Op-Ed: You Can’t Eat Scenery

The Danish flag (shutterstock)

Especially in the month of December, it would be hard to think of two places more different than the city of Milwaukee and the Virgin Islands. While “bleak” is a word many people would use to describe Milwaukee in winter, especially its hyper-segregated and impoverished north-side, few people would ever describe the Virgin Islands with that term.

But the two places do have something very important in common. In a drive through Milwaukee’s north-side with a city official, we asked each other: if you had to identify people’s single greatest need in these neighborhoods, what would it be? With almost no discussion, we instantly agreed on that greatest need. It could be summed up in a single word. That word: money.

What is obvious in Milwaukee, especially in a cold, dark, long winter, is a lot less obvious in the Virgin Islands, masked by physical beauty and the wonders of nature. In the film, Local Hero, a Texas oilman is sent to buy a town on the coast of Scotland to build a refinery there. The oilman is immediately captivated by the place’s extraordinary beauty, and kind of stunned by the willingness, even the eagerness, of the townspeople to sell the place. Like many visitors to the Virgin Islands, he just doesn’t understand, until one of the locals explains to him, “Mac, you can’t eat scenery.”

(Note: it often comes as a shock to Virgin Islanders, even well-informed ones, to learn that many people on the mainland, including similarly well-informed ones, are surprised to learn that the cost of living in the Virgin Islands is higher than it is where they live. What? They don’t need winter clothes. They don’t need heating oil. Don’t they have solar panels? Isn’t electricity cheap? Can’t they grow things in their gardens? What’s wrong with those people?  On a stack of bibles, I swear to God, this is all true.)

All of this was brought to mind by Phil Clarke’s recent Source opinion column on Denmark paying its past-due bill to the territory. In many proposals of this kind, there is usually an implicit assumption that what should be done, that being the right thing, i.e., sending the money, is not what is going to be done. This is especially true in our times, when doing the right thing is not exactly in vogue.

For the moment though, let’s assume that both the Danes and the United States government decide, in a fit of either guilt or new-found responsibility, that they are going to make up for past misdeeds and invest in a brighter future for the Virgin Islands. The payout will be many multiples of the current territorial budget. Now here is the fundamental question: what will Virgin Islanders do with this enormous windfall? Based on experience, the immediate answer would be: Hey, don’t worry. Just send the money. We’ll figure it out.

That would, needless to say, be a bad thing.

There would appear to be an outside chance that the United States is at the dawn of a ‘New New Deal’ era, and that there could be large scale public spending on jobs, poverty alleviation, infrastructure and the environment. All areas of great need in the Virgin Islands.

In another older film with a line that is a good fit, The Sting, one of the leaders in a successful scam is asked if he’s going to stick around for his share of the take. He replies, “Nah, I’d just blow it.”

As in most things in life, there is a scale or continuum here. That continuum runs from “just blowing it” to the absolute best investments of lots of money in the territory’s future. To end up on the right end of that continuum, there’s a really useful discussion to be had about how you would spend large – one time – amounts of money on. What would the priorities be? How would you allocate large sums among pressing needs in poverty reduction, the environment, education, health, infrastructure, community peace, the energy future, and building a viable economy for the decades ahead?

Giving leaders in Copenhagen and Washington a vision of how their overdue payments would be invested in a better future would send a powerful message. It would also move at least some of these potential donors away from reticence based on their belief – partially accurate – that they were being “guilt-tripped.” And, like the education of Mac, the Texas oilman in Scotland, it would correct misconceptions and provide some powerful examples of the truth that “You can’t eat scenery.”

Editor’s note: Frank Schneiger was executive director of the Federal Region II Children’s Resource Center, which trained a generation of V.I. children’s services workers. He subsequently founded St. Thomas/St. John Youth MultiService Center. In the past two decades, he has served as a planning consultant for a range of Virgin Islands organizations and has been a columnist for the Virgin Islands Source. He is the author of two books, “The Arc,” under the pen name of Roberto Vincent, and “The Purge: The Future As History in the Age of Trump,” available on Amazon.