It was a year of cronuts and pretzel buns, green eggs and ham, of Syria and Mali and the East China Sea, of Edward Snowden and Pope Francis, Xi Jinping and Kim Jong Un. Jeff Bezos showed off a package-delivering drone. Twitter (TWTR) tweeted its own IPO announcement. Stocks went up, housing revived, unemployment fell, and banks got fined. American Airlines (AAL) and US Airways merged, and a solar-powered airplane hopscotched across the U.S. We can’t discern much of a pattern here. But in the spirit of the holidays, here’s a look on the bright side—a list of the things that went right in 2013, sometimes unexpectedly. It is short, admittedly, but sweet. May 2014 be better yet.
1. Peace Breaks Out in D.C.
The biggest welcome surprise of 2013 was the uneasy yearend cease-fire in Congress, which was impossible to predict a year ago when the U.S. edged to the brink of a fiscal cliff. Heck, it seemed too much to hope for as recently as October, when a partial government shutdown and brush with default led China’s Global Times to write a gleeful editorial headlined, “U.S. fiscal failure warrants a de-Americanized world.” House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan defied the Tea Party wing of his party to reach a budget deal with his Senate counterpart that sailed through both houses. It allows Republicans to fight for their positions without being perceived as hostage takers, says Tom Rath, a Republican strategist in New Hampshire: “It saves us from ourselves.”
2. Medical Bills: Just What the Doctor Ordered
One year of sub-2 percent health-care inflation in the U.S. was a fluke. Two years of it was intriguing. Now 2013 has made it three years in a row, which looks an awful lot like a pattern. Prices for health care rose just 1.1 percent in the third quarter of 2013 from the previous year, the smallest increase since 1962, according to data from the Department of Commerce’s gross domestic product price indexes. The White House and Republicans predictably battled over who or what deserves credit. In September the nonpartisan actuaries of the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services cited the slow economy, “judicious” consumers, high-deductible health plans, constraints on Medicare and Medicaid, and expiration of patents on some popular medications.
3. Women on the March
Janet Yellen is lined up to run the Federal Reserve, the world’s most powerful central bank. General Motors (GM) named Mary Barra to be its next chief executive officer. Angela Merkel won another term as chancellor of Germany, and Park Geun Hye took office as South Korea’s president. Kathleen Taylor was named the next chairman of the Royal Bank of Canada (RY), the nation’s most profitable company. In Chile’s presidential race, both candidates in the runoff were women. True, women didn’t get more seats in the boardrooms and C-suites of the biggest U.S. companies, according to women’s advocacy group Catalyst, which lamented the “continued shortage.” Still, in the year that Facebook (FB) Chief Operating Officer Sheryl Sandberg published Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead, women everywhere made impressive economic and political gains.
4. Peak Oil? Not So Fast
M. King Hubbert must be turning over in his grave. Peak oil believers have long cited the late Shell (RDSA:LN) geologist’s observation that oil production in any given geographical area follows a bell curve: starting small, building fast, then trailing off to nothing. U.S. oil production, which peaked in 1970, seemed to bear out the hypothesis. But fracking and horizontal drilling have given new life to U.S. shale plays, turning Hubbert’s curve into a rising roller coaster. Texas alone increased oil production 30 percent from September 2012 to September 2013. That’s cutting the U.S. trade deficit and decreasing its reliance on energy supplies from abroad. Al Jazeera referred to the U.S. as “blue-eyed sheikhs,” presumably a compliment.
5. Solar Goes Mainstream
OK, so oil is dirty. Solar is clean, though. The most intriguing development of 2013 was the emergence of pro-solar greens in red states. “Some people have called this an unholy alliance,” says Debbie Dooley, co-founder of the Green Tea Coalition in Atlanta. “We agree on the need to develop clean energy, but not much else.” The second-most intriguing development was the embrace of solar energy by companies with serious money to spend, including Wal-Mart (WMT), which has more solar installed than 38 states. “When we find something that works—like solar—we go big with it,” the company says. In most regions, solar still requires subsidies, but that could change as efficiency improves. In September a German-French team announced an experimental solar cell that collects light from the infrared to the ultraviolet. It converted 44.7 percent of a superfocused beam into electricity.
6. Farewell to Arms
According to the FBI, the U.S. murder rate has fallen to levels not seen since the early 1960s. At just 4.7 homicides per 100,000 people, it’s less than one-half the 1993 level. This drop in violence is reflected in international trends as well. UN data (though patchy) suggest falling murder rates across much of the world and a general decline in armed conflict. The UN General Assembly approved a landmark treaty regulating the trade in small arms, which the U.S. signed in September. The one ongoing interstate war in 2012—between Sudan and South Sudan—officially ended last year, and 2013 has seen no new declarations of war. The final defeat of the M23 militia group in the east of the Democratic Republic of the Congo means that the century’s most deadly conflict, which killed more than 3 million people, may have finally drawn to a close. From 1950 to 2007, there was an average of 148,000 global battlefield deaths per year; from 2008 to 2012, the average was 28,000. This year will see a slight increase in deaths, largely the result of the war in Syria. But on the whole, the 21st century has been remarkably pacific. —Charles Kenny
7. The Euro Zone Survives—and Grows
A year ago the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development was warning that the 17-nation euro zone represented “the greatest downside risk” to the world economy—even greater than the U.S. fiscal cliff. OECD economists predicted that the single currency area wouldn’t pull out of recession until 2014. Instead the region returned to growth—albeit just barely—in the second quarter of 2013. Irish Prime Minister Enda Kenny announced in November that Ireland would exit its bailout program without even the assurance of a precautionary credit line. Spain is also on course for a “clean break” from its aid program, Economy Minister Luis de Guindos told reporters. Latvia is joining the euro on Jan. 1—a sign that for all its problems, the currency is still attractive to some.
8. The Fed Tapers Its Taper Talk
Ben Bernanke’s Federal Reserve surprised almost everyone on Sept. 18 by announcing that it wasn’t going to cut back on its bond-buying program, which is designed to stimulate the economy by holding down long-term interest rates. (Think mortgages.) In contrast to May, when the Fed chairman’s first intimations of a cutback sent the stock market into an ugly “taper tantrum,” stocks soared after Bernanke said the Fed wasn’t ready to remove stimulus. On Dec. 18, the Fed finally announced it would start trimming its $85 billion monthly bond purchases, but in small steps. Bernanke, giving his last Federal Open Market Committee press conference, said “we’re certainly not giving up” on trying to get the economy back to full speed. The Standard & Poor’s 500-stock index posted its biggest gain in two months.
8½. China Reforms, Kind Of
China loosened its infamous one-child policy, announced it was closing reeducation labor camps, and came down hard on corruption in the Third Plenary Session of the Communist Party’s 18th Central Committee. But President Xi Jinping made clear that democracy isn’t in the offing, promising new Internet controls. China tangled with South Korea and Japan and threatened to kick out reporters from the New York Times and Bloomberg. Reform has its limits.