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Keeping Florida’s economy in perspective

It’s easy for fear to creep in when the economy has grown for so long.
Florida as seen from the space shuttle.
Published Oct. 8
Updated Oct. 8

The night was chilly as I peddled alone along a flooded trail in a remote part of the state.

I was tired and on-edge when something big blocked the way. It would fade in and out of view, obscured by an eerie white fog pressing down on the wetlands.

My mind went straight to worst-case. Maybe it was a hungry bear, an escaped convict or a four-headed kraken rising up from the Florida aquifer.

It turned out to be a cow.

Unfamiliar territory will do that. It heightens the senses — turns even sleepy-eyed bovines into monsters.

It’s a good reminder as the country’s economic expansion goes deeper into a record 11th year. We’ve never gone this long without a recession.

We want the good times to last but it’s easy to get spooked. We start to look for reasons why the expansion will end. We see problems where there aren’t any, or at least overestimate their impact. It’s easy to feel uneasy about the slightest financial oscillation. Even optimists start to think that we must be due for a big downturn.

RELATED STORY: Older, richer, less equal — a snapshot of the Tampa Bay area.

Every announcement seems like the economic bogeyman is tightening its grip. Manufacturing slipped. Corporations have too much debt. The stock market is up, now it’s down. They can feel like death blows, when many of them are just noise.

It’s human nature. Our analytical ability is one of the traits that sets us apart. We don’t run just on instinct. We stop and contemplate. But it can lead to overthinking. We can get myopic exactly when we should take the wide view, even if we can’t connect every dot. It helps keep the economy in perspective.

Both Florida and the nation are still creating new jobs. The country’s 3.5 percent unemployment rate hit a 50-year low. Businesses remain positive, if cautious, about the future. Wage growth could be better, but at least it’s growing.

While long, this economic expansion hasn’t been the most robust. It’s more of a slow burn. That can be seen as disappointing or a reason to think the economy has room to run. After all, Australia has seen its economy grow for 28 consecutive years.

Will that happen here? History would suggest it’s unlikely. But we aren’t very good at economic predictions. We are lousy at it, in fact. Most economists — the experts — can’t reliably predict when recessions will start. Next year? The year after that? Five years from now? Ask enough of them and you’ll get all of the above.

Many of us can’t even reliably estimate how much we are going to enjoy a future experience. All the more reason not to read too much — positive or negative — into every economic pronouncement.

This is not to say that we should ignore the facts or view the world through rose-colored glasses. The economy appears to be slowing. Trade disputes and talk of impeaching President Trump have created uncertainty, which can make for a bumpy ride.

Britain’s imminent departure from the European Union might have unforeseen fallout. Same goes for uprisings in Hong Kong or another attack on oil fields in the Middle East.

We’re in uncharted territory, which is all the more reason not to get carried away on a wave of fear. We should keep economic indicators in context. They don’t all spell doom.

Sometimes a cow is just cow.

RELATED STORY: Racing a mountain bike the length of Florida.

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