Tuesday, June 5, 2007

Fact finding trips or dog & pony shows?

Food For Thought 4-6-07

Hi friends, this is Harry Blalock; General Manager for radio stations KZMI & KCNM. It’s that time once again to take a look at the issues of the week, and to offer some Food For Thought.

I’m getting a very bad feeling in the pit of my stomach about the recent visits we’ve received from U.S. Congressional staffers. First it was Allen Stayman and Josh Johnson, two senate staffers sent out here on a “fact finding” trip. Some of those who have known Mr. Stayman for years said that they felt he really understood our situation this time and was looking at us with a different outlook. From his answers to some of my questions, I was less than convinced. It seemed to me that he came out with a definite agenda and wasn’t really willing to budge too far from it. His reasons for the actions being considered were vague and there really wasn’t any substance to them. He went so far as to say he was one of our biggest supporters and that nobody would care about our concerns as much as he would. There were even a few people out here who believed him, I was not one of them.

Then on Thursday of this past week, some U.S. Congressional staffers paid us a visit. Again it was supposed to be an information-gathering trip to help them in drafting bills that will be dealing with the implementation of federal control of our immigration and minimum wage. The one thing I do have to give credit to Mr. Stayman and Johnson for is that they actually spent enough time out here to hear from many different segments of the community. They allotted enough time that they could actually sit and listen to the various groups and gather their thoughts and concerns. This last bunch came in Thursday morning and left the same afternoon. I understand they met with the Governor in the morning, had lunch with the legislators, and then they met with the Chamber of Commerce board and some HANMI members after lunch. But because they spent too much time with the legislators, they had less than a half hour to give to the private sector leaders. And let’s be honest, how much can you honestly hope to accomplish in a half hour? By the time they were done shaking hands and introducing themselves a good chunk of our time was already gone. By all appearances this was a staged trip to make it look like some members of the U.S. Congress were trying to justify what they are about to do by having some of their staffers come out here on a “fact finding” trip. They weren’t here long enough to find anything out. And if you listened to what they had to say, they were just spouting the same old lines that we heard from Stayman and Johnson, almost verbatim. Their trip here was not to honor us, but to humor us. If you truly care about the impact your proposed legislation may have on a territory or a Commonwealth, you spend enough time there to truly find out what all the impacts might be. When you zip in and out in less than half a day, you are sending a very strong message that you really don’t care what the impacts are, you’re just trying to cover your backside by putting on a dog and pony show. All indications are that the powers that be in Washington have already made up their minds about what they intend to do, and all of these visits are nothing more than a formality really.

Some of our politicians may realize just how serious the situation is for businesses here right now. But I have a feeling they are probably outnumbered by the politicians who are only looking for a bail out from Uncle Sam. They would gladly sell out our right to control our own immigration and minimum wage in exchange for a big cash handout from the U.S. government every year. The main problem with that scenario is that it takes away the major tools that businesses have to remain profitable and stay in business, and would in effect turn us into a welfare state.

Yes it’s probably true that there have been some businesses that have charged far more than they needed to in the past and have gouged their clients and customers. But we need to keep in mind that most business owners are in business for one reason, and that is to make money. If they didn’t care about profit margins and making money, they would most likely be working with a non-profit organization. If businesses can no longer make what they consider to be a reasonable profit, they will relocate to somewhere else that they can. If we lose control of our immigration and are no longer allowed to bring in Chinese and Russian tourists, the effects will be felt through almost every segment of the business community. The hotels will have less guests, meaning that they won’t need as many staff, and may have to cut wages or hours of the staff they can keep. Restaurants will have fewer customers, meaning that some of them will probably have to close, and others may have to raise prices and cut back on staff as well. Tour operators won’t need as many staff, and will have to cut back. This also means the hotels and restaurants will have less money to spend on things like advertising. So the newspapers, and radio stations will also be taking further cuts. Which by the way, we’ve already seen some very drastic cuts, and can only imagine how much worse it will be if we lose more tourists. Because of what has been happening here economically, we are also cutting back on our staff, we have cut 2 positions in the last couple of months, and that is just to try to survive.

The trickle down effect is hitting us all very hard right now, but as bad as it is, it could be much worse. The main problem is that is directly where we are heading according to the various political staffers we have had visiting us lately. On the one hand they will say something like they understand our situation and really don’t want to do anything that will adversely affect our economy. But then the next minute they will give some line about how much money the U.S. government is pumping into Guam with the military build up, and how homeland security is such a concern, and that outweighs any adverse effect taking over our immigration may have on our economy. If you listen to them carefully, you will walk away with a severe headache, and will swear their tongues begin to look like they’re forked after a while.

So what will these islands be like if we continue losing businesses the way we have for the past 5 years? Take a look back to what the islands were like 30 years ago that will give you a pretty good idea of where we could be heading. The main problem with a welfare state is that you are totally dependent on handouts from someone else; you have lost the ability to generate your own wealth and to create business opportunities. You take how much they decide to give you and when they decide to give it to you. You really have no bargaining chips left, you have been reduced to beggar status, and begging becomes your way of life to survive. Yes there will be a few businesses left, after all someone will always be willing to take the money you have been given for basic commodities. But the problem with the lack of competition is that they can also hold you hostage and charge whatever they feel like. You can either pay it or go without. And yes, there were those who got rich in the old days because they happened to be in the right place at the right time, and yes, they did charge whatever they felt like.

I realize that I’m painting a pretty gloomy picture of where we could easily be heading, but all the indications are that’s a definite possibility. I hope our politicians are wise enough to realize we need to have a sustainable economy here, and that living on handouts is really no way to live. Something tells me there will be great temptation to sell us all out for a quick fix or a cash infusion, but that would only kill us in the long run. As bad as things are right now, they are continuing to get worse as we lose more and more of the garment factories. James Lin, who at one time had the second largest garment factory on island, has now announced that he will also be closing his factory in the next couple of months. I told you a while ago that unless there was some kind of major concession for the factories, like an amendment to Headnote 3a, that we would lose all the factories by the middle of 2008 at the very latest. It looks like that may have been a generous estimate and they may all be gone by the end of this year. With the absence of all the garment factories tax contributions to the government coffers, there will be more temptation than ever for the politicians to sell us out for a quick bail out.

Right now the people really need to hear from their leaders about what is going on, and to hear that our leaders are on top of things. I realize they don’t have all the answers, but they need to at least tell us what they are thinking and what their plans are. Otherwise people have no reason to have any hope or confidence that things will ever change or get any better. Again, my microphone on Island Issues is always open to the Governor, and I’m hoping that he will again soon see fit to come in and discuss the issues of the day and to let you know what is going on. If we have ever needed strong leadership, it is right now.

I’m Harry Blalock, thanking you once again for giving me a generous slice of your valuable time, and allowing me to share my Food For Thought.

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My commentary that airs on radio stations KZMI - 103.9 FM & KCNM - 101.1 FM