Op-Ed

Busting 3 more major myths about 2014

In part two, of a two-part series, Washington Post writers explode the biggest misconceptions about the year that was. Part one appeared yesterday.

Myth: 2014 was the year the Arab Spring ended

In May 2011, President Barack Obama delivered a speech hailing the “extraordinary change taking place” in the Arab world. In Egypt, Tunisia, Yemen, Libya and even Syria, ordinary people were taking to the streets and calling for democracy. In some places, entrenched autocrats had fallen.

A few months later, a senior White House official even said he believed that the departure of Syrian President Bashar Assad was “inevitable.”

But in 2014, the United States started bombing extremist militants fighting the Assad regime. If the bloom of the Arab Spring had already faded, it seemed that this year brought the unforgiving Arab Winter.

In Libya and Yemen, civil wars and political violence made some long for the stability of tyrants. In Egypt, Abdel Fatah al-Sissi, a former army chief, went from architect of a coup to president. He has consolidated power with Orwellian ruthlessness: Journalists have been jailed, Islamists banned. A popular TV satirist faces millions of dollars in fines after a court ruled that the “nation doesn’t need satirical shows.”

So it’s easy to see why many, including some in Washington, have come to regard the Arab Spring as an exuberant mistake, one that allowed political Islam to gain sway and muddled U.S. strategic interests in the region.

In one country, though, the Arab Spring survives. Tunisia, where the uprisings of 2011 began, has experienced a fitful transition, but democracy has endured. .

The desire for dignity and representation voiced in 2011 across the Arab world has not disappeared. Obama was right to embrace that spirit of change. It’s just going to take a while.

Myth: 2014 was the year privacy died

Credit card numbers from Home Depot. Intimate celebrity shots from iCloud accounts. Thousands of confidential documents from Sony Pictures Entertainment. Nearly every month this year, it seemed there was an instance of personal information going public. While it was a year of unprecedented hacks, it was also a year that launched many debates about privacy and efforts to safeguard it, too.

Emboldened by Edward Snowden’s surveillance revelations, Apple and Google declared that they would make it impossible to unlock most of their devices for the police – even in the face of search warrants. The hacking attacks on Home Depot and Target prompted credit card firms and retailers to make more secure credit cards (and credit card terminals) available to the average shopper.

And the Supreme Court ruled that police officers need warrants to search the cellphones of anyone they arrest. Even if you do make a mistake, the controversial “right to be forgotten” ruling in Europe – which allows people to ask Google, Bing and other search engines to scrub unflattering pages from their search results – shows that there’s some support out there for letting people’s pasts stay in the past.

We still have a long way to go to understand how privacy functions in a digital age. A recent study from the Pew Internet and American Life Project showed that more than half of Internet users think privacy policies promise that personal data will remain confidential; in truth, privacy policies often list all the ways that your information is being shared.

In a separate survey, Pew also found that more people than ever are taking active steps to protect their privacy online. A whopping 86 percent of Internet users said they’ve done things such as clear their Web browsers of the logs that show which sites they’ve visited and of pieces of tracking code – a.k.a. cookies – that the advertising industry uses to glean information. (When was the last time you heard about 86 percent of people doing anything?) Even more encouraging, most teens say they take steps to lock down certain kinds of online information.

Hayley Tsukayama is a technology reporter for The Washington Post.

Myth: 2014 was the year the economy came roaring back

There was something different in the way President Barack Obama talked about the economy in one of his weekly radio addresses this month. Something about the way he talked up “the strongest year for job growth since the 1990s.”

Some hint of – could it be? – swagger. “The six years since the financial crisis have demanded hard work and sacrifice on everyone’s part,” Obama said. “But as a country, we have every right to be proud of what we’ve got to show for it.”

It’s certainly true that 2014 has been a relatively good year for the economy, especially lately. Gross domestic product grew particularly fast in the third quarter – at a 5 percent clip, the strongest in more than a decade – and employers added more than 300,000 jobs in November. But the key word is “relatively.” The economy looked pretty good this year largely because it’s looked so bad in the recent past.

If you consider economic growth going back to the 1980s, you'll see that in the past few years it was steady – but slower than it was in the music-video era. The boom years of the 1980s and 1990s saw annual GDP growth above 4 percent. Annual growth has yet to crack 3 percent in this recovery, and 2014 probably won’t be an exception, once all the numbers are in.

This year probably wasn’t a big economic springboard for future expansion, either. Forecasters generally expect U.S. growth to hover around 3 percent for the next couple of years. But there are reasons – all related to government and central bank policy – to fear that’s overly optimistic.

The economy wasn’t slowed by any government shutdowns, tax increases or big spending cuts coming out of Washington in 2014. That could change next year as Obama spars with Republicans, who will be in control of both the House and the Senate.

The Federal Reserve appears set to begin raising interest rates in 2015 after years of keeping them near zero and running a variety of efforts to juice the recovery. That could boost an already strengthening dollar, which would hurt exports – and growth.

And then there’s the matter of wages; most folks’ haven’t gone up for a long time. At the end of this year, economists were grasping at data points suggesting that broadly shared salary increases could finally be around the corner. But they haven’t appeared yet, a fact even Obama more or less acknowledged in his crowing address.

There’s a connection here. The typical worker’s paycheck has fallen to the same real level it was in 1966. Until a lot more people’s paychecks get a lot fatter, it’s going to be hard to convince Americans that, as their president put it, their economic “resurgence is real.”

Jim Tankersley is editor of The Washington Post’s Storyline.

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