fb-pixel Skip to main content

It's tricky to see into the future, but here's one safe bet for 2016: The presidential election is going to dominate the headlines, starting with the early primaries in February and continuing all the way through the vote-counting (and recounting?) in November.

But 2016 won't be all about presidential politics.

The Supreme Court may decide to ban affirmative action at public universities, and in a separate case it could dramatically weaken public sector unions.

And the American economy will face a new test, now that the Federal Reserve's has cut back on the stimulative, zero-interest-rate policy that has kept the economy inching forward since the great recession.


Who will be the next president?

At the moment, Hillary Clinton looks like a slight favorite to take the White House in 2016. She's way ahead among Democrats, and a growing economy (like ours) is usually a good sign for the incumbent party.

Clinton's chances are helped by the fact that Republicans seem hell-bent on nominating Donald Trump, one of the least-electable candidates.

Trump has long been the frontman in the Republican race, with an anti-immigrant message that's anathema to Americans still proud of their immigrant heritage, including the vital latino vote.

Even if Trump falters, it's not clear that his successor will be any more palatable to mainstream Americans.

Ted Cruz, who's currently surging in the polls, has been one of the chief obstructionists in Congress, and his tax proposals would be especially burdensome for the middle class and retirees.

Marco Rubio remains within striking distance, but so far his campaign hasn't generated enough lift to push him above the crowded field.

What is the Supreme Court set to do?

2015 saw some monumental Supreme Court decisions, culminating in a historic ruling that gave same sex couples the right to marry.

Next year's highest-profile case involves affirmative action, and the question of whether public colleges and universities can use race as one factor among many in the admissions process.


Four of the justices seem prepared to end affirmative action, but to win the day, they'll need a fifth vote. So the big question is whether Justice Kennedy will join them or whether he'll search for some broader compromise that might leave schools free to consider the racial background of applicants, under limited circumstances.

Meanwhile, as the court deliberates, campuses across the country have been racked by protests over the treatment of black students and the underrepresentation of minorities among students and faculty. A decision against affirmative action could make it harder for schools to build more diverse campuses.

In a separate case, the court is set to decide whether public-sector employees — such as teachers — can be forced to pay fees to a union, even when they don't want to join.

Non-union teachers are arguing that those fees violate their first amendment rights. Every dollar they pay helps the union bargain with the state, which has implications for budgets and tax policy. So asking non-union members to pay is like asking them to support a political position they don't believe in.

The catch, however, is that even if they don't pay, they still benefit. The union doesn't just bargain for its members. It's legally obligated to bargain for everyone in the relevant workforce.

So eliminating the fees could create a kind of death-spiral, starving the union of funding. It's just too tempting for people to drop out of the union in order to save money, if they're still going to get many of the benefits of union membership.


What will happen to the US economy?

At least one leading organization has confidence in the US economy: The Federal Reserve. At its December meeting, the Fed decided that things were going so well, it was time to start slowing the economy down, by raising interest rates.

Not everyone agrees. A sizeable group of economists have been arguing that the Fed was wrong to raise rates, and that doing so has put the recovery in jeopardy.

2016 will decide the argument. If the job market stays strong, and inflation holds steady, the Fed's judgment will be vindicated, and rates could rise even more. But if the numbers go south, the Fed may have to quickly reverse course.

There are lots of things that could go wrong. China's economy, which has been the engine of global growth for decades now, looks to be slowing dangerously, with ripple-effects already wreaking havoc as far away as South America. And Europe, too, seems unable to escape the rut cut deep by the recession.

In the face of such threats, another year of slow-motion recovery in the US might be reason enough to celebrate.

Will there be any surprises?

Every year brings its share of surprises.

When 2015 began, the Syrian refugee crisis was a regional problem; now it has engulfed all of Europe.

On the hopeful side, the long-imprisoned Nobel peace recipient Aung San Suu Kyi has led her party into power in Myanmar. And Iran and the US managed to find common ground on a landmark nuclear agreement.


No doubt 2016 will have its own share of shocks, hopefully all positive. It's not unthinkable that we could see an end to civil war in Syria, unexpected cures for ravaging diseases, or a new technology to aid the fight against global climate change.

The only way to find out whether any of these will materialize is to travel into the future. Which is exactly what we're about to do.

Evan Horowitz digs through data to find information that illuminates the policy issues facing Massachusetts and the U.S. He can be reached at evan.horowitz@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeHorowitz