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Predictions for 2019 from BU Experts

Weighing in on the economy, healthcare coverage, climate action, more


At the risk of taking the fizz out of your New Year’s cheer, we must report that the long economic expansion that the country has enjoyed may hit the brakes in 2019. You also can expect America’s hole-riddled health insurance system to spring some more leaks this year (although students, there’s good news for you: you’ll still be able to stay on your parents’ plans until you’re 26).

But the anticipated news for the year ahead isn’t all bad by any means. One thing you can be certain of when looking at the coming 12 months: we’ll be hearing from more than a few folks who’d like to replace Donald Trump as president in 2020.

To get a better sense of what 2019 promises, we reached out to a number of BU faculty—experts in their respective fields—and asked them to share their forecasts for what lies ahead. Their predictions are below.

The Economy: Tarek Alexander Hassan, associate professor of economics, College of Arts & Sciences

someone holds a sign reading "Stop the Brexit Mess!"

British demonstrators protested last month against Brexit, part of a broader global debate over inequality. Photo by AP Photo/Frank Augstein

The biggest pieces of economic news in 2019 will be about climate change and politics. Both of these factors are much more important for our prosperity in 20 years’ time than what happens to the stock market next month or whether there will be a recession in the third quarter.

On climate change, we will learn whether the Paris Accord will survive US obstructionism. If no other countries peel off, I am hopeful that much-needed investments in emissions reductions will finally get off the ground. On politics, I will be watching Brexit. It is now clear that leaving the European Union will do much more harm than good, both for the UK and the EU. There is a growing chance Brexit may still be reversed.

More broadly, we will continue to see liberal democracies wrestle with the consequences of a widening gap between rich and poor. I view Brexit, and much of the ongoing political upheaval in the United States, as a symptom of this broader struggle. In the short run, it seems likely that we will see the beginnings of an economic downturn toward the end of 2019. The Trump tax cuts were a major fiscal stimulus that has so far insulated the United States from the worsening economic environment in most other developed economies; its effects will be felt throughout the year, but they will begin to wear off. If the UK leaves the EU without a deal and if trade tensions between the United States and China escalate, a downturn will become more likely.

Immigration: Sarah Sherman-Stokes, clinical instructor and associate director of the Immigrants’ Rights and Human Trafficking Program, School of Law

An immigrant holds a child's doll at the border

Immigration at the southern border will continue to roil politics this year. Photo by Herika Martinez/AFP/Getty Images

To say that it is difficult to predict what new parade of immigration horrors may befall us in 2019 is not hyperbole. The last two years have revealed a steady rise in racism, xenophobia, and animus directed at immigrants, including policies and programs that have devastated immigrant communities. Thankfully, the anti-immigrant agenda of this administration has been met with smart, and relentless, advocacy and lawyering from across the country—including challenges to the Muslim ban and family separation, and litigation supporting Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) and Temporary Protected Status (TPS).

My predictions for the year ahead begin with the government shutdown. Ironically, Trump’s stated desire to fast-track deportations is at odds with his insistence on holding the government hostage, awaiting funding for a border wall. While the government is shut down, immigration court has nearly come to a halt. The immigration court backlog has now surpassed 800,000 cases nationwide. As the shutdown drags on, that number will undoubtedly rise, deeply impacting migrants and their families, many of whom have been waiting for years to have their day in court.

Next, DACA, a program to protect immigrants brought to the United States as children, and TPS—a country-specific program to benefit migrants whose countries are suffering wars and natural disasters—are likely to see movement this year, as there is active litigation in defense of both programs. It is very possible that the fate of DACA could land at the Supreme Court, and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) has promised positive action on TPS.

Finally, the “asylum ban,” and policies and decisions designed to deny asylum to survivors of domestic violence and gang violence, are likely to remain active issues. In the last few months, the administration has moved to deny asylum to refugees who do not enter at a designated port of entry, in direct contravention of US law and congressional intent. Moreover, agency decisions aimed primarily at denying asylum to refugees from Central America are being, and will continue to be, actively challenged.

Healthcare: Alan Sager, professor of health law, policy, and management, School of Public Health

Someone goes through medical files

Health insurance coverage is likely to continue eroding in the coming year. Photo by iStock/Bill Oxford

Next year will see renewed talk about single-payer healthcare but reduced insurance coverage and continued increases in costs—more money for business as usual. Specifically:

1. A Democratic majority in the US House means that the president will cease pushing to repeal the Affordable Care Act (ACA). But we can expect continued erosion of insurance coverage.

The president and Congress have made it easier for people to go without health insurance or to buy cheap policies that offer weak financial protection when illness strikes. But most students can breathe easy because the president won’t tamper with the ACA reform that keeps people under age 26 on their parents’ health insurance.

2. Healthcare spending in 2019 will rise to $3.9 trillion, over four times defense spending and about $11,500 per American. Higher healthcare costs sponge up one-fifth of economic growth—and also make it harder to cover everyone.

No one planned this. It happens because financial anarchy pervades healthcare—because we have neither a functioning free market nor competent government action.

Hospitals, doctors, drug makers, and other caregivers seek more money. Government fails to restrain spending because political support for cost control is a mile wide and an inch deep. Why? Because most people don’t feel the pain of healthcare costs until we get whacked in the wallet. Employees imagine employers give them health insurance. It actually comes out of our paychecks. If the United States had to raise taxes to finance higher healthcare spending, cost growth would slow rapidly.

3. Americans will face growing difficulty in finding an experienced, smart, competent family doctor. These are the doctors who can diagnose and treat most problems, make referrals to specialists, and coordinate our care. More family doctors mean better care at lower cost. Primary care will remain like the weather—everyone will talk about it but no one will do anything about it.

4. Perennial political posturing to placate public pressure to pull down prescription drug prices will persist. But effective action on price will require neutralizing drug makers’ emotional demand that, unless we give them all our money, they won’t be able to finance research.

5. Finally, we’ll hear a great deal of renewed debate about single-payer or Medicare-for-all. Either would mean better care and lower cost. But neither will pass until our nation reaches political consensus on containing cost and covering everyone. Once we make that commitment, the mechanism—single-payer or others—will matter little. But a slogan like single-payer doesn’t persuade Americans that we can’t afford more money for business as usual in healthcare.

Politics: Michelle Johnson, associate professor of the practice, journalism, College of Communication

Trump signing an executive order to stop the separation of families

Investigations of President Trump and his battles with Congress are expected to dominate political news in 2019. Photo by AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais

If you think the last two years have been a bumpy ride, strap in. The volatile political drama that has gripped the nation since the 2016 election will likely hit fireworks stage.

Analysts and media are sounding alarms about the number of investigations, resignations, and reports casting shadows over the Trump administration, his business dealings, family, and associates.

While a few have said that Trump might try playing nice with the incoming Democratic majority in the House just to get some of his agenda through, the prevailing thought is that he will continue to be combative, which will lead to even more gridlock in Congress. Based on a tense meeting at the end of the year with Democratic leaders Nancy Pelosi and Chuck Schumer, and the ensuing government shutdown over funding for a border wall, the signs are that the gridlock prediction will prevail.

No doubt 2019 will bring more indictments, and possibly lead to an impeachment, as the Democrats take over the House and use their subpoena power to launch investigations.

It will also be time for potential candidates for the 2020 presidential election to make their call about whether or not to run. A few, including former Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick [Hon.’14], have already opted out, citing the toxic political climate, but we may see some new names popping up alongside the list of familiar names from previous contests. Perhaps Democrats will be buoyed by the success of first-time candidates for Congress who unseated longtime incumbents. On the GOP side, there’s been speculation about disgruntled Republicans taking on Trump, but it’s unlikely a challenger will step forth, based on how little pushback Trump’s gotten from Congress and the rest of the party.

The Environment: Anthony Janetos, professor of earth and environment, CAS; director, Pardee Center for the Study of the Longer-Range Future

Zakim Bridge

Cities and states will work to curb fossil fuel emissions from transportation this year. Photo by LUNAMARIA/iStock

We are just a few weeks removed from the release of the most recent US National Climate Assessment, which documents a wide range of current effects from climate change on natural resources, urban environments, coastal regions, agriculture, health, and many other sectors about which we care a great deal. For the first time, we also have projections of the range of economic impacts on the US economy, should responses fail to take hold. We also can plainly see that while there is more planning for adaptation and resilience than ever before, it is not close to enough to ameliorate the increasing damages. The major conclusion of the physical sciences remains that human activities are now the driving force behind the recent changes observed in temperatures, rainfall patterns, and the frequency and intensity of extreme storms, droughts, and conditions that promote wildfire.

Domestically, we might expect the US Congress and the current administration to continue their policy paralysis on climate-related issues. The climate issue appears too polarized for a lot of common ground to be found in the short term on the national stage. But at the same time, there will continue to be dramatic experimentation and responses on state, regional, and local levels. There is real leadership among cities, regional compacts, and the newly announced nine-state compact to find common solutions on transportation emissions. Such efforts have significant promise for reducing emissions on local and state scales, and for building resilience and adaptation measures in those cities that are already experiencing significant impacts from heat events, sea-level rise, and severe storms.

There is likely to continue to be movement internationally on measures to adapt to change that cannot be avoided and to reduce national emissions. It will be slower than many advocates want and expect, but it will still occur. My hope is that by the time the year is over, US public opinion moves our national efforts back in a productive direction internationally as well as domestically.

The Supreme Court: Jay Wexler, professor of law, LAW

A cross on government property in Maryland

The Supreme Court will decide whether this cross on government property in Maryland violates the Constitution. Photo by Algerina Perna /The Baltimore Sun via AP

I think that one of the most important cases the Supreme Court will decide this year is The American Legion v. American Humanist Association. The case involves a First Amendment challenge to a World War I veterans’ monument that has stood on government property in Maryland for more than 90 years. The monument is a 40-foot-tall cross, and the federal appeals court held that because of the shape of the monument, it was a violation of the Constitution’s Establishment Clause, which provides that the government “shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion.”

By having a gigantic Christian symbol on its property (and by paying for its upkeep), the government—according to the appeals court—is sending a forbidden message that it favors Christianity compared to other religions, as well as nonreligion. The dissent in the case, and the petitioners at the court, argue that the monument is primarily intended to remember fallen soldiers, and that the shape of the monument is incidental to its true significance. The Supreme Court will hear this case sometime in the late winter or early spring and issue a decision by late June.

Although I think the court of appeals got the case right, I predict that the Supreme Court will reverse and find that the monument does not violate the Constitution. The decision will be at least 5-4, but it could even be 6-3, depending on what Justice Stephen Breyer [Hon.’95] does, as he is unpredictable when it comes to cases like this.

I’ll also go out on a limb and choose a case that the Court hasn’t even agreed to hear yet. The case, which will likely be called County of Maui v. Hawaii Wildlife Fund, concerns whether the Clean Water Act prohibits the discharge of pollution without a permit into groundwater, as opposed to surface waters like rivers and lakes. The Court has given some hints that it is interested in the case and might take it up this term, and I think it will. Again, I predict that I’ll be disappointed and that the Court will find that discharges into groundwater are outside the scope of the Clean Water Act, a decision that will make it more difficult to ensure that our nation’s water resources are protected from the ravages of pollution.

The Arts: Harvey Young, dean, College of Fine Arts

Moulin Rouge!

Moulin Rouge! The Musical is expected to be a major event on Broadway later this year. Photo by Matthew Murphy

One of the many gifts of the fine and performing arts is the ability to reflect the times. How will the arts present and capture us in 2019?

On the Broadway stage, the prerecession excesses will be seen in Moulin Rouge, a stage musical adaptation of the Baz Luhrmann film. Gaudy and excessively theatrical, it captures the exuberance of the bull market and yet spotlights the everyday suffering and struggle that gets overlooked. A more subdued consideration of our sociopolitical moment—albeit contained in a throwback piece set in 1981 Northern Ireland—is The Ferryman, which, in great tragic tradition, spotlights people who live elsewhere, but compels you to reexamine your life, your family, and the world around you.

For the past few years, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences has been vilified for the lack of diversity in its Oscar nominees, and more generally, on the big screen. Remember #OscarsSoWhite? Lessons have been learned (but more opportunities still need to be created). Black Panther fandom will get a new boost throughout the awards season and serve as a reminder that mainstream, popular entertainment vehicles can be built around nonwhite actors of color. If Beale Street Could Talk is the more sophisticated film (helmed by Moonlight’s Barry Jenkins) and Green Book has already generated more award season buzz, but the continued influence (into another year) of Black Panther should not be overlooked.

Boston University’s arts leadership will be on display throughout 2019, especially in the offerings of CFA’s School of Music. BU has injected a new vitality in the operatic world as evidenced by a new chamber version of Dolores Claiborne, adapted from the Stephen King novel. In an effort to create community through the arts, BU will sponsor a free concert featuring the University’s orchestra performing Gustav Holst’s The Planets at Symphony Hall on April 1.

I am especially pleased that Boston will erect a memorial to Martin Luther King, Jr. [GRS’55, Hon.’59]. It is thrilling to see a city invest in the arts as an important and necessary part of civic life.

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Rich Barlow, Senior Writer, BU Today, Bostonia, Boston University
Rich Barlow

Rich Barlow can be reached at barlowr@bu.edu.

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