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A somber New Year’s Eve

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Jack Ciesemier, center, and his wife Karen, right, of Chicago make their way through Times Square during the New Year's Eve celebration Monday, Dec. 31, 2007 in New York.  (AP Photo/Jason DeCrow)

Jack Ciesemier, center, and his wife Karen, right, of Chicago make their way through Times Square during the New Year’s Eve celebration Monday, Dec. 31, 2007 in New York. (AP Photo/Jason DeCrow)

Jason Decrow

New Year's Eve traditionally is a time for optimism, for gazing into the future and imagining great things. For many, however, this one is a depressing anomaly.

For that, we must blame 2008.

It would be hard to find a more volatile economic year anywhere in the lifetimes of most people living today. Beginning in early spring, it seemed as if bad news began dripping as steadily as a leaking faucet, growing finally into a raging torrent. Major investment firms, some old enough to have weathered world wars and the Depression, collapsed or teetered on the edge. The insurance giant AIG soon followed them. Europe, which at first smiled smugly at problems in the United States, soon found itself clinging to economic lifeboats. Iceland's economy collapsed, leading to a domino of bank failures throughout the continent.

Then the stock markets began to fall, and they kept falling. Oil, meanwhile, soared to $150 a barrel under the weight of speculation in July, leading politicians to rail against "greed" and threaten action. Then, almost as quickly as a pinprick could deflate a balloon, the price of a barrel fell to $33. Real estate prices began a yearlong plunge that has yet to see bottom. The worry of the day seems to alternate between deflation and inflation.

As always happens when economic tides recede, the jagged edges of corruption were exposed. Perhaps the biggest Ponzi scheme in history came to light, allegedly masterminded by Bernard Madoff, the well-respected former head of Nasdaq. It bilked investors, including many notable names, of a combined $50 billion or so.

In the middle of all this, a Republican president set in motion the largest government bailout in U.S. history, hoping to pump enough money into the economy to thaw frozen credit lines, reinvigorate investors and keep too many people from losing jobs. So far, this hasn't stopped a steady drumbeat of news about layoffs and business closings, capped by a dismal Christmas retail season.

Little wonder, then, why so many feel a sense of foreboding about 2009. People wonder about their jobs, their mortgages, their children's college tuitions and their 401(k) retirement portfolios.

But, as the saying goes, if you have low expectations, you can't help but be pleasantly surprised.

We don't have a crystal ball. The future is not ours to see. But we do have optimism in the American spirit and in its resilience. We also see the growing realization that money is not the source of happiness.

The economy may have been the primary reason Americans elected Barack Obama to be president. But, regardless of his politics, Obama represents more than just a change in direction. As the first black man elected to the nation's highest office, he embodies the idea that any American can rise up to realize a dream.

At a time when the most elusive ingredient, both on Wall Street and Main Street, is confidence, that idea cannot be overstated.

Despite our optimism, 2009 may indeed be as bad as many are predicting. But the American spirit will emerge undeterred and stronger. Of that, you may be confident.