If you ask Americans whether they think the United States is on the ascent or in decline, you will get very different answers. Many, mostly "conservatives," will say that the nation is on the rise, imposing its will internationally and eliminating the evils of the welfare state at home. Others, "liberals" and "moderates," see decline, growing inequality and an emerging "bully" state.
Ask Virgin Islanders of any political persuasion this question about the territory, and the responses will show instant consensus. The Virgin Islands is clearly in decline.
People in societies everywhere base their beliefs on some mix of facts, assumptions and myths. Facts and myths are often in conflict, and usually the myths win out because we want to hang onto them. For example, many Americans believe that they are the most generous people in the world. It is pretty easy to refute this myth factually, Americans being in most ways among the least generous in their contributions to the global community. But it would take a great deal to shake this deeply held belief in their own beneficence.
The multi-decade social, political, economic and environmental decline of the Virgin Islands also has been fueled by a mix of assumptions and myths that run counter to established facts. The realities of managing a tourist-based economy in a highly competitive region in difficult times are daunting enough without the additional impediments imposed by these myths. From this outsider's perspective, the myths and assumptions that have been the most damaging include the following:
– Myth No. 1: Government employment can be a long-term engine of growth and stability.
False. The economic-political structure of the Virgin Islands does not resemble that of any state in the United States. The public employment premise has resulted in excessive political power among concentrated groups of insiders, fiscal insolvency, declining performance standards in both the public and private sectors, and ongoing deterioration of essential public services from public education to fire protection.
– Myth No. 2: It's somebody else's fault. The Federal government is screwing us. St. Thomas gets everything. The Crucians are a bunch of whiners. Everyone else gets bailed out, why not us?
This myth has produced an environment in which nobody assumes local responsibility and everyone waits for somebody else, particularly the federal government, to "do something," the "something" being to send money. The fact that the money is sent with decreasing frequency is seen not as a defeat or a message, but instead as further proof that "they" are cheating us. This myth is closely associated with the emergence of blaming and victimization as social norms, each of which produces universally bad outcomes.
– Myth No. 3: Racial and class divisions can be papered over or exploited to political advantage without any great damage to society.
False. The progression of this myth over time can be seen in the change from "American Paradise" to the more ambiguous "Our Islands, Our Home" on V.I. license tags. What is ambiguous is just who "our" refers to. The justifiable suspicion is that a more colloquial version of this license plate slogan would be "Born Here."
The Virgin Islands is not "polarized" as much as it is "atomized" by race, class, island and place of birth. The result is a public sector controlled by "insiders," a private sector controlled by "outsiders," and a relationship between the two that is characterized by high levels of mistrust and antagonism. The poisonous relationship between the public Tourism Department and the tourist industry may be the single best barometer of this destructive dynamic. But at all levels of society in the territory, as in the United States in the era of conservatism, there is a clear decline in tolerance and respect for others across all groups.
These divisions prevent any clear consensus on the public good from emerging and being acted upon, even when the nature and scale of the problems facing the territory are clear for everyone to see.
– Myth No. 4: Tourists are required to come here. This myth takes two forms.
The first is that the future Virgin Islands will have a technology, industry, agriculture and aerospace economy that will not rely on tourism. That is, we will not have to put up with these annoying tourists anymore. If the territory had Barbados' education system, these pipe dreams would have a shot at becoming reality.
The second form of the myth is to view tourism as an entitlement program rather than a highly competitive industry. A Jamaican friend of mine who is in the tourism business in his country says he always feels better about the quality of service in Jamaica after he visits the U.S.V.I. Not a good sign.
As partners in denial, the government and a part of the territory's tourism industry collude to assure that low levels of service will be a permanent part of the tourist experience in the Virgin
Islands — the owners and operators through their low opinions of their workers, and the government by protecting the worst workers and assuring that the lowest common denominator will remain the performance norm.
We are passing from the generation of tourists who have had bad experiences in the Virgin Islands to the one that has never been to the territory but has heard from others about their bad experiences. Also not a good sign.
Myth No. 5: The myth of The State. The Virgin Islands consists of three main islands, a number of islets, and a population of approximately 100,000 living in mostly small communities. In a reasonable world, it would be run by a town manager with deputies on each island and a town or city council. Instead, the Virgin Islands has a governor, a Government House and a Senate with senators. Disastrously, all of these people and their hangers-on take themselves seriously and emulate the most clownish behavior of state and U.S. lawmakers and mini-state dictators.
Virgin Islands governors have fleets of vehicles, spokespersons and security details. The whole thing takes on kind of an imperial aura — but meanwhile nobody can tell you what the budget numbers are, statements are made that are absurd on their face, meetings are constantly canceled for lack of a quorum, public services are abysmal, and there is no real accountability. It would be tempting to characterize this as a banana republic, but any number of well-run banana republics would be certain to take offense.
There is an enormous lack of perspective here. Years ago, Mayor John Lindsay of New York tried to create an image of local government as a major engine for social change. Mayor Richard Daley of Chicago, in assessing the whole thing, said: "Somebody has got to pick up the trash."
Government in the Virgin Islands should be about public safety, education, sanitation and environmental protection, and about encouraging local business. This is hands-on, gritty stuff. Posturing and people pretending to be big shots won't get the job done.
All of these myths combine to produce the downward spiral known as the "fiscal crisis." Because of the nature of Virgin Islands society and its economic structure, this crisis, particularly when its end game begins to unfold, will be far more than fiscal.
The city of Naples in Italy had a political culture not unlike that of the Virgin Islands — unresponsive and remote from its citizens, dominated by self-dealing insiders, and indifferent to the delivery of basic services. Naples has had a long history of earthquakes, some big and some small, each of which was followed by a mismanaged and often corrupt cleanup and reconstruction process.
After one earthquake, strangely enough a minor one, the usual half-hearted process was launched. But this time it just didn't work, and the city, which had been in a steady decline just like the Virgin Islands, went in
to a social, political and economic free-fall. Why this particular time? Nobody knows.
Societies are complex and we are not very good at predicting future events. But, given everything that we know, it would be foolhardy to expect either a happy ending or a soft landing for the Virgin Islands, unless there is a significant change in course. Without outside intervention, it is difficult to see what could precipitate that course correction.
Editor's note: Management consultant Frank Schneiger has worked with V.I. agencies since 1975, most recently as consultant to United Way of St. Thomas/St. John. He was one of the founders of the St. Thomas/St. John Youth Multiservice Center.
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