Doug Clifton: The headline said, ‘Miami Grows Up. A Little’

That snarky putdown headlined an opinion piece in The New York Times last week. Written by Pamela Druckerman, a former Miamian transplanted to Paris, where she gained notoriety with a book on the superiority of French mothers, the essay wrote Miami off as a vapid, anti-intellectual backwater.

The piece was filled with half-true generalizations based on wafer-thin reporting. To the surprise of no one, critics launched a fusillade of rebuttal and sarcasm. Humorist Dave Barry fired off a few trademark quips. Fred Grimm, the Miami Herald’s local page columnist, unmasked Ms. Druckerman as kind of shallow herself. It seems she gave her husband a menage a troi for a birthday gift and wrote about it.

The Times dutifully published two letters of rebuttal and this week the Herald reprinted the Barry piece and two others, both refuting the assertion that Miami is a cultural wasteland.

I found the criticism fun to read and well executed. But one paragraph in the Druckerman essay hit home:

“For the moment, though, Miami looks like a giant construction project. After a several-year lull that started in 2008, luxury condominiums are shooting up again, often right next to each other. The local economy still runs on selling bits of land to newcomers.”

That it does. Without dispute. Miami, no, all of Florida, is a consumption-driven economy. It grows by consuming itself. Florida makes nearly nothing — save for condominiums and shopping centers — and sells nearly everything.

The condo projects attract retirees and expatriates from Latin America and Europe and a steady stream of Northerners seeking respite from the cold. Together they generate demand for a wide array of consumer goods, cars, clothes, groceries.

More shops get built even when supply exceeds demand. From Aventura to Gulfstream Park, the square footage dedicated to retail staggers the imagination. Yet a developer recently announced plans to build a multi-use shopping plaza whose size will dwarf the nearby shops of Gulfstream.

More condos will generate more customers for more retail whose employees will buy more goods sold in more retail. It’s the miracle of perpetual motion. Until one of the parts of the machine break down. Long-time Florida residents know enough about bubbles to understand what happens then.

Florida’s mono-economy falls off the cliff. The perpetual motion machine begins to slow, then finally stops. Busts follow booms whatever the mix of the economy, but when that “mix” is so heavily weighted to one segment, the risk of a cataclysmic bust is far greater.

Florida suffers from a bad mix.

It also suffers from spotty political leadership. We’re in the midst of a heated gubernatorial campaign. How much debate is devoted to building a healthy and diverse economy? Maybe I’m looking at the wrong ads and reading the wrong political analysis, but I hear no discussion of this issue.

I hear blather about jobs but nothing about dealing with the underlying economy.

Nothing about strategies to incubate new industries. Nothing about imposing sanity on growth-at-any-cost policies. Nothing, in fact, but head-in-the-sand thinking.

Druckerman’s piece needed a new headline:

“Miami Grows Up. Not At All.”

Doug Clifton is the former editor of The Miami Herald and the Plain Dealer in Cleveland, Ohio. He lives in Fort Lauderdale. Column courtesy of Context Florida.

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