Will cheap gas last? The answer and nine other predictions for 2015
It’s something of a tradition in journalism to gaze into the crystal ball and give readers a view of what we believe will come with the New Year. Below are my 10 predictions for 2015.
- Scraping the bottom of the barrel: It’s great to have lower oil prices; greater still to have oil. In the past five months, oil prices have fallen 40 percent, and that will fuel economic growth. But oil extraction and exploration aren’t getting cheaper, and prices need to be higher than below $70 a barrel to pay for them. Middle East oil producers are suspected of flooding the market with oil to make shale-oil extraction in North America uneconomical — but they won’t want to cause another slump. If we get more growth, oil demand will increase again – and so will prices. Make the best of the cheaper times.
- No more Mr. Nice Party: The faltering pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong mean a win for the Chinese Communist Party and for Hong Kong’ chief executive, CY Leung. Xi Jinping, China’s president and Communist Party leader, has had no patience with protests of any kind since becoming president in March 2013. With Hong Kong pacified, he won’t change his mind in 2015, either. But the desire for more democracy won’t just lie down before him.
- My enemy’s enemy is my …? This year’s trend in the Middle East is the hardening of the region’s main actors. Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi has killed or locked up thousands of Muslim Brotherhood supporters and is fighting Hamas-backed rebels on the country’s eastern and western borders with the full support of Saudi Arabia’s leaders. Syrian President Bashar al-Assad is targeting Islamic State, which is expanding into Libya to try to destabilize the fragile, embattled government there. Israel’s next parliament after new elections will again take up a controversial proposal that would emphasize the state’s Jewishness over its democratic character, leaving a quarter of Israel’s citizens, who are Arab, in a deeper state of limbo. Iran is suspected of smuggling in nuclear components, which bodes ill for a deal. Things might get really bad soon.
- Sticking to one’s own: The trend in Europe to erect higher and higher barriers against immigrants will continue. British Prime Minister David Cameron has set parliamentary elections in 2015 and faces a resurgent populist anti-immigrant party, the UK Independent Party, which is hoovering up his votes and a few of his MPs, too. Anti-immigrant parties are also surging in France, Italy, Sweden and the Netherlands. Even in Germany, the anti-euro Alternativ fur Deutschland is growing more militantly anti-foreigner. Such hostility is in part fueled by low, stagnant or negative growth everywhere in Europe except in Poland and the United Kingdom. It won’t get much better next year.
- The cross they bear: Christianity got a boost from the election of Pope Francis in March 2013. His openness and relative liberalism appealed to most of the world’s media — and does so still. But the limits of his approach are becoming more obvious: no to women priests, to married clergy, to gay unions, to contraception. These positions are at variance with many Catholics’ daily practice. The church is losing followers to resurgent Pentecostalists in Africa and South America — or to agnosticism. The Archbishop of Canterbury recently warned that the Anglican Church is likely to break up. And all Christianity will suffer more from growing intolerance, attacks, burnings and murders in Muslim areas — especially in Pakistan.
- To him that hath, more shall be given: The very rich will get even richer. The poor will stay poor, and the working and middle classes may rise a notch (it’s happening, at last, in the United States). But there are too many engines working to increase the wealthy’s wealth to moderate the matter. Thomas Piketty, author of 2014’s bestseller “Capital in the Twenty-First Century,” wrote that “capitalism automatically generates arbitrary and unsustainable inequalities that radically undermine the meritocratic values on which democratic societies are based.” That is, greater wealth now produces greater wealth tomorrow, but hard work leaves you — if you’re lucky — only a little better off each year. And that means next year, too.
- The passing of a dynasty: India’s election in May brought to power a lower-caste man who had become the most dynamic politician in that vast nation — Narendra Modi. The first minister of the state of Gujarat for 13 years and a strong Hindu nationalist accused of at least shirking his duty to care when anti-Muslim riots in his state claimed many lives in 2002, he barnstormed at the head of his nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party to win the prime ministerial office with a vote large enough to command a majority in Parliament and to administer a possible coup de grace to the failing Congress — the party of Nehru. Modi has dedicated himself to returning India to strong economic growth and to begin to act more like the second most populous — soon to be the largest – country in the world. He’s backed by nearly all India’s big corporations and most of its news media. He may do it.
- The Coming Slav crash: Ukraine is near economic “meltdown” — its reserves are dwindling fast; its currency (the hryvnia) fell from 13 to16 to the dollar last month and will fall further; its banks are suffering large losses from the hryvnia’s fall, and its budget deficit is more than 10 percent of gross domestic product and rising. Anders Aslund, an expert on the Ukrainian and Russian economies at the Petersen Institute of International Economics, wrote last month that “it appears only a matter of time before [Ukraine’s] banking system freezes. Output and the standard of living would plummet.” Russia is in better shape, but Aslund sees its economy “heading to disaster” and forecasts a meltdown, too, but more slowly. Sanctions are battering Russian banks and businesses, the fall in oil prices battering its population. Does this mean President Vladimir Putin will start disengaging from Ukraine in order to get his economy back? Don’t hold your breath.
- The worst system, except for all the rest: Democracy has had bad press these past few years. Its economic system, capitalism, hasn’t delivered for the masses; authoritarian rulers, led by China’s, remain in charge, and in its heartland, Europe, populism threatens centrist parties that have ruled since World War Two. In every Western state, the social contract between governors and governed, once lubricated by fairly steady growth, is fraying. Next year should — must — see the democratic politicians get serious: They must put to their electorates — and to each other — the scale of the challenges a globalized world now poses, and seek their informed consent to strategies that no longer pretend that everything can go back to how it was. Will they? They must.
- And now for something completely different: A ray of light, in our trade, journalism. It’s getting better all the time, as even newspapermen, like me, realize the times are a-changing and the Internet is where we — with much of the rest of the world –live and learn. Journalism is just a way of telling people what’s going on in the world, in their nation, in their town. Now, you can get more information about all these areas in a few minutes than you can read in a weekend — for free. Add to that, kindly folks in lots of places have started neighborhood websites, so everyone can learn what’s happening on their street. It’s not all good: Authoritarians who don’t like democracy don’t like an independent press, either. But we can see something of a future for the news media, and it’s richer, more varied and more politically empowering than it’s ever been.
PHOTO: A customer fills up his tank in a gasoline station in Nice, France, Dec. 5, 2014. REUTERS/Eric Gaillard