Forecasting what’s shaping up to be another bumpy year.
Predicting future events is hard, but it’s among the most important tasks a journalist can perform. Especially if you work at a section called Future Perfect.
Our mission is to explain the world around us to our readers, and it’s impossible to do that without anticipating what comes next. Will inflation continue to rise in the US and Europe, or level off? Will the Supreme Court allow states to ban abortion, eliminating legal access in red states? Will Brazil’s 212 million people be led by a left-wing populist, or a far-right anti-vaxxer?
All of these questions matter, and preparing ourselves for potential outcomes — and having a good sense of how likely specific outcomes are — is a major part of explaining the world accurately. And if policymakers could rely on accurate predictions about the outcome of a foreign war or the advisability of a budget proposal, they could make much better policy decisions.
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 for forecasting 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. Practice makes perfect for prediction-making, but you need to do it all the time, note your successes, learn from your failures, and refine your understanding of where your forecasting abilities are strongest.
So for the third year in a row, the staff of Future Perfect is 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 retrospectives on our 2021 predictions, our 2020 predictions, and 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
Democrats will lose their majorities in the US House and Senate (95 percent)
Midterm elections are fairly predictable. With extremely rare exceptions, the party in power loses seats. Public opinion is, as political scientist Christopher Wlezien has argued, thermostatic: The public elects one party, then finds that its policies are a little too far left or right for its tastes, and compensates by moving the other way in the midterms.
Wlezien, along with Joseph Bafumi and Robert Erikson, has also found that polling many months ahead of midterms can be quite predictive of the eventual results. As of this writing, Democrats are slightly behind in national House polling, which suggests they’ll lose the popular vote for the House this coming November. Data analyst David Shor told me that as of December 9, 2021, the generic ballot polling suggests Democrats losing the House popular vote, 48 percent to 52 percent. With the current razor-thin Democratic majority in both chambers of Congress, such a performance would translate to a near-certain Republican takeover. —Dylan Matthews
Inflation in the US will average under 3 percent (80 percent)
The definition of “inflation” I’m using here is annualized rate of growth in the personal consumption expenditure (PCE) price index, excluding food and energy. This measure, known as “core PCE,” is the one preferred by the Federal Reserve, and thus the one most relevant for public policy. I’m also specifically looking at the average of the first three quarters of 2022, as we plan on reviewing these predictions in December 2022, when the final quarter’s data won’t be available.
While higher-than-expected demand and worse-than-expected supply chains have led to elevated inflation in 2021, I suspect that problem will resolve itself in 2022. The Fed predicts core PCE inflation of 2.7 percent in 2022; the Congressional Budget Office predicts 2 percent. Professional private-sector forecasters predict it will decline from 2.5 percent in quarter one to 2.3 percent in quarter three. All of this suggests to me that inflation will fall below 3 percent, toward a much more comfortable range than experienced in 2021.
Unemployment in the US will fall below 4 percent by November (80 percent)
The current US unemployment rate is only a hair above 4 percent, so one might think it’d be an easy call to predict it will dip below 4 next year. But I do have a couple of hesitations, with the big one that the omicron coronavirus variant is here and looks likely to be at least temporarily devastating. And it might not be the last game-changing variant.
The pandemic has done bizarre things to the US employment situation, and predicting where the next year will take us requires predicting the pandemic’s course from here. That means that while I’m broadly optimistic about job growth in 2021, it’s hard to be too sure of anything. But on the whole, it seems to me that we ought to see at least a moderate degree of economic recovery over next summer and fall, and that moderate degree should be enough for unemployment to fall below 4 percent at some point. —Kelsey Piper
The Supreme Court will overturn Roe v. Wade (65 percent)
For nearly 50 years, anti-abortion activists have engaged in a highly organized campaign to appoint judges willing to overturn Roe v. Wade and allow states to enact outright bans on abortion. The savvy opinion has traditionally been that conservative jurists will seek to narrow, not overrule, Roe by gradually allowing more and more restrictions short of outright bans. I think this is mistaken. While Chief Justice John Roberts may be pragmatic enough to take that option, my sense is that the other five Republican appointees genuinely believe Roe was wrongly decided and likely believe overturning it will be an admirable part of their legacy.
The Court is currently weighing Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization, a case considering Mississippi’s ban on abortions after 15 weeks. After oral arguments, court observers like my colleague Ian Millhiser were confident that all the conservatives but Roberts were ready to overturn Roe. The prediction market at FantasyScotus concludes the same. I defer to their expertise and think 2022 will see the emergence of a divide between red states where abortion is outright banned and blue ones where it is legally protected and funded.
Stephen Breyer will retire from the Supreme Court (55 percent)
In September, Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer, the Court’s oldest and most senior member, published a book warning against “politicizing” the Court. To me, this is absurd: The Court is, has always been, and always will be a political institution. Indeed, his colleague Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s willful obliviousness to partisan political concerns will likely soon cause the overturn of Roe and the undermining of one of her biggest legacies. Partially as a reaction to Ginsburg’s colossal mistake, I predict Breyer will buckle to public pressure to retire before the 2022 midterms. Without a Democratic Senate, President Biden can’t replace Breyer with a like-minded jurist. Breyer is not a fool — he knows this is the dynamic, and while it likely pains him to be seen as responding to political concerns, I suspect he will ultimately let Biden pick his successor. —DM
Emmanuel Macron will be reelected as president of France (65 percent)
Three years ago, when Emmanuel Macron’s public approval rating dipped below 25 percent, it appeared plausible that he would either decline to seek reelection (like his unpopular predecessor François Hollande) or fall to far-right leader Marine Le Pen. But Macron gained substantial ground over 2020, despite a chaotic handling of Covid-19, including repeated attempts at “reopening” usually followed by a new lockdown when the reopening inevitably led to a surge in the disease.
Macron also benefits from a divided far right, with newcomer Éric Zemmour digging into Le Pen’s base. Macron’s best-case scenario is that Zemmour and Le Pen continue to attack each other viciously, leaving whoever prevails in a weak position to take him on in the second round of the election. If he loses, my guess is it’s because mainstream center-right candidate Valérie Pécresse snuck past Zemmour and Le Pen and made it to the runoff, where she stands a better shot than the far-right leaders. —DM
Jair Bolsonaro will be reelected as president of Brazil (55 percent)
If you consult the opinion polls, you’ll see that Bolsonaro — the radical right-wing anti-vaxxer and death squad fanboy currently running Brazil — is behind leftist former president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva by a decent margin. And I think it’s certainly possible Lula prevails.
But I still give Bolsonaro the edge for three reasons: 1) in Brazil in particular and modern South America more generally, incumbents very often win reelection; 2) in both 2010 and 2018, the party consistently leading in polling for months in the run-up to election season wound up dropping ground rapidly and losing the election; and 3) Lula was knocked out of the 2018 race because of since-overturned corruption charges, and while there’s probably not enough time to convict him of new charges before the 2022 election, I think it’s possible that Bolsonaro and allies will succeed in pushing Lula out of the race. —DM
Bongbong Marcos will be elected as president of the Philippines (55 percent)
The runup to the 2022 Philippine presidential election has been chaotic, to say the least. Sara Duterte, daughter of term-limited incumbent President Rodrigo Duterte, was widely expected to run but opted instead to try for the vice presidency. Duterte then endorsed longtime aide Bong Go, but Go has since withdrawn. And Duterte seems displeased with Bongbong Marcos, the son of former dictator Ferdinand Marcos, even though Marcos is Duterte’s daughter’s running mate. Among other things, Duterte has started spreading rumors that Marcos uses cocaine.
That said, the younger Duterte is a powerful ally for Marcos, as is the somewhat surprising phenomenon of autocratic nostalgia. Keiji Fujimori, the daughter of Peru’s former dictator, has come close to winning the presidency there several times, and the right-wing candidate in this year’s Chilean presidential election is the scion of a family closely allied to the late dictator Augusto Pinochet. A similar romanticization of an autocratic past could help put Marcos over the top.
Marcos seems to be ahead of Manila mayor Isko Moreno and boxer Manny Pacquiao in the (admittedly sparse) polling of the race, and I suspect his last name and canny alliance-building will win him the presidency. —DM
Rebels will NOT capture the Ethiopian capital of Addis Ababa (55 percent)
Two years after Ethiopia’s prime minister Abiy Ahmed won a Nobel Peace Prize, he finds himself losing a brutal civil war. From 1991 to 2018, Ethiopia was ruled by a coalition centered around the Tigray People’s Liberation Front. As its name suggests, the TPLF is based in the Tigray region in the country’s north, and during its rule repressed the Amhara and Oromo ethnic groups. Growing discontent led to the Oromo politician Abiy coming to power. After a couple ofcalm years, during which Abiy made peace with neighboring Eritrea, conflict between Abiy and the TPLF turned violent, with the national government sending the military into Tigray and bombing the capital. The humanitarian consequences have been brutal, to say the least.
Abiy’s decision to purge the national army of Tigrayans (when half the officer corps was Tigrayan) weakened his position and helped set up a TPLF comeback. Now, the TPLF has not only pushed the national army out of Tigray, but allied with a powerful group of Oromo rebels.
Disclosure: When I wrote the draft article initially in early December, I predicted that the TPLF would capture the capital of Addis Ababa, as seemed likely around that time. But since then, the national army has regained ground and the TPLF has withdrawn from strategically important neighboring regions. So I reversed my prediction, albeit with considerable remaining uncertainty. —DM
China will not reopen its borders in the first half of 2022 (80 percent)
China has been intent on preserving a zero-Covid policy, even as other governments have abandoned that strategy. When a single person tests positive there, it can trigger a lockdown for tens of thousands of people. The country mandates quarantines for even remote contacts of positive cases. And the authoritarian government has tied up its prestige with its ability to crush the virus.
There’s no indication that China’s approach will change in the coming months. In fact, when one of its top scientists suggested relaxing the zero-Covid policy in 2022, he was ridiculed. Economically, China can afford to keep its borders closed; exports and foreign investment are doing just fine. And politically, it may actually be in China’s interest to stay closed: With the Beijing Winter Olympics coming up in February, and followed by the session of its rubber-stamp parliament and, later, party congress, the government may not be keen to let in foreigners who might critique its policies, especially its human rights abuses.
So I predict that China will not reopen its borders in the first half of the year. Specifically, I mean that China will not allow in foreigners for nonessential purposes like tourism. —Sigal Samuel
Chinese GDP will continue to grow for the first three quarters of the year (95 percent)
Per World Bank data, the last year that Chinese GDP fell was 1976, when Mao Zedong died and the Gang of Four was deposed. The 2008 global financial crisis and the pandemic in 2020 (originating in China) couldn’t stop the country’s economy from growing. I’m therefore very confident that Chinese GDP in the first three quarters of 2022 (which are the quarters we’ll consider for this prediction) will grow. —DM
20 percent of US children between 6 months and 5 years old will have received at least one Covid vaccine by year’s end (65 percent)
Vaccine makers are busy testing the safety and efficacy of their shots in children under 5. Pfizer/BioNTech is furthest along, with Phase 2/3 trials currently running that may yield initial data within the next month. Of course, the Food and Drug Administration and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention will still need to issue an approval before shots can go into arms, but Pfizer/BioNTech is already saying it expects to deliver the doses by April 2022.
Dr. Anthony Fauci seems to think a spring vaccination rollout is doable. “Hopefully within a reasonably short period of time, likely the beginning of next year in 2022, in the first quarter of 2022, it will be available to them,” he said, referring to kids under 5.
That said, according to polling from the Kaiser Family Foundation, 30 percent of parents with kids under 5 say they will “definitely not” vaccinate the kids. As of this writing, only about 17 percent of kids aged 5-11 have gotten at least one dose. When it comes to even younger kids, the hesitation may be more pronounced as some parents choose to “wait and see” about side effects; polling suggests that parents become more hesitant about getting their kids the Covid vaccine the younger the children are. So, although I think there’s a decent chance that 20 percent of kids between 6 months and 5 years old will have gotten at least one shot if we give the “wait and see” crowd until the end of 2022, I’m not going to bet on a higher percentage. —SS
The WHO will designate another variant of concern by year’s end (75 percent)
I really hope I’m wrong on this one. But I fear a new variant of concern will appear on the WHO’s list, for a simple reason: Between rich countries hoarding doses and some populations showing hesitancy to get immunized, we’re not vaccinating the globe fast enough to starve the virus of opportunities to mutate into something new and serious. In low-income countries, only 7.3 percent of people have received at least one dose.
Within the past year, five variants of concern have made it onto the WHO’s list. I don’t have high hopes that we’ll go all of 2022 without adding at least one more to that sad litany. —SS
12 billion shots will be given out against Covid-19 globally by November 2022 … (80 percent)
The global vaccine rollout has not been as good as was hoped for, or as good as it needs to be to prevent the emergence of new variants. But compared to what the world was capable of even a few decades ago, it has been pretty impressive. It is about one year since the first countries issued approval for vaccines developed against Covid-19, and already more than 8.5 billion doses have been administered. If that rate continued into next year, the world would easily hit 12 billion shots given out, or enough for every person over 20 to get two shots.
Countries probably won’t maintain that rate or even close to it, because people easy to reach for vaccination have largely already been reached, and the remaining vaccination efforts are going to have to involve delivery in poor and rural areas and overcoming vaccine hesitancy. But I still expect the world to hit this milestone, probably sometime in the summer.
Of course, those 12 billion shots will still be nowhere near evenly distributed; many rich countries are now encouraging boosters and vaccinating children, and there are still some parts of the world where vaccination rates are very low. —KP
… but at least one country will have less than 10 percent of people vaccinated with two shots by November 2022 — (70 percent)
For vaccination to help protect the world against the emergence of future variants, there can’t be huge gaps in vaccination coverage. Unfortunately, that’s probably exactly what we’re going to get. In many areas, a lot of people are reluctant to get vaccinated; in others, access to vaccines has been severely limited, and changing that will require funding and dedicated effort that rich countries have been unwilling to extend.
In many parts of the world, health care clinics are viewed as an expensive option for emergencies, not as resources for preventive care; they’re also thought of as primarily serving pregnant people and young children. That makes it hard to get older people at highest risk from Covid-19 vaccinated. Underresourced vaccination campaigns won’t succeed, and sufficient resources means not just access to enough physical vaccines but also the capacity to get them to people. I’d love to see this happen in 2022, but unfortunately I don’t expect to see it everywhere it’s needed. —KP
Science and technology
A psychedelic drug will be decriminalized or legalized in at least one new US state (75 percent)
Psychedelics have been undergoing a renaissance over the past few years as the evidence mounts that they have potential to help treat mental health conditions like depression and PTSD. A movement to decriminalize or legalize such drugs is gaining traction. In 2020, Oregon voters elected to legalize psilocybin, the main psychoactive ingredient in magic mushrooms, in supervised therapeutic settings (the state also decriminalized all drugs). In Washington, DC, voters effectively decriminalized psychedelic plants. A handful of US cities, including Detroit and Denver, have decriminalized psilocybin.
As momentum continues to build, I think there’s a solid chance we’ll see a psychedelic drug decriminalized or legalized in at least one more US state. I’ll be keeping my eyes on California, which will put decriminalization of a wide class of psychedelics to a vote in a 2022 ballot measure. —SS
AI will discover a new drug — or an old drug fit for new purposes — that’s promising enough for clinical trials (85 percent)
For years, there’s been a ton of hype about AI’s potential to transform drug discovery. We’re finally starting to see the hype turn into reality. In 2020, AI researchers based at MIT found a new type of antibiotics, and a British startup called Exscientia said its new pill for OCD would be the first AI-designed drug to be clinically tested on humans. In 2021, Exscientia followed that up with two more drugs, one for patients with tumors and another for Alzheimer’s disease psychosis.
Based on the track record of the past two years, I predict that another such discovery will happen in 2022, yielding a drug that’s promising enough to merit a clinical trial. This could be either a totally new compound or an existing drug that AI has found can be repurposed for a new use. One big new player to watch in this arena is Isomorphic Labs, just launched by Alphabet to discover new drugs using DeepMind’s AI. (Demis Hassabis, the CEO of DeepMind, will also serve as Isomorphic’s CEO.) —SS
US government will not renew the ban on funding gain-of-function research (60 percent)
In 2014, after a series of disastrous lab accidents made it clear that lab procedures weren’t adequate to prevent the release of deadly pathogens, the US government temporarily paused funding for “gain of function” research in diseases that could affect humans and make viruses more deadly or transmissible.
To my mind, this was an incredibly sensible call by the Obama administration. Biology research is valuable, and we should as a society invest more in it, but lab research that involves engineering what could effectively function as deadly weapons isn’t acceptable and shouldn’t be funded. Researchers engaged in gain-of-function work pushed back on the ban, and in 2017 it was reversed — the US is now funding such experiments again.
This is outrageous, and if anything could prompt the government to revisit it, you’d think it’d be the millions of deaths from a new pandemic over the past two years. But I haven’t yet seen any moves by the US government to put this policy back in place. I sincerely hope that changes in 2022. —KP
The Biden administration will set the social cost of carbon at $100 per ton or more (70 percent)
The social cost of carbon (SCC) is a measure, in dollars, of how much economic damage results from emitting 1 ton of carbon dioxide. SCC is an important measure because it guides policymaking — and there’s good reason to think we’ve been radically underestimating it. Although the Obama administration had set the SCC at $51 per ton, the Trump administration put it as low as $1. In early 2021, the Biden administration restored it to $51 as an interim move, promising to study the matter in depth and release its final determination in early 2022.
Recent findings indicate that the official social cost of carbon should be substantially increased. One study found that when factoring in projected heat-related deaths — the “mortality cost of carbon” — the SCC jumps to a whopping $258 per ton. The Biden administration probably won’t go that far, but it really should go at least as high as $100, economists say. Two top experts on SCC — Joseph Stiglitz of Columbia University and Lord Nicholas Stern of the London School of Economics — have said around $100 would be appropriate. Other experts, not to mention New York state, have decided $125 is a better estimate. Taking all this into consideration, I think it’s reasonable to predict that Biden will go with at least $100. —SS
2022 will be warmer than 2021 (80 percent)
One of the more obvious — yet sometimes overlooked — consequences of climate change is that almost every year is warmer than the last, meaning experiencing the warmest year in recorded history is now routine. This means that a recurring prediction here at Future Perfect is this gloomy one: that it is 80 percent likely that each year will be warmer than the last. This is based on looking at the last 25 years of atmospheric temperature data: On average, in four out of five years, this prediction would be right. —KP
Kenneth Branagh’s Belfast will win Best Picture (55 percent)
This is not a very brave prediction; bet365, BetMGM, and Betfair all give Belfast, Kenneth Branagh’s autobiographical film about his childhood in Northern Ireland during the Troubles, the edge to win Best Picture. All of those betting sites give it odds of roughly 25 percent, so I’m going out on a bit of a limb by giving it higher odds than the field, but I think that’s justified.
The Oscars like giving late-career awards to directors they forgot to honor earlier, even if the awarded films are inferior to their best. (Think Martin Scorsese for The Departed rather than Taxi Driver or Goodfellas, or Guillermo del Toro for The Shape of Water and not Pan’s Labyrinth). Branagh, whose reputation rests on his Shakespeare adaptations in the 1980s and ’90s, fits the bill. Repeat wins for directors are rare, which is bad news for del Toro’s Nightmare Alley and Steven Spielberg’s West Side Story. The best competition I can see are Jane Campion’s The Power of the Dog and Paul Thomas Anderson’s Licorice Pizza, but both of those directors are, to be frank, too good to win Oscars. Branagh is in the midcult sweet spot.
Norway will win the most medals at the 2022 Winter Olympics (60 percent)
Similar to my Oscar prediction, here I’m relying on the odds of experts. Gracenote, a division of Nielsen, predicts the Olympics by looking at recent results in non-Olympic competitions in various events. It gives Norway a strong edge in Beijing 2022 Winter Olympics, with 45 medals to the Russian Olympic Committee’s 33. Norway also came in first in Pyeongchang in 2018, and while the Russians are formidable opposition (they came first on their home turf in Sochi in 2014), the fact that they’re still not allowed to compete as the nation of Russia, due to doping scandals, holds them back. They underperformed in 2018, and I see them coming up short again this time.
All Rights Reserved for Dylan Matthews Kelsey Piper Sigal Samuel