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As one year ends and a new one begins, it’s natural to take stock of the year just past and wonder what the New Year will bring.

The year 2018 took us on a wild ride, especially at its close. Stock market gyrations, trade wars and other unsettling news at home and abroad make it easy to believe that little is right with the world.

So I thought I’d begin the New Year by looking at some positive developments that are often overshadowed by daily headlines and negative stories.

Let’s start with the U.S. economy. This past summer, America marked the second longest economic expansion in the history of our country. That means we’ve gone longer without a recession than only one other time since our nation’s founding. If the economy continues to grow through July, we’ll beat the record for the longest expansion, set in the 1960s.

Not only that, but 2018 ushered in the strongest growth in our economy since 2005. Fueled by tax cuts, increased government spending, reduced regulation and low interest rates, consumers and businesses loosened their purse strings and boosted demand for a wide range of goods and services produced at home and abroad.

As measured through September, the U.S. economy grew above 3 percent in 2018, and most indications point to continued strong growth as the year drew to a close. There’s always a lag in data collected to measure the economy’s growth.

The strong economy has meant a better job market for millions of Americans. The unemployment rate, at 3.7 percent, is the lowest in nearly 50 years. A tighter labor market has translated into increased hourly earnings, with average wages up almost 3 percent this year.

Gas prices were down about 26 percent on average at year’s end, making it cheaper for individuals to fill the tank and lowering transportation costs for businesses of all kinds. That business saving often translates into lower costs for consumers, too.

The Trump Administration has taken firm steps to address China’s unfair trade practices and has reached new trade agreements with Korea, Mexico and Canada. The administration also has used import taxes and quotas to help firms and workers making steel, aluminum, washing machines, solar panels, and, potentially, automobiles.

Montanans also have benefited from the good economy. Unemployment is at a low of 3.7 percent and our economy has continued its solid growth, which has been faster than the national average for some years.

Agriculture is Montana’s largest industry. Congress passed another five-year farm bill, providing important safety nets for farmers and ranchers, which in turn helps sustain stronger rural communities. The bill also ensures continued benefits to lower income individuals through the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), previously known as food stamps.

The health care industry in Montana benefited from expansion of Medicaid, with increased jobs and wages registered in this fast-growing business sector.

And that’s just the good news in the economic realm. Continued advances in science and medicine have improved our understanding of the world around us and in the treatment of many intractable diseases.

Of course, as many readers know, for every “good news” item noted above, there’s another, less positive side.

The tax cuts and spending bills that boosted the economy in 2018 added to the nation’s already large fiscal deficits and debt burden. Moreover, their stimulative effects will wear off as we move through 2019, with the economy likely slowing from its rapid pace of last year.

Some of the regulatory relief for businesses is strongly criticized by opponents as increasing risks to the environment and human health and safety.

Our trade wars against other countries have led to retaliation that hurts America’s farmers, ranchers, businesses and consumers. The financial assistance package offered by USDA for farmers and ranchers will only partially offset low commodity prices stemming from other countries’ countermeasures.

And continued high taxes on imports and the higher prices they bring will begin to hurt businesses and consumers alike as their effects spread throughout the economy.

But let’s leave the downsides for discussion another time and begin our New Year by remembering some of the good things happening.

Happy New Year everyone.

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Joanna Shelton was Deputy Secretary General of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) in Paris; held senior positions in the executive branch and Congress in Washington, D.C.; and teaches periodically at the University of Montana.

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