These are an outside observer’s comments on the Source’s Bill Kossler’s exceptional reporting on the Virgin Islands budget crisis which began running in the Source this week.
As a general rule, when you see things from a distance, they always seem simple. You feel comfortable telling “them” what they “should” do.
For some 40 years, I have thought about the problems and challenges facing the Virgin Islands, and they have never seemed simple. For a variety of reasons, they are as complex and difficult as any that I have seen. For starters, decision makers in the Virgin Islands are never operating at the 37,000-foot cruising altitude, the altitude at which you rarely see the consequences of your decisions. In the Virgin Islands, you see the consequences of those decisions the same day, and they affect people that you know.
Then, there is always the tendency to view these issues in the context of good and evil; inevitably followed by figuring out “who is to blame,” rather than saying, “Here is the problem we face, what are our choices, and what is the best choice?”
Except, and here is the big rub, that there is no “best choice.” There is only the least worst choice, so that, whatever you decide, people are going to suffer.
And whoever decides is going to be pilloried for making that least worst choice. Ask former Governor DeJongh or Governor Mapp. To paraphrase the famous slogan, giving things out has a thousand fathers. Taking them away is an orphan.
When there are only bad choices, two things almost invariably happen. First, there is a search for gimmicks and quick fixes. Not necessarily a bad approach, since if things turn around, you have spared people a lot of pain by not taking more forceful action. The second thing, which is always bad, is that those with responsibility tend to head for the exits when decisions involve bad news, especially when it is bad news for some core constituency.
So, to take one step back from the Source’s reporting, here is a front-end question. Are there some fundamental ground rules for dealing with a crisis of this type? I believe that there are. Here are four important ones.
• Rule 1: Forget about “who is to blame” or even about “there is plenty of blame to go around.” As soon as you start talking about blame, divisions deepen at a time when there is a need for solidarity, and the discussion is always about the past, rather than where we go in the future.
This should be a pretty straightforward process: What are the problems? What are our choices? What are the criteria for making the right choices? What are the best, that is, least worst, choices? How do we communicate those choices to the communities that make up the Virgin Islands?
• Rule 2: Get the right people in the room. Who decides? Who can make decisions stick? Who are the responsible people willing to make difficult decisions that may be unpopular with some constituent group?
Not an easy one in the Virgin Islands. Answer those three questions and you have a pretty small group of decision makers. And, there is the flip side to getting the right people in the room: keep the wrong people out of the room. Not such a small group.
While all of the key “stakeholders” should be represented in that room, this is not a democratic process. While fairness and equity are important criteria, this is not just a question of dividing up a shrinking pie. If the people in that room cannot see beyond their narrow interest, they shouldn’t be there.
• Rule 3: Deal with reality. Part of that reality is to accept the notions of bad luck (Hovensa and recession) and the many things that are beyond the territory’s control (Hovensa, recession, federal government). “What ifs” need to be grounded in reality rather than based on unrealistic expectations and delusions. There should be no “alternative facts.” Nor should decision-makers succumb to the “shrinking violet” syndrome where they claim powerlessness and retreat into self-pity.
In the Virgin Islands, the biggest and most complicated reality is the degree to which the territory’s economy is driven by government spending. In this sense, the territory is a socialist society, more like France than the United States. You can argue whether that is good or bad, but the notion that you can “cut your way out” of the budget crisis is wrong, and is almost certain to lead from a “budget crisis” to a “social crisis.” This reality is at the heart of the complexity of the territory’s situation.
• Rule 4: Keep outsiders as far away as possible from the decision-making process. This is not going to be easy, and may not be possible as the crisis deepens. This rule is more relevant today because of the nature of the government in Washington. Even the theoretically liberal Obama administration imposed draconian solutions, all devised by outsiders, on Puerto Rico. The thought of what the current administration and its agents would do is enough to give you chills.
Finally, anyone who has read this far will have noticed that there are no substantive recommendations. That will be the hard part. But even adopting these rules will not be simple. Based on experience in similar situations, these rules are the front-end prerequisites to finding the best possible, i.e., the least worst, solutions for the territory. It is always worth seeking those solutions.