As the television commercials for everything from luxury cars to the shady Wells Fargo bank tell us, it is the most wonderful time of the year. In the American context, wonderfulness doesn’t spring from the birth of Jesus and his eternal message of peace, love, justice and inclusion. Nope, wonderfulness at this "special time" comes from the soul-deadening experience of buying things.
It is an especially non-wonderful time for those who care about government and also have some knowledge of history. Dramas of major proportions are playing out on big and small stages, including the United States and the U.S. Virgin Islands.
Politics and governing are inextricably linked. You can – more or less – get rid of politics, but not without getting rid of democracy. What has happened in our times is the crowding out of government (and governing) by the lowest forms of politics. The result, in what may be its final form, the rise of Donald Trump and Trumpism, is the politics of narcissism, scapegoating and hatred of government.
In the Virgin Islands, the debasing of government takes a different form, even though, at its heart there is the same indifference to the public good that we see on the mainland. In its best form, politics is the art of getting things done, good things that benefit people. In our toxic times, politics is the art of benefiting me, or some interest group that is paying the freight and keeping me in office, or, in the worst-case scenario, screwing some scapegoat group to mobilize support.
The big difference between politics on the mainland and those in the territory is that, in the Virgin Islands, ineptitude and corruption play out over such small stakes. But then, everything is relative, right?
The political scientist Charles Hamilton once made an important distinction between divisible and indivisible benefits, the ones that go to a select few and the ones that go to everyone. In the Virgin Islands, there are no indivisible benefits, only those that benefit me, or my small group, or someone who is financing me. The "public good" or the "general welfare"? Never heard of them.
One result is an inability to govern, simply because governing actually requires thinking about the larger community. It takes thought, hard work, planning, a focus on execution and persistence. So, instead of sending a bill to a legislature without any preparation or discussion, a bill calling for tax increases that were bound to produce opposition in a tax-hating culture, the groundwork would have been laid months earlier. The needed majority in the legislature could have been hammered together. But that would involve working at the boring process of governing.
Then, the legislators would have to do their jobs. They would hold hearings and propose amendments and determine the best mix to address the serious revenue shortfalls that the government faces. But that would also involve governing and being responsible. Instead, they take the easy way out. They say it should be put up to "the people."
So here is the fundamental question to be posed to "the people," i.e., the store owners who sell cigarettes, liquor and big bottles of soda, and the smokers, drinkers and consumers of big bottles of soda: Should we raise the tax on these products to generate revenue that the territory desperately needs?
The answer? Wait, Wait, Don’t tell me! Let me make a wild guess. The answer is "no." The tax is a bad idea. It will destroy businesses and bankrupt smokers, drinkers and the morbidly obese.
A month from now, the United States will have a government led by people with no sense of responsibility. Responsibility is a powerful force for good. Its absence inevitably results in bad outcomes. Anyone wanting a mini-case study in the effects of public irresponsibility can look to the current experience of the Virgin Islands.
Finally, at both the national and territorial levels, there may be one big difference between the past and present. In the past, those in power could always comfort themselves with the Wall Street mantra, IBY/YBG, or "I’ll be gone, you’ll be gone." Some other poor jerk is going to be left holding the bag down the road. Maybe not this time. The clock seems to be winding down on a number of big issues, among the most notable of which are financial stability, pervasive violence and climate change.