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2008: A Stunningly Predictable Year

John Moe

I'll remember a lot of things about 2008. I'll especially remember that this is the year I turned 40. It was shocking. It makes absolutely no sense to be surprised by your own birthday but somehow I was. Flabbergasted. Wonderstruck. I swear I was just 24 the other day and now, whammo, this? What?

I wasn't depressed, mind you. I'm grateful for the life that I have. I wasn't elated either. You'll never catch me saying that 40 is the new 30. To me 40 isn't the new 30, it's the new "Oh my god I'm going to die soon."

I was just stunned. Which makes me sound like a real idiot - how could such a huge thing sneak up on a person? I can count. I knew it was coming.

Here's the thing, though: if I'm stupid to not see the obvious thing about to happen, then we're all stupid. All of America. Because the big events of 2008 were completely predictable and yet they blew our minds anyway.

Look at housing. For years, Americans believed housing prices would always rise. That your house would be worth more next year than it was this year. Hell, it would be worth more on Thursday than on Wednesday.

Now why did we believe something like that? Because it was true! At least for a while there! Home values climbed and climbed. If you didn't feel like cashing in by selling you could cash in on the equity your home had accumulated, meaning you could collect cash based on what you thought something would be worth were you to sell it. You didn't sell it but you got the money anyway.

To get more cash on hand, you could finance your house with a subprime loan, with the faith that the markets would stay strong and everything would be okay.

But didn't it seem wrong? Fishy? Even then? Even in the boom times, didn't it all seem too easy that your house would produce a crop of cash while you did nothing?

Well, those instincts were right. It fell apart. We saw it coming a mile away and yet were stunned. And didn't the entire financial industry seem kind of insanely speculative and inherently imprudent and pretty much bananas? Come to think of it, yes. Yes it did. And now we're in deep. Predictable, yes. Shocking? Also yes.

It would have been hard to predict the multiple bank collapses, the enormous Ponzi scheme being run by a Wall Street deity, the wave of foreclosure home tours in cities all over the nation. Or 26 year highs in unemployment. The scope of it all was shocking. The causes, no.

Let's move on to politics.

Now, here's where you might think my whole "2008 was predictable" concept would fall apart. You could argue that there was nothing predictable about the outcome of the presidential election or the success of Barack Obama. America elected a black president. The guy with Hussein in his name. He beat a well-known war hero opponent. And before Hillary Clinton.

Well, yeah. But it was inevitable.

The outgoing president was a Republican who governed without deliberation. He took pride in appearing to be a man of the people even though he came from a dynastic family. He's not very good at delivering a speech. And importantly, he had among the lowest approval numbers in the history of the presidency.

When Barack Obama declared his candidacy in February of 2007, I remember thinking, "Of course he's going to win." I say this not to boast about my great political acumen or psychic abilities (I have none) but at the time it just seemed obvious.

Obama was the opposite of everything George W. Bush was. Conciliatory instead of divisive. Articulate. Deliberative. A Democrat. A member of a minority group. He was talking about change in a time when an overwhelming number of Americans believed the country was pretty seriously on the wrong track. Of course he would win.

Over the course of the rest of the campaign, there were so many other little story lines to follow that I lost that belief in Obama's guaranteed victory and thought maybe it was anyone's game. But I wonder now why I ever thought the election was in doubt. I wonder why I was stunned about the predictable.

One of the things historians will point to is branding. The "O" symbol was everywhere in the campaign. You couldn't get away from it.

But let's talk about the font they used. It's called Gotham, a relatively new and highly geometrical font. You saw it on all the signage the campaign used, from the website to the signs at the rallies, to the Obama onesies for babies: Same font ever time. And it's just a font, sure, but don't underestimate it. A political campaign needs to adjust to events on the fly but when everything you see from that campaign looks the same, it creates a feeling of consistency. In 2008, a year of unsteadiness, consistency was very powerful. You always knew what the brand of Barack Obama was. It's stunning that Obama won, perhaps, but when you look at the branding it's predictable.

Of course, it's one thing to pull off that level of branding when you're Nike or Wal-Mart, but it's something else entirely when you're a presidential campaign. Unless you figured out how to use the internet to organize resources and dollars better than any campaign ever has. Whoever has the most consistent brand, is the best organized, raises the most money and uses technology best wins elections.

So really the major events of 2008 were big but were they really news? Looking back on it now, they were as foreseeable as me turning 40. We could have circled them on the calendar.

Of course, I couldn't have really predicted all these things in January. Or maybe I could have tried but I would have sounded tentative and unsure. That's the trick: the news is only stunning because it takes a while to realize how predictable it actually was.

So whatever happens next year, in 2009, already makes perfect sense. We'll have seen it coming a mile away. We just don't know what we're seeing yet.


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