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    Saturday, January 19, 2019-3:51:49A.M.

     

     

     

     

     

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Variations | Adios maestro

ABOUT a quarter of a century ago, on my first day as a reporter on Capital Hill, I introduced myself to the governor’s public information officer, a former cable TV reporter.

We talked about the local media scene and the schedule of the governor’s weekly media conference. He then gave me the single most important piece of advice I have ever heard as a reporter on island: “If you need to get info about anything else, ask Bill Stewart.”

At the time, William “Bill” H. Stewart was the CNMI government’s senior economist. I don’t think that position has ever been filled since he retired in the mid-to-late 1990s. The local economic downturn began in 1998, and then it got worse. Its revival began just a few years ago with the emergence of a new tourism market, and the arrival of a new major investor. Exactly what Bill said ought to happen to bring the local economy back to life.

Bill passed away on Dec. 5th in West Virginia, 10 days after the death of his gracious wife, Ann. They were married for 67 years. I am proud to call them friends.

Back in the day, Bill was the repository of NMI/Micronesian historical information, economic data and statistics. He could and did provide nuance and perspective to reporters writing about the NMI. Then and now, someone new to the island will usually assume that what he is seeing is “new” and even “simple.” Except nothing ever is. Bill offered a broader view of NMI realities and their roots in the past — if you’re into that. And by “that” I mean facts. But if you had an apocalyptic bent and  preferred righteous indignation to actually knowing what you were talking about, then Bill was no help at all.

Bill was one of the many concerned citizens in the NMI who look at things as they already are (for example, pension fund crisis), and then find ways to make them better (economic recovery). Others see the same things (again, let’s say, pension fund crisis), and conclude that our “mindset” is the problem (we’re “greedy”). What is basic arithmetic for an economist like Bill becomes a morality play for some of our self-appointed “enlighteners.” Among them are those who want a “reset” — a return to “Year Zero” so we can “start all over again,” and never mind the retirees, government employees, their families, medical referral patients and, yes, the children. They will be, well, “inconvenienced,” but they must get used to it, and then, eventually, things will be much better and glorious for everyone — as Saloth Sar (aka Pol Pot) and other intelligent, scientific and compassionate leaders have preached throughout known human history.

Bovine solid waste.

That’s what Bill, ever the gentleman, called such talk.

Then and now, many of our eager redeemers have no extensive knowledge about NMI/Micronesian history. If they can’t Google it, then it didn’t happen, and it doesn’t matter. Hence most of them are unaware that most of the “problems” they see today were already problems in the past, and that many of their preferred “solutions” have also been proposed and some were even implemented in the past. Indeed, many of these “problems” are actually predicaments. They are the typical conditions one will most likely encounter in small, remote islands with a small population and not a lot of resources.

In 1978, the invaluable Micronesian Reporter published an article by Bill regarding development trade-offs.  “Every development decision,” he wrote, “has a ‘trade off’ price. As one who is admittedly pro-development I have been constantly amazed at how quickly certain people embrace the environmental and ecology movement at the expense of a project that will improve the standard of living of all the people, at least by standards generally accepted by reasonable people who see the value to society of radio communications, docks, airports, roads, electric power and so forth.

“Having traveled extensively throughout the developing nations of Africa and Southeast Asia, I have observed that local tradition and culture have been maintained while modern advancement has taken place to improve the standards of living of the people. This requires no small amount of creative and imaginative thinking on the part of government officials in the ‘art of compromise’…but it does occur.

“I am beginning to suspect that only in countries wealthy enough to afford the luxury of historical and environmental protection do such controversial issues surface in public or legal debate.”

Regarding well-meaning U.S. efforts to “protect” the NMI and the rest of Micronesia, Bill wrote: “I think we do Micronesians a disservice by imposing on them legislation designed 10,000 miles away to correct a situation in the U.S. that has been 200 years in the making. Indeed, if the United States had to develop in 1776 under the same legislation and regulations which now exist in Micronesia in 1978, I am afraid [the U.S.] would have never made it as a self-sufficient nation.” The U.S., Bill added, “seems to want to make Micronesia dependent on U.S. handouts since developments [in the islands] are certainly thwarted by…many legislative constraints.”

In an interview with Howard Willens in 1993, Bill admitted that he “feels very uncomfortable recommending things to [the local] people. I consider myself a guest. It’s their island. The bones of their ancestors are here. And I just, that’s just the way I operate. But anyway, I put this out there so that they can see it.”

Let’s hope we all see it.

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