- The Washington Times - Wednesday, December 31, 2008

All year long, the word was everywhere. It was something we could believe in. It was something that mattered. But by the end of 2008, it was not, most definitely, richly jingling in our pockets.

The word was “change.” It was what we craved, what we feared, what we endured.

After a long, long campaign, America elected its first black president. And it was Barack Obama, a senator from Illinois whose father hailed from Kenya, who first pounded the word into a drumbeat that echoed far beyond politics. In any other year, that victory would have stood alone as a chapter in history.

But this was not any other year.

This was a year when many other words were plucked from the dictionary to join vocabularies stretched to the breaking point by a daily drumbeat of surprises.

Some were good: “Phelpsian,” the adjective coined to describe gold-medalist swimmer Michael Phelps’ feat at the Summer Olympics in Beijing.

But most reflected bewilderment and alarm — words like “bailout” and “financial meltdown.”

Global stock markets plunged — and then plunged some more. Stately institutions like Lehman Brothers simply disappeared. Retirement funds vanished, erasing the dreams of people who’d hoped to stop working in their golden years or to send their children to college or to someday buy their own home.

Mortgages — specifically, unpaid mortgages — were the locomotive pulling a downbound economic train. Years of easy money had prompted banks to give loans to folks who were credit risks, and in 2008 that trend kindled a meltdown of mammoth proportions — a worldwide meltdown caused by the intricate — and baffling — selling and reselling of mortgage debt.

The end result for the homeowner was foreclosure, and Americans suffered greatly. By the end of the third quarter, one in 10 mortgage holders was in foreclosure or delinquent in payments - a 76 percent increase from the previous year, according to the Mortgage Bankers Association.

The worldwide recession had at least one salutary effect — the price of oil plummeted, as economic activity ground to a halt. The cost of filling up at the gas station at year’s end was just half of what it was six months before. But six months hence, would there be any new American cars to gas up?

The government got into the bailout business in the fall, when the cascading failures of the financial industry put the global economy at risk. Congress approved the Troubled Asset Recovery Program — TARP, a new acronym — and said Treasury Secretary Henry M. Paulson Jr. could invest as much as $700 billion in bailouts to keep the wheels on the economy.

A lot went to banks — some healthy, some not. But then Detroit’s automaker CEOs — Rick Wagoner of General Motors, Robert Nardelli of Chrysler and Alan Mulally of Ford — came to Washington, hats in hand. They said they were teetering on the edge of disaster.

But their mode of transportation enraged politicians.

“There’s a delicious irony that there are private luxury jets landing in Washington with people who have tin cups in their hand,” groused Rep. Gary L. Ackerman, New York Democrat.

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