Sunday, December 25, 2016

Guam's debt risk may guide the island's destiny

The Fitch Rating bond downgrade is getting dismissed by Guam officials as inconsequential. But its warning, detailed in the Pacific Daily News report, ought to give pause.

Fitch is saying that Guam has a "sizable outstanding debt obligations" primarily for one of its pension plans. The problem, says Fitch, is the island has "limited gap closing capacity and would likely experience fiscal distress in a moderate downturn," the PDN reported.

This means a recession may bring serious financial problems to Guam.

Guam's tourism economy is very susceptible to regional economies. The island saw nearly 1.4 million visitors through November, an increase of 9.1%, according to the Guam Visitors Bureau data. But any slowdown in the economies of Korea, which accounts for 39 percent of visitors, or Japan at 48 percent, is going to hurt.

Then there is President-elect Donald Trump's administration, a wild card if there ever was one. The implications of the Trump administration on geopolitical stability, the economy and military are all unknowns.

Guam sees China as a big tourism hope. There were only 1,377 visitors from China who arrived in November out of 126,000 overall visitors to the island that month. But expectations are that China may one day become as important as South Korea, which was responsible for nearly 49,000 visitors last month.

The larger risk for Guam, however, is increasing dependency on the U.S.

Worries about debt may help drive support for expanded military presence on the island. Buildup opponents oppose may find themselves fighting those with concerns about Gov Guam's pension funds and budget.

Saturday, December 17, 2016

Guam's reparations payoff

The decision by Congress to provide war reparations to Guam’s World War II survivors was surprising, to say the least. The issue has long been a point of friction with conservatives who have argued that the U.S. beared no responsibility.

But, one suspects, bigger issues were on the table.

Guam’s self-determination is still unsettled, and Congress can’t assume that Guam won’t rebel. The backlash of blue collar voters, who turned on Democrats and voted for Donald Trump, is a clear message.

A lot of Americans have realized that the system is working against them, and many on Guam might be feeling the same way, but not necessarily for economic reasons. The military has brought a degree of prosperity and jobs, and the island’s economic interests are supportive of the buildup.

But the military buildup on Guam is bringing anxiety. There are many environmental, infrastructure and land use issues associated with a growing military presence. But there are emotional issues as well. It will draw in more people to the island and this will increase the marginalization of the island’s native population. Another may be an emerging feeling that the risks associated with the buildup aren't worth it.

Guam may be seeing a rise in worry over the military presence. With North Korea building nuclear missiles and China’s increasingly militarized South China Sea expansion,  Guam may be feeling that it’s now on the front lines of some future conflict. Independence may begin to seem appealing.

In this context, the reparations agreement looks more like a payoff than a realization that Congress  -- that after some 75 years of delay and indifference -- is finally reaching a moral reckoning on reparations.

To be clear, the reparations are long overdue and entirely justified. But the U.S. has seen fit to run over the rights of Pacific islanders for decades, from Bikini to Pagan, for military reasons. That part of history has not changed, and the reparations vote should be seen in that context.

The emotional anxiety over the military and its impact on Guam is well documented. Many people on Guam registered expressed heartfelt and emotional fears about the impact of this buildup. These letters were written in response to the Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) in 2010 concerning the buildup.

The DOD set a 90-day comment period to wade through 10,000-plus pages of documents. (Does that short time frame seem familiar? Guam residents had six months in 1946 to apply for reparations and during a time when the island was utterly ruined by war.)

Many wrote with concerns about the buildup, raising issues about crime, landuse and its impact on roads, schools, water supply and the environment.

There were those who backed the buildup completely, and sometimes argued that a majority -- despite specific reservations about various aspects of the buildup -- supported it generally. There's no way to assess the depth of support today. I do not intend to dismiss their views by not quoting them below. Their comments can be easily accessed.

But it’s the latter voices that need to be heard in Washington and taken to heart, because these voices are rarely heard in Washington. It’s one of the reasons why some on Guam see a link between the protest over the North Dakota Access Line and militarization of Guam.

These comments are from Chapter 10, volume 1, individual comments.

“I feel like the ko ko bird. My nest was on the ground. I was a flash in the forest. You came in accidentally and saw my natural habitat as a feast, now the nest is decimated and you’re perched in the highest tree looking out over a land you know nothing about but claim with pride.”  Comment 1-029-001

"NO!!! Do not let this destroy the culture and environment in a sacred and beautiful place! Please no!" Comment 1-012-001.

An 11th grade student (in 2009) wrote: "Having more land taken away from our people is absolutely horrendous. I cannot sit back any longer ..." Comment 1-017-002.

“We do not need to be having thousands of strangers coming to our island acting like they grew up here, that they’ve been through the hard times we have and act like they are above us.” Comment 1-024-001.

“Why does it have to be us? They are just making us a much larger target for the US enemies to fire at.” Comment 1-320-001.

“I hope we as islanders should stand up for our family and children …. I truly hope that the government would stop thinking about themselves for once, and look around and think about us and how (we) feel about the situation.” Comment 1-365-001

“Can you put it somewhere else?” Comment 1-366-001.

In response to the comment about putting the buildup somewhere else, the government wrote:

“The U.S. locations in the Pacific region considered for the military relocation were Hawaii, Alaska, California, and Guam. Non-U.S. locations considered included Korea, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand, and Australia, because they are allies to the U.S. and are well situated for strategic force deployment. After analyzing the international and military capability requirements for each locale mentioned above, Guam was the only location for the relocation that met all the criteria.”

The important point in the above paragraph is this: Guam “was the only location.” That’s the starting point for viewing the U.S. government actions, including reparations.

Sunday, December 11, 2016

Message for Guam from a Standing Rock protest

I attended a protest in Washington Saturday in support of Standing Rock and its fight against the North Dakota Access Pipeline. It was on the National Mall near the U.S. Capitol and it was very moving.

Native Americans, representing a variety of tribes, told their story. In native languages and in English. The crowd chanted "Water is Sacred."  There was a robust drum session and prayers.

The importance of spirit was explained in a comment by one woman in a video: "Our only force is the spiritual side."

Standing there I could not help think of Guam, particularly after reading Guahan Mommy's post "In Solidarity with Standing Rock."

One of the speakers, an older fellow, representing one of the Native American tribes, whose name I did not write down, said something that may be particularly relevant to Guam.

This speaker described his participation in the civil rights demonstrations of the 1950s-1960s. The mainstream media was "our friend," at that time, he said. The newscast showed of the brutality faced by the protestors. The broadcast of dogs being unleashed on protesters helped to change public opinion, he said.

But this speaker was particularly critical -- very harsh actually -- of the media today. The news outlets weren't showing the harms being inflicted on the protesters at Standing Rock.

Another speaker, however, pointed out that social media is providing an alternative way to reach an audience.

People at this protest were encouraged to record and livestream (Facebook live broadcast were singled out as particularly helpful.) the events. Many appeared to be doing just that.

Getting the word out is Guam's problem as well. How many national news outlets have traveled to Guam to report on the buildup only to produce a news story that in some way fails to tell the story?

A message at this protest was to use social media to the best extent possible and present the reality without filter. #standingrock

Meanwhile, not too far from the protest site, workers were installing the reviewing stand for the inauguration parade for President elect Donald Trump. The protesters were told that Trump intends to approve the North Dakota Access Pipeline.

This protest was touching in an unexpected way. I definitely did feel the power of the spirit and its powerful resolve.

Wednesday, December 7, 2016

Guam's legislators are living too large

The Pacific Daily News is recommending that Guam's legislature become part-time. This will mean likely mean a cut in pay. Senator salaries are now at $55,000. They've been as high as $85,000, according to this editorial.

Guam, population 165,000, doesn't need a full-time legislature. And I bet the lawmakers know that. Why else vote to reduce your salary?

But $55,000 for Guam's lawmakers is still a full-time salary in the minds of many.

The National Conference of State Legislatures did an analysis of state legislatures in 2014. It's worth a look.

Only three states -- California, New York and Pennsylvania -- have full-time and well-paid legislatures. The average compensation for these full-time lawmakers is $81,000. (This may help explain why Guam's lawmakers cut their high salaries.)

Six states are part-time. The lawmakers in these states earn an average of $19,000 and spend about 54% of their time on the job. These states are Montana, New Hampshire, North Dakota, South Dakota, Utah and Wyoming. All have populations larger than Guam.

The other states fall somewhere between part-time and full-time legislatures. The lawmakers in these states spend about 70% of their time on the job and are paid $43,400, according to this study.

The $19,000 salary for 50% of your time, and $43,400 for 70%, are relatively low wages for people who can earn much more in the private sector. I'm sympathetic. Those wages do require a big sacrifice, but the PDN is right to recommend a move to a part-time job.

Monday, December 5, 2016

And so the military buildup on Guam begins, now bigtime