Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Notes from the vomitorium ... by gimleteye

Economists use "digestion" as a metaphor describing years of slack growth and difficulty of absorbing excess housing stock from the housing boom and bust. Digestion is the word of the day in the ongoing discussions between Miami-Dade county bureaucrats and the US EPA, that determined gross violations of sewage treatment requirements for millions of residents and visitors. In 1994 it took federal litigation by environmental groups, and litigation again today nearly twenty years later, to get government officials to recognize that billions of taxpayer dollars need to be raised in order to digest the volume of sewage flowing from our toilets, sinks, dishwashers, top and front end washing machines, from our golf courses, street drains and collectors.

At the same time, Miami tops the list as the highest foreclosure area of any large metropolitan area of the nation. According to a recent report by RealtyTrac, "The greater Miami area posted the highest foreclosure activity of any large city in the nation in the first quarter, with one in every 79 residences receiving some type of foreclosure filing."

To recycle the metaphor, Miami's status as number one in foreclosures is a symptom of being unable to "digest" the volume of low-cost, shoddy housing developments. The empty, half-filled and filthy swimming pool in an abandoned house in West Kendall is another metaphor: for the stagnant thinking of Miami-Dade government and the practice of elected officials to always shift the costs of growth to the next generation of taxpayers.

More roads, more construction, more development, more subsidies for private corporations (ie. ballparks), more museums, more monuments to vanity in the name of civic pride. Subtract from overall economic activity the influx of cash transactions for water-view condos on Brickell and Key Biscayne, and Miami Beach, Miami would be the Detroit of the South. You won't find a whiff of criticism anywhere, not even on public radio.

It made the bile rise in my throat a quarter century ago, the first time I heard the most powerful man in the Florida Keys, Earvin Higgs -- the tax assessor, explain to a chamber of commerce audience: "We need more construction and development to fund infrastructure and all the services government provides." Those of us who planted our flag on the principle that the first priority is to protect the environment on which the economy depends were called "Chicken Littles" and worse. Never doubt the ingenuity of those who depend on public subsidies for private profit to innovate ways to distort messages; like transfats or GMO foods are good for you, or, "they do no harm" and you can't prove otherwise.

As Dr. Hal Wanless detailed in his recent presentation on climate change and sea level rise, at the annual meeting of Friends of the Everglades, impacts of climate change will up-end all assumptions of economic growth within the next two or three mortgage cycles (20 year mortgages).

The science on climate change impacts is consistently on the low end of the predictive path. Within fifty years it will be clear that the planet itself is not just having a hard time "digesting" our cumulative impacts: nature is in the early stage to vomit us out.

Governmental policies regarding climate change in South Florida exhibit a kind of stutter. Blue ribbon panels are meeting. They have fancy names and issue reports. Planners and engineers know that legal thresholds require more than words to be effective. The time for action is now. But appropriations and subsidies are still pointed in the other direction: the race to permit more roads into farmland (836 Highway extension to Homestead), more sprawl to the edges of the Everglades (rescuing wealthy landowners who have been land-banking farmland and open space, some of whom may not be paying interest on their loans), more rock mines and "sacrifice zones" for the greater economic good (suing environmentalists who stand in their way), more beach renourishment projects or the tourists will not come.

We can't just keep pumping sand on beaches, to watch it all wash away in the next storm, yet still imagining a few years from now, all will be back to normal. There is no miracle to come. Dr. Wanless, 72, believes it is now time to plan our retreat from coastal areas: seed banks, museums, cultural treasures, governmental offices and libraries. The list goes on and, yes, it is hard to digest. It is hard to imagine a president being elected on the platform of relocating the Smithsonian.

But temperature rise is already a "runaway train". As EOM has documented with photos, South Beach floods now on ordinary high tides. No longer, just the spring tides.

Elsewhere, perhaps droughts -- in the American mid-west and in India -- will abate, but climate change is already eating away at economic stability like moths on a wool blanket. Here is how that works.

Within the environmental movement, the thought has been expressed that this severe constipation of public policies and unmovable elected officials (like US Senator Marco Rubio, who still denies fossil fuel consumption caused climate change) is a transient phenomenon that will pass once Gov. Rick Scott is ousted from the executive office. The thinking goes, if we just wait long enough, that new and right-thinking people will address what ails us.

That is not how it works. Financial and business interests related to construction and growth in Florida may act stupid when it comes to denying global warming, but they are not dumb. Far from it. Most are very bright within their fiduciary responsibility to shareholders and owners.

If climate change is coming, they reason: now is the time to rezone and to build as much, as fast as possible. That is exactly what is happening. The last two sessions of the Florida legislature have been a remarkable and efficient retreat from of half a century of environmental regulation and growth management. The carnage is unbelievable.

This phenomenon -- of business interests reacting to the imminent threats of climate change -- explains the extreme, right-ward tilt of legislatures, like Florida's, throwing off the "yoke of regulations", empowering banks, mortgage lenders, and those components of the Growth Machine that feed through the supply chain; the small cogs of local decisions on wetlands permitting and destruction, to the bigger cogs of land use lawyers and lobbyists, to the bankers feeding trillions in derivatives into the illusion of a stable, profitable system that trickled down benefits to the gullible consumer and voters. The Great Destroyers weren't set back by the economic crisis: they exploited it in anticipation of even greater threats to come on the rising tides.

Once I believed the housing crash would lead to exactly the kind of diuretic that would wash and cleanse our backed up economic and political ills. I was wrong. Miami, the Magic City, is like a bulimic who furtively maintains appearances by throwing up in secret after every meal, crowing back at the table how our chefs are the best in the world.


Malagodi said...

"You won't find a whiff of criticism anywhere, not even on public radio."

~especially on public radio. the welding of WLRN with the Miami Herald assures that the boosterism will continue unabated.

Anonymous said...

For me, the weakness of WLRN is an enduring sadness.

Anonymous said...

The BCC gave initial approval to a $4.2 Billion Bond Program to fund Water and Sewer improvements yesterday. Unanimous vote. No discussion. No Herald coverage. Requires 125% rate coverage of the debt to be issued over the next 15 years. This item should be on the Finance Committee agenda in May. Interested people should review the attachment to item 4D to look at the project list.

Anonymous said...

Very brilliant Alan. You can' expect brain dead zombies to somehow become wise. We know why it's called Addicted to Growth.