Sunday, July 4, 2010

Guam’s greatest economic asset

The biggest anchor to economic development on Guam is its government. As its largest and best paying employer, Guam’s government has a supersize primacy in the island’s life and this distorts its decision-making process about its future.

In round numbers, Guam’s total public and private sector payroll is about 60,000 people; of that number about 15,000 receive government-connected paychecks. Federal employment accounts for about 3,600 of that government number.

The military buildup’s demand for additional services will increase the government payroll but this will come at a price. By growing its reliance on the U.S. military, Guam's government is also giving the military more control, directly and indirectly, over the island's future. But this loss of control is coming at the same time Guam's potential to shift away from military dependency is increasing.

Guam’s most important economic asset isn't the military but the increasing number of well-educated young men and women who have made a deliberate decision to remain on the island, despite other options.

Those who remain or return to the island may see their decision as a part of a strong commitment to the island. A larger purpose is assigned the decision. These young people aren’t just thinking about their future, but the island’s future as well and there may be many in this group who appear to oppose the buildup.

To oppose the buildup is to make a statement of faith and self-reliance; it is a bold imagination of possibility. And faith in the possibility of a future apart from the military is more important than an actual economic plan because without former, the latter is impossible.

Putting aside the issues of the buildup’s impact on sustainability, environment, what are the alternatives to the buildup?

Analysis of economic alternatives is where all discussions about Guam’s future seem to fall apart. People can’t imagine something other than the military and tourism as a potential economic pillar. But there may be another option.

Guam’s most underutilized asset may be its communication infrastructure; it’s a hub for undersea cables and its online communications services, I suspect, are among the best in Oceana.

Guam ability to develop its virtual infrastructure, coupled with its proximity to Asia and time zone advantage (relative to the U.S. mainland), seems to offer some possibility for development of businesses that can provide virtual and regional services.

Developing a different kind of future will take a government that can think well beyond a military-dependent future to how it can create a climate that can turn Guam into the Pacific’s mini-Silicon Valley. That will take a government leadership that pushes itself to be creative, imaginative, and forward-thinking about the future. But it is difficult to see how a government focused on counting the buildup dollars is capable of providing inspired leadership on this front.

But the raw ingredients for Guam’s alternatives are there. It begins with a supply of young men and women who have deliberately committed to the island, their home, and by opposing the buildup, are also making a courageous statement about their future. It is no small thing in a place such as Guam to oppose entrenched powers. But as been said for time immemorial, fortune, or in this case, the future, favors the bold.

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