New President, New vaccine, Same American Dysfunction

Instead of New Year’s Resolutions, which no one follows anyway, my New Year tradition is writing New Year priors, predictions for the upcoming year to hold myself accountable to.

Elections 2021

Georgia runoff
Republicans win both Senate seats: 65%
Republicans win Senate control with just one seat: 10%
Democrats win both Senate seats: 25%

As of the writing of this post, the election to decide which party controls the Senate is underway. Polls are essentially tied but a) the polls have been poorer quality than the Presidential level b) polls were significantly overestimating Democrats across the board in the last election and c) my priors lead me to believe that the party out of power are more activated after a loss. This is of course confounded by Trump who says he didn’t lose.

New York City Mayors Race
Democrat: 90%
Republican/Independent: 10%

Politically Left: 20%
Center Left: 60%
Center Right: 20%

Top issues: Police, Budget, Crime, Taxes, Healthcare and COVID-19


These predictions are contingent on the Republican’s winning the Senate which I believe is likely see above.

Biden gets a “compromise” COVID relief bill passed: 70%

Biden passes some racial justice reform as part of a bill: 50%

Biden passes climate change reform as part of a bill: 35%

The Senate pushes through voting reforms: 40%

The Senate blocks most judicial and admin appointments: 35%

The Senate shuts down government this year: 60%

The Supreme Court heavily restricts abortions: 80%

The Supreme Court restricts Executive power: 40%

There is a constitutional crisis this year: 10%

These predictions are mostly quite dire. Ten percent chance of a constitutional crisis is a dire prediction, but remember Trump got impeached. So theres recent precedent.

GOALS for a good year

I’m not someone who believes 2021 will be automatically better than 2020. There are a lot of things that could potentially make it even worse, but gods willing “reversion to the mean” will bring us back to a place that is less bitter and painful. That will start with:

Watch President Biden’s inauguration without a hitch

Watch less news because politics has gotten more boring

Go outside and support businesses because the vaccine has made it safer

Restart a career that was put on hold because the economy has picked up

These goals are less lofty than my naive youth of 2019.

Updating my Priors

If you asked me a year ago what my priors said last year, they did not include my country falling head first into a death spiral of mismanaging the pandemic, incalculable death and pain, and mismessaging about other peoples reality of death and pain. The pandemic clearly took all our prognosticators by surprise last year and that has left America vulnerable, sick and embittered.

But that is not the most surprising part. I believed that America was great in the face of adversity, and would come together in a crisis in the end. If you asked me last year what it would take for our country to heal from divisness and rank partisanship, I would have said a unifying event with a clear outside enemy where the stakes for failing to work together would be thousands of American deaths. Something like a cyberattack on critical infrastructure, a large-scale terror attack, or a pandemic.

It turns out ‘mere’ thousands of deaths was not enough.

If you had asked me to put a percentage on this prior now, even with the benefit of hindsight, I would say this was a deeply held false belief with at least a 90% confidence. Certainly I have to reexamine the bias that lead me to be this optimistic(?) but the truth is thinking like a Bayesian in the social science context is different from being a Bayesian physicist in one important way: determining the truth does not wipe out the past social context. Determining that Joe Biden won the election does not mean that Trump couldn’t have won the election, and it doesn’t invalidate the context that brought him into power.

Likewise it could be we are just in the 10% timeline where we Americans are so divided that even a bungled pandemic response, and halting vaccine rollout is not enough to cut through the divisions. The ingredients are all there for a rally to defeat the virus. You can witness it in other countries, deeply divided Germany has boosted Angela Merkel’s approval despite a far-right media campaign. Jair Bolsinaro despite high ratings himself has lost ground in local elections last year.

And clearly sectors of America came together in a heroic effort amid this adversity. Healthcare workers, teachers, sanitation workers came together, worked insufferable hours in a climate of fear and uncertainty of exactly how risky the pandemic would be for them and their families. And the vaccine manufacturers pulled through a miracle safe, effective vaccine that is inoculating Americans in just under a year!

That is the thing about thinking in Bayes. Every percentage represents a coin flip, but the other side of the coin never goes away. It just updates your mental model into the future and into the past.

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