Floundering in Florida

I’ve always equated southern Florida with retirement — and a retreat for the rich. Even in my parents’ comparatively modest neighborhood, there are a few million-dollar homes. (In fact, just a mile or two down the highway you might see mansions owned by people named Kellogg and Heinz.)

Because of this connection to wealth and old money, I’ve also always thought of Florida as being somewhat removed from the national economy. But in the past couple of days I’ve changed my mind.

As my dad and I took a road trip along the A1A today, he pointed out the rows of vacant strip malls that once housed small businesses. The patio furniture and plants and scuba gear are all gone. Restaurants sit empty with “for lease” signs in the windows, as crabgrass grows through the cracks in the parking lots.

The housing market has taken a big hit, too. On my parents’ block alone, I counted five houses for sale, two of which are vacant. Of these, one is unfinished. Speculation is that the owner ran out of money halfway into an ambitious remodeling project. Have a spare chandelier, a few bathroom fixtures, and $500,000 in cash? Nope, me neither.

Of course, these are the obvious signs. I’ve actually been more shocked by the subtle evidence that not all is well.

I used to be annoyed by the almost-constant traffic of private jets on approach to the municipal airport. Today, I noticed only three. I also used to be annoyed by the almost-constant boat traffic. Today I heard only one big yacht go by.

From an environmental perspective, I’m delighted. But from an economic perspective I’m concerned.

For years, many of us have been repeating the Reaganesque mantra of trickle-down economics. If enough people succeed, the thinking goes, everyone will benefit.

Well … what about a scenario in which no one benefits? The situation in Florida isn’t quite that bleak, but there’s a definite sense here that the scales have tipped.

I just hope they haven’t tipped past the point of no return.

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