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Business Observer Friday, Aug. 1, 2008 12 years ago

Thomson: Review & Comment

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A Time storysaying Florida is over does not fit with all the facts.

Thomson: Review & Comment

Florida is

over? A

rebuttal

A Time story

saying Florida is over does not fit with all the facts.

By Rod Thomson| Executive Editor

There has been a lot of buzz, handwringing and even some despair surrounding Time magazine's story, "Is Florida the Sunset State?"

But is it justified? No. Neither the story, which is disingenuous, nor the reaction to it are justified by a fuller and fairer look at the facts.

To be blunt, the article is an artfully constructed journalistic hatchet job. It uses "crisis" hyperbole and growth cliches, levels charges lacking factual cover and, maybe worst of all, cherry picks the topics and the data to arrive at an obviously pre-established conclusion. Then, with masterful writing, quippy quotes and a thin buckshot of statistics, it traffics itself as serious journalism - the kind unfortunately we have come to expect from Time and most of deadstream media.

So let's deconstruct this destructive piece without the cynical negativism that apparently pervades the world in which Time writers such Michael Grunwald swim. Here is a point by point dissection.

• We're in the worst real estate meltdown since the Great Depression.

The housing market is bad? Who knew? But Time did not cite any statistics for this specific charge, despite being the first accusation in the lead. It may be true, but the lack of a citation somewhere in the long story is, well . . . perhaps just an oversight.

What cannot be considered an oversight, but a purposeful intent to distort, is to leave out one mammoth piece of context: This meltdown - or correction, as non-hyperbolic, the-sky-isn't-falling realists like to say - was preceded by the greatest price run-up in history.

That escalation of nearly 60% over two years, wherever it would have happened, was duty-bound for a correction. A sharp correction follows a sharp run-up. The same thing is happening in Las Vegas, only worse, and also in Phoenix, California and other segments of the country.

Here's a free economics lesson for Time writers: This is precisely what markets do when they get out of balance, they swing back in search of equilibrium. Then they invariably over-swing out of balance again and must correct the other way. That is not Florida specific anymore than high gas prices or big-city traffic congestion. It heralds no end of Florida. It is economic reality on the face of the earth. And to list it first shows the aim of Time was to print a hit piece.

Mission accomplished.

• We've got a water crisis.

Like many things in life, it's more of a challenge than a crisis.

What we have are a series of decisions to make over how much we are willing to pay for water. That is not a crisis. It is a decision. In fact, we obviously have plenty of water - we are a peninsula in the ocean. We have the desalination technology to tap that water and dispose of the waste. The only question is how much are we willing to pay. That is not a crisis.

The article also frets over persistent droughts. But Florida always has a cycle of droughts and heavy rains. In fact - not anecdote - over the long term, the state has experienced no change in rainfall. According to the Center for Science and Public Policy:

"Records compiled and maintained by the National Climatic Data Center show that the Florida statewide annual total precipitation is variable from year-to-year but shows no statistically significant long-term trend during the past 112 years."

So in addition to understanding that we have choices to make over our water supply, you can safely discard the canard that Florida has experienced a long-term shift in rainfall. It's not true.

• We've got an environmental crisis.

Here we have something that is so demonstrably untrue, even aside from having once "endangered" gators now coming out of our lanais. We've probably made a hash of the Everglades, but not nearly as dire as the alarmists would have it. And the primary issue with the Everglades connects directly to the water choices we have to make mentioned above.

So let's look at some environmental facts Time, again, did not tell you:

More than four million acres of Florida land are environmentally protected by the federal government. More than 5.2 million acres are protected by the state and another half million acres are protected by counties. So nearly 10 million acres of Florida land is environmentally protected, and more added almost weekly - geometrically more than when the state's boom decades started.

That's not a crisis. Insomuch as there is a problem, it is a solution.

• We have a budget crisis.

Why is everything a crisis with these people? Again, we have choices to make because Tallahassee and local government leaders largely made the wrong ones during the recent real estate boom years. That is, they spent with the same mindset as condo developers and buyers - like it would never end. Now they have to face the consequences of their choices.

There is plenty of money for necessities. But maybe not enough for the frills. Perhaps Sarasota County could have ditched the idea of spending more than $20 million on the Legacy Trail bike path, which only a miniscule slice of the taxpayers who paid for it will ever use. Those kind of choices.

When you spend too much you can indeed end up in a predicament. But the solution is simple: Spend less.

• Local governments are utterly dependent on construction for tax revenues.

This is just so easy. Impact fees are the largest chunk of a county's budget dependent on construction. The second-largest is licensing and permitting fees.

In Pinellas County, these fees brought in 0.8% of the revenue in fiscal 2007. In Sarasota County, it was 3.7% and in Lee County 3.8%. (See chart.)

County budgeteers put the percentage somewhat higher by taking out doublecounts, but the conclusion remains the same.

"They aren't a significant part of our budget," says Dinah Lewis, Lee County budget director.

• We've got an insurance crisis.

Another problem brought to us by our government friends. This is an industry that has been completely botched by government interference - nationwide this is also true - with policymakers making decisions for immediate political benefit over long-term good. It is eminently fixable. There will just be a cost in the short-run, if politicians see their way clear to remove taxpayers from the hook and let the market ferret out the right insurance prices through 18 million individual decisions.

• Florida schools are last in graduation rates.

This is maybe the most loathsome cherry-picking in the article. Graduation rates are notoriously manipulated, even among much-manipulated school statistics. Nonetheless, the Florida Department of Education reports that the graduation rate in Florida was 72.4% in 2006-07, up from 71% the previous year and up 12 percentage points from the 1998-99 year when it was 60.2%.

Now I am as suspicious of these numbers from the DOE as the next guy. But again, because the Time article did not cite or document the numbers or the source for Florida having the worst graduation rate in the nation, I have to go with these, which at least sound far more positive.

But there is more. While public schools nationally are not doing well, Florida test scores have been gradually improving against the nation.

Florida's SAT scores are the same as they were in 1978, but the percentage of students taking the test has increased. Nearly 64% of all Florida students take the SAT, compared to only 48% nationally - a number alone that will lower the average score. In 1978, 86% of test-takers were white. Now, only 54% are white while 23% are Hispanic and 14% are black. So holding test scores stable over those years while including many more students is a positive accomplishment vis-à-vis the rest of the nation.

While the test scores are still below the national average, Florida encourages more students to take them than other states, and the scores were also lower 30 years ago, when Florida was entering it's boom decades. Time's attempt to make failing schools part of the reason why the sun is setting on Florida is just another hackneyed deadstream media construct.

None of this should be interpreted as an apologia for public schools; it's just to demonstrate how utterly deceptive and unreliable were the article's charges.

One last point. The elephant plopped on the living room coffee table, utterly ignored in this article's assessment of Florida, was tourism. The Florida staple continues to be a dynamo. More than 84 million people visited Florida last year, up an astounding 71% from 49 million 10 years ago. In the first quarter of this year, with the nation in an economic downturn, Florida tourism is up 3.4%. Disney World remains the world's most popular single attraction. And five of the world's top 12 theme parks are in Florida. That's in the world, folks.

Apparently nobody told tourists that the sun was setting. Florida is the world's most popular destination.

Paradise lost indeed!

It should be obvious by this point why Time did not report on tourism, or why it only chose disputable graduation numbers to slam schools, or why it made charges without factual cover or why it chose hyperbole over data. This article was pure agenda, cherry picking at its worst. And reason number 6,483 why you cannot trust the deadstream media as your sole source of information.

Rod Thomson is executive editor of the Gulf Coast Business Review and can be reached at [email protected].

TIME SAYS FLORIDA IS

OVER. FACTS DISAGREE.

Florida job growth

Total employment

2005 7,882,141

2006 7,975,418

2007 8,028,440

Source: Florida Research and Economic Database

Visitors to Florida

1998 48.7 million

1999 58.9 million

2000 72.8 million

2001 69.5 million

2002 73.9 million

2003 74.6 million

2004 79.7 million

2005 83.6 million

2006 83.9 million

2007 84.5 million

2008* 23.8 million

* 1st quarter Source: Visit Florida

Time says county's "...utterly dependent" on construction taxes. No

Pinellas County

Total budget $2,450,000,000

Construction $15,544,690

revenues

% of revenues 0.6%

Sarasota County

Total budget $1,111,670,837

Construction $40,878,656

revenues

% of revenues 3.7%

Lee County

Total Budget $2,400,000,000

Construction $91,000,000

revenue

% of revenues 3.8%

Sources: Pinellas, Sarasota, Lee counties

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