It is always surprising how different things can look up close as opposed to from a distance. Up close, we all tend to see the details; from a distance, the view is of the big picture, and the details tend to be minimized.
Here is an example of something that, from a distance, feels like a big deal, an omen of things to come. In a sense, a detail that illuminates the big picture.
A writer for the National Review, Jack Crowe, has just written a column titled, “Congress Shouldn’t Reward the U.S. Virgin Islands Fiscal Profligacy.” National Review has a total circulation of fewer than 100,000 and sees itself as the voice of respectable and principled conservatism.
Since its founding by William F. Buckley in 1955, race has often been a subtext for the magazine’s editorial positions. As the voice of respectability, Buckley and his successors rejected the Klan and people like George Wallace, David Duke and Donald Trump. Their view, the respectable one, was usually unstated. It was that white people are the No. 1 race and culture, that with time and patience black people might be able to catch up, but that this happy outcome was unlikely. The niche of respectability has always been important to them and, in the process, limited their appeal to a broader audience with stronger feelings.
So, given its small circulation in a nation of non-readers, why should Virgin Islanders care about an article that states, “The U.S. Virgin Islands government is drowning in debt after decades of financial neglect – and its governor, Kenneth Mapp, is hoping he can parlay this into a federal bailout … Mapp is poised to address decades of fiscal profligacy by using hundreds of millions in federal disaster-relief money to bail out the territory’s ailing public-employ-pension fund … But if past performance is any indication, Washington would be negligent to turn over one more cent absent substantial congressional oversight.”
Crowe then goes on to cherry-pick examples of Virgin Islands governmental misbehavior, including stiffing National Guardsmen and relief workers, endangering the survival of a St. John health center, while, at the same time, using public money to pay a lobbying firm and radio stations, the last of these, an always objectionable practice.
In this standard version, right-wing analysis, there are no extenuating circumstances, such as the impact of the Great Recession and the Hovensa closing, which are likely to be seminal events in Virgin Islands history, federal formulas that shortchange the territory, the failure of the federal government to deal with widespread corruption, high levels of poverty and social need. None of those things is mentioned, although there is a picture of President and Mrs. Trump with Governor Mapp, just in case anyone didn’t get the message that the territory’s government is led by black people.
Who cares what a fairly obscure magazine prints? Why does this matter? Here is why it does. A narrative is being set where none currently exists. The National Review article will fill a blank space for influential people, especially on the right, who don’t have time to read a lot in depth. By doing so, it will also confirm some of their more cherished prejudices: the government swamp, wasted “hard-earned” American taxpayer dollars and mismanagement by black officials.
That narrative, once in place, will be hard to dislodge, especially since there are enough legitimate examples of government mismanagement to give the story a lot of traction. The calamity – a carefully chosen word – will come when this diagnosis is linked to the inevitable prescription for “austerity” and “reform.” The focus on the pension fund demonstrates the potential tragedy that lies ahead. If there are better examples than what has happened to Greece, a larger-scale Virgin Islands, it would be difficult to find them.
The Greeks had to pay for their sins, and, as in the Virgin Islands, it was easy to find those sins. As a result, the Greek economy, again like the Virgin Islands, always vulnerable, has been crippled for the foreseeable future. A generation of young people has been lost, with massive emigration of talented young Greeks. Businesses have failed. Clinical depression is widespread. And, most relevant to the immediate situation, pensioners and retirees have been impoverished to the point of destitution. All to send a message and avoid the cardinal sin of “moral hazard.”
Jack Crowe and the National Review have laid down a marker, a narrative that says that the price that Virgin Islanders should pay for their wrongdoing is austerity. The territory needs to come up with a convincing counter-narrative in an age of dying empathy, rising tribalism and mistrust of institutions. It won’t be easy.
That narrative should probably consist of the following components: an acknowledgement of problems that goes beyond, “Yes, mistakes were made”; a strategic plan for territorial economic and social development – not austerity – that includes major federal investments, as opposed to cuts in infrastructure, education, environmental protection, building healthy and peaceful communities and long-term fiscal stability; and, finally, the rub, a statement of what the territory is willing to give up in terms of local control and external oversight to get those things.
In the large scheme of things, the amounts of money involved are a rounding error at the federal level. It won’t be about amounts of money. It will be about the morality play of those hard-earned taxpayer dollars going to a “bailout” for an undeserving population. That is the narrative that must be defeated, and why “just give us the money” won’t work anymore.