If you prefer to listen rather than read, this blog is available as a podcast here. Or if you want to listen to just this post:
Normally I start the year with a post reviewing my long term predictions. As part of that I make some new, shorter term predictions. But it’s also become the custom to begin each month with reviews of the books I finished over the previous month. Given how long my book review posts have become I certainly don’t want to combine the two, and also I have some changes I want to announce/float for 2021, so I’m going to combine all of these different threads into a single post: an end of the year review of where things are headed, where things have been, how my predictions have held up and what new predictions I’d like to go on the record with. Since I assume more people are going to be interested in my short term predictions, and especially where I have been wrong, let’s start there, then move to a review of how my long-term predictions are holding up and end with the navel gazing.
I- Last Year’s Predictions
At the beginning of 2020 I predicted:
More populism, less globalism. Specifically that protests will get worse in 2020.
I feel pretty good about this prediction. The pandemic has been hard on globalism, national borders are making a resurgence, and tensions between nations appear to be rising (the Solarwinds hack certainly didn’t help). Beyond that the pandemic and the associated lock downs have opened huge gulfs between global technocrats and the citizenry. Gulfs that are unlikely to be mended anytime soon.
Speaking of the above, my predictions about protests getting worse have certainly come to pass. And while I didn’t identify that pandemic backlash and BLM would be the greatest sources of protests, there’s clearly a lot of populism in the air. This populism appears to be reaching a crescendo when it comes to Trump’s continuing fights over accepting the election results. Which I’ll expand on in a minute.
No significant reduction in global CO2 emissions (a drop of greater than 5%)
Here I was wrong. Because of the enormous economic effects of the pandemic, emissions dropped a whopping 8%. I’m not going to claim that I was really correct because, “Who could have foreseen the pandemic?” This is, in fact, precisely the problem I have with many of the people who make predictions, they often argue that black swans shouldn’t count. This is another thing I’ll get to in a minute.
Social media will continue to have an unpredictable effect on politics, but the effect will be negative.
This is another one I think I nailed. If anything I was too cautious. It seems clear that despite the efforts of the companies themselves to block and tag (what they considered to be) misinformation, social media still provided a major vector for the spreading narrative of a stolen election which is now present in one form or another among the vast majority of Trump supporters (88% according to some sources). One might even go so far as to say that their efforts at tagging and blocking made it worse, that social media can’t be used for good ends.
(For those who think the election was actually stolen, I would refer you to my previous post on that subject. For the tl;dr crowd, I argued that if it was stolen it was done in so comprehensive a manner that it amounts to winning regardless.)
That the US economy will soften enough to cause Trump to lose.
Here I was basically right, though I’m not inclined to give myself too much credit. First whatever the economy did was almost entirely a consequence of the pandemic. And I was dead wrong about the stock market, which continues to amaze me. But most people agree that without the pandemic Trump probably would have won, which kind of, if you squint, amounts to the same thing I was saying.
That the newest wave of debt accumulation will cause enormous problems by the end of the decade.
Too early to say, I was speaking of 2030 here not 2020. But certainly we accumulated debt at a much faster rate this year than I think anyone predicted going in. So, as I said in a previous post, we better hope the modern monetary theorists are correct. Because if government debt is fragilizing at all we’re acquiring fragility at an enormous clip.
Authoritarianism will continue to increase and liberal democracy will continue its retreat.
To whatever extent you think liberal democracy overlaps with classical liberalism, I think most people were amazed at the attacks which were leveled during 2020, particularly from things like critical race theory. These sort of attacks mostly came from the left, but the right isn’t looking very good either. Certainly the most recent election and their reaction to it has ended up giving democratic legitimacy a severe beating (though the narrative of the beating is different depending on which side you talk to.)
Beyond this, all indications are that China has gotten more authoritarian this year, both with respect to Hong Kong and the Uighurs. But perhaps the big open question is what happens to the additional authoritarianism brought on by the pandemic? Does it fall at the same rate as the case counts? Or does some of it linger? I suspect it basically goes away, but having discovered what tools are available, those tools become easier to use in the future.
The Middle East will get worse.
I would say I mostly got this one wrong, and Trump deserves a lot of credit for the peace deals that were brokered under his watch. That said, the situation with Iran is definitely looking worse, so not everything has been sunshine and roses. Also it’s not just the nuclear deal and the swiftly increasing uranium stockpiles. The peace deals, while almost certainly a good idea, have had the effect of making Iran feel increasingly encircled and isolated. And bad things could happen because of this.
Biden will squeak into the Democratic nomination.
I was clearly right about Biden getting the Democratic nomination, and I think I was right about the “squeak” part as well. Recall that not only was my prediction made before any of the primaries, but also that Sanders won both Iowa and New Hampshire. And since 1976 only Bill Clinton has gone on to win the nomination after losing both of those primaries, and even then 538 argues it only happened because of exceptional circumstances. So yeah, despite the eventual delegate total I would still argue that Biden squeaked into the nomination.
The Democrats will win in 2020.
By this I meant that whoever ended up with the Democratic nomination for president would go on to win the election, not that the Democrats as a whole would triumph in some large scale way. I wasn’t arrogant enough to think I could predict how congress would end up looking.
So those were my predictions at the beginning of 2020. I’m not asking to be graded on them, and certainly I don’t think I deserve any particular recognition, obviously I got some things right and some things wrong, and the thing I’ve actually been the most wrong about didn’t even make it into my list of predictions: how wrong I was about Trump and his supporters.
While I continue to maintain that right-wing violence is overstated, or perhaps more accurately that all violence which might remotely be considered right-wing get’s labeled as such while lots of violence that should get labeled as left wing, under the same standard, is considered to be non-ideological (see this post for a deeper dive into this.) I am nevertheless very surprised by all of the shenanigans which have been attempted in order to keep Trump in power and beyond that the enormous number of people who think he should be kept in power, even if it requires something like using the Insurrection Act to call up the military.
Perhaps this is the first you’ve heard of this idea, which is an example of how insular the various worlds have become. (Though in some respects I think this still comes back to my underestimation of how bad social media could be.) I know more than a few people who are convinced that everything Trump has done since the election was all part of a vast sting operation, designed to lure the deep state into so overplaying their hand and making their fraud so obvious that “they” could be rounded up in one giant operation. Well whether there was fraud or not I don’t think it’s ended up being blindingly obvious. And if that’s not what’s going on then we either had a legitimate election or the deep state cheated in such an overwhelming fashion that things can only be sorted out at the point of a gun, which seems like one of the most catastrophically bad ideas imaginable, and I never would have predicted the way things have gone since November 3rd.
II- An Interlude on Predictions in General
There are many people who would look at this review of my short term predictions with the accompanying explanations and declare that it’s the same kind of fuzzy predictions with fuzzy accountability that everyone engages in. That if I want to be taken seriously as a predictor that I should use the Superforecasting method, where you make a prediction that’s specific enough to be graded, and then attach a confidence level to it. That is “many people” might say that if they haven’t been following me for very long. Those that have been around for awhile know that I have huge issues with this methodology, which I have outlined ad nauseam, and if you want to get my full argument I would refer you to my past posts on the subject. For those who aren’t familiar with my arguments and just want the abbreviated version, this year provides the perfect object lesson for what I’ve been talking about all this time, and it can be summed up in two words: black swans. Rare events end up being hugely consequential to the way things actually play out. Superforecasting not only has no method for dealing with such events, I think it actively shifts focus away from them, and this year was a fantastic example of that.
How many Superforecasters predicted the pandemic? How many predicted that Trump would seriously consider using the Insurrection Act to maintain power? To be clear I understand that they did correctly predict a lot of things. They almost certainly did better than average at calling the presidential race. And within the confines of their system they’re excellent, i.e. they’re really good at having 90% of the predictions they have 90% confidence in turn out to be true. But take all the predictions that they made about 2020, or even about the whole decade of the 2020’s and imagine that they’re all correct. Which would give you a clearer picture of the world of 2020? All those predictions or just knowing that there was a global pandemic? Now I understand that no one knew there was going to be a global pandemic, but which nations did better? Those who were prepared for a pandemic, with a culture of mask wearing? Or those who had the best forecasters?
So yes, pandemics are rare, but they’re hugely consequential when they do happen, and if Superforecasting does anything to reduce our preparedness for those sorts of things, by shifting focus on to the things they are good at predicting, then on net superforecasting is a bad thing. And I have every reason to suspect it does.
All of the things I said about the pandemic will be equally true if Trump decides to actually invoke the Insurrection Act. Which is another thing that wasn’t even on the superforecasting radar. (A Google search for “superforecasting ‘insurrection act’” comes back with the message “It looks like there aren’t many great matches for your search”). But, and this is the interesting part, it is on the radar of all those so-called “crazy preppers” out there. It may not be on their radar in the way you hope, but the idea that things might disintegrate, and guns might be useful has been on their radar for a long time. Based on all of this, the vast majority of my predictive energy is spent on identifying potential black swans. With short term forecasting as more of an engaging exercise than any real attempt to do something useful. We’ll get to those blacks swans in a minute, but first:
III- Predictions for 2021
I think there’s a huge amount of uncertainty going into this year, and things which got started in 2020 could go a lot of different ways. And I think this time around I’m going to go for quantity of predictions, not quality:
- Biden will not die in 2021
- The police will shoot another black man (or possibly a black woman) and new protests will ensue.
- The summer tourist season will proceed in a more or less normal fashion but with some additional precautions (I have a Rhine River Cruise scheduled for June, so this one is particularly important for me.)
- Bitcoin will end the year higher than it is right now.
- Trump will not invoke the insurrection act.
- But if he does the military will refuse to comply, probably after someone files an emergency lawsuit, which then gets decided by the Supreme Court.
- There might possibly be a few soldiers who do something stupid in spite of this, but the military command structure will not go along with Trump and soldiers will side with their commanders rather than with Trump.
- Trump’s influence over the Republican party will begin to fade. (Not as fast as some people would hope, but fast enough that he won’t be the Republican nominee in 2024.)
- Large tech companies will increasingly be seen as villainous, which is to say the antitrust lawsuits will end up being a pretty big deal. I think they’ll take longer than one year to resolve, but at the end I expect that there will be a significant restructuring to at least one of the tech companies. (I’m leaning towards Facebook.)
- The anti-vaxxer movement will grow in prominence, with some of the same things we’ve come to expect out of other movements: conspiracy theories (moreso), broad support, protests, etc.
And now for some things I think are unlikely but which might happen and are worth keeping an eye on:
- The Republican party disintegrates. Most likely because Trump leaves and starts his own party.
- COVID mutates in such a way that the vaccines are no longer as effective, leading to a new spike in winter of 2021-2022.
- Biden doesn’t die, but he exhibits signs of dementia significant enough that he’s removed under Amendment 25.
- I’d be very surprised if we saw actual civil war (assuming I’m right about #7 above) but I would not be especially surprised to see violence on the level we saw in the late 60s and early 70s.
- Significant unrest in mainland China similar to Tiananmen Square, and at least as big as the Hong Kong protests.
These are just the things that seem possible as a continuation of trends which are already ongoing, but 2021 could also bring any of the low probability catastrophes we’ve been warned about for decades, in the same fashion that 2020 brought us the global pandemic, 2021 could bring a terrorist nuke, a Chinese invasion of Taiwan, a financial crisis, etc.
IV- Status of Long-Term Predictions
When I initially made these predictions, at the beginning of 2017, I grouped things into five categories:
- General artificial intelligence, duplicating the abilities of an average human (or better), will never be developed.
- A complete functional reconstruction of the brain will turn out to be impossible.
- Artificial consciousness will never be created.
As you can see, I’m pretty pessimistic when it comes to general artificial intelligence (GAI). But before we get into the status of my predictions, I need to offer my usual caveat that just because I think GAI is improbable doesn’t mean that I also think studying AI Risk is a waste of time. I am generally convinced by arguments that a GAI with misaligned incentives could be very dangerous, as such, even though I think one is unlikely to be created, as I said, I’m all about trying to avoid black swans. And that’s what my long term predictions revolve around. Some are black swans I think are inevitable and others are black swans that I personally am not worried about. But I could very easily be wrong.
In any case this last year there was quite a bit of excitement around GPT-3, and I will freely admit that it’s surprisingly impressive. But no one thinks that it’s a GAI, and as far as I can tell most people don’t think that it’s a direct path to GAI either. That it is at best one part of the puzzle, but there are still lots of pieces remaining. I’m going to be even more pessimistic than that, and argue that this approach is nearly at its limits and we won’t get anything significantly better than GPT-3. That for someone skilled enough it will still be possible to distinguish between text generated by GPT-4 or 10 and text generated by a skilled human. But the fact that it will require skill on both ends is still a very big deal.
- Immortality will never be achieved.
- We will never be able to upload our consciousness into a computer.
- No one will ever successfully be returned from the dead using cryonics.
All of my predictions here relate to life extension in one form or another. I think similar to how things have worked with AI in the past where there was significant excitement and then a plateau, leading to a couple of AI winters. That we are entering a life extension winter. That a lot of the early excitement about improved medicine and gene editing has not panned out as quickly as people thought, (or there are major ethical issues) and for the last few years, even before the pandemic, life expectancy has actually been decreasing. As of 2019 it had been decreasing for three years, and I can’t imagine that this trend reversed in 2020, with the pandemic raging.
Of course cryonics and brain uploading aim to route around such issues, but if there have been any advancements on that front this year I missed them.
- We will never establish a viable human colony outside the solar system.
- We will never have an extraterrestrial colony (Mars or Europa or the Moon) of greater than 35,000 people.
- We will never make contact with an intelligent extraterrestrial species.
There has been a lot of excitement here. And Musk and some of the others are doing some really interesting things, but as I expected the timeline for all of his plans has been steadily slipping. In 2017 he said he’d have “Two cargo landers on Mars 2022, Four landers (two crewed) Mars 2024”. Now he’s saying, a tourist flight around the Moon in 2023, with unmanned craft on Mars in 2024. And even that seems ridiculously optimistic. The problem as I (and others) keep pointing out, is that doing anything in outer space is fantastically difficult.
Fermi’s paradox (#3) is its own huge can of worms, and this year did see the release of the Pentagon UFO videos, but for a large variety of reasons I am confident in asserting that those videos do not represent the answer to the paradox. And I’ll explain why at another time.
War: (I hope I’m wrong about all of these)
- Two or more nukes will be exploded in anger within 30 days of one another.
- There will be a war with more deaths than World War II (in absolute terms, not as a percentage of population.)
- The number of nations with nuclear weapons will never be less than it is right now.
This section doesn’t need much additional elaboration because the historical precedents are so obvious. Mostly I’m merely predicting that war is not a thing of the past. That the Long Peace will eventually end.
1- There will be a natural disaster somewhere in the world that kills at least a million people
2- The US government’s debt will eventually be the source of a gigantic global meltdown.
3- Five or more of the current OECD countries will cease to exist in their current form.
Mostly self explanatory, and as I mentioned this year we have really doubled down on the idea that deficits don’t matter so if #2 doesn’t happen, it won’t be because any restraint was exercised. And as far as #3 my standard for “current form” is pretty broad. So successful independence movements, dramatic changes in the type of government—say from democracy to a dictatorship, and civil wars, would all count.
V- The State of the Blog
I’ve decided to make a few changes in 2021. The biggest being that I’m joining all the cool kids and starting a newsletter, though this will end up being less consequential than it sounds. My vague goal for the current year was to put out four posts a month, one of which was a book review round up. If you look back over the year you’ll see that there were a few months (including this one) where I only got three posts out. In large part that’s because I’ve also been working on a book, but also the posts seem to gradually be getting longer as well. All of this is somewhat according to plan, but I worry that if a 4000 word essay is the smallest possible chunk my writing comes in, that there are going to be a lot of people who might be interested in what I have to say but who will never be able to get over that hump, and self-promotion has never been my strong suit at the best of times.
The newsletter is designed to solve both of these problems. Rather than being thousands of words I’m going to limit it to 500. Rather than forcing you to come to my blog or subscribe to my RSS feed, it’s going to be delivered straight into your mailbox. Rather than being a long and nuanced examination of an issue it’s going to be a punchy bit about some potential catastrophe. Delivered at the end of every month. (Tagline: “It’s the end of the month, so it’s once again time to talk about the end of the world!”) I will still publish it here, so if you prefer reading my blog as you always have you won’t have to follow any additional steps to get the newsletter content, though, a month from now, I still hope you’ll subscribe, since it will hopefully be something that’s easier to share. And the whole point of the exercise is to hook some additional people with the newsletter and use that as a gateway to the harder stuff.
To summarize, I’m replacing my vague goal from last year of four posts a month with the concrete commitment for 2021 of:
- A book review round up at the beginning of each month
- At least two long essays every month but possibly three.
- An end of the month short piece which will go out as part of a newsletter
- A book
As far as the book. I’m shooting to have it done sometime this summer, though there’s good reason to suspect that it might slip into the fall. I may get into the details of what it’s about later, but for now I can reveal that it does contain the full explanation for why the Pentagon UFO videos are not the solution to Fermi’s Paradox, even if they were to depict actual UFOs!
With that cliffhanger I’ll sign off. I hope everyone had a Merry Christmas, and that your New Year’s will end up being great as well, and I’ll see you in 2021.
As someone who specializes in talking about catastrophes, I got quite a bit of content out of 2020, but like everyone I’ll be glad when it’s over. Still if you appreciated that content, if it helped distract you from the craziness that was 2020, even a little bit, consider donating.