Looking back on 2011, the New Year can't come fast enough. Will things be better in 2012? Without wanting to tempt fate, rarely has a coming year had such a low bar to being better than the previous year. With all fervent wishes for a great 2012 for everyone, here are 10 things that happened in 2011 that should stay in 2011:
1. Congress. The petty yet exhausting fights in Congress produced well-deserved ridicule from an ungrateful nation. The Congressional approval rate hit an all-time low of 11 percent earlier this month, according to Gallup's tracking poll. "This month's record-low congressional job approval rating is one of a number of measures of Congress that have reached historical low points this year." Gallup said. "This suggests that 2011 will be remembered as the year in which the American public lost much of any remaining faith in the men and women they elect and send off to Washington to represent them."
2. Europe. Coming in close second in the discord department is Europe. Every time the U.S. economy threw off some good news, Europe hogged the headlines with a new variation on its inability to fashion a work-out plan for national debts. Lovers of irony may appreciate that Europe, in holding the U.S. economy hostage, is simply returning the favor that America's fiscal irresponsibility has been sending over the pond for several decades.
3. Republican Presidential Contenders. Reality TV is not what we need from our political parties but it's sure what we've gotten from the Republicans. Has there ever been a sillier season of primary debates, gaffes, and personal peccadilloes? Whatever happened to serious discussions of the nation's many serious issues?
4. The Economy. Forget what the experts say. We all know a recession when we see it, and ours has not gone away. There were signs as the year ended that we might be on a steady trajectory of slow growth. But, of course, Congress was not in session at the time.
5. Stock Market. U.S. stocks ended the year at about the same place they started it. But the intervening gyrations and extreme volatility produced a coronary bushel of end-of-the-world trading sessions. Dullness never looked so good.
6. Home Values. Just when the housing gurus agreed the worst of the mortgage mess was behind us, it became painfully clear that it will take years, if not decades, for this statement to be true. Yale economist Robert Shiller, who tracks housing values closely, thinks no one should be surprised if prices are flat for the next 20 years.
7. Entitlement Reforms. Like the boy who cried wolf, politicians and government fiscal experts have reformed Medicare and Social Security through countless plans, a commission, the Gang of Six, and, finally, a Supercommittee. Still, there are zero actual reforms in place. Social Security's retirement income program could survive without reforms for decades. Not so with Social Security's disability program, or Medicare and Medicaid. They continue to hurtle toward very nasty days of reckoning. Where once we had the luxury of instituting reforms gradually, that cushion largely has disappeared.
8. Aging Boomers. Read all about the early-edge boomers turning 65 in 2011. See panic in the streets as we are flooded with old people. See these same boomers turn 66 in 2012, when they will be entitled to their full Social Security benefits. Get ready for more panic. The elderly are coming, the elderly are coming! Please.
9. Retirement Fears. There may be a shortage of retirement savings and investments. There is no shortage of opinion polls and studies about these shortages. Roosevelt said during the Depression that "we have nothing to fear but fear itself." Add fear of gloomy retirement surveys to the list.
10. Social Media Meanness. If you want to ruin a perfectly nice day, spend a few minutes reading the comments on nearly any public blog. Our loss of social civility is stunning. Until things get better, I leave you with the posting etiquette presented on his blog by journalist Barry Ritholtz: "Please use the comments to demonstrate your own ignorance, unfamiliarity with empirical data, ability to repeat discredited memes, and lack of respect for scientific knowledge. Also, be sure to create straw men and argue against things I have neither said nor even implied. Any irrelevancies you can mention will also be appreciated. Lastly, kindly forgo all civility in your discourse . . . you are, after all, anonymous."