Florida: The Ponzi State

January 8, 2016
By Marcy Shortuse

Gary Mormino Book CoverGary Mormino, considered the dean of Florida historians, will speak in Boca Grande on Monday, Jan. 25 at 2 p.m. in the Boca Grande Community Center auditorium. A reception will follow. The lecture and reception are sponsored by the Boca Grande Historical Society and are free and open to everyone.
When George Packer, a writer for “The New Yorker,” was researching an article on Southwest Florida’s dubious honor as ground zero of the financial crisis that began in 2007, he was searching for a metaphor that would encapsulate the meaning of it all.
Packer sought out Gary Mormino, who was then a professor of history at the University of South Florida. Mormino told him, “Until two years ago, this was a growth machine that was the envy of the world. Florida, in some ways, resembles a modern Ponzi scheme. Since the 1950s, yesterday’s homeowners have been paying for today’s newcomers.”
Packer had his metaphor: The Ponzi State.
Mormino explained that in order for the Florida economy to prosper, 1,000 migrants would have to arrive every day. The economy is based almost entirely on new arrivals and the wealth they generate in construction and real estate.
“The problem is, except for a few speed bumps in ’73 and ’90 (and they were really minor), no one knew what would happen if they stopped coming,” Mormino said.
Which is what they did after the economic meltdown of 2007. We are still dealing with the fallout.
Mormino’s most recent book, “Land of Sunshine, State of Dreams,” is a social history that “explains how Florida is America a little ahead of itself, and how it got that way,” according to one reviewer. The population boom began after World War II in Florida and culminated a few weeks ago as Florida, once the most sparsely populated southern state, became the third most populous state in the country after the other melting pot states of California and Texas.
Florida isn’t just swamped with people. The state is overwhelmed with problems stemming from population growth: environmental degradation, lack of appropriate infrastructure, a corrupt political and business culture, unsustainable wages, first in mortgage fraud, second in foreclosures, last in the percentage of students who graduate from high school. And let’s not deny it – it’s tacky. California is class – Florida is crass.
When politicians are in the pocket of developers, the solution to every problem is more growth.
Some call it the American dream in high reverse. Mormino said, “Retirement in Florida may become as unfashionable as it once was stylish. We’ve asked people to play here … we haven’t asked them to live here.”
Florida has the second-fewest native residents of any state in the union. Everyone is from somewhere else. “There is no sense of shared sacrifice and commitment to the future. Can Florida grow up?”
Mormino is a co-founder of the Florida Studies Project at at the University of South Florida in St. Petersburg, as well as the Emeritus Frank E. Duckwall Professor of Florida History. He teaches one course a year on the history of food. He has written more prolifically than any other academic on the history of Florida and recently won The Florida Humanities Council’s 2015 Lifetime Achievement Award for Writing.