Have you heard the parable of the music teacher and the family piano? Of course, you have not, because I just made up the story. I am sharing this with you because it is that time again. Every year and a half in the U.S. Virgin Islands, aspirants to elected office tell us stories that function as comfort food. Comfort food is mostly associated with the need for consolation, the desire to simply improve one’s sense of well- being, or to reinforce memories of the past. It makes you feel better but is not generally considered to be healthy.
During election season, the comfort food is usually nostalgia, often sprinkled with a bit of exaggeration, and fed to us as big ideas for the future of the U.S. Virgin Islands.
When St. Croix was the breadbasket for the entire Caribbean. When we had the largest oil refinery in the U.S., or world depending on who is telling the story. When the U.S. Virgin Islands was the premier tourist destination in the Caribbean. Good times. If only we could recapture those days. Want nine cruise ships in Charlotte Amalie harbor or another large heavy-industry facility on St. Croix? Good times.
The march of time means nothing to these storytellers. Whether any of these memories were real (if exaggerated) or imagined, it is time to embrace the world as it exists. So, see if any of the stories you heard in elections past or will hear this election cycle seems similar to the story I am about to tell you.
Once upon a time, in a not so distant land, lived a music teacher. The teacher lived in a small village within an extended family setting, but the fortunes of the family were dependent primarily on music education. The teacher taught music in one of the local schools, but most of the income was derived from private lessons in reading music and playing the piano.
The family had inherited from their parents a grand old piano and the music lesson business. At the time the parents started the business, the village had a small number of schools, and fewer still that offered music classes. The mother taught at the school and the two parents gave private lessons, based mainly on the grand old piano. The two sources of income were enough to support the growing family, make improvements to the house, and add a room specifically for the music lessons.
In time, the family’s music education business was passed to the children. Over time, the population of the village grew, the family thrived, and new schools were built. More schools wanted to offer music lessons, so other music teachers moved to the village. One day, the music teacher noted that there were fewer students in the music class at school and fewer persons taking private lessons from the family. The family then had to contend with decreasing income and increasing competition. The family decided that they needed advice from persons that knew more about business and competitiveness.
Soon they were placing posters around the village. When that did not work as expected, they paid people to tell them how to communicate with the other villagers, who were no longer neighbors but customers. Then the posters had to be redone periodically so the business would not appear to be stale.
The costs of staying ahead of the competition increased, the number of paying students steadily decreased, and the family found it increasingly difficult to maintain the attractiveness of the music room and the house.
To attract more students, the family was advised to make cosmetic changes to the house, so new awnings and bright colors were added. Next up, offering incentives to attract students. The incentives included reduced lesson fees, transportation, and deals with schools, bars, restaurants, and other establishments for referrals. The classes increased in size as promised, but the incentives and other expenses consumed a large portion of the income. With the possibility of increasing the number of students demonstrated, the family started paying more attention to the demands of the persons and organizations that said they could keep sending students to the family’s business. However, the cost to benefit ratio did not change in the family’s favor.
Faced with dwindling income and increased expenses, the family was unable to routinely purchase new music and failed to maintain the piano as required. They spent so much time attracting new customers that they wrote no new music.
The untuned piano sounded horrible, there was no new music, the house needed repairs, and everyone visiting said the offering was sub-standard.
The family remembered the good old days and worked hard to recapture the dominant position of the family in teaching music. They refused to believe that the changing world of electric instruments, new music genres, and the changing tastes of the villagers could not be overcome if they did the things that once made the family successful.
And the decline continued.
Here in the U.S. Virgin Islands, we have no such problem. Our farmers are struggling – we cannot understand the problem because we used to feed the rest of the Caribbean. Your tourism product sucks – build another dock for cruise ships, fast track another hotel, increase the financial incentives.
Here in the U.S. Virgin Islands, we know – believe – hope that the aspirants for elected office live in the real world and will offer real solutions to improve the well-being of the residents of the territory.
Editor’s note: Lloyd Gardner is an environmental planning consultant, the principal of Environmental Support Services LLC and president of the non-profit Foundation for Development Planning Inc. He has been involved in environmental management in the Caribbean since 1982 and has functioned as a consultant in several projects and public policy initiatives in the U.S. Virgin Islands since relocating to the territory more than two decades ago.