As 2008 comes to a close, almost nothing has turned out as was expected at the beginning of the year whether we consider oil prices, the war in Iraq, political corruption or the collapse of the U.S. financial system.
For much of the year, the price of oil skyrocketed; by July, it had reached $147 a barrel. Petroleum prophets warned us that it would soon top $200 and that we should brace for a future of permanently scarce energy. Geo-strategists added that cash-flush petrol states like Iran, Russia and Venezuela would cause global mischief for decades to come.
Then oil crashed with the stock market in September. Even the infamous cartel tactics of OPEC haven't restored energy prices. The money we're saving could translate into a nearly half-trillion-dollar annual stimulus package for the U.S. economy and the near-bankruptcy of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Hugo Chavez and Vladimir Putin.
So, the year ends with politicians contemplating new energy taxes and how to raise free-falling gas prices enough to encourage alternate fuels in a world currently flush with excess cheap oil.
2008 opened with presidential candidates blaming each other over Iraq, declaring that the surge had not brought more stability, and accepting the recommendations of a staged withdrawal offered by the Iraq Study Group.
Yet, we ended the year with applause for Gen. David Petraeus and an admission that his surge and a change in tactics have brought increased security to Iraq. As of this writing, five American soldiers so far have been killed this month in Iraq; more Americans are often murdered in a single day on the streets of major American cities.
The Democrats promised an end to the "culture of corruption" of congressional Republicans. Then human nature in 2008 proved more reliable than promises of reform politics.
So we ended the year with a surge of Democratic malfeasance that easily matched the former Republican Congress. Crusading New York Gov. Eliot Spitzer resigned in disgrace after disclosure of his junkets with a prostitute. "Hot Rod" Blagojevich, governor of Illinois, was caught on a wire discussing how to sell Barack Obama's Senate seat to the highest bidder.
Then there's Rep. Charles Rangel of New York, the chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee. The sheer range of his alleged transgressions is shocking: occupying four rent-stabilized apartments in Harlem (while also claiming a tax exemption on a D.C. residence), giving multimillion-dollar tax breaks to an energy company in exchange for donations, failing to report rental income to the IRS, and abusing congressional perks.
And Democratic Reps. Tim Mahoney, of Florida, and William Jefferson, of Louisiana, proved every bit as repugnant as the Republican cheats Sen. Ted Stevens, of Alaska, and Rep. Duke Cunningham, of California.
The year began with wheeler-dealers in a bull Wall Street market strutting about with near-obscene mega-bonuses of tens of millions of dollars.
Then all hell broke loose when American finance collapsed in September - and trillions of dollars worth of personal stocks and 401(k) retirement accounts simply went up in smoke.
By the end of this year, the meltdown had proven an equal opportunity morality tale. Conservatives cited Democrats like Senate Banking Committee Chairman Christopher Dodd, House Financial Services Committee Chairman Barney Frank, former Fannie Mae CEO Franklin Raines and Citibank senior adviser Robert Rubin as emblematic of the rotten nexus between stock and mortgage fraud, big campaign donations, and poor government oversight.
Liberals wondered why big shots like Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson, who had been CEO of Goldman-Sachs, and free marketers, from Richard Fuld at Lehman Brothers to the Big Three auto heads, once took hundreds of millions for themselves while their companies headed toward insolvency.
We end this weird "that was then, this is now" year, with President Barack Obama himself, the former avatar of liberal hope and change, recruiting some of his Cabinet from Bill Clinton's former team and seeming to embrace much of George Bush's foreign policy.
Imagine the election chances of a candidate Obama in the Democratic primaries had he announced publicly in January what he just now concluded in December:
"Vote for my change and I promise you more of Bob Gates at Defense, my rival Hillary Clinton (with help from Bill) at State, Gen. James L. Jones as national security adviser, Clinton pros John Podesta and Rahm Emanuel running my transition and the evangelical pastor Rick Warren conducting my Inaugural invocation. And what I am saying now about wiretaps, NAFTA, the Patriot Act, campaign financing, Iran, Iraq, missile defense, coal and nuclear power and taxes will have to be changed when I'm elected."
"All things change," the Greek philosopher Heraclitus supposedly wrote over 2,500 years ago but nothing like they did in 2008!