WE ARE NOT BIG FANS of the year-end wrap-up editorial, since a calendar year is rarely an accurate way to bracket big changes.
But this year is different, because we started the year in one place, and 12 months later, have landed, if not on Mars, then on some other unfamiliar planet. In 2008, we found out that much of what we knew about of the world proved to be false. On Jan. 1, we knew that the Big Three auto makers would always be an important backbone of the American workforce, employing millions.
We knew house prices would always go up.
We knew that the Great Depression could never happen again; economists, financial experts and Wall Street told us so.
We knew that a society built on consumer spending was a sound idea.
We knew that Americans were not about to vote for a black man for president.
As we all know now, we knew nothing.
But the fact is, we did know everything that was to come to pass. We should have seen it coming.
Didn't we know that Detroit shouldn't keep building ever-larger vehicles, especially as gas prices rose?
Didn't we know that house values quadrupling over four years made no sense?
Or that sales clerks and mechanics and even those who had no jobs could not afford a $1 million house?
Or that multi-million-dollar bonuses on Wall Street made no sense?
Didn't we know that government was far too lax in its regulation, its attention to consumer protections too compromised by corporate interests?
Barack Obama's victory suggests that we also knew that, for the past eight years, secrecy, covert consolidation of power and the politics of division had been embedded too deeply in Washington.
Could we change it? Obama told us, "Yes, we can."
But the events of the last year also tell us that "Yes, we can" can be a dangerous mantra to live by if we chant it without thinking, without trusting what we know to be right. Faith in abstract notions like country, liberty, democracy is great, but we forget that all those things have a price: eternal vigilance, paid for by informed and skeptical citizens.
We Americans are a trusting bunch. We want to believe in big ideas, in big promises, in leaps of faith and in hope. But just as we find our greatness in that, we also find our downfall.
It makes us easy to snooker.
The big disaster stories of 2008 - Bear Stearns, Lehman Brothers, a million foreclosures, Bernard Madoff, Gov. Rod Blagojevich - happened because too many of us were asleep at the switch. As investors, borrowers and citizens, we trusted too easily. We didn't bother to question.
The same is true of many our more-local disasters, including Harrisburg's Bonusgate scandal, and the federal trial of Sen. Vincent Fumo.
We keep putting our trust in people who don't warrant it. We don't hold our leaders accountable. We don't ask the right questions, or demand the right behavior. Repeating the same action over and over and expecting a different outcome is the classic definition of insanity. In order for 2009 to be different, in order for reason to return to the markets and daily anxiety to return to a more normal level, we will need to do things differently. We'll need to pay attention to the world around us, demand better leadership and responsibility . . . and demand that of ourselves as well.