Catching On To Florida's Economic 'Ponzi Scheme'

A nearly empty beach in Hollywood, Fla.  Joe Raedle/Getty Images i i

A nearly empty beach in Hollywood, Fla. Tourism in the state declined 9.4 percent over the same period last year, Florida's tourism marketing agency reported. Joe Raedle/Getty Images hide caption

itoggle caption Joe Raedle/Getty Images
A nearly empty beach in Hollywood, Fla.  Joe Raedle/Getty Images

A nearly empty beach in Hollywood, Fla. Tourism in the state declined 9.4 percent over the same period last year, Florida's tourism marketing agency reported.

Joe Raedle/Getty Images

For the first time since World War II, Florida is losing population. University of Florida demographers recently reported that the number of residents dropped by more than 58,000 last year.

Florida has always had a tenuous relationship with reality. In the 1880s, we convinced the ailing and infirm that Florida was good for their health, despite the mosquitoes and the suffocating heat. In the 1920s, we sold swampland to Yankees, promising that with just a little draining and a little fill dirt, it could be paradise. We call ourselves the "Sunshine State," never mind that it rains an awful lot.

The rest of America sold corn, cotton, iron or coal. Florida sold itself. When you retired you were going to where there was no snow to shovel, where you could pick oranges off trees growing in your backyard, and flowers bloomed in winter. Taxes were low; living was high. Florida was Eden on the cheap.

It was bound to catch up with us. Gary Mormino, a distinguished historian of Florida, says our whole economy is more or less a big Ponzi scheme. The state funds its roads and schools by bringing in new investors — that is, new residents — to pay sales taxes and property taxes. When nobody can afford a condo in Boca, when tourists stop coming even for a week at Disney World, the Ponzi scheme collapses.

Now it seems as though everybody here knows somebody who has left, is leaving or wants to leave. Even the governor wants to leave — for Washington, D.C. He's running for the U.S. Senate after one term.

I'm not too upset people are bailing out of Florida. I never believed in the state religion that growth was good. Florida will be poorer, but quieter. The old inhabitants will be just fine. Bees are colonizing empty houses in bankrupt suburbs. Alligators and frogs are taking up residence in abandoned swimming pools. Wetlands will reassert themselves, muscadine vines, spiderwort and pickerel weed will overrun the golf courses, and panthers will dance again in the forests. Maybe one day kudzu will enfold Cinderella's castle in its pitiless green embrace.

Here, Nature always wins. After all, Florida was the last part of the North American continent to emerge from the sea, and, when the waters rise again, Florida will be the first to return.

Diane Roberts is author of Dream State, a history of Florida.

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