If you can’t be optimistic at the start of a new year, you probably won’t get much opportunity later.

So while most economists are predicting sluggish growth for 2012 with a chance for another downturn if things get worse in Europe, we are going to focus on some hopeful signs that appeared at the end of 2011.

When it comes to jobs, the year ended better than it started, with a November national unemployment rate of 8.6 percent, the lowest in nearly three years.

Factory output is rising, business owners report. Some of the best news came locally, when Maine’s own L.L. Bean announced plans to hire 125 workers to make its iconic duck boot, which after nearly a century on the market appears to have caught on again as a fashion statement among the latest generation of college students.

There were even some hopeful signs from the housing market. Housing starts and home sales are up and inventories are lean, which could lead to new construction (and jobs) if the demand starts to grow.

This, says Wall Street Journal columnist David Wessel, could start a “virtuous cycle” that economists have been waiting for throughout this downturn.


He described it working like this: “The job market improves. Consumers have more income. Spirits and, more important, spending perk up. Meanwhile, weakening economies abroad keep commodity prices down and limit inflation in the U.S. With mortgage rates low and consumer finances improving, home prices turn up at last. Businesses, flush with cash, expand and hire more readily, offsetting the retrenchment by governments.”

Sure, a lot could go wrong. No one predicted the Arab Spring or the Japanese earthquake last year, and both had an effect on the U.S. economy in 2011.

And 25 million Americans still are either out of work or would work more but can’t find full-time jobs, and even in a roaring recovery they may never regain what they lost in this recession.

But as we witness the dysfunction in Washington and the bruising fights in Augusta, it’s reassuring to know that neither place will have the final say in what happens to our economy.

That belongs to the collective judgment of all Americans, and gives us at least some reason to be optimistic.

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