A few weeks ago, I wrote about my BET ME Challenge, in which I argued that pundits making cocksure predictions about the future should be obliged to make a hefty wager on outcomes in which they claim to have strong confidence. Looking ahead at 2015, there is not much that seems to me so predictable that I’d be willing to bet real money on it, but here are some factors — not predictions — to keep in mind.
‐The United States during the Obama years has been less an actor on the world stage than a reactor, and while events overseas seem likely to command our national attention in the year ahead, many of the most relevant factors are beyond our immediate control. If petroleum prices continue their downward trend, that will present some challenges to oil-and-gas-producing states such as Texas and Pennsylvania, but will present a much more complicated problem for one-horse economies such as Russia’s; and when Vladimir Putin is losing sleep, his neighbors suffer from chronic insomnia.
Russia’s economic troubles — banking crisis, plunging ruble, 11 percent inflation, 17 percent interest rates — are less a consequence of falling oil and gas prices than a revelation of how great an underlying economic mess the Russian energy boom has been obscuring. The optimistic possibility is that this makes Western sanctions punishing Moscow for its adventures in Ukraine burdensome enough to chasten Putin et al., perhaps inspiring some baby steps in the direction of real economic and political reform. The pessimistic take is that this provides an unneeded and unwanted spur to aggressive Russian nationalism, with Putin going even more deeply into Bond-villain territory. I am generally optimistic about the current state of world affairs, but I do not see much reason to be optimistic about the situation in Russia.
‐Expect to hear more from “far right” and “anti-immigrant” parties in Europe — some of which are indeed the nasty xenophobes they are made out to be, others of which are more Pim Fortuyn than Jean-Marie Le Pen. In France, the Netherlands, the United Kingdom, Denmark, and elsewhere, a combination of two related factors — immigration-driven cultural transformation and the intrusions of an increasingly bare-knuckled European Union — have driven a wedge between cosmopolitan elites and heavily middle-class constituencies who feel caught between Brussels on one side and a picket of new minarets on the other. Don’t expect to see the European Union come flying apart in 2015, but don’t expect anybody to give German factory workers a real, convincing answer about why they are economically bound to the Greeks and the Italians, either. Do expect to be amused as so-called liberals on these shores twist themselves into knots trying to explain why the death-to-homosexuals crowd is the victim in its ongoing cultural confrontation with Dutch welfare statists arguing for stronger hate-crimes laws — inspired by a gay, pro-choice liberal — and similar parties throughout Europe.
‐There are two big, not-doing-great economies to keep an eye on: India’s and ours. Things being what they are in the rest of the world at the moment, not-great-but-not-disastrous is bound to look pretty good to a great many firms and investors. William Dudley of the New York Fed puts U.S. growth at 2.5 percent to 3 percent over the coming year; Moody’s puts Indian growth at approximately twice that, not an unexpected split between a very mature economy and a still-developing one. There is a fair amount of terror in the world markets, to such an extent that the Swiss central bank has imposed negative interest rates on foreign depositors in hopes of stemming the flood of overseas money seeking safe Swiss harbor and driving up the value of the franc. If you don’t want your money in Russia and you’re not the daring sort who wants to find out for himself what “choppy growth deceleration” looks like in the Chinese context, if you’re worried that Europe is headed back into recession and that Japan’s never really getting out of its own, and you don’t like Canada’s oil-price vulnerability, where do you go?
If the respective elites in the United States and India were less stupid — if the Indians would get over their irrational fear of foreign businesses and we Americans would get over our irrational fear of sweaty foreigners’ “stealing our jobs” — then the world’s two largest democracies would act in a number of intelligent ways on the fact that our economic, political, and national-security interests coincide to an extraordinary degree. But no, I’m not betting my own money on anybody’s getting less stupid in the year ahead.
‐ Traditional media companies overseas have been experiencing some relief as the growing global middle class consumes more information and opinion. In the United States, our media companies are finally — finally — starting to understand that their biggest problem isn’t that there’s so much free content available online but that they have been badly run, debt-laden businesses organized around unrealistic expectations regarding profit margins. The typical American media company enjoys higher profit margins than does Walmart, and nobody hears Walmart screaming that it is doomed, doomed, doomed. Instead of a prediction, I’ll offer them some advice for 2015: Stop hiring people with (preposterous) four-year journalism degrees and second-rate MBAs, and start hiring the smartest college and high-school students — not graduates, but students — they can find. The big, traditional news organizations are still producing a good for which there is no real replacement. They should think of themselves as being like the very smart 65-year-old philosophy professor or physician who needs his grandkids to show him how to set up his smartphone. There’s no shame in that.
If all of the above sounds pessimistic, that’s probably due in no small part to the nature of this sort of thought exercise. And I am as vulnerable to pessimism bias as anybody. But for all of our considerable problems and challenges, 2014 was one of the best years in human history, as was 2013 before it and 2012 before that. In terms of health, wealth, happiness, and human flourishing, we continue to move, in our halting and imperfect fashion, in the right direction. We cut global poverty in half in 20 years. We have nearly eliminated polio. Smallpox is gone. An all-encompassing war between the nations of Europe is almost unthinkable. Famine, to the extent that it exists today, is an almost entirely man-made phenomenon.
So here’s the one prediction I will make: 2015 will be one of the best years in human history. And next December, we’ll all be bitching about it.
– Kevin D. Williamson is roving correspondent of National Review.