By John Beckman • Guest Columnist
A lot of attention lately has been focused on how bad the economic downturn has been for the U.S. and its world partners but as everyone knows; there are two sides to every story. For some reason, many of the more positive aspects of this recession have been overlooked and under reported, and a few examples here may help us to find encouragement and even reason for celebration in these nervous times.
According to the U.S. Dept. of Transportation, in March 2008 Americans drove 11 billion miles less than in March 2007, reducing greenhouse gas emissions by an estimated 9 million metric tons — in one month. With virtually all economic indicators heading well downward since then, one can safely assume that this trend has continued and we are consequently polluting oat a slower rate. This is good news.
With fewer user miles, many road construction projects could be delayed, saving millions in taxpayer funds. This is good news as well. The Harper’s Index has projected that America’s decrease in total driving miles has resulted in around 1,000 fewer traffic deaths per month nationwide. That’s a lot fewer widows, orphans and lawsuits. This is positive news too.
Locally we’ve seen the effect on our mountain roads, largely devoid of back-to-back motorhomes and overloaded Humvees sporting license plates laden with oranges, peaches, dolphins and Seminoles. This translates into more room on the highways and in motels, restaurants, parking lots and local attractions.
Indeed, the roads in this tourist-dependent area have seemed eerily empty since the spring. Every year I hear some locals grumbling about “dang tourists,” but that problem too has apparently been all but solved and quieted, another plus for these tough times?
This summer when gas was nearing $5 per gallon, many just parked their cars and refused to pay it, helping send the price to just about a $1.50 a gallon this week. This could be considered another plus point. And of course we need to add the apparent death of America’s passion for the huge SUVs to the list of corpses. I personally will be glad to see these behemoths laid to rest, a crazy love affair from the beginning.
Another area of the slowdown where one can find solace is in the abrupt halt to the rampant build up of housing developments and McMansions that had been mushrooming in our region. Housing starts are way down and inventories are way up due to the rapid evaporation of buyers using leverage to purchase vacation homes and speculating on ever-rising land values. Recent data from the WNC Board of Realtors MLS sheets suggest that there is a four-year supply of homes for sale (priced $500,000 to $ 999,000), an 11-year supply of mega-homes (priced at more than $1 million) and approximately a nine-year supply of undeveloped lots.
This compares with a three-year supply of undeveloped lots in December 2007, just one year ago. Many people tapped the equity in their homes, using them like ATM machines to purchase more and more, driving demand and prices skyward, until recently.
We are likely to see prices continue to drop as yesterday’s over-eager buyers dump assets they probably shouldn’t have bought to begin with. A good portion of WNC’s vacation buyers have been from the Florida and Atlanta areas, both hard hit by the housing bubble and both expected by analysts to be slow to recover. This will allow locals to again be able to afford to buy in their home counties, which sounds an awful lot like a plus to some people.
An upside for the consummate shopper in all of this glum news is that retailers are falling off a cliff as consumers hunker down and will mark down just about anything to just about any level to get you in the store. This translates into a bargain shopper’s paradise with everything from stocks to stockings on the discount racks.
There may also be a big gain for the nation in an attitude shift taking place, largely out of necessity, but somewhat out of an emerging movement away from credit-based consumption. We’re all aware now that the economy and the nation’s operating systems are in deep doo-doo, and that it’s going to take a lot of adjustment to survive and fix them. I believe many people are re-evaluating their lifestyles and making changes both obvious and not so, finding ways to reduce their consumption and planning for a leaner, greener future.
I hope we do not miss this opportunity to realign our priorities and our development patterns as this may be the true silver lining behind the dark cloud hanging over us.