Through the looking glass

Posted on Aug 30 2019

Farmers mostly

During the Japanese era here in the Marianas, thousands of individual farmers worked their own small plots growing sugar cane, truck farm vegetables, coffee, and fruits, mostly for export to the Japan homeland market. Most of those farmers were from Okinawa, south of the main Japanese islands. Over those decades they had developed the first successful sustainable economy these islands had seen since before the Western explorers “discovered” the local population who had been living here for more than 3,000 years. That economy was based on sustainable agriculture. Then came the horrors of war in 1944.

Earlier this week, for the 50th time, a planeload of people from Okinawa arrived on Saipan to remember the many who lost their lives in the Pacific War during World War II and to pray for peace so hopefully the gruesome horrors of war don’t return to our peaceful isles, or anywhere else. The oldest of these supplicants were residents here in those dark war-torn days; most that come now are their descendants. Not too many years ago there were two planeloads. Many have passed.

The prayers and rituals that accompany the Okinawan memorial services on Saipan and Tinian are emotionally stirring, and foster contemplation. Even the traditional costumed dances are transcendental rather than just entertaining. The individual prayers offered one by one by all in attendance bring the memorial service to a very personal level.

A very strong moral driving force is behind the expensive and time-consuming logistics that enable these kind people to come here year after year. We should thank them. We should emulate their faith in the power of human good to win out over the powers of evil, force and violence that war brings. World peace is worth working for but is a difficult goal to get to. Those who come here each year to remember the past have that goal in mind and look to the future as well as they work toward that end.

Clean the glass + & –

Transparency can be a good thing. It can point out hidden conflicts of interest (hidden to the public but not the OPA who can actually do something about it). It promotes a sense of honesty in government, which could certainly use a hefty shot of good PR considering most people see government as tainted, if not outright crooked. Transparency can also polish the, rightfully, dismal reputation of many elected individuals and appointed government workers. Maybe it can help us see how Presidents Clinton and Obama go into office as upper middle-class citizens and came out with hundreds of millions in their pockets. Trump, already a billionaire, will undoubtedly come out with a bigger pile as well, as did his presidential and legislative predecessors going far back in time.

Out here the numbers are much smaller, but the graft has the same roots—greed and power—and the results are the same, a loss of confidence in elected officials and, ultimately, in the government itself.

But there is a dark side to this concept of transparency too. It acts as yet another deterrent—like low wages—that prevents talented, educated, well-meaning people from seeking public office. Privacy in a person’s business dealings is often necessary and especially so for a successful person with more than one business interest going at one time. In a small island economy like ours, you will note that diversity in investments and businesses is a hallmark of our most prominent citizens. They don’t have, and they don’t want to have, all their eggs in one basket. They own and operate a number of different businesses in completely different industries to spread the risk. Privacy in those businesses and transactions is essential and is guaranteed by our CNMI Constitution and by the U.S. Constitution.

Transparency does not change the root motivations of those who want to wield elected executive or legislative political power. If someone volunteers to run for office, watch them closely. Ask why. If someone is willing to spend hundreds of thousands to get a job that pays tens of thousands, grab hold of your wallet, and if someone wants to wield supreme executive power by actively running for a political unit’s highest office, they should be immediately disqualified from doing so. That is a job that should be forced on someone—for a short defined period of time—and with a tug at their civic duty heartstring. Then they should be sent back into private life with our thanks for doing a thankless job for a couple of years. Alas, the system now in place turns them instead into career politicians who become career appointed staff and “consultants” once their time in office is over.

Don’t fool yourself. This has nothing to do with party politics. This is deep-seated human psychology and human weakness showing through the thin veneer of civilization and social mores (no, not eels). One party is no better in curbing the excesses than another. That’s why governments need to be overseen and constrained by their citizens. Without that public participation, so-called free societies are doomed to failure once their bureaucracies become big enough for citizens to vote themselves a living rather than work for one. Transparency can help stave off the wolves for a while.

You decide whether to support laws and regulations that promote or force transparency. OPA or similar agencies can’t solve the problem. Who watches the watchers?

Thanks for reading Sour Grapes!

Next week we’ll look at how the Legislature sometimes micromanages the Saipan zoning process and sometimes overrides it completely, for personal or political reasons. Not a pretty picture.

Transparency is not about restoring trust in institutions. Transparency is the politics of managing mistrust.
—Ivan Krastev

I hate war as only a soldier who has lived it can, only as one who has seen its brutality, its futility, its stupidity.
—Dwight D. Eisenhower

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