There are still a few days left, but since I will be off on vacation till the end of the year, I thought I’d take stock of what has been a tumultuous year to anyone who has been living in the US.
First there was the Presidential election. Had someone predicted even a couple of years ago that a man proudly bearing the middle name of Hussein would be even remotely electable, they would have been dismissed as kooky optimists . But a perfect storm – guilt over Iraq, disillusionment over the Republican brand of conservatism, dismay over Katrina, a collapsing economy and a candidate with a Machiavellian understanding of grassroots organization – made it possible to Americans to elect a scrawny African American with a funny name their President. The vote of 70 million people made it possible for 300 million to hold their heads up again in the international arena, though carrying a US passport is still fraught with danger in parts of the world.
The US economy groaned under the weight of war spending and leveraged risk and gave way as 3 quarters of negative growth announced a recession. Gas prices, touching $5 a gallon in the summer, dropped precipitously as demand crashed and domestic industry slowed to a crawl. While foreign policy mavens looked at the silver lining of declining Middle-East influence, environmentalists worried that the enthusiasm for green initiatives and gasoline alternatives could recede just as it did during the Reagan era.
US Auto companies clamored for a bailout of their own, reasoning that with $700 billion floating around, $15 billion would seem like spare change. But Congress proved surprisingly hostile to the idea, enraging workers already outraged by the protection of absurdly high executive compensation in defaulting financial institutions. It feels like only a honeymoon period for the President-elect is keeping a full-fledged class war from erupting.
Terrorism got the global visibility it craved as attacks on high-end hotels in Mumbai brought the reality of it all to the rich, aka “people who matter”. Unprecedented 24-hour coverage via CNN created universal outrage and gave the President-elect of the US leverage in his hard-line stance on Pakistan – maybe we will finally see some pressure being brought on the beleagured civilian government in Pakistan. Meanwhile, there has been a sort of awakening among the politically-apathetic intelligentsia – if the carnage in Mumbai leads to even the beginnings of political reform in India, those deaths would mean something.
We enter 2009 battered and bruised. Some lessons are there for the learning – for a free market to function, tight regulatory oversight is necessary; greed is good, but not when you earn 300 times the salary of the average worker; spending is necessary, but not when you max out your credit cards and leverage your home; one vote, one voice and one dollar at a time can dramatically change the face a country presents to the world; terrorism cannot be fought like a war, rather, it can be combated by cooperation between enemies, by painstaking police work, by working towards the social inequality that breeds resentment and disengagement.
Is this the lowest we can go? Is the only way up? I hope so.