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December 16, 2009

Crisis, Sustainability, Values and “American Exceptionalism”

by Timothy Hughes

The current economic crisis offers a chance for a paradigm shift. We should not waste this opportunity by returning to the status quo that existed before the downturn or even pining for that unsustainable state. Instead, we should embrace rethinking our economy, and in particular our land use, development and construction policies.

We are already seeing some economic changes relating to the downturn. Prior to the economic freefall over the last year, savings rates had dwindled to literally nothing. With the modest level of recovery, some are bemoaning the lackluster spending on American consumers. What we are seeing is actually a rebound of more healthy savings rates rather than a continued hunger for excessive material goods fueled by debt financing. Count me as one who sees this as a long term win even if it means a slower recovery.

The downturn has had disparate impacts that in some markets are directly tied to land use policy. In urban style Arlington County, Virginia, the recession has certainly slowed business growth and hurt specific businesses. Overall, however, property values have dropped only very modestly in the midst of a global downturn. The 2009 budget actually called for a 4.4% budget increase while 2010 recommended a very modest 1.3% decline. These budget estimates reflect a modest drop in property tax revenues associated with a modest property tax increase and moderate value decreases.

By comparison, Prince William and Loudoun Counties experienced spectacular numerical growth fueled by huge sprawling single family subdivisions which feed into clogged arterial highways. These regions have suffered precipitous drops in property values and high foreclosure rates. For example, in 2006, Prince William recorded a total of 249 foreclosures. In 2008, this number jumped to 6,549. These jurisdictions are now struggling to shift their focus and development approach.

Transit oriented dense development has demonstrated a more sustainable environmental footprint and economic framework in challenging times. This intersection of economic and environmental sustainability makes the discussions blooming at places like Aribra and Build2Sustain so exciting and timely. Sustainability requires both economic and environmental consideration and in the end, both are truly symbiotic.

On one level, I see these changes and events as looking forward to the future. On another very different level, I see them as harkening to the better part of our nation’s past. I was raised in large part by my grandparents, children of the depression. My grandfather served in both World War II and the Korean War. Their generation, rightfully called the Greatest Generation, worked, fought, scrimped, and challenged our nation to success. It was these qualities of talent and character, coupled with a wealth of natural resources and a structural backbone of democracy and freedom that constitute what I associate with the phrase “American Exceptionalism”.

Over the last few decades, I believe we have strayed far from the ideals of the Greatest Generation. Deficit financing of excessive consumer goods does not match that generation’s value system. Folks who trumpet the theory that American Exceptionalism means we are “the best” and therefore can swing our global weight around do not get it either. It is not that we ever were or thought we were better than anyone else, but rather that the Greatest Generation did what they had to do and got it done. In fact, this co-opting of the Greatest Generation’s spirit in political discourse runs counter to the very concepts of humility and service that ran at the core of the Greatest Generation.

I think about these themes quite a bit in my daily life, my legal practice, and talks amongst friends. I was so struck when my friend and twitter pal James Bedell recently commented on this very theme in a post The End of American Exceptionalism. If this concept is about permanent US world domination, that is not reality in my book: what goes up, must eventually come down. I grew up pondering the theory of cost of empire and the fall of the Roman Empire. I was part of the guinea pig test history classes for Paul Kennedy’s widely respected The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers, a tremendous book that still rings true decades later.

In the end, I agree with James that the world hungers for, loves and purchases our “culture”, but I believe to my core that what is perceived as American culture is part of the problem and not the solution moving forward. American Exceptionalism started and maintained from a very different set of core values, and those core values propelled us in large part to our success. In the end, it is about a more modest set of assumptions and expectations, values based on service and leadership rather than consumption and domination. These values in turn fit directly into developing a more sustainable model of growth and the economy moving forward. These values are ours to embody and demonstrate or to ignore and discard, so in the end, the question of whether American Exceptionalism is alive is up to us.

Yahya E. B. Henry

About Yahya E. B. Henry

Merging his passion for cities, real estate, tech and travel, Yahya is introducing the world to a new model of real estate development that draws from best practices around the globe.

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  • Great thoughts Tim. While the world hungers for our culture, I think that with this “power” comes opportunity to move things in the right direction.

  • Tim/Henry,

    This is an excellent post…a tribute to our forbears, a resetting of priorities, and a call to action to simply do what is right for the greater good…appropriate stewardship is our responsibility, and the example we need to leave for those that follow.

    Thanks for assembling such a thoughtful piece.


  • Great article Tim. I think we should also be wary of American romanticism, but in general I understand your point. We quickly went from a depressed nation to one of incredible abundance and convenience in the post world war era. I think that event had a radical impact on what later generations, myself included, came to expect. Amid all the decline, there is an opportunity to recalibrate measures of wealth and success in terms of those things that are, well, less individualistic; sense of place and belonging, community, relationships – business and otherwise – that are seen as fundamental not just profitable, connectivity, interdependence, good food, inspiring buildings, unique towns, diverse neighborhoods, healthy lands, and creative minds.

  • Thanks for the reactions Chris and Mike!

    Tommy – agree on sticking with reality based views not romance. On the other hand, ideas and concepts can certainly lead to sweeping change and freedom, democratic principles and trying to elevate the common good are all great ideas by me.

    The real thing that speaks to me is your point on “recalibrating measures of wealth”. I think you really drilled it.

  • If I had to sum up your post in two words – reality check. It seems our country's bad habits have finagled their way into every fiber of our existence; politico, land use, energy policy etc. Collectively, we've bought into an idea that has proven to be both inefficient and unsustainable. What's required of most Americans is a fundamental change in behavior that I don't think many are ready for.

  • That is true. One issue with even the “sustainability movement” (and I hate to call stuff movements) is that we want to keep our stuff and make that same stuff sustainable. It is the definition of insanity.

  • I started to reply a couple days ago and got sidetracked – you are right about habits becoming ingrained and second nature Yahya. The nice part is that a lot of it seems within the realm of the possible, just making more conscious decisions, but may I am too optimistic.

  • I started to reply a couple days ago and got sidetracked – you are right about habits becoming ingrained and second nature Yahya. The nice part is that a lot of it seems within the realm of the possible, just making more conscious decisions, but may I am too optimistic.

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