“How do you know a politician is lying?” the old joke goes “His lips are moving” being the punch line. We in America love to vilify our elected leaders. It certainly is easy these days to succumb to this all too human tendency. But upon reflection, if we really assess the situation, we have created the climate where very few truly noble civic-minded individuals will want to enter the fray. Now I’m certainly not a politician and will likely never be one, I do have acquaintances holding political office that I hold in high esteem. So they do exist in larger numbers than we’d want to admit. However this career path certainly attracts its fair share of individuals with more nefarious goals. Why? Because noble individuals tend not to want to make the compromises required to win elections. We expect our officials to be well coiffed and silver tongued. But god-forbid, we can’t have a leader who is affluent. These days with the “new normal”, why would we permit someone to be rich in this country? However, if we really are looking for the best and brightest, we should be looking for those that have created something out of nothing. And inspired a workforce to realize a dream. In many cases, these entrepreneurs who can inspire a nation don’t snap into that politician profile. During the election cycle, we all comfortably and conveniently fall back into our easily offended people groups who don’t really want to hear straight talk. So, the builders continue to do what they do best – and it is certainly not a crime to create jobs and new markets. But why would these individuals want to enter into a field where they are ripped for these very accomplishments. There are other great minds from many other fields that also don’t want to enter this arena. During the next election cycle when you are ready to say “I’m voting for none of the above” – decide what you can do to make the process and public service a noble and temporary profession again. Perhaps instead of criticizing, it is your turn to enter the fray. I’m sure your local community can use some wisdom. Let’s start one politician at a time and lead the way in the world for a new breed of leadership.
I always wondered why we didn’t sink into an even deeper recession in 2008/2009 when everything crashed. Many talked of the “new normal” and reduced expectations on wages and services from both public and private sectors. It seemed this “new normal” represented a constant downward spiral of expectations. As disconcerting as this was, there was a point that the negative trend slowed. I noticed that there was an expectation level that roads will still be machine swept, trash picked up, high school kids still participating in expensive marching band competitions. Windows on skyscrapers were still being washed and parks were still well maintained. These are activities that in a developing country would be unthinkable in prosperous times and absolutely absurd in times of deep economic distress. So what kept this and other developed countries from falling into a death spiral of economic collapse? Society could have said that economic realities have forced us to drop these frivolous activities. But that’s what I don’t like about the concept of “economic realities” – because they are rarely “real”. The economy is comprised by a society’s expectations. And if the expectations continue to value clean roads, school band programs and parks that families can continue to visit safely, we make our own economic realities with their own weather systems. If we feel it important, that means band uniforms and instruments will still be purchased, road and park maintenance people will still be employed along with the positive ripple effect of these individuals and industries contributing back into the economic system. In developing countries, there certainly are the economic realities of needing to eat and not diverting scarce wealth into frivolous activities. Or is this even reality? As the developed countries slowly moved into prosperity, over many years, the expectation that led to our current state started with one societal expectation at a time. And we see this in some of the developing countries as expectations are changing. This is encouraging to me. While it will take some time for a country like India or China to have consistently well maintained areas, the expectation levels are rising leading to their own local economic weather patterns. And this is good. And it is a lesson for us if we ever approach that line again when we accept the “new normal” as an ever-declining expectation. I think that being in a race to the bottom is certainly a dangerous place to be. It is not a great example of the spirit of this country. And I, for one never want to be there again.
The spire of the newly built Freedom Tower is being tested today. At 1,776 feet, if accepted, would not only represent the tallest building in the US but would be an important symbol of the recovery of the country. Although a very beautiful building, it is only one. In the third most populous and first richest country by GDP it is startling to me that we’ve seemed to have lost our drive to be the one offering the best and most bold ideas in architecture. Looking at the new skyscrapers springing up in the last few years, the Freedom Tower is one of only four in the last two years to be opened that were classified as skyscrapers. And the Freedom Tower as well as Four World Trade Center were replacements from the 9/11 attacks on New York. And in the top 25 list according to height, the US only has 4, one of them being the Empire State Building built in 1931. Much of the construction is in emerging economies and certainly is driven by the high demand for office space. China is a spectacular example where one sees hundreds of cranes throughout its tier one cities erecting spectacular buildings. A couple of years ago, I took the elevator to the observation deck at Shanghai’s World Financial Center. At an impressive 1,614 feet, one could look down at other impressive skyscrapers. This year, the Shanghai Tower is going up which will dwarf it at 2,073 feet. And the tallest building at 2,717 feet, the Burj Khalifa is in Dubai. Now I understand that the demand for office space in the mature markets isn’t as booming. However, there still is construction under way in US cities, just at a more modest scale. There certainly is competition in the world in terms of architectural boldness. We just don’t seem to want to compete in this arena. It certainly isn’t for lack of talented engineers and architects as we can still pull off feats such as the Freedom Tower. While someone out there will certainly find some analytical conclusion as to why it isn’t feasible in the US economy, I think it is more than an economic reality. I fear that collectively we are losing our spirit to dream big. But that certainly isn’t a trajectory that we need to follow as we know that there are individuals and groups out there that thrive on risk taking. We still have companies and individuals leading the way in the form of Tesla, SpaceX, Apple, Google and others. I’d like to see this same spirit follow through to grand architectural feats.
In my frequent international travel, I’ve had the opportunity to visit airports of all types. On each trip, I drag my travel weary body back through my home airport and experience what many first time visitors experience when coming to our country. What has struck me is that many of the countries I visit have roomy, clean airports with breathtaking architectural designs and welcoming staff. In particular, the best I’ve seen are in developing countries. What struck me is how we’ve missed opportunities in America to create an awe-inspiring arrival for our soon to be new friends visiting from around the world. Now I understand that during the several years of recession and after effects, there is little appetite to fund grand expansions in our international airports. But perhaps this lack of imagination and the need to compete in this space is one of the facets of why we’re in this temporary position in the first place. Other countries of much lesser means seem to get it though and find their way to fund these projects to promote much needed growth. Are we so arrogant as to think we don’t have to be as hungry as these other countries? And not only are first visual impressions important, the treatment of the visitors is another significant factor. As I shuffle off the plane through immigration and on to the baggage claim, I’ve tried to look through the eyes of a first time visitor. In a misguided attempt to keep us safe, our immigration officials and other airport staff have taken it upon themselves to be at best case discourteous and in worst case, rude and confrontational. Now I get it, we need to keep people moving. But I’ve seen this done in a much more pleasant welcoming way. And yes, immigration needs to check documentation and challenge inconsistencies. But well over 99% of the visitors are here for legitimate reasons. I don’t believe there is a need to treat everyone as if they are harboring ill will. I feel that we should rethink our strategy of airport austerity. We should replace it with a strategy where we are creating welcoming, less frightening space for our new friends. And we all as Americans, whether airport staff or not, should treat our visitors as welcome guests and try to dilute the tired negative stereotypes of how Americans behave. Now there are glimmers of hope in regard to airports. I’ve recently entered the country through the newly renovated Bradley terminal at LAX. It certainly is a major improvement. And there is more room to establish the welcoming space for visitors. But we’ll need to follow through with a comprehensive look at all our international airports and how we process our guests through.