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Charlotte Amalie
Wednesday, November 25, 2020
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State of the Union/State of the Territory

The U.S. Virgin Islands represents 0.04% of the population of the United States. So comparing President Obama’s State of the Union address to Gov. deJongh’s State of the Territory address may seem like an extreme case of apples and oranges. But apples-to-oranges comparisons can be useful, so here goes.

Despite our current difficulties, President Obama said that the United States would emerge from the recession “stronger than before.” He did not sugarcoat our situation. Gov. deJongh described the actions that the territory has taken to get through the recession.

By any measure, the list was impressive. In life, it is always difficult to explain why the “least-worst outcomes” are a success, but Virgin Islanders should have no doubt that what has been achieved since the onset of the Great Recession has been a huge success.

If we compare the territory’s situation to that of the states, large and small, and cities around the country, this success becomes clearer. California is imploding, and there is worse to come. New York State, with a politically weakened governor and a delusional and corrupt legislature, is headed for the cliff.

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In my hometown of Milwaukee, the school system is considering changing 35 students per class from a maximum to a minimum. And who knows what will happen after the stimulus money that has saved an enormous number of public-sector jobs runs out.

Jobs, jobs, jobs. This is where the apples-to-oranges comparison between the U.S. Virgin Islands and the mainland is most illuminating. As the political right has taught us, beginning with the great genius President Reagan 30 years ago, government is the problem. And government jobs are a drag on the economy, a bunch of slackers and faceless bureaucrats serving time and gumming up the works for our true heroes, the businessmen and investment bankers. And, in the process, sucking up tax dollars that the “American people” could better spend themselves.

Many Americans drank that Kool-Aid. Let’s leave out some of the results of trashing government and unleashing the genius of unfettered capitalism. Let’s leave out the greatest inequality in the industrial world, the stagnant incomes for most Americans, the hollowing out of the productive economy, the deterioration of the nation’s infrastructure and the now pervasive mistrust of our institutions. Forget all that. The “unleashing” was going to produce jobs for everyone who wanted to work, and even for those, the supposedly lazy ones on public assistance, who didn’t.

Bad news: it didn’t work. Even in the bubble years of the Clinton Administration, there were 900,000 college graduates each year for 600,000 college-level jobs. And, our Wall Street-driven economic policies shipped increasing numbers of productive jobs overseas, especially to China. Globalization. But don’t worry, in the end, everyone will be better off. But not today, with six people seeking each available job.

For a variety of reasons, Virgin Islanders did not drink the Kool-Aid. Government continued to be a major driver in the local economy, and the primary provider of jobs. This is a mixed blessing, but in the current hard times, the benefits far outweigh the costs … If it can be sustained.

The mainland economy faces a huge jobs challenge. And despite all evidence to the contrary, most notably, massive unemployment, overcrowded schools, a deteriorating 20th-century infrastructure and deplorable social services, the Gospel According to Reagan continues to guide our policies: the only “real” jobs are private-sector jobs.

Add to that the entrenched power, greed and short time perspectives of the financial sector, and the prospect for creating the jobs that are needed is somewhere between really bad and bleak.

The territory faces a different challenge. It is not so much to create jobs, although that is clearly a need, but to make those that exist more productive so that its model can be sustained and support a true mixed economy. It won’t be easy.

On the mainland, after one year of President Obama’s administration, it is crystal clear that corporate power is in the driver’s seat. In the territory, what is entrenched is the power of lethargy and change-resistance. This is the ship that the governor must turn.

Where do you start? One advantage of being a small place is that almost everything is about management, operations and execution. Let’s start with the good news. As the governor’s speech and the response to it indicate, for the first time in decades, the territory has true leadership.

But leadership is a prerequisite, not a solution. To build a vibrant economy and a society that provides jobs and alleviates the poverty that many Virgin Islanders experience, there are a number of keys to success. Based on experience elsewhere, these keys are:

• Work to build social cohesion. The divisions that separate races, islands and government from the business community are drags that are simply too expensive. The only way to address them is to describe them honestly, and openly work to eliminate them. It won’t be easy.
• Increase transparency and eliminate corruption to build trust. This goal reinforces social cohesion, and, based on everything that we know, is essential to creating a prosperous society. The damage done by corruption is far greater than we have thought in the past.
• Invest in people and holding them accountable for reasonable results. The downside of the territory’s large public sector is that there are a lot of unproductive workers. Highly restrictive labor laws make the situation worse because they allow the lowest common denominator to set the standard. There must be an investment in training and management, along with real systems of accountability if this model is to succeed over the long term.
• Make life easier for business people. The government norm that business is some sort of adversary has to change. It is the responsibility of government leaders to change it by simplifying and improving work processes and systems and eliminating tolerance for poor or hostile customer service.
• Openly confront opponents of these changes. President Obama’s recently televised session with Republican members of Congress should be a model for not putting up with crap from dishonest and destructive groups. In the era of Fox News, the new communications model should be open forums in which misleading statements and lies are challenged, fact-checked and confronted by reality. The age in which people like Glen Beck, Rush Limbaugh and the rest can distort facts and get away with it is coming to an end. The territory can be a leader in holding public forums on key issues that move us away from the threats, screaming and distortions that currently drive our public discourse.

This is a big agenda, but, if taken seriously, it could produce big and measurable improvements in a relatively short period of time. The ship has begun to turn. This list can be seen as a new set of coordinates in charting a course for a better future.

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