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Year In News: Volatile Politics, Economic Crisis, Tablets

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The Atlantic's James Fallows talks with Guy Raz about the major themes in the news this year: political volatility, the all-encompassing economic crisis and the emergence of tablet computers. He also makes predictions about 2011's major stories in the realms of politics, the economy and technology.

GUY RAZ, host:

We're back with ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Guy Raz.

President BARACK OBAMA: I'm not recommending for every future president that they take a shellacking like I did last night.

Unidentified Woman: Unemployed Americans are now 11.1 million.

Mr. STEVE JOBS (Co-Founder/Chief Executive Officer, Apple): And we'd like to show it to you today for the first time, and we call it the iPad.

Representative NANCY PELOSI (Democrat, California; Minority Leader): And now we're making history and progress to the American people by passing health care for all Americans.

RAZ: And on this Christmas Saturday, we're joined by our friend James Fallows.

Jim, Merry Christmas to you.

Mr. JAMES FALLOWS (News Analyst, The Atlantic): Merry Christmas to you, Guy and to all of our listening audience.

RAZ: Indeed. So we normally talk about ideas in the news, Jim, but it seems appropriate to talk, I guess, more about what we know now that we couldn't possibly have known just a year ago, even just a month ago about, for example, politics and how volatile this past year's been.

Mr. FALLOWS: It really has been. And over the past months, you know, we've talked a couple of times about how difficult it is to predict things politically. And as I was thinking back to a year ago, it was almost an unrecognizably different political landscape.

Barack Obama had just been awarded the Nobel Prize. And Scott Brown had not yet been elected a Republican senator for Massachusetts. And the health care bill hadn't passed. And the Tea Party was sort of just getting going. And the message we might take is to buffer all our interpretations of what's happened in the last week or the last month because the temptation to project from them and say, oh, Obama's going to have a great year ahead or it's going to be very strong for re-election, a very weak for re-election, is just the unknowable in politics, plays an even larger role than we're used to in recent history.

RAZ: Jim, obviously, the economy was a big story this year, but it's still unclear, at least to me, what exactly is meant by the economic crisis.

Mr. FALLOWS: A year ago, essentially, the economic crisis was everything. The financial markets were down, corporations were failing, the housing implosion was going on, and of course, unemployment was on its way up.

And now it's striking how the economic crisis mainly means unemployment with the sort of corollary issue of the housing markets, where financial markets are up, corporations are having big profits. And so, the kind of all fronts sort of depression era feared, many people had in late 2008 and much of 2009, that for many people has been buffered and contained, and we're left with this very, very significant problem of chronic, very high unemployment for, you know, almost 10 percent of the public.

For better or for worse, it concentrates our minds on unemployment as being the economic crisis, you know, as we look ahead.

RAZ: Last year, Jim, Wired Magazine asked you to weigh in on whether tablet computers would ever catch on, and there was serious doubt just a year ago.

Mr. FALLOWS: It's almost incredible to think back. This was an issue, again, for the very tech-savvy Wired Magazine where a panel of people weighed in about whether things like this rumored Apple, unnamed at that time, a tablet device could ever work. And I was in the modestly optimistic camp talking about how in my aviation life, you know, tablet devices had proven to be useful there. So who knows? Perhaps they would catch on for people in other walks of life. And again, it looks almost silly now.

RAZ: Yeah, especially with the rumors of the iPad 2 coming out. I'm waiting for that one.

(Soundbite of laughter)

RAZ: All right, Jim, here is your chance to put your money where your mouth is. Give me three predictions for 2011: one on politics, one on the economy and one on technology.

Mr. FALLOWS: Well, of course, where my money is that it's - is that is hard to predict. So I'm sort of doing this just under duress. And also, I will skew towards the negatives so that if I'm wrong, at least there'll be better news.

RAZ: All right.

Mr. FALLOWS: So the political prediction will be that Afghanistan, which has sort of been absent from our political discussion, though not from the real world, will return as a central political issue. I hope that's not right, but I think that's right.

On the economic front, I think that high oil prices and energy shot, that's also been in abeyance for a year and a half or so. I think as the world economy recovers, that might come back too. I hope I'm wrong, but - and so on the technology front, I'll have a less downer prediction. I think that this year ahead is when everybody, grandparents to grandchildren, will discover the Cloud.

RAZ: The Cloud, of course, which is essentially a network of computers and servers all over the world.

Mr. FALLOWS: Yes. Online stores, everything. I think the first time when we hear whatever generation is older than any of us respectively talking about the Cloud, that will be a sign of things having entered normal discourse.

RAZ: That's James Fallows from the Atlantic magazine. He joins us most Saturday's for his unique look at the past and future of the news.

Jim, Merry Christmas and we'll speak next year.

Mr. FALLOWS: Thanks very much, Guy. Merry Christmas to you.

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