OP ED: Tamaseugogo #8
The annual subsidy from the United States guarantees the funding of the American Samoa Serrata to time infinity. And if our next class and future classes of leaders opt to leave the Serrata intact, the rest of us will live a struggling existence for the rest of our lives.
The briefs given below summarizes how the Serrata is rendering the territory the “son” of Samoa in terms of capacity building and development; and castigating local people helpless in the face of the sweeping “Asian invasion”.
The department charged with the development of the territory — Department of Commerce — has over time become an agency of NOAA and other purposes, duplicating the purpose of the Department of Marine and Wild Life and perhaps other departments; and jeopardizing the economic and general development of the territory of American Samoa, its primary function.
Local small business and prospective ones with compromised credit records or none at all are left to fend for themselves, because the two commercials banks (and the development bank even) ostracize them as the “untouchables”. Of the millions of dollars the territory received in ARRA funds, I find it unbelievable that none trickled down to these local folks who dared to take their chances in the private sector.
If DOC cannot help this under-developed yet potentially productive and self-sustaining sector of the local impoverished community, then the DOC has no purpose to exist as the government department responsible for economic development of the territory.
It appears the leadership of this department is more interested in housing other agencies that bring in the most federal funds, and not seriously engaging in enabling activities to help develop local businesses thus help fledgling entrepreneurs and their families enjoy a decent standard of living. This sector of our economy has largely been ignored, and it’s time to open the door of opportunity to them.
The DOC should be the leading agency, in collaboration with other related departments, authorities, private sector, and community groups in forging development policies (to include human capital investment and viable pipeline of skilled workers, professionals, and entrepreneurs) for the Fono and administration to consider, approve and implement.
Undermining the Engine of Development — Human Capital
The existence of the Serrata ascertains the inadequacy of investment in human capital and institutionalizes the hiring of traditional chiefs over qualified American Samoans.
The shortage of Samoan medical doctors, economists, trained accountants, engineers, entrepreneurs, trained and certified tradesmen, trained commercial farmers and fishermen, and other fields vital to the development of the territory reflects how unimportant development is to the elitist leadership. The cut in the scholarship program budget by half a million dollars for this fiscal year is telling of the leadership’s attitude towards education and development.
The lack of a pipeline that connects elementary and high school, trades schools, college, professional school, and employment in the territory explains the waste of limited resources the territory has had over the years to this day. A local scholarship student educated in agricultural economics at UC Davis (world renowned for its agricultural program) returned in the mid-1980s and was available to work at the Department of Agriculture and hopefully lead the department one day to help develop local agro-businesses. Instead, a series of traditional chiefs were selected to head this important department.
Likewise, there’s a handful of American Samoans who have graduated with degrees in economics; yet not one has taken the helm of the Department of Commerce in recent and past administrations. The only trained local statistician the territory has had for over the past twenty-five years was noticeably absent but needed in the last territory census count (the integrity of which has been seriously questioned), has left DOC and is now counting votes at the Election Office.
The office of the Insurance Commissioner, which is usually manned by lawyers in the states, is a safe haven for retired high chiefs (without knowledge of the insurance business but are skillful, tireless, and loyal campaigners) in American Samoa. There are now two traditional chiefs in the office; one is the commissioner, a longtime educator and a rugby player of some local note of years gone by, and the other, his consultant — probably a retired military veteran.
Insurance sales and marketing practices harmful to the consumers who invariably are low income people often go uncorrected due to the victims’ ignorance or lack of resources to seek justice. This is a major problem in the territory, but more often than not, these poor folks suffer silently. Then there are reserve and liquidity requirements insurance companies should maintain to ensure the ability of local companies to make payments to beneficiaries on a timely manner and in full should a major disaster hits. I am not sure these requirements are being strictly enforced (if they exist at all) by the commissioner to protect the consumers, most of whom are unsuspecting low income people.
Further, the placement of unqualified chiefs in key positions costs the territory dearly in legal settlements and lawyers’ fees, on top of opportunity benefits forgone because competent personnel were not engaged. Moreover, the number of advisors, executive assistants, or consultants at the administration and the Fono as well as department directors command annual incomes in the high five to six figures — total sum of military retirement, military disability benefits, workman compensation benefits, ASG retirement, social security benefits, and high ASG contract salary that they receive.
Is it ever enough for these chiefs? How many medical students could we have educated with these high contract salaries over the past twenty years?
These are cases of excess human capital due to underemployment, misemployment, or unemployment of qualified younger American Samoans; and where unqualified traditional chiefs and retirees take precedence in landing high government positions- vital to maintaining the Serrata but costing the territory significant financial resources and social opportunity benefits forgone.
Unfair & Destructive Tax System
President Obama extended the payroll tax cut so to help spur the economic recovery, but our leaders took the opportunity to continue the 2% wage tax to finance their mistakes, and even upped it by 2% more. With the wage tax, now at 6% — formal wage earners (W-2s) are punished; non-wage income earners (a significant sector of the local economy) escape scot free. The sales tax option should be considered seriously for fairness reasons.
The top corporate tax rate is the highest in the Pacific region and the US, and is keeping needed investments and employment away. The government tax exemption program also needs to be examined and make necessary changes for fairness, fostering business growth hence employment, and minimizing undesirable outcomes — when does a business no longer need such an incentive?
Church and Culture
The two institutions purported to help the poor turned out to be key instruments of the elite to maintain the Serrata. Obligations to church and cultural “fa’alavelaves” have become burdensome — financially and mentally — to the masses. Ostracism, subtle or “in your face” kind, is often employed when contributions are not up to par.
The standard of living of members of the clergy, especially those of the largest (if diminishing) denomination in the territory, is right up there with government leaders. And if they are not filing income taxes (which they should), they are receiving high “alofas” tax free. They should be filing federal self-employment tax returns as well, so to participate in the federal social security system (retirement, disability, and Medicare), instead of depending on members of the congregation (most of whom are low income people) to fund their retirement and health needs through contributions.
Church sponsored and constant fund raising activities, bingo, raffle, food sale, etc. are taxing low income people’s limited budgets, squeezing out necessary expenditures on their children’s education needs and health care.
The clergy needs to become more effective warriors in an effort to stem the rise in social problems concerning the youth, alcohol and drugs, teen pregnancy, thievery, violence, and sexual abuse. Recent media and other reports concerning members of the clergy however are not encouraging: driving under the influence of alcohol, misuse of church funds, verbal or physical confrontations with members of the congregation, and allegation of improper relationships with members of the flock.
These may be isolated incidents, but discouraging nonetheless. The church, like the culture, has become part of the problem.
Leading High Chiefs (“Sa’os”) Losing their Mana & Mamalu
“Ua fa’avae e le Atua Samoa ina ia pulea e Matai” (God founded Samoa to be ruled by chiefs) is the anthem of our Samoan culture. It verbalizes the extension of God’s Mana to the Samoan high chiefs to lead the people of Samoa with love; because God is Love.
Sadly, it is that love for all in the family that’s gone missing hence the mana from the Sa’o’s execution of his duties as anointed by God. The one tangible element that symbolizes that love is land. Land in Samoa is sacred because it is of God — out of earth God created man — and it was given to the Sa’o to nurture and care for the rest of the family.
Significant amount of land is being alienated now and sold for the benefit of the Sa’o and his or her immediate family; and some land is being leased for the same personal benefit. In some instances, purchases and leasing are done in the manner where the Sa’o and key members of the Serrata benefit (where government agencies are intermediaries or the lessee is the government) on the expense of the extended family.
That is, the Serrata government members get a piece of the pie. The God-anointed Samoan culture as our forefathers knew it no longer exists; it has become a tool of the Serrata where the once God anointed Sa’os have turned capitalists of the worse kind.
Government Affiliation influences Business and Public Policy
It appears instances where sound public policy takes second seat to granting favors to private concerns are not rare in government; and more often than not these favors have prices — measurable figures. Immeasurable however is the opportunity cost to the public for not placing the desirable public policy because it concerns the peoples’ priceless lives.
One such case is the “protection” seemingly granted to a local insurance company owned by an employee of the governor’s office and his wife who lobbied vehemently against the bill to establish a government self-insurance plan for the territory.
So far their lobbying efforts have proved influential, while they have become the poster child of the “rags to riches” story in the territory. Trying to add political power to their economic might (and perhaps hedging against the possibility of the gubernatorial team of their choice not surviving this election), the wife is now running for a seat at the House of Representatives, where she has been successful in keeping the healthcare financing bill collect dust at the Fono.
Fono as Extension of the Executive Branch
The bill proposed by our lame duck governor to elect the senate belongs in the round file, at least for now. Why? Because there is more sense emanating from the current senate than the administration and the House of Representatives — positions elected by the people. With the Serrata in place, it appears it matters not if the senate is elected or not. But it would save the tax payers money if the senate is left as it is.
The Fono needs to step up to the plate and take its proper position in government, not becoming an agent of the governor’s office. Fono needs to take the initiative to establish economic and general development policies if the governor is passive in this regard.
Fono needs to reconsider its tax free allowance and render it part of the compensation therefore taxable — on grounds of fairness and ethics. It’s blatantly self-serving as it stands, a slap in the face of the rest of wage earners, especially the poor. Moreover, the Fono needs to require that its members resign from their executive jobs in the private sector, to avoid the strong appearance of conflict of interest.
Global Tsunami of Foreign Entrepreneurs & Workers
Of the migrants who have come to our shores, it is the Asians who have made their mark in the territory prominently and pervasively. The breadth and depth of the “Asian Invasion” is annihilating and will not cease until the last penny to be made is gained. In a sense, these successful migrants have rendered the US citizenship issue a mute one. They have proven that non-citizens can “come, see, and conquer” any county and live a financially rewarding life in foreign land.
The Asian wave of dominance is global; and with our Serrata firmly in place, the rest of us have no chance at competing with these seasoned, relentless, and well funded entrepreneurs; and skillful, patient, and productive workers. If the recent controversy concerning Asians leasing land from the Sa’os and other landowners, and selling their produce to the federally funded school lunch program (and everywhere else) doesn’t wake us up, I don’t know what will.
Is there Hope for the rest of us in American Samoa?
With our God there’s always hope for us. But we have to do our part. First, we need to learn from Samoa and take the longer view of life by investing in our young people and placing them properly in government and private sector upon their return or completion of their training if done locally.
Unfortunately the American Samoa leadership had assumed for the past twenty years the attitude that “in the long run we are all dead”; so they created the Serrata to take care of themselves and their families and supporters.
Hence, we must break up the Serrata. On November 6, 2012, we will elect and select our next class of leaders. And it is this new group of leaders who have no choice but to demolish the Serrata; and employ an inclusive government policy to give everyone a chance to help create and enjoy our common prosperity.
Otherwise, we will lament, as one of my golf friends would when losing a game of golf, “Aue le oti e ua sau mai vae! Aue!” In translation: “Alas! Oh death, I can see you creeping up, slowly but surely, from my toes to engulf the rest of my being! Alas!
IA FA’AMANUIA LE ATUA I LAU PALOTA TUTUILA MA MANU’A