Promises to Keep

A New Year is almost upon us. Like a clock striking twelve, the year changes in the middle of the darkest time, long after anyone wise has gone off to bed. The only good reason to be up at this time is that you have too much on your mind and need to put it away. That’s the dark soul of so many New Year’s resolutions.

There are a lot of things I need to do to get my own life in order. If you’re not the kind of person who likes to read about other people’s problems just skip this post. But many of you might be able to help or at least add suggestions of your own. I’d like that. This is as personal as I’ll get in this humble blog.

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2013, a Good Year

It’s been a good year, even if it didn’t seem like it. 2013 was the year that the economy turned around just enough to lay the foundation for a better 2014 in several key ways. The most important is that more people have jobs, even if it’s nowhere near enough to make up for the losses from 2008-2010. The other reason is that retail sales are actually picking up and there’s reason to believe that there will be more confidence as we move ahead. The last part is very important because the psychology of a depression is the main reason it has the name it has.

Barataria was very successful in predicting the important trends of the year early on. A summary of the best posts of the year is available in the tab 2013 in Review, if you’d like to rewind the whole year. But here are the economic highlights in a quick summary.

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Christmas Comes When We Stop

It’s been a terrible winter in the Saintly City. The temperature hardly cracked 20F (-6C) the entire month. Roads were so gleaming and slick it was hard to tell if the city should sand them and pray or just put up a net and a blue line. Keeping the sidewalk clear enough so that our intrepid mailman, Mark, could make it through became a constant struggle. The simple act of getting on with life wore heavily.

But through it all there were preparations. Presents had to be bought and a living had to be earned. Life had to trundle on, no matter how difficult it became.  New neighbors even put giant bows up on the columns of the house they intend to treasure for many Christmases to come, drawing energy from the holidays past in the house so worn with life when they bought it.

Yet Christmas comes, even in this frozen land. It comes when we all finally stop.

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One Foot in Front of the Other

In a steady crunching beat over crispy snow it’s one foot after the other. Head down to measure every step for solid footing before the next careful crunch. There’s nothing but grey sky tinkled with flakes if you bothered to look ahead anyway. Most of the US has experienced that this December, but the economy has been doing that for at least four years now. And like a brisk and noisy walk through the cold eventually you find that you have actually gotten somewhere.

Along with the blustering weather news that has dominated this month there has been a lot of good economic news. Most recently the growth in GDP for the third quarter came in at a rosy warm 4.1%.. The National Retail Federation tells us that the holiday retail season is indeed going to come in with an impressive 3.9% growth over 2012, the high end of predictions. But not everyone thinks the future is so bright. It’s worth running down the reasons for both naughty and nice economic news for next year.

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Confidence

How ya doin’? It might be a simple question from an old friend you haven’t seen in a while, or maybe it’s someone closer who is worried about you and trying not to be obvious about it. But if you’re in the business of gauging consumer confidence, it’s a very serious question. And every month two different groups ask the question of 500 to 3,000 people just to see how we, the consumers of the US, are doin’.

The answer overall is that for all the asking and telling it’s amazingly hard to tell. Both the Conference Board and the University of Michigan / Reuters groups that do the surveys found October and November to be big downers, but the latter tells us there was a big rebound in early December. It’s difficult to say why, so the professionals that have to explain it are scrambling. Like so many important indicators there is both good news and bad. Let’s try to sort it out.

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Solstice is Here

It is dark outside when the alarm goes off, not at all a time to wake up.  The usual 8 hours and 41 minutes of daylight we can expect on a Winter Solstice is never enough to keep us going, even on a relatively warm and sometimes even bright year like this.  The icy Winter of 2013 is just as dark as any other.  The Solstice itself, that magic moment when the North Pole starts to wobble back towards the sun, comes on 21 December at exactly 17:11 UTC/GMT (11:11 CST).

This is the end of the year traditionally. The new year should begin at Solstice, as is the ancient European tradition, just as the day begins at midnight. The only reason it doesn’t is that the Romans used a calendar, the Julian, that was off a bit by the time Pope Gregory XIII got around to revising it and everything moved ten days. No matter. The world since the Renaissance has increasingly been what we decree, not what we see.

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Empathy

Empathy. It’s a powerful concept that’s become one of the hot buzz words at the end of this year. Much has been written and said about it lately, and for good reasons. Our politics, which is little more than the collective values of people forced to share a social space with each other, is often rightly criticized for lacking in basic empathy. The message of Pope Francis comes down to a call for more empathy for those who are in pain, not power. But what is empathy?

There are many ways to define it, but the simplest is “The ability to share another person’s emotions.” Empathy defies not just logic, but space – it’s about stepping outside of yourself for at least a moment. It’s a connection to the pain that others feel beyond any logical argument. And true empathy comes when you can do this for people you otherwise don’t even like.

The lack of empathy goes many ways, however. This Christmas is a good time to truly practice empathy.

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