For the past thirty years, the Virgin Islands has been out of step with the mainland United States. President Reagan got the ball rolling by stating that government wasn't the solution to our problems, it was the problem. President Clinton, ever the placater of conservative opinion, informed us that the era of big government was over. It became a widely accepted truth in the United States that government was a waste, a sinkhole of faceless bureaucrats and incompetence. Taxes were theft. Only business — and especially business leaders, the new priesthood of the CEO cult — knew how to do things right.
None of this made much of an impression in the Virgin Islands, where almost 10 percent of the population works for the government, a huge public sector by comparison to other places. Why this disconnect? Why didn't Virgin Islanders get it? Why couldn't they see that future success and happiness lay with an unbridled private sector and listening to Wall Street geniuses?
Actually, Virgin Islanders were of several minds on these questions. One group, consisting largely of businesspeople, correctly pointed out that there were too many people in government, and that they either did nothing, or, even worse, they did something. The something that they did was usually to make doing business more difficult than it should have been. A second group had a slightly different take. They felt that there were a lot of people working in government, and that Virgin Islanders were not getting their money's worth, especially in basic services such as education, public safety and maintaining the infrastructure.
The third group consists of government employees and their families. Whether productive or not, these workers grasped that government employment is stable and secure, while private-sector jobs are not. Especially in an often fragile tourism-based economy. In a basic way, they have understood that the argument that says just let business do its thing, get government out of the way, and everyone will have a job and be happy, is false. This falsehood has been hidden by the widespread acceptance of the belief that "the market" will create jobs for all, and that the rising tide will lift all boats. How did this group of Virgin Islanders know that these things are not true? To paraphrase an insightful leader, "History, my boy, history."
So in the face of the free-market religion, the Virgin Islands kept sailing along against the prevailing wind of anti-governmentalism. It has sustained a large public sector that was and is, at least in part, a jobs program. Until the current recession, the case against the V.I. model was a fairly strong one. That case was bolstered by the universal challenge facing public-sector jobs programs: How do you maintain acceptable levels of quality and competence when the lowest common denominator is setting the standard? Like other jurisdictions, Virgin Islanders have not yet found an answer to this question. (Conservatives would argue that there is no answer.) And the Virgin Islands has made things worse by making it so hard to fire the incapable and the unwilling, especially in critical functions such as teaching.
But — and it is a huge "but" — all of a sudden the Virgin Islands model doesn't look so bad. It looks sensible. Nobody knows what the future holds, but it is unlikely that the private sector is going to produce the jobs needed to sustain a growing population, or the incomes needed to reduce the enormous income inequality in our society. Either on the mainland or in the territory.
The challenge for the Virgin Islands is not to "create" public-sector jobs, since they already exist. Instead, it is to make certain that these workers are productive and contribute to the society that they serve. The idea that public sector jobs are "make work" is false. There is important work to be done. This work just isn't in the private sector, and it is not profitable.
What is needed are productive workplaces, and that will not be easy. A beginning has been made by Gov. deJongh and his administration, but this is a long-term undertaking. The starting point is addressing a range of negative behaviors and the rules and laws that now protect these behaviors. There is a simple set of principles that should underpin this project for the future. The list includes:
— Nobody is entitled to a job or a title. There is a lot to be done. If someone is not willing to work, they should be fired. As a basic matter of fairness to those who work hard, the lowest common denominator cannot set the standard for either workers or managers.
— Leaders and managers have to lead and manage. Even in hard times, there must be an investment in skills and knowledge, and managers must have the tools to reward and discipline workers. In the long term, achieving these goals is likely to require renegotiation of certain terms in existing contracts. Union leaders and their political supporters should be assisted in explaining the need for these changes to their memberships. Easy to say, hard to do.
— The adversarial relationship between government and business should be frontally addressed and reversed. It can be made easier to do business while simultaneously strengthening environmental protections and achieving greater transparency.
None of this will be easy. But the alternative is a strategy and a model that will be as discredited as the free market/get-government-out-of-the-way model that has brought us to our knees. In an important sense, and for historically valid reasons, the Virgin Islands has a platform that can work in the difficult times ahead. Right now, it is a pretty screwed-up platform, but it is better than none at all. And in this regard, Virgin Islanders are ahead of the game.
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