The future is Florida

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An old saying goes: “If you want to be someone, go to California. If you are someone, go to New York. If you were someone, go to Florida.”

But in 2020, Florida Man, Woman, and Child exacted revenge. Now, if you want to be someone, go to Florida. If you are someone, go to Florida. If you were someone, just stay in Florida.

Florida is the future people increasingly want.

It’s hard to tell the story of Florida’s ascent without the corresponding account of the COVID-19 global pandemic, though the category of “what Florida is doing right” is about far more than COVID. The Sunshine State enjoys the status of a rapidly growing destination that has been on the rise for years and still has yet to peak. The COVID storyline also treats Florida’s current trajectory as temporary, when it began before COVID and it’s just as likely to continue after the pandemic.

The handling of the virus by Gov. Ron DeSantis has certainly played a role in the state’s continued growth. The Republican governor, elected in 2018 and often mentioned as a possible 2024 presidential candidate, enacted policies that contrasted sharply with those of other large states. New York and California used harsh, business-killing lockdowns to try and shut down the virus, while DeSantis shied away from one-size-fits-all statewide solutions.

It was hard to ignore that despite the doomsayers, and there were many doomsayers, Florida’s pandemic outcomes were similar or better than other populous states. As of Jan. 25, New York had 218 COVID-19 deaths per 100,000 residents. California had 94. Florida had 118. Even Texas had stricter reopening rules than Florida and yet had 117 deaths per 100,000.

Florida was an experiment in efforts to mitigate both the virus and the attendant economic damage at the same time. The results thus far affirm that there are varying approaches to the pandemic worth trying.

This good news caused consternation among politicians who had gone in the other direction. New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s adviser Rich Azzopardi ridiculously speculated that Florida was hiding its real statistics. When a former head of the New York state Democratic Party embarrassed the Cuomo administration by flying to Florida to get his coronavirus vaccine, Cuomo spokesman Jack Sterne responded, “Anyone holding Florida up as a good example of anything during this pandemic needs to have their head examined.”

But what else could the Cuomo crew say? New York’s economy lies in ruins, while Florida is poised to bounce back. Florida’s unemployment rate for December 2020 decreased to 6.1%, below the national average of 6.7%. New York state’s was 8.2%, with New York City at 11.4%. And these numbers don’t include Cuomo’s late-December arbitrary shutdown of indoor dining in New York City. The same month, California was at 8.8% and Texas was at 7.2%.

DeSantis didn’t just stop statewide lockdowns. He also used executive powers to proscribe local governments from using lockdowns without reason. A September order, which DeSantis renewed in November, said that “Floridians should not be prohibited by local governments from working or operating a business” and that “restaurants, including any establishment with a food service license, may not be limited by a COVID-19 emergency order by any local government to less than fifty percent (50%) of their indoor capacity. If a restaurant is limited to less than one hundred percent (100%) of its indoor capacity, such COVID-19 emergency order must on its face satisfy the following: i. quantify the economic impact of each limitation or requirement on those restaurants; and ii. explain why each limitation or requirement is necessary for public health.”

When compared to California, which closed outdoor dining despite no evidence such activities were spreading the virus, or New York, which closed indoor dining in New York City only, despite the city having the second-lowest case rate in the state, Florida’s insistence on using actual metrics to show spread appears not reckless but diligent.

“We will categorically not allow any local government to lock people down. We will not let any local government kick anybody out of their job,” DeSantis told reporters when asked about local officials’ requests for more control over coronavirus mitigation measures. “We will not let any local government fine individual Floridians. We will not let any local government shut down schools. And we’re not going to let any local governments do those things.”

Life goes on in Florida. The digital calendar website Burbio keeps tabs on “in-person community events held by libraries, governments, arts and recreation, chambers of commerce, and civic and volunteer groups” and tabulates a “community activity index,” with scores on a scale of 1-100. Florida consistently has a high score throughout the state. Miami is a 60. Manhattan and Los Angeles are both 20.

Normality has been one lure during the past 10 months. Another is schools.

Burbio’s K-12 school opening tracker “actively monitors 1,200 districts, including the 200 largest school districts in the US,” and maps out whether the districts are in-person or remote. Florida and Wyoming stand out as having nearly the entire state conducting in-person learning.

When I asked DeSantis which of his policies during the COVID era he was most proud of, he immediately answered that it was opening Florida schools. “I’m most proud of getting our kids back at school,” he said. “We knew the data, we knew it was low-risk. We felt we had to hold the line on this. We knew it was the case six to eight months ago. We were able to save the upbringing of hundreds of thousands of kids.”

DeSantis added: “They say you have to lock down, but states where kids are locked down, where kids aren’t in school, not playing sports, businesses are closed, have higher case numbers than we do.”

DeSantis has had to fight a national media skeptical of the Florida model from the beginning. He told me, “People in the corporate national media try to portray Florida as doing poorly with COVID, but the figures show the public doesn’t buy that. People have been voting with their feet. Twenty-five states have a higher COVID mortality average. In the pandemic as a whole, we’re 30th in cases.” DeSantis says families have moved from places such as California to Florida, fleeing closed schools.

The pandemic will end, but it exposed some important underlying fundamentals in the way states are governed. Those that arbitrarily closed schools and let the teachers unions decide when to reopen them will have to compete with states like Florida, which put children first. The space between the two is becoming a canyon.

Florida’s advantages, then, were made clearer during the pandemic when so many states face-planted, but they were drawing people south before COVID-19. A 2019 review of the top 20 cities with net in-migration in the past 10 years found that 11 of them are in Florida. Billionaire Carl Icahn, head of Icahn Enterprises, closed both of his New York offices and reopened in Miami that same year.

The direction of that migration isn’t new: Florida has been lovingly referred to as New York’s “sixth borough.” The difference is it’s not just New Yorkers making the trip down south this time. DeSantis told me he’s seen an influx of Midwesterners taking up residence on Florida’s west coast. “COVID has shown that you don’t need to be anywhere in particular, and it made people more comfortable in doing business outside areas they were used to,” he said.

That is, if you don’t need to be where you are, you might as well be in Florida.

For a long time, Florida’s favorable tax policies were the reason for the influx, but President Donald Trump’s 2017 Tax Cuts and Jobs Act sped up the process. That act restricted the federal deduction for SALT, or “state and local taxes,” to $10,000. Suddenly, the federal government wasn’t picking up the tab for high-tax locales. Florida is one of just nine states to shun income tax completely.

On the Cato Institute’s Fiscal Policy Report Card on America’s Governors for 2020, DeSantis is described as “a lean budgeter” and gets a “B” on the notoriously tough grading report.

“We have seen increased mobility across the states — driven by a fear of living in densely populated areas, a realization that the ‘old normal’ of commuting into a city office is still but a distant possibility, and the realization that remote work can be an effective, long-term option,” Gregory Daco, chief U.S. economist at Oxford Economics, was quoted as saying in an August Bloomberg piece highlighting the migration between states.

But Florida cities, themselves densely populated, haven’t suffered from population loss. Something else is pulling people toward Florida. Florida has always had the weather, the nature, and the friendly business policies. Now, those things unite with open schools, restaurants, and a saner approach to life to make the state a draw.

Sal Nuzzo, vice president of policy at the Florida-based James Madison Institute, agrees. Nuzzo told me, “Florida’s commitment for the past 20 years to limited government, getting rid of onerous regulation, and having robust school choice have garnered the state prosperity and opportunity.” Over time, those policies’ consistence took Florida from an experiment to the successful results of an experiment. People don’t feel like lab rats in moving to Florida.

Nuzzo points to decades of net migration numbers to Florida but notes, “The pandemic has allowed for a light to be shined on the realities of Florida’s good practices. The path taken by Gov. DeSantis is not only the right one economically, but the right one socially and culturally. Florida’s recovery will be faster because of it.”

Another example of how time seems to have vindicated Florida’s governing approach: Forget “New York’s sixth borough” — the new refrain is “Wall Street South.” In December, Bloomberg reported that Goldman Sachs was considering moving its asset management business to Florida: “Executives have been scouting office locations in South Florida, speaking with local officials and exploring tax advantages as they consider creating a base there for its asset management arm, according to people with knowledge of the matter. The bank’s success in operating remotely during the pandemic has persuaded members of the leadership team that they can move more roles out of the New York area to save money.”

There was some dismissal of this news as “just” the asset management group. But that group accounts “for about a quarter of the firm’s revenue in recent years.” That’s a hefty chunk of change for New York to lose.

Citadel Securities, Elliott Management, and Blackstone have made the move already. JPMorgan Chase and Deutsche Bank are openly considering it.

Miami Mayor Francis Suarez is wooing businesses to his city. And it’s not just finance. Microsoft is in talks for opening office space there. Silicon Valley in general is on Suarez’s radar. In early December, Suarez made a specific pitch, tweeting, “How can I help?” in response to a tweet wondering about moving Silicon Valley to Miami.

A couple of weeks ago, Sarah McBride at Bloomberg reported that Suarez was “hobnobbing” with “former Google chief Eric Schmidt, Andreessen Horowitz general partner Chris Dixon, Craft Ventures’ David Sacks and Palantir Chairman Peter Thiel — who recently bought an $18 million house in the city” and making the “come to Miami” pitch.

In January, Bobby Goodlatte, co-founder of seed venture fund Form Capital, tweeted, “There’s a surprising number of [Silicon Valley] founders & investors here — many visiting, many here to stay. I’ve had more socially distanced walking mtg’s & coffees in past week than I’ve had in months. @FrancisSuarez’s efforts are paying off. Miami is having a moment.”

Another venture capitalist, Jay Levy at Zelkova Ventures, tweeted at Suarez that he “just moved back to Miami after 20 years in NYC. Our fund has backed over 80 companies in the last decade. Let me know how I can help in Miami.” A few days ago, Levy added, “I’m actively telling certain companies that Miami could be the best place for it to raise money and build their business. A year ago this wouldn’t have even crossed my mind.”

Writing in Slate, Henry Grabar added names to the list in mid-January. “Keith Rabois, another Founders Fund partner and a well-known venture capitalist, dropped $29 million on an oceanfront house in Miami Beach. Alexis Ohanian, the co-founder of Reddit better known as Mr. Serena Williams, already lives in South Florida. Shutterstock founder Jon Oringer has bought a $30 million house, too.”

Rabois told me: “CA is a broken state. Between crime, housing prices, over-taxation, suppression of discourse, over-regulation and inane lockdown policies, it was only the perception that ambitious people in technology needed to be in Silicon Valley that obliged people to stay.”

The pandemic, he said, “lowered the opportunity cost for people to experiment with other locations. And many people realized that none of these issues afflicted most of the rest of America. One could be free, safe and happy with less tax burden, more diversity, etc.”

According to Rabois, “Miami is the best city in America to live. Cosmopolitan, fine arts, dining, retail coupled with affordable housing for everyone, outdoor activities galore and less traffic and crime.”

Policies matter.

Grabar credits Suarez and says his vision is “a glimpse of a world where economic development, at the city level, is less focused on firms and more focused on people.”

Suarez makes it personal. When I speculated about moving to Florida on Twitter, the mayor sent me a direct message and offered to have “a Cuban cafecito at City Hall” to tell me about his city. His feed is full of him having these Cuban cafecitos with entrepreneurs, celebrities, and anyone else considering his city.

But just as it’s not only New Yorkers making the move, Miami is not the only destination.

Jared Klein, associate marketing manager for Compass Real Estate in Florida, told me the hot homes market “extends beyond Miami and Palm Beach into the West Coast (Naples) and North (Orlando and Tampa).”

Maria Rioux Nagy, a Palm Beach real-estate agent with Coldwell Banker Realty who moved her family from Philadelphia two years ago for the weather and tax benefits, told me she gets clients from all over: “Florida has no state income tax, so it has been attracting businesses and individuals alike. The sunny weather, outdoor lifestyle with access to beautiful beaches, springs, and parks are all added benefits.”

Conservative commentator Ben Shapiro recently moved his family to Florida from California. Shapiro told me, “Florida is a fantastic location: a state that still protects core freedoms, provides a friendly tax environment, and also happens to house the religious resources my family needs. California drove us out. Florida took us in. We haven’t regretted our decision for a single second.”

Businesses moving is all well and good, but it’s these individual decisions to choose Florida that are making it the state of the future. As a New Yorker, it always felt like the center of gravity was in Manhattan. But with shuttered businesses, no arts, and dysfunctional leadership, that center of gravity is shifting to Florida in a very obvious way. DeSantis sees it. “There will be no state income tax as long as I’m here,” he told me. “We have a lean budget that provides good services. The infrastructure is better in Florida. We have a better approach to government that contributes to a better quality of life. Businesses appreciate that. People appreciate that.”

Like every state, Florida suffered death and loss due to the pandemic. But Florida’s sane policies will ease the recovery. States looking to stop the outflow of their populations should take notice. Many of their current and former inhabitants already have.

Karol Markowicz is a New York Post columnist and a Washington Examiner contributing writer.

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