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Op-Ed: Tamaseugogo #6

In her recent New York Times essay entitled “The Self-Destruction of the 1 Percent”, Chrystia Freeland, editor of Thomson Reuters Digital and author of “Plutocrats: The Rise of the New Global Super-Rich and the Fall of Everyone Else”, compares the current US social-economic predicament to the downfall of Venice, once the definition of economic prowess in early 14th century Europe.

The driving force behind the Venice success story was the Colleganza— spreading the risk among new entrepreneurs and established business financiers by forming joint-stock companies. The Colleganza-spurred business activities mobilized the city-state of Venice to the pinnacle of its economic development in 1315. 

However, fearing the “Elite” was getting crowded, the ruling oligarchy decided to close off the Colleganza to new entrepreneurs and called it La Serrata— the closure. The Serrata was the beginning of the end of Venice as one of the richest city-states in Europe, as the risk takers took their entrepreneurship elsewhere in Europe.

 In their book “Why Nations Fail: The Origins of Power, Prosperity, and Poverty,” scholars Daron Acemoglu and James Robinson attributed the fall of Venice to its governing institution being extractive. That is, the ruling oligarchy’s main objective is to extract as much wealth as they can from the rest of society; whereas inclusive governance creates greater access to economic opportunity by everyone, which in turn fosters more prosperity, thus even more inclusiveness and prosperity — a virtuous cycle.

While the breaking of this virtuous cycle via the Serrata- according to this thesis, as stated in the Freeland essay — explains the self-destruction of Venice; the continuity of the virtuous cycle tells the history of the United States up to the early 19th century, when Thomas Jefferson in an 1814 letter boasted about the United States being one of the most egalitarian societies on the planet — “Can any condition of society be more desirable than this?”

This all changed in the United States when the pioneering spirit had acquired the western most frontier and the industrial revolution produced the first elite class of industrial and financial barons. President Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1932 acknowledged the industrial revolution was accomplished due to “a group of financial titans, whose methods were not scrutinized with too much care, and who were honored in proportion as they produced results, irrespective of the means they used”; and lamented — “equality of opportunity as we have known it no longer exists. We are steering a steady course toward economic oligarchy, if we are not there already.”

If the “head” of America’s Serrata emerged with the Industrial Revolution, its entire body appears to have taken its place in the 21st century United States. Today, the income disparity and education attainment chasm, and income tax burden differential, according to Freeland, have reached their highest points between the “haves” and the “have-nots” since the Gilded Age (a period of time, 1860-1896, brought about by the industrial revolution when robber barons ruled the roost).

Freeland concluded “Now, as then, the titans are seeking an even greater political voice to match their economic power. Now, as then, the inevitable danger is that they will confuse their own self-interest with the common good. The irony of the political rise of the plutocrats is that, like Venice’s oligarchs, they threaten the system that created them.”

Whether or not America’s Serrata will lead to the self-destruction of the United States is a function of the outcome of the 2012 national elections and national economic and social policies that follow. We shall find out soon enough.

But how will the outcome of the national elections affect American Samoa?

A Republican victory may spell the end of Obamacare and render further cuts in subsidies to the insular territories. Both possible events will impact American Samoa significantly and we don’t have a say in the matter. 

What we can control however is whether or not we allow our own Serrata to destroy American Samoa; and we will make that important decision on November 6, 2012 when we vote for our governor and lt. governor, congressional representative, Fono representatives; and select our senators through convening councils of chiefs.

To decide wisely though requires that the public is aware of the American Samoa Serrata. 

What is the American Samoa Serrata and when did it emerge in the territory? 

In my opinion, the American Samoa Serrata is the convergence of politics, culture, and church (with money as the magnetic core) to form an elite class of leaders that influence employment and business opportunities primarily to sustain their social and economic status in our community with impunity — in the guise of public service.

In 1977 when the territory first elected its governor and lt. governor, the Serrata seed was planted — the plant grew and flourished in the later years to its present form and tipping point today. 

To date: the income disparity in American Samoa has reached the all time high (six figure household incomes among select government employees vs. the prevalent less than $10 thousand household incomes across the board); the emergence of private schools in the past twenty years indicates where the territory’s high income earners are sending their children; the placement of an unfair tax system and tax exemption program; the church becoming a major tax shelter; the selection of traditional chiefs to key government posts irrespective of their qualifications for the posts; the shortchanging of LBJ Hospital, ASCC, ASPA, DOE, roads and transportation allocations; unfair distribution of post graduate scholarships; and the uncontrolled influx of migrants (legal or illegal), with comparable or superior skill sets, displacing members of the local labor pool (that is largely ill-prepared by our local systems to compete in an already depressed job market) are manifestations or causes of the widening gap between the “haves” and “have-nots” in American Samoa.

Of the territorial elections, the gubernatorial race determines the key leader who is charged with responding to the challenge set forth in this editorial opinion piece: Will we continue down the road of “extractive” government policy to self-destruction; or make a U-turn and employ an “inclusive” government policy to foster a level playing field for everyone? 

And we, the voters, are charged with electing this leader in less than two weeks. Will you vote according to the comfortable life being promised you and your family today, or will you vote for a brighter future for all the children of American Samoa?

God help us.