Social Issues

Tea Leaves 2007

What the new year will bring

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What does not exist and never has existed, yet is our most precious possession, because it is all we have left?—Joseph Cornish.

The future, of course. For the past couple of years I have tried my hand at predicting the political, social, economic, and scientific events of the upcoming year. So how did I do last year?

CORRECT PREDICTIONS

My proudest predictive success made last January 2nd was: "A rising tide of voter disgust with corruption will toss the Republicans out of the U.S. House of Representatives in November elections and a new blessed era of gridlocked government will begin." I failed to realize that voter disgust would also turn the Republicans out of the Senate. Still my bet that the House would turn over garnered me two expensive dinners. With regard to politics, I was also right that President George Bush would continue to renege on his old promises to reform social security, overhaul federal taxes, and lower the Federal budget deficit. I also correctly and happily foresaw that Congress would not pass a constitutional amendment banning gay marriage.

Embarrassingly for a science correspondent, my forecasts for scientific firsts were not so good (see below). I did correctly foresee that the space shuttle would not be launched in May (in fact it took off in July). In addition, no cloned human babies were born. And the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine did issue $14 million in "training" grants (albeit from private donations). I'll claim this one even though the spigot will really get turned on in 2007. And as bravely predicted, no asteroid hit the earth in 2006.

On the environment, I was right that no further commitments to reduce greenhouse gases under the Kyoto Protocol will be reached at the 12th United Nations' climate change conference in Nairobi.

In international news, I was correctly foresaw that Saddam Hussein would be convicted of crimes against humanity. And that Russia's tendency toward authoritarianism would grow. It's harder to evaluate my claim that China would move toward more liberalization in 2006; there were certainly no really strong signs that that is happening.

As predicted, crime was up a bit in 2006, while the number of prisoners in American jails rose by 1.9 percent. A record number are on probation and parole. The Drug War continues to fail in nearly every sense.

PREMATURE AND JUST PLAIN WRONG PREDICTIONS

I could say, "Why dwell on past mistakes. Let's just move on." But what fun is that?

In politics, I predicted that outrage over illegal wire-tapping and other violations of our civil liberties would prompt Congress to roll back some of the most egregious provisions of the USA PATRIOT ACT. I was wrong. I also prognosticated that revulsion over the Korean stem cell fraud in 2005 would prevent Congress from passing legislation that would ease President Bush's restrictions on federal funding of human embryonic stem cell research. Happily in this case I was wrong too. Both the House and Senate passed such legislation which provoked President Bush's only veto to date. I was also mistaken about Congress refusing to sanction the building of a wall across the U.S./Mexico border. In fact, our solons have authorized the building of 700 miles of such a wall.

Science: I predicted that a lab would have successfully derived stem cells from cloned human embryos and that the FDA would approve the first use of embryonic stem cells to repair crushed spinal cords. Neither happened, though researchers in Oregon did inject fetal neural cells into the brain of boy who is suffering from Batten disease.

Environment: Contrary to my hopeful prognostication, the number of hungry people in the world increased by 4 million in 2006.

On economics, I was right that peak oil fears would subside, but I was wrong about how low oil prices would go. I predicted $50 per barrel, and prices got to within $5 of that. I can't forbear pointing out that some allegedly very savvy people were predicting $262 per barrel in 2006. Ha!

It is with considerable dismay that I report that I was wrong when I said that the number of American troops in Iraq would drop below 100,000 by the end of 2006. Now it looks like the Bush administration will be sending even more.

So swishing the tea leaves around in the cup, what do they tell me will happen in 2007?

POLITICS

Ok, the first one is not for 2007, but for 2008. I predict that Barack Hussein Obama will be the presidential nominee for the Democratic Party. This will become clearer throughout 2007. Why? The Jack Kennedy phenomenon. He is attractive. And he has no record, which means that voters can project whatever hopes and dreams they have onto him.

Stem cell legislation will pass again. This time it may be attached to a bill that President Bush wants (say some Defense appropriation) so he may actually hold his nose and sign it.

The Democratic Congress will expand the State Children's Health Insurance Program to cover poor adults, bringing the proportion of health care financed by government perilously close to 50 percent. Bush will sign it. We fall further down the slippery slope to universal (that is socialized) health insurance.

A higher federal minimum wage will pass even though it applies to only about 2.5 percent of workers.

SCIENCE

OK, this year the FDA will approve the use of stem cells derived from human embryos to treat crushed spinal cords.

Researchers will create a stem cell line from cloned human embryos for the first time.

I think I will stick with my prediction that a cloned human baby will be born before 2010, although time is running out and the science is not progressing as fast as I had thought. For example, there are still no primates cloned from adult cells yet (somatic cell nuclear transfer).

No one will become ill as a result of eating foods made from ingredients derived currently available biotech crops or cloned animals.

ECONOMICS

The price of a barrel of oil will fall below $50.

As a result, ethanol mania will cool.

One euro will cost $1.50. (It's $1.31 now.)

The Nuclear Regulatory Commission will receive the first application for building a new nuclear power plant since 1973.

ENVIRONMENT

There will be no new commitments for limiting greenhouse gases under the Kyoto Protocol made a the next U.N. climate change conference in December 2007.

Criteria air pollutants will continue their decline in the United States.

INTERNATIONAL NEWS

Saddam Hussein will be executed for his crimes. Apparently quite soon. In any case, he will go to Hell, if it exists.

There will be no successful terrorist attack on U.S. soil.

Civil war will break out between Hamas and Fatah.

World population growth rate will continue to slow.

World deforestation will continue to slow. U.S. forest area will continue to expand.

CRIME

After years of falling, the average violent crime rate in the U.S. will remain essentially flat, rising or falling by no more than 2.5 percent.

The U.S. rape rate will continue to fall from its height in 1992.

And oh yeah, the Drug War will continue uselessly and destructively on.

It seems unlikely that our prison population can grow by much more, so I predict that the increase next year will be under 1 percent.

On an endnote of modesty I quote management guru Peter Drucker: "Forecasting is not a respectable human activity and not worthwhile beyond the shortest of periods." Hey, I'm just trying to look one year forward here. I hope that any of my less than happy predictions are false, and that we all have a much happier New Year.

Ronald Bailey is Reason's science correspondent. His book Liberation Biology: The Scientific and Moral Case for the Biotech Revolution is now available from Prometheus Books.