattern has not held in Italy because nothing about Italian politics makes any sense).
The Liberal Democratic Party’s grip on Japan and the Christian Democratic Union’s grip on Germany are not absolute. Japan has had brief periods of non-LDP rule, such as when the opposition Democratic Party held office from 2009 to 2012, but they have tended to be short-lived, and the opposition to the LDP is prone to factionalism and infighting. Polling suggests the party and new Prime Minister Suga Yoshihide don’t face any serious opposition in 2021. It doesn’t hurt that the country has weathered Covid-19 exceptionally well.
Similarly, the German Social Democratic Party (SDP) has been able to form cabinets: Willy Brandt and Helmut Schmidt’s governments in West Germany from 1969 to 1982, and Gerhard Schroeder’s from 1998 to 2005. But in the 15-year regime of Angela Merkel, the SDP has usually been the junior coalition partner to the Christian Democrats and is in danger of losing its status as the dominant center-left party in the country to the Greens. As it stands, though, the Greens are a distant second to CDU by some 15 to 20 points. The real question is who, exactly, a CDU win would make prime minister, as Merkel is retiring after the election and the CDU leadership race continues. —DM
India’s economy will grow in quarters 1-3 of 2021 after shrinking briefly in 2020 (70 percent)
One of the greatest tragedies of the Covid-19 crisis is that it forced low-income countries to choose between halting years and years of progress against poverty, and allowing a massive public health catastrophe to unfold. India opted for mandatory activity restrictions in certain areas perceived as at risk of Covid-19 outbreaks in the spring, and the predictable result of that and the global economic contraction was a recession, the first since 1980. India reversed course and reopened quite quickly, and is now up to over 10 million cases (second only to, well, the US).
If the public health situation deteriorates further and necessitates more lockdowns, the recession could drag out. But as it stands, the situation seems to be improving. From July to September, the economy shrank by 7.5 percent year over year compared to a shocking 24 percent contraction in April through June. That gives me hope that in the new year, the economy will be growing again.
India releases its GDP numbers in a fiscal year schedule where April through June was “quarter 1” of the “2020-2021 fiscal year,” so to be specific, what I’m predicting is that India’s GDP will grow in both nominal and real terms in quarter 4 of the 2020-2021 fiscal year, and quarters 1 and 2 of the 2021-2022 fiscal year. —DM
At least three new basic income pilots will be launched (75 percent)
Covid-19 boosted public support for the idea of a basic income. As the pandemic unexpectedly wiped out millions of people’s finances through no fault of their own, advocates argued that citizens desperately need some sort of guaranteed payment to fall back on. Some governments and philanthropists listened. Spain started offering payments of up to 1,015 euros ($1,145) to the poorest families in the country. Germany started a new basic income experiment. And in the US, a coalition of mayors — with a $15 million grant from Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey — launched guaranteed income pilots in several US cities.
I think basic income will continue to gain momentum in 2021, with at least three new pilots launching globally. I’m not expecting to see much action at the national level — with a few exceptions, basic income programs offer money to small groups of a few hundred or few thousand people, not a whole country — but I think we’ll see a good amount of action at the city level. That’s because the global economy won’t recover overnight; the need precipitated by the pandemic will persist well into the year, and the illusion that only lazy people ever need “free money” has been shattered. —SS
No more countries will leave the EU (80 percent)
After Brexit (remember when Brexit was the biggest story in the world?), there was widespread speculation that Britain’s departure foretold the end of the EU. That hasn’t been borne out, and I don’t expect this next year to change that. Why not? First, Britain’s departure from the EU has embarrassed its two major political parties, damaged its economy, and infuriated its citizens — not exactly an inspiring model. Second, Britain was unusual anyway: Most countries in the EU plainly gain a lot from being there, and have more of a cultural identity as part of Europe. And there are no mainstream political movements for withdrawal. —KP
Technology and environment
An AI breakthrough will lead to a game-changing advance in biology (75 percent)
In 2020, a couple of amazing AI breakthroughs rocked the biology world. First, researchers trained a neural network to predict which molecules (out of 107 million possibilities!) would have antibacterial properties, enabling them to identify brand new types of antibiotics. Then, DeepMind’s AlphaFold system cracked the “protein folding problem,” a grand challenge of biology that had vexed scientists for 50 years. That’ll likely speed up and improve scientists’ ability to develop new drugs.
The AI field is moving at such a fast clip that I think we’ll see at least one breakthrough of this magnitude in 2021. I’m talking about something that pushes biology forward by a significant margin. —SS
Global carbon emissions will increase (90 percent)
This is a perennial prediction, one of those that is mostly true every year. Global carbon emissions keep rising because the world economy is growing faster than it’s shifting to non-greenhouse-gas-emitting energy sources. Last year, global carbon emissions fell, but that was caused by the near-total shutdown of the global economy, which won’t be sustained in 2021. In fact, I’m even more confident than usual that we’ll see carbon emissions grow, because they will increase from 2020’s lower baseline. —KP
Average world temperatures will increase relative to 2020 (80 percent)
Average world temperatures have increased most years for the past several decades, though there’s a little bit of noise, so any given year isn’t a sure thing. This is a direct consequence of increased carbon emissions, but with some lag — I don’t expect last year’s small decrease in CO2 to produce a decline in average global temperatures, but just a slightly slower rate of increase. —KP
Plant-based meat market share will increase by at least 20 percent (80 percent)
In the past few years, we’ve seen the takeoff of plant-based meat products — foods designed to have the taste and nutrient content of meat without the environmental, health, and animal welfare costs of factory farming. Plant-based meat is only a tiny fraction of overall animal meat sales, but it’s grown dramatically in the past few years.
Even if that growth slows, it should comfortably top 20 percent from the previous year. The return of restaurant dining is likely to help the plant-based meat market, too — while the products are available in supermarkets and have done well there, they got their start in restaurants, where it’s easier to convince consumers to try something new and unfamiliar. I’ll measure this by getting data on sales of refrigerated plant-based meat products from the Good Food Institute — meaning this prediction, if it’s close, might not be settled until the following March, when all its data for the year is in (unless preliminary data can tell us enough). —KP
Author: Kelsey Piper