Saturday, September 30, 2006

Banana Republics...

My wife and I recently had the opportunity to spend a few days in St. Lucia, an island in the Caribbean. It was a really nice trip that had two unexpected highlights. I was hoping the trip would be a time of pure rest and relaxation – but it turned out that the best parts were big learning experiences.

First, along with another couple, we rented a cab to drive us around the (small) island one day. (St. Lucia has a population of approximately 160,000 and is approximately 5 miles East/West by 25 miles North/South.) We ended up spending about 5 hours in that cab…which was far too long…but it was a great learning experience about St. Lucia. Admittedly, we stopped at a number of tourist traps where cheap “souvenirs” were sold at us. But in driving through the cities, observing the people, and asking questions to and talking with the cab driver Clem, we were able to learn quite a bit about the island – a true banana republic, whose primary industries are tourism, banana plantations, and fishing.

One thing we observed on our trip was so many people just standing around all over the island. At one point, as we were driving through the capital city of Castries for the second time that day, one of our friends asked the driver what the unemployment rate on the island was. He told us that the “official rate is about 15%.” I thought that was interesting – the “official rate.” It wasn’t explained, just left to hang out there. We also asked what gas prices were like in St. Lucia. Clem told us that currently prices are around $4.50 USD. But, he said, that’s actually a little lower than average, because they are in the midst of an election, so the ruling government reduced prices some to engender positive reaction from the electorate.

The next night we attended a dinner where I had the opportunity to sit next to a local lawyer who is also involved with some government committees on the island. I spent almost two hours grilling him (at some point I let up to let him eat his food!!) about the systems of laws, the education system, government, politics, economy, and anything else I could think of about the island. It was a great learning opportunity. St. Lucia is in the midst of two political events – an election cycle (which comes once every 5 years) and a constitutional review (in which their entire constitution is being reviewed for change and/or update). I was able to learn a tremendous amount about this island we were visiting (and the Caribbean in general – we spent some time discussing the potential for a Common Caribbean Market – similar to the EU – which would enable each of the small islands of the West Indies to band together to present a larger, more robust Common Market). During our conversation, I remembered Clem’s statement about the “official” unemployment rate. I asked my new friend about that. He told me that indeed the government’s official unemployment rate was around 15% - but that number was very deceiving, because they essentially cut out “self-employed” – or more accurately, “don’t want to be employed” from that number. Folks who just subside by doing odd jobs, small-time fishing, etc. are simply not included. He said that it’s possible that the actual unemployment rate stretches far higher, maybe to close to 50%. It’s just all in the way you calculate it. My friend also confirmed Clem’s assumption about gas prices, that the government had indeed lowered prices a bit for political purposes.

Of course, that got me thinking about the good old USA. Over the course of the past four years, the Bush Administration Labor Department has systematically redefined “unemployment” for purposes of the “official” unemployment rates. In this way, they can compare their “rate” with historical rates, and argue that their number doesn’t look so bad. Of course, reasoning people understand that such a comparison is the same as comparing apples and oranges – the rates are not comparing a similar population, and any such comparison is therefore invalid.

In addition, a recent Gallup poll found that a full 42% of Americans agreed with the statement that the Bush administration “deliberately manipulated the price of gasoline so that it would decrease before this fall’s elections.” Wow. Almost half of our nation thinks that the Republican party is playing politics at the pump. I think that the possibility that this is really occurring is rather remote – but it is clear that a large portion of America believes it. Even if not true – this is a damning indictment of the public perception of the Republican party and the Bush Administration – and just how corrupt the American people believe they are.

Amazing. Now, which is the banana republic???

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