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Unexpected twists make 2008 an epochal year

The financial crisis, war on two fronts, and, above all, the US election make 2008 historic.

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Here's the way the world looked last January: Hillary Rodham Clinton was a lock to win the Democratic nomination for president, and probably the election, too. The economy wasn't great, but it wasn't awful, either – many experts thought we'd avoid global recession. Meanwhile, Iraq seemed a lost case five years after the US invasion. And the price of gas? Hoo boy. It had passed $3 a gallon and was galloping upward, no limit in sight.

A lot has happened in the intervening months, hasn't it? If nothing else, 2008 showed that conventional wisdom isn't always terribly wise.

A year that promised to be merely important turned out to be epochal, as the US elected its first African-American president, and developed nations plunged into a frightening financial crisis, causing China and other emerging powers to question the verities of US-style capitalism itself.

Iraq got better; Afghanistan got worse. Gas went up, then down. Fidel Castro faded away. Michael Phelps won the most gold medals at a single Olympics, ever.

Above all, the year saw the reemergence of state power, as governments from Tokyo to Washington pumped huge amounts of taxpayer cash into national firms. Laissez-faire probably isn't finished, as French President Nicolas Sarkozy claimed. But as they feel their way toward the post-slump era, world leaders may have a new regard for the limits of economic ideology, and for the dangers, as well as the benefits, of global trade and financial flows.

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