This is my first newsletter after a four-month book leave, and I want to try something a little different. As I prepared to come back, I spent time talking with Times colleagues and outside experts about how the world has changed while I was gone.
Which news developments will have lasting import? What has been surprising? What do we know now that we didn’t before?
As I was making the list, I realized that it would be worth sharing it with readers. It helps give some perspective to a dizzying news environment in which all of us struggle to distinguish between stories that are ephemeral and those with lasting significance. During a cynical time in American life, the list also offers a reminder that there has been good news along with the bad.
In descending order of significance — and, yes, this ranking is subjective and weighted toward the U.S. — here are the seven biggest stories of the past few months.
7. A.I. arrives. Artificial intelligence felt theoretical to many people until November, when OpenAI, a technology company in San Francisco, released ChatGPT. Since then, millions of Americans have experimented with the software or read some of its output.
“ChatGPT is still young — only 2 months old! — and yet we’re already getting a glimpse of the many ways these A.I. chatbots could change our lives,” my colleague Kevin Roose says. Some of the implications seem scary: A.I. can write a solid college essay. Other implications are exciting: Surely, a computer can learn to write more comprehensible instructions for many household gadgets than is the norm today.
6. A milder Covid winter. In each of the past two winters, the country endured a terrible surge of severe Covid illnesses, but not this winter.
It’s a sign that the virus has become endemic, with immunity from vaccinations and previous infections making the average Covid case less severe. If anything, the best-known Covid statistics on hospitalizations and deaths probably exaggerate its toll, because they count people who had incidental cases. Still, Covid is causing more damage than is necessary — both because many Americans remain unvaccinated and because Covid treatments are being underused, as German Lopez has explained.
5. Milder inflation, too. The pace of consumer price increases has declined more in recent months than most economists expected. Why? The pandemic’s supply-chain disruptions have eased, and the Federal Reserve’s interest-rate increases are starting to have their intended effect. “Inflation is still very elevated, so it’s not mission accomplished for the Fed by any means,” said Jeanna Smialek, an economics correspondent based in Washington, “but we are finally headed in the right direction.”
It remains unclear whether the Fed can engineer the soft landing — reducing inflation further without causing a recession — that is its goal. The strong job market captured in Friday’s employment report suggests that the economy may still be running hot enough to require significantly higher interest rates.
4. Peak China? China’s ruling Communist Party has had a rough few months. It abruptly abandoned its zero-Covid policy in December, effectively acknowledging a huge failure (without actually acknowledging it). Weeks later, China released data showing that its population had peaked, which creates a major economic challenge. The number of workers relative to retirees will be declining for the foreseeable future.
Of course, China has long been preparing for this challenge and has defied repeated predictions of looming decline in recent decades, my colleague Max Fisher points out. It would be a mistake to assume that decline has now begun. But Xi Jinping’s government will need to do a better job of managing the situation than it has of managing the pandemic.
(The spy balloon isn’t hugely significant on its own, but it adds to the sense that Beijing’s competence has been exaggerated. Here’s the latest.)
3. The final days of affirmative action. When the Supreme Court heard arguments about race-based affirmative action in October, the six Republican-appointed justices seemed ready to ban it. A ruling is expected by June.
One big question is how colleges, the military and other organizations will try to replace the current programs. A focus of this newsletter in 2023 will be the future of class-based affirmative action. It is unquestionably legal, yet many colleges do relatively little to take into account economic class, as measured by income, wealth, neighborhood conditions and more. There are large racial gaps in those indicators.
2. Russia’s miscalculation. The overall situation in Ukraine has remained similar since late last year: Russia controls parts of the east and the south, but far less than its strategic goals, and both sides are hoping for a breakthrough soon. Elsewhere, though, the war has shifted geopolitics.
Japan and western Europe have been spooked enough by Russia’s invasion to increase their military spending after years of largely outsourcing military power to the U.S. If the trend continues, the global alliance of democracies will be strengthened. And the U.S. might be able to shift some of its own military spending to invest in technologies of the future.
1. Democracy won. The biggest surprise of the past four months to me was the defeat of nearly every major election denier who was on the ballot this year. “A critical segment of the electorate is not interested in Trumpism,” Nate Cohn, The Times’s chief political analyst, said.
Nate estimated that Trump-aligned candidates performed about five percentage points worse than other Republicans, with the effects seeming to be largest in states where Trump tried to overturn the 2020 result, like Arizona and Pennsylvania. It happened even as many other conservative Republicans fared well.
That is a big deal. A democracy can survive intense policy disagreements over taxes, government benefits, abortion, affirmative action and more. But if the true winner of a major election is prevented from taking office, a country is not really a democracy anymore.
I recognize this list omits several important subjects on which the big picture has not changed much lately. The planet keeps warming. The U.S. immigration system is a mess. Police violence has continued. Crime, though down slightly, is far above its pre-Covid levels. We will cover all these stories — and any promising solutions — in 2023.
Advice from Wirecutter: Warm up with a space heater.
Lives Lived: Charles Kimbrough was nominated for an Emmy Award for portraying the comically rigid news anchor Jim Dial on the sitcom “Murphy Brown.” He died at 86.
SPORTS NEWS FROM THE ATHLETIC
On the move: The Nets traded Kyrie Irving, whose Nets run was marred by scandals, to the Dallas Mavericks.
First and last? The announcers Greg Olsen and Kevin Burkhardt are calling their first Super Bowl together on Sunday. It could also be their last, because Tom Brady is joining the Fox booth soon.
ARTS AND IDEAS
Highlights from the Grammys
Beyoncé made history last night: She now holds the record for the most Grammy wins. But she didn’t win any of the top prizes. Those went to Harry Styles, who won album of the year for “Harry’s House,” and to Lizzo, who won record of the year for “About Damn Time.”
Other top prizes: Song of the year, which honors songwriting, went to Bonnie Raitt for “Just Like That.” Samara Joy, a jazz singer from the Bronx, won best new artist. (Here’s the full list.)
The centerpiece: A joyous performance celebrated five decades of hip-hop. The Times’s Jon Caramanica called it “unexpectedly emotional.”