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Does economic meltdown have us caught in a Florida Ponzi scheme?

On the off chance you're in the mood for a sleepless night, fretting about the economic future of our state and region, I have a couple of choice reading recommendations.

The current issue of the New Yorker magazine features an exhaustively reported story on the social and financial devastation of the real estate bust, set in the half-built subdivisions of southern Pasco County.

Even more unsettling is the Atlantic magazine March cover story, a forecast of how a deep, long-lasting recession will reshape the country's economic landscape.

Winners will be cities with dense concentrations of educated, creative residents. The losers, representing a double-whammy for our part of Florida, will be the Sun Belt and the suburbs, with "low-density sprawl … ill-fitted to a creative, postindustrial economy.''

While profiting from the housing bubble, according to the writer, Mark Florida (a man with no loyalty, apparently, to his namesake state), these regions failed to build "sustainable, scalable, highly productive industries or services. (The bubble) was fueled and funded by housing, and housing was its primary product. Whole cities and metro regions became giant Ponzi schemes.''

If you're looking for a common theme, that is it: the title of the New Yorker article is "The Ponzi State.''

Yes, there's a hint of snobbery in both pieces, written by urban Northerners who probably wouldn't be crazy about Florida suburbs under any circumstances.

But if two respected national publications (three including last year's Time magazine article that described Florida's housing industry as a "human pyramid scheme'') come to the same conclusion, they're probably on to something.

It seems likely that time has run out on our bedrock economic strategy of attracting 1,000 new residents per day — that our history of sprawling development and low taxes has finally caught up with us.

What this means is that much of our current public debate is far off target. We should be figuring out how to build up existing communities (the new Hernando judicial center is not a bad start), attract industry and upgrade education.

We shouldn't be arguing about the swap of a relatively tiny parcel of bear habitat. We should be discouraging — no, shouting down — SunWest Harbourtowne, the development associated with this land swap.

A project as unnecessary as the "u'' in its "harbour'' and the "e'' in its "towne,'' it calls for building 2,400 houses, a marina, hotel and convention center in the coastal flood zone of northern Pasco.

We shouldn't be debating the fine points of transportation and wildlife corridors at the Quarry Preserve, a new city planned for a played-out mine 5 miles northwest of Brooksville. We should be telling the developers that a change in the comprehensive plan to accommodate such sprawl is out of the question.

The Hernando County Commission shouldn't waste another word discussing Blaise Ingoglia's idea to allow investors to use tax money (by the way, isn't he supposed to be a fiscal conservative?) to help buy foreclosed properties — all so builders can get back to work building more unneeded houses.

I certainly don't want to suggest anything criminal. But, to return to the Ponzi analogy, it seems a little like bailing out Bernie Madoff.

Does economic meltdown have us caught in a Florida Ponzi scheme? 02/14/09 [Last modified: Saturday, February 14, 2009 1:16pm]
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