Originally appeared at The Unz Review
I like predictions. Part of that is related to my passion for quantifying everything, but another is philosophical, and borne of my antipathy towards charlatanism (I am extremely sympathetic to N.N. Taleb on this issue).
In 2005, U.C. Berkeley psychologist Philip Tetlock published a study on expert fallibility spanning 18 years, 284 experts and 82,361 forecasts on economics and politics. Their average forecast was worse than if they had simply assigned equal probabilities to every outcome.
Journalists and professors, undergrads and PhD’s, left-wingers and right-wingers – all were about equally (in)accurate.
One group in particular stood out for its poor performance. They were the experts with the biggest reputations – the ones always being sought out by the media for sound bytes – making predictions on their own areas of professional interest.
To add the incarnadine cherry to the meringue and cream pie, those on-demand experts were also the ones most confident in their own predictive prowess!
Though xkcd is far too kind to the sociologists.
Now to be sure there are areas, especially the exact sciences, where real experts do exist – that is, experts as in experts who are consistently right. Nobody will hire a physicist who doesn’t understand differential equations. Charlatans are quickly identified.
But this is far harder in the social and political sciences, where leading “experts” generally can and do avoid making any falsifiable predictions (not that it matters much since even even those who do make big mistakes, far from being called to account for it, are instead made Ambassadors to Russia).
This is a sad if perhaps inevitable state of affairs. After all, good mathematicians merely blow up manifolds. “Good” economists blow up economies. “Good” political scientists might blow up the world.
In any case, now that I am in the habit of regular blogging again – recall that I took a long break in 2014 before I moved to Unz one year ago – I have decided to resurrect my longtime New Year’s tradition of making predictions about the coming year and thus resume my minimal contribution to making the punditry at least somewhat answerable to reality. The one difference from previous years is that I will also now be adopting Slate Star Codex’s method of calibration.
(1) The Syrian government will control a larger proportion of territory in a year’s time relative to today: 80%.
My guesstimate two months ago that the RuAF will be able to swing the balance of military power across multiple local theaters from stalemate to one favoring the SAA appears to be correct. In the most significant development, Kweiris AFB and its environs have been liberated; with the YPG now in control of Tishrin Dam, the Islamic State in the north may now be in danger of being completely cut off. Advances are being made in Daraa, Hama and Homs, and around Aleppo. Rebel offensives are now almost uniformly unsuccessful. Of course large-scale Western or even Turkish intervention against Assad can still change everything.
(2) A majority of these happen: (a) SAA liberates Deir Hafir; (b) Palmyra; (c) All of Latakia; (d) Links up with the Nubl pocket; (e) Maintains hold on Deir ez-Zor airport. 80%.
(3) Assad will remain President of Syria: 90%.
Even in the event that there is a new round of elections, Assad is easily the most popular personality in Syria. This is proved in opinion poll after opinion poll. He wouldn’t even have to falsify anything. If there was ever going to be an internal coup, it would have already happened. Short of a freak death/assassination, or open Western aggression (which Russia preempted this year with its intervention), he is likely secure as never before during this war.
(4) The Iraqi government will control a larger proportion of territory in a year’s time relative to today: 90%.
(5) Islamic State will continue to lose ground in its heartlands and might end the year controlling little more than its capitals, but its overseas franchises – most notably in Libya – will expand further: 50%.
That said I think its “extinction” (in Syria/Iraq) will have to wait a couple more years. Note that there are two separate conditions in this prediction.
(6) The Houthis gain ground in Yemen: 60%.
Not by any means knowledgeable on this subject, but Saudi military performance appears to be atrocious – traditional Arab military incompetence and with no asabiya to compensate.
(7) The War in Donbass reignites: 30%.
In particular I can imagine the Poroshenko regime doing this to draw attention away from Ukraine’s continuing economic collapse (with default on the horizon) and approval ratings that are now even lower than Yanukovych’s in 2013.
(8) Mariupol ends the year in DNR hands: 10%.
Will obviously be lower than the risk of the War in Donbass reigniting. Is the next logical target, but might be preempted by a Minsk III. Also Rinat Akhmetov might well object as he did last time.
(9) “Putinsliv” aka Putin abandons support for DNR/LNR and Ukraine recaptures them: 5%.
(10) A new conflict in the former Soviet space: 20%.
These do tend to creep up every few years. The most obvious (but largely unknown) focal point is Armenia vs. Azerbaijan, and tensions have drastically crept up this year. If Aliev wants to regain Nagorno-Karabakh, now would not be the worst time to go about it.
(1) Politics – The Russian Duma elections are slated for September 2016. United Russia will comfortably take a majority of the seats: 95%.
United Russia is consistently polling ~45%, which rises to ~70% when people who reply N/A or say they’re not going to vote are excluded. This is unlikely to change much for the worse because the recession will likely be easing up by the time elections come up (see below). In between Orban- and Yanukovych-style election rules changes, this will translate to probably around 80% of the seats in the next Duma on current trends (up from 64% today).
(2) Politics – Electoral falsifications will be less than in the 2011 Duma elections: 70%.
When they were quite substantial (about +7% to United Russia). With the election rules changes, there will be less need of that to guarantee a Putinist majority. There are ways of approximating this so this is a valid prediction. The currently high approval ratings of Putin and patriotic fever in any case make a repeat of the Bolotnaya protests of 2011-12 highly unlikely. Khodorkovsky will remain disappointed.
(2) Economics – The recession will end in 2016: 80%.
As I argued in this article, the Russian recession of 2014 is best viewed as a Volcker-type shock, as opposed to being the result of any deeper underlying problem in competitiveness or political economy. Actually for a variety of reasons I expect the Russian economy to grow unusually strongly in the 2016-2020 period, but that is for another post. I should stress that the great bulk of the decline has to do with the collapse in oil prices and has had little to do with the sanctions (about 10% to be precise).
(4) Economics – There will be overall positive GDP growth in 2016: 60%.
These are the projections of various international financial organizations such as the World Bank and in this case I see no particular cause to take issue with them. That said, the IMF predicts -0.6%.
(5) Ukraine – The recession will end in 2016: 70%.
The Ukraine is an economic disaster zone. Literally. Automobile sales have returned to the levels of 196 9 (fifty years ago in the hypermilitarized “sovok” economy). Almost as much housing is being constructed in Russia’s Krasnodar Kray – population 5 million – as in all of Ukraine – population 40 million.
But a consequence of all this is that it really is difficult to see how it could possible go much lower. After all, Ukraine still has respectable levels of human capital, and should peace prevail and should it maintain solvency (and the IMF has given every indication it will stretch the rules to ensure that it does) a resumption in growth from its very low base seems likely.
(6) Ukraine – The Poroshenko regime remains in power: 80%.
There is a very good chance that Yatsenyuk will go but I see no obvious reasons why Poroshenko will not survive 2016 as well as the pro-Western orientation of the Ukrainian state. His approval ratings might be in the gutter, but unlike Yanukovych, he has bloodied hoodlums to ensure his rule, and the acquiescence of the capital. (In contrast Kiev turned on Yanukovych even though opinion polls indicated that as of February 2014 more Ukrainians disapproved of the Maidan than approved of it).
More importantly, he has the support of the US in his battle with the oligarchs. The oligarchs turned against Yanukovych because they didn’t want to run the risks of having their assets in the West frozen. To the contrary, Joe Biden is now in no uncertain terms demanding that Igor Kolomoysky – the biggest oligarch who opposes Poroshenko – step in line (which he does). (Incidentally, I am in communication with a very well informed geopolitical analyst who thinks that Ukraine’s pro-Western orientation will NOT survive 2016. My own sympathies regardless, I am betting against him.)
(7) Demographics – Russia will see natural population growth: 40%.
As it has in 2013, 2014, and almost certainly in 2015 (December statistics forthcoming). Incidentally, predicting Russia’s demographic recovery in the first place – I have been doing this since 2008, back when it was a marginal view amongst both professional demographers and the general Western and even Russian punditry – has been the crowning success of my predictive career.
That said, a number of demographic realities now intrude on this positive picture. The Russian TFR (total fertility rate) now appears to have essentially stabilized at 1.7-1.8 children per woman, but the number of women in their childbearing age is now (and has been for the past 5 years) declining precipitiously as the “lost generation” of the 1990s reaches their peak fertility years. Assuming deaths remain broadly steady – rising life expectancy balanced against the secular aging of the population – it will now be a close call between deaths and births. (Not that a plus or minus sign at the beginning of a number measured in the tens of thousands out of a population of 145 million is all that significant except symbolically).
Incidentally, apologies for the strong focus on demographics. Its been an obsession of mine since I began blogging (mostly because all the Kremlinologists were getting the most basic facts wrong).
(8) Demographics – Russia will see population growth: 95%.
This is a no brainer. Immigration has always been strongly positive and will easily cancel any possible small decline in natural population growth. Predicted population increase of about half a million.
(9) Demographics – Life expectancy will increase: 80%.
I was right that the cut in alcohol excise taxes only had a very marginal effect on mortality this year (in fact improements continued after adjusting for Crimea), and with this now accounted for, I fully expect to see life expectancy to rise substantially in 2016. I expect Russia’s life expectancy to be around 72 years in 2016.
(10) Demographics – TFR will increase: 50%.
Far less certain because the traditional driver of TFR increases in Russia in the past decade has been the abrogation of 1990s-era birth postponement. This process will gradually draw to an end, while the full impact of the 2014 recession will be making itself felt. Of course due to the age structure of the natural population, even a constant TFR will result in a decrease in births of almost 3%. So that is highly likely (80%?). I expect Russia’s TFR to be around 1.8 children per woman in 2016.
(1) US/Allies will impose no fly zone (i.e. attack Assad) over Syria: 10%.
Real possibility in 2013-2014, appears to have faded with Russia’s intervention. Scuffles with Turkey regardless.
(2) US will not get involved in any new major war with death toll of > 100 US soldiers: 90%.
Borrowed from Scott Alexander.
(3) An Islamic terrorist attack in Europe causing more than 100 deaths: 30%.
Although the concern about them is highly understandable, it should be noted that in the past ~decade there were only two such instances – Spain in 2004, and France in 2015. So there’s likely a less than 50% chance of that happening in any one year, regardless of the current increase in tensions.
(4) Brexit: 10%.
Even assuming the referendum is held this year and not in 2017, both polls and bookies still show a large margin for the UK to remain in the EU.
(5) The Euro is here to stay: 90%.
And the EU too. Take issue with Leonid Bershidsky as you will, but for the most part I agree with his conclusions – at least for next year.
(6) China will not go into recession or have a hard landing: 90%.
Happy to take an easy win from the predicted-ten-of-the-past-zero-Chinese-recessions crowd.
Ambrose Evans-Pritchard has predicted about 20 of the past 0 Chinese collapses. http://t.co/eNeF4PmrAI
— Anatoly Karlin 林安德 (@akarlin88) May 10, 2013
(7) End of Western sanctions against Russia: 10%.
Not gonna happen. But they’re not all that significant and they don’t seem to be all that stringently enforced.
(8) Israel will not get in a large-scale war (i.e. >100 Israeli deaths) with any Arab state: 90%.
Borrowed from Scott Alexander. Agreed.
(9) North Korea’s government will survive the year without large civil war/revolt: 95%.
Borrowed from Scott Alexander.
(10) Oil prices will NOT end the year below $40: 70%.
I am highly skeptical about people claiming oil prices will tumble down to $20. When the electronic herd unanimously veers in one direction, it is time to stop and ponder. The equilibrium inflation-adjusted price of oil in the 1945-1973 period was around $20, which suggested that this was the marginal cost of producing an extra barrel of oil during that period back when nobody had even heard of M. King Hubbert. His projections of “peak oil” might have been invalidated by technological innovation – especially the exploitation of shale oil – yet even so, the decline of the easiest to access oil in the four decades since means that it is highly implausible that the longterm equilibrium price of oil is still at $20. EROEI will have gone down in the intervening years. Short of a new global recession (unlikely – see below), I do not see any big further declines in the oil price.
(11) Will be hottest year on record thus far: 80%.
Happy to take an easy win from the ever diminishing global-warming-denial crowd. Likely that 2016 will be even hotter than record setting 2015.
(12) No further large scale civil wars/revolts/revolutions in Middle East/North African countries not already so afflicted: 70%.
I.e., Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Tunisia, Algeria, Jordan, Turkey, Iran, etc. Excludes developments in Syria, Iraq, and Libya.
(13) No large scale civil wars/revolts/revolutions in USA: 99%.
(14) No large scale civil wars/revolts/revolutions in China: 99%.
(15) No large scale civil wars/revolts/revolutions in Russia: 95%.
(16) No large scale civil wars/revolts/revolutions in any EU country: 90%.
(17) China tops 2016 Olympics Gold medals table: 40%.
It has been going up and up over the years. Don’t see this as a particularly illogical prediction. Russia will plummet due to its disbarment from athletic competitions in 2016 Rio Olympics.
(18) Germany will win UEFA Euro 2016: 30%.
The German team continues going from strength to strength. Nobody else is even close. That said, football is unpredictable.
(19) Russia will predictably disappoint at UEFA Euro 2016 and will get knocked out at the group stage: 50%.
England, Russia, Wales, Slovakia. Second place should be a breeze, but Russia fans are regularly schooled on the dangers of abandoning pessimism.
(20) Mount & Blade II: Bannerlord is released: 80%.
I am dying to play that game. Hopefully with the Oculus Rift.
(1) Donald Trump will secure the Republican nomination : 40%.
While the Trump Who Cannot be Stumped might be by far the highest polling candidate, the establishment bigwigs really hate him, and so the bookies give the edge to Rubio.
Now for the record I give Trump higher figures than the bookies, and not (hopefully) because of my personal sympathies/biases but because due to my experience of Russia watching, I am currently observing some uncanny parallels between the media campaign against him and against Putin.
The Western MSM has gone head over heels trying to deny the popularity of Putin in Russia, and now appears to be doing the exact same with Trump (which incidentally might partly explain why Putin and Trump have banded together in a mutual admiration society).
But when you deny an overly obvious thing people tend to just get angry and mistrustful of the Lugenpress (“lying media”) in general, an effect which will massively help Trump.
Even so, the deck is stacked against him – unlike Trump, Putin was initially appointed to high office – so I think it is more likely than not that he will fail to become US President or even secure the Republican nomination.
(2) Hillary Clinton will secure the Democratic nomination : 90%.
(3) Hillary Clinton becomes US President: 70%.
Like it or not the Democrats appear to remain poised to hold on to the Presidency, short of a major recession beginning right about now…
(4) The US enters recession: 20%.
But I don’t see that happening for reasons I have already expounded upon.
(5) Peak SJW? I don’t really see how you can go about quantifying that – through Google Trends? – but 2015 has clearly been the year of the Social Justice Warrior. But in between the spectacle of the Pink Guards shouting down genteel university professors and the wave of violent crime that #BLM has ushered in thanks to their vilification campaign against the police, 2016 might see the reaction against it – now mostly confined to pepe- and anime-themed avatars on the Internet – increasingly move into the mainstream.
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) October 13, 2015
Establishment attack dogs such as George Will (another charlatan) claim that Trump winning the nomination will destroy the GOP, but frankly I think the risks of that happening are higher if the elites conspire to deny it to him. He would then be in a position to directly challenge the GOP by running as an independent and indeed has indicated he might do just that. A large percentage – possibly a majority – of the Republican rank and file will follow him and allow him to create a genuine third political force purged of neocons and cuckservatives. I put the independent chances of this happening at: 20%.
That said, a caveat is that I do not expect any longterm changes. American Millenials are SJWs. And they will be ruling the country in 20-30 years time. Pray for radical life extension so the old fogies can balance them out!
(1) I will write a record amount of blog posts: 70%.
This is rather likely even if I do say so myself. I have much better productivity systems in place today relative to start-2014, when I had several other RL commitments besides (one of which basically forced me to take a 2 month break during the summer). I only have to do marginally better this year to surpass my all time record in 2012 and 2013. So long as Unz doesn’t fire me, and there isn’t any big personal crisis-related emergency, I fully expect this to happen. Consequently, I also expect record amounts of comments, visitors, visits, etc.
(2) I will author or coathor an academic paper: 60%.
I have been putting it off but its hopefully more likely than not this year. The two potential topics are Russian demography (by myself) and the structure of Russian IQ (collaborator).
(3) I will finish writing at least one book: 30%.
This refers primarily to Apollo’s Ascent, though I have a few ideas for sci-fi books twirling about in my head too (problem is that I am very bad at coming up with interesting plots). I really wish it was higher but I know myself better than to indulge in too much optimism. That said, this is one prediction I really hope to fail at.
(4) I will finally heed the advice of my detractors and fuck off back to Russia: 90%.
It’s been years since I was last there and I intend to make a potentially very lengthy visit.
(5) I will end up being underconfident on these predictions: 50%.
Borrowed from Scott Alexander. Predictions <50% will be converted to their inverse for calibration evaluation in one year’s time. There are 50 predictions in total so that allows for a fairly comprehensive analysis.