It's safe to call 2011 the Year of the Economic Headline: Between debt ceiling debates, the crisis in the Euro Zone, and battles over tax rates, money issues filled the front pages. But for all the airtime and eyeballs these stories commanded, it wasn't always clear how they impacted your bottom line.
With that in mind, we put together our picks for the seven 2011 news stories that most directly affected your wallet -- and will continue to do so in the coming year. As these big money issues showed, the economy is never further away than the next paycheck or visit to the grocery store.
The Year In Business: The 7 Stories That Affected You Most
In 2011, Democrats and Republicans agreed that the federal budget needed to be balanced quickly. Unfortunately, they couldn't agree on how, and the ongoing struggle to decide between lower taxes and slashed social programs slowly ground Congress to a halt. Ultimately, the argument got punted to a Supercommittee of twelve congressmen and senators who basked in the lucrative attention of well-funded lobbyists before admitting that they couldn't reach agreement. As of now, the country is on the road to $1.2 trillion in automatic cuts to defense and social programs that neither side wants to face.
In 2011, consumers learned about unintended consequences as the CARD act -- a law that was designed to help bank customers -- led to a host of bizarre new fees that banks enacted in order to pump up their profits. Facing looming charges for debit card usage, coin deposits, online banking, and a host of other previously free transactions, thousands of Americans did the smart thing: they moved to credit unions and pay-as-you-go refillable debit cards.
After a year of shrill fights over the debt ceiling, the balanced budget, and pretty much everything else, Congress unveiled its coup de grace: a battle over a payroll tax break that would save millions of dollars for middle class families. Following a bipartisan Senate compromise that would extend the break for two months, the legislation hit a wall in the House, where a group of Republicans tabled it, then reversed themselves and passed a very slightly modified version. This Christmas, everyone from President Obama to Karl Rove seems to agree about one thing: John Boehner and his fellow House Republicans are getting coal in their stockings this year.
As 2011's occupations and protests fade into memory -- at least for the winter -- it's clear that, for all their fury, the cries of the 99 percenters failed to bring about the end of capitalism, massive redistribution of wealth, or even the much-anticipated beheading of the Koch brothers. But, while OWS's very public enjoyment of the First Amendment didn't overthrow the government or rejigger the economy, it fundamentally changed the national conversation about wealth in America. Whether you're in the 99%, the 1%, the 53% or the 47%, chances are that you've started to rethink your place in the economic hierarchy.
Gas crises are nothing new. Every couple of years, petroleum prices rise to meteoric highs, pushing drivers off the road, slashing discretionary spending, and seriously threatening the economy. Whether these disruptions are caused by oil speculators, refinery changeovers, or simply growing demand, they seem to be coming with ever-increasing regularity -- along with calls for investment in alternative fuels, development of public transportation, and the implementation of a national energy policy. But until a consistent, nationwide solution appears, you might think about car pooling in the new year.
Whether you see June's Wisconsin protests as the last hurrah of American unions or the beginning of a pro-union backlash, it's clear that Governor Walker's push to cut collective bargaining benefits for public workers struck a nerve. Across the country, governors lined up behind Walker; at the same time, Democrats rallied to recall him from office. In the meantime, Wisconsin's public employees who were covered by the bill faced an average 8% pay cut, suggesting that labor lost the first battle, but the war is far from over.
One of December's biggest headlines was that the unemployment rate had dropped to 8.6%. But, while this is the lowest level in three years, the number of jobless remains extraordinarily high, as does the number of people who have settled for part time, seasonal, or other marginal work. For the Obama administration, the news was far from optimistic, as presidents with high levels of unemployment don't tend to be reelected. In fact, the record-holder for highest unemployment level at election time was Ronald Reagan, who got a second term despite a comparatively low rate of 7.2%.