A top down Virgin Islands economy cannot survive further into the 21st century

An area populated by roughly 105,000 people should not run its economy based on a model designed to hoard capital while generating returns to that capital in as many markets as possible. Given the reliance on government and tourism as its economy’s drivers, can the Virgin Islands of the United States afford to have a fraction of its community limit the distribution of capital and the opportunities that are spawned from capital deployment? In other words, where a small number of farmers control most of the seed, should they be allowed to only spread seed on a small portion of the land while most of the plot lays fallow? The answer is no.

I can understand the marginalization that a significant number of Virgin Islanders feel. My father moved from St. Kitts to the Virgin Islands in the early 1960s. He married my mother in St. Kitts in 1962 and I, their first born, came along the following year. He worked in the hotel industry which was booming at that period in large part to Fidel Castro taking Cuba offline as a tourist stop resulting in the Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico emerging as alternative vacation destinations. A large number of “down islanders” moved to the Virgin Islands during that period and while we added to the vibrancy of the economy, particularly in the tourist industry, we were always outsiders, having not being born in the territory.

That outsider status as immigrants of course spilled over into the other industry: government. Being non-citizens, my parents could only watch from the sidelines and cheer for a candidate that they thought represented their values. During the early 1960s through the late 1970s that candidate was Cyril E. King. So enamored with the late governor was my mother that she thought it a good idea that I share Governor King’s middle name. Quite a few parents shared that sentiment during that time as well.

But not only was there marginalization in terms of origin or employment by or representation in government, there was marginalization in terms of ownership in the private sector. Yes, locals owned small retail outlets, trade shops, small bars, and restaurants, but larger institutions such as the banks, hotels, and jewelry stores remained in the hands of American and European corporations. Corporations and banks represent not only non-ownership on the part of locals, but a flow of capital and income out of the territory. A community with a high level of poverty needs to see capital and income recycled through the local population, searching out and funding the opportunities that have laid dormant or unseen because current hoarders of capital are biased against local people, preferring to keep us marginalized.

What type of opportunities should re-cycled capital and income search out? They should seek out opportunities that create the ability for each household to have productive capacity within their own hands. Capital and income need to stay within the territory and provide households the ability to practice “decentralized home economics”; where a household can produce their own energy, network their own communications needs; and access alternative modes of logistics that not only transport citizens quickly to any destination, but brings goods, services, and information from distant points to the household. Instead of enjoying fewer economic benefits because they have been forced to live on the edge, households can maximize returns on their resources i.e. income and capital, by making the most from living on the edge.

Marginalization no longer has to be equated with poverty. It can now be, through the use of technology, be equated with wealth.

Some thoughts on how I model the economy

This is still a work in progress. The old saying is money makes the world go ‘round. Spoken from a consumerist view, the conclusion I can understand. You want to eat, sleep, and shit in relative peace and safety you need coin. Lately I have been taken a harder look at my role in this political-economic ecosystem. I have concluded that we are merely extraction points for tax and sales revenues with intravenous tubing going into one side of our bodies and coming out of the other.

This may sound cynical but I suspect most heads of households feel this way as they try to balance their budgets with increasing expenses.  Will I be able to send my son to college? Can I pay that medical bill?  Will I meet my mortgage?  The frustration stemming from increasing difficulty to obtain the basics is like a stroke, sneaking up on Americans.  In a credit-driven economy, that heart attack may be on the horizon.

Forty-five economists surveyed by the National Association for Business Economics today have a less rosy outlook on the 2018 economy versus three months ago. Although expected growth in gross domestic product is still positive at 2.8%, the forecast is down from a previous forecast of 2.9%.  Current trade policies, according to economists surveyed, will have a drag on future growth with 82% of economists expecting a recession by 2019.

As I discussed in an earlier blog post, data from the Federal Reserve and the International Monetary Fund are not holding out the sunniest expectations for the economy over the next two years.  Inflation is expected to peak at 2.8% in 2018 but fall to 2.4% and 2.0% in 2019 and 2020, respectively. The years 2021 and 2022 will see inflation at 1.9% climbing slightly to 2.0% in 2023.

Also constraining spending will be the rise in interest rates as the Federal Reserve exceeds its targeted 2% federal funds rate goal. America runs on credit and the more expensive is to purchase, the less of it Americans have to spend.  According to IMF data, the ten-year bond rate ended at 2.4% in 2017. The rate on a ten-year note sets the interest rates for lending in the United States. By the end of 2018, the rate on the ten year is expected to climb to 3.2%; in 2019, 3.7%; and in 2020, 3.8%.  The rate will then level off to 3.6% in 2021 and 2022; and hit 3.7% in 2023.

If the last decade is any indication of how well household incomes keep up with inflation, then many American households are in trouble. Average annual growth in household incomes for the lower (.70%); second (.64%); third (.29%), and fourth (.90%) quantile of household income are all growing at rates lower than expected inflation. The top quantile is seeing growth in annual income at a rate exceeding inflation (2.8%).

Many Americans would be upset with this scenario. Why can’t we get ahead? Why this gap in wealth and income? As I mentioned earlier, we are extraction points. We sit, along with natural resources, at the start point of a conveyor belt. At the other end of the conveyor belt is capital made up of coin and credit.  The conveyor belt is fueled or supported by a transportation, communications, and energy infrastructure. Riding on top of the belt are the components trade, government rules, markets, and money. They are to the conveyor belt as application programming interface is to a computer network; a go-between that enables work and income to be extracted from human resources and transported to the eventual owners of capital.

For example, human resources enter markets in order to sell labor or buy goods. Government rules determine the level of tax revenue that will be extracted from human resources.  The amount of money held by a human resource transmits information about that resources economic and financial value; her spending power.

Communications networks provide the conduits for transmitting information about a human resources value. Transportation networks move human resources to areas of employment where human resources convert natural and other resources into goods and services. Transportation networks also move the goods and services produced to end users. The facilities that create goods and services and the vehicles that transport goods and services run on various forms and sources of energy, including coal, nuclear, oil, electricity, solar, wind, and geothermal.

The top 20 percent occupy the capital side of the belt. Social justice warriors who argue the use of politics in order to close the gap between the top 20 percent and everyone else are making a losing argument. Politics is ineffective as a wealth and income gap closer because of the grasp that capital has on the conveyor belt. Central bankers and treasury ministers derive their influence and prestige from ensuring the conveyor belt (which we can also call a tax and payments system) operates at optimal to deliver returns (income) to the conveyor belt’s bond holders. Capital invests resources in lobbying, advocating, and the electoral process to ensure there are politicians in place that will make rules that do not impede the conveyor belt.

Those who are fed up with being extraction points want to stay off of the conveyor belt. We want to limit or eliminate our use of the communications, energy, and transportation networks that power the conveyor belt. Use of unlicensed spectrum to create our own networks; use of renewable energy sources in order to remain off grid; avoiding the purchase of vehicles in order to avoid the taxes and surveillance that are attached to them should be a goal.

I do not endorse living like a hermit (although I have no problem with prolonged peace and quiet), but we should pursue self-sustainability in order to minimize the consumerism that pulls us into unnecessary trade and market engagement.  We will free ourselves to accumulate more capital while starving the beast that created the imbalance in wealth and income in the first place.

How does regulating Facebook optimize returns on resources?

Farhad Manjoo writing for The New York Times argued in a recent article for increased regulation of “The Frightful Five”; Amazon, Apple, Facebook, Google, and Microsoft. For Mr Manjoo, their increasing intrusion into personal privacy and growth in the retail sector market should raise concerns on the part of regulators.

My takeaway from Mr Manjoo’s article is that government is moving further and further away from the opportunity of being simply a fair allocator of capital to oppressively regulating its distribution to the point where growth in the value of capital is squashed.

In addition, the Frightful Five have no monopoly on natural resources. They do not control land or access to air or minerals. As demand grows for internet services so too does demand grow for electricity use of the part of internet companies. In an article for Forbes.com, Christopher Helman estimates that internet firms account for 1.8% of electricity consumed in the United States. On an annual basis, internet companies are spending $7 billion a year to consume 70 billion kilowatt hours per year of electricity.

And given their two percent contribution to total greenhouse gas emissions, companies like Google have been purchasing energy from renewable energy sources with a 2017 goal of going 100% renewable, according to a piece by Adam Vaughan for The Guardian.com. As a consumer, Google and other internet companies aren’t in the energy extracting and generation business, making them susceptible, like any other consumer, to the whims of energy companies that actually have a license to extract, generate, and distribute energy.

In terms of human resources they higher relatively few people compared to other large companies in different sectors. The data processing, hosting, and related services sub-sector, within which companies like the Frightful Five belong, employed 364,000 people in September 2017, according to data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. This total represents approximately .23% of the approximately 156 million people employed in the United States.

What the Frightful Five are first and foremost are tax revenue generators. While not responsible for extracting and managing the United States’ natural resources, by employing 364,000 wage earners and providing platforms for the sale of goods and services including advertisement, internet companies are providing a tax revenue stream for the United States government that didn’t exist twenty years ago.

How much in taxes would the United States be willing to forego by regulating the profit centers of internet companies? For example, in 2016, Alphabet, the parent of Google, had tax expenses of $4.7 billion at a tax rate of 19%, while Microsoft posted tax expenses of $3.3 billion at a tax rate of 16.5%. Apple paid $15.8 billion in taxes at a tax rate of 25.8%.

As Congress considers a corporate tax overhaul and the impact reform may have on its coffers and the deficit, does Washington want to risk reducing the tax revenues that keep its bond holders calm?

Rather, a better scenario for bond holders would be for government not to interfere in the Frightful Five’s ability to generate taxable income. Since internet companies do not manage directly the United States’ natural resources via extraction or distribution, there should be less reason for regulating these entities.