The hardest time to really understand something is often while it is happening. The big messages are often obscured by “noise,” such as “recall” proposals. As a result, we have to work to cut through all of the flak to understand the core issues. There are two very good paths to understanding. The first is to understand the history and how we got to this place. What is the story? The second is to do a comparison and ask, what is this like?
At least eight people on St. Thomas appear to have gone down the second path. They are the people who have purchased Michael Lewis’ book Boomerang: Travels in the New Third World at the Dockside Bookstore. Lewis writes about economic collapse in Iceland, Ireland and Greece, among other places. In each of these places, large parts of the population are being severely punished for what has gone disastrously wrong.
In Iceland, fishermen decided to become investment bankers. I swear to God, it’s true. And, adopting American banking practices, they ran the country over a cliff from which it may not recover. In Ireland, private banks behaved with incredible irresponsibility, and, when the inevitable collapse came, stuck ordinary citizens with a massive bill and a depression.
In Greece, the most extreme case, corrupt government, a bloated public sector, a public whose attitude was simply to take, a refusal to pay taxes and mistrust of one another has produced a true economic and social collapse, with a real possibility of a spiral into chaos.
It is the Greek case that has the most relevance to the Virgin Islands situation. The starting point is to realize that, in each of these countries, when things were zipping right along, everything seemed quite normal to most people. Fisherman becoming investment bankers, why not? Barbers who cheated on their taxes retiring on “hardship” pensions at age fifty? Everyone else was doing it, why not me? If nothing else, the crisis has once again demonstrated that the cure for human stupidity is still way off in the future.
But there are two big – big meaning bad – consequences to getting accustomed to fantasy-fueled good times. The first is that it becomes very difficult to adjust to a new reality, and the search for scapegoats, as opposed to accountability, goes into high gear.
The second, and equally relevant, consequence is that, despite your dire circumstances, there is little sympathy for you. You have brought this on yourself. The chickens have come to roost. You have to pay the piper. And so on. It is interesting to talk to Greek-Americans, most have whom have strong ties to Greece. In general, they have little sympathy for the Greeks. For years, those in the United States have been viewed as simpletons for working like hell to succeed in this country, while they could be sitting back, taking it easy and living the good life in Greece.
This kind of rough justice would be a little more justifiable if the country were not sinking into true despair. The middle class is collapsing. City streets are filthy. Commercial strips are empty, with shuttered shops everywhere. And there is a moral breakdown. A Greek journalist recently quoted Kafka, saying, “there is hope, but not for us.” A whole future generation is going to be punished for the sins of the current one.
Because of their history of abuses, there is little sympathy for the Greeks. Something similar might be said of Virgin Islanders. The Territory’s government is, by almost any definition, bloated and unproductive. There appears to be a lot of corruption. There is a sub-culture of complaint. Outsiders are often made to feel unwelcome. This is not a great combination when you are in need of help.
But, all of these things are, in a sense, “noise,” compared to the reality of the current situation. The combination of a sharp economic downturn and the closing of the Hovensa refinery are not of the Virgin Islands making. Unlike the Icelandic fisherman, the Irish bankers or the Greek government, the Virgin Islands did not cause this mess.
The territory needs and deserves help of the kind that can only come from one place, the federal government. It will carry a fair amount of baggage in seeking whatever adjustment assistance it can get, and the adjustment period is going to be a very long one.
What are the choices? The most creative would be “the mouse that roared” strategy. The Virgin Islands would secede from the United States and seize the St. Thomas Coast Guard station. The U.S. would then declare war, defeat the Virgin Islands at the Battle of Mahogany Run, with no casualties and some minimal damage to the 8th fairway. Out of guilt and habit, the United States would rebuild the country with massive amounts of assistance.
Like many creative strategies, a lot could go wrong. For example, a President Gingrich or Romney might launch cruise missiles to demonstrate renewed American “strength.” Better to adopt a different strategy, the one most likely to generate understanding, sympathy and a commitment of support at the federal level.
Such an approach would be based on a set of principles. The most important of these would be a vision for a future in which jobs lost in the public sector and by the Hovensa refinery closing are replaced by something even better. The strongest logic would be for financing a Territory that is the envy of the region, the “greenest,” the most technologically advanced and the best educated place in the Caribbean.
The second principle would be one of social cohesion, of diverse peoples and the populations of three islands pulling together toward a better future. In situations like this, nobody likes whiners, well-poisoners or the voices of division and bigotry. They produce the worst kind of “noise.” In our current political climate, such solidarity would be a powerful tool indeed. And, conversely, sideshows, such as that being put on by Senator Nelson, are far more costly than similar clownish displays in good times.
Finally, there is a need for transparency, honesty and a willingness of government, business and the non-profit sector to work together toward the common good.
If this list of principles makes sense, the next step is to understand the gap between current reality and the ideals that they represent. Closing that gap is a stretch, but it is the first step toward building a better future. As the Greeks and others are showing us every day, the alternatives are not pretty.