There is a saying among engineers that “there is no problem so bad that you can’t make it worse,” which seems to describe the state of the U.S. and Guam economies.
As I write this, I reflect on how much our world here on Guam has changed in the past 30 days. Most businesses are closed and most of us are staying at home. When we do venture outside the home, most of us are wearing masks, gloves and armed to the teeth with sanitizer lotion and disinfectant wipes. Those out of work are stressed to the max, quickly running out of money, fearing disease, hunger, and eviction.
It’s not a pretty world out there at the moment and hasn’t been for a long time. The coming days are going to test our soul as a people, and the risks of being found wanting are high.
We had big problems leading to this, but they were largely ignored by people struggling to make ends meet from paycheck to paycheck. The underlying problem with the current financial crisis is the fact the U.S. and world economies never recovered from the 2008 financial collapse. As of this writing, the local economy is on the verge of total collapse that closely mirrors the U.S. economy.
We don’t keep accurate unemployment numbers on Guam because we don’t have an unemployment system. The Department of Labor estimates that somewhere around May that may soon change, but until then we will look at national trends because Guam is the tip of the big dog’s tail.
The biggest problem facing people is the lack of trust we have in our government. Right now, the data and information they spout don’t match the reality we live in. For three months, politicians denied the severity of the coronavirus even as they watched the ravages it inflicted on China, Italy, and Spain, telling Americans not to worry. Even as coronavirus cases began appearing in America, national and local politicians kept singing “all clear here, no worries” in attempts to keep the stock markets rising to protect the economy.
So today, those same politicians denying the pandemic’s reach and impact are worried that very soon the number of unemployed will exceed the numbers at the peak of the Great Depression (which hit 24 percent of the population). Since January the unemployment rate has jumped from 3.5 percent to 28 percent with nearly 17 million Americans filing for unemployment in the last three weeks of March alone. Unless the economy reopens soon, some forecasters are worried that the unemployment rate could hit 40 percent by the end of this year.
How did we get here? Never before, in recorded history, have so many things gone so wrong at the same time. Nationally, the economy has mortgage, corporate debt bubble, retirement, government debt, and housing bubbles. We have corporate real estate, student loan, auto loan, and financial market bubbles.
We have a housing crisis. We have a growing corps of veterans in crisis after 30 years of continuous war. We also have a trade war that destroyed the buying power of the middle class and set the stage for the economy’s collapse. The coronavirus pandemic was all that was needed to tip over the first of a long line of dominos set to fall. What does all this mean for the people of Guam?
A majority of Guam’s labor force are already out of work, or living with less work hours and running out of money. They are forced to make hard choices.
Food or rent?
The governor has put a moratorium on GHURA rent payments, but that doesn’t cover privately-owned rental units that a majority of Guam’s service economy workers live in. What happens when those tenants stop paying rent? What happens to those rental unit owners who find themselves in a situation where they have to decide on whether to pay the mortgages on the rentals, or buy food for themselves and their families?
Food or utility bills?
The governor has put a moratorium on utility payments, but the bondholders are not a forgiving lot and will demand their payments from GWA and GPA, which will quickly deplete their cash reserves. Then what? What happens when bondholders don’t receive their debt service payments and call the remaining principal balance due plus penalties?
Food or car payments?
There is no real mass transit system on the island. With so many unemployed, there will be no viable market for resale of thousands of repossessed autos. Banks are going to be last in line when it comes to priority because when people don’t have a job, making payments on a vehicle to get to work are going to be at the bottom of everyone’s priority.
Work or welfare?
Just as 9/11 changed the world in many ways, the Covid-19 pandemic will change it in even more ways.
With the global economy shutdown, marginal businesses died. Large sections of the economy came to a complete stop. When the economies start moving, things will be a lot different than they were before the crash, and many of the businesses that closed doors will never reopen, and many of the jobs lost will not return.
Will Guam’s tourism industry ever reboot? Considering that Covid-19 has changed the tourism industry in huge ways that will make it smaller coming out of the pandemic, what will happen to residents of Guam who lost jobs that will never return? That is the problem the administration and the legislature should be working on right now. But instead, there is a growing disconnect between the people and politicians. The politicians appear to be using the pandemic as an opportunity to burnish their reelection campaigns and to strengthen the powers of the government at the cost of the freedoms and rights of the people.
Unless politicians start making the needs and security of the people more important than the needs and reelection of politicians, the situation will only get worse heading into the 2020 elections.
Ken Leon-Guerrero is the spokesperson of Guam Citizens for Public Accountability. Send feedback to firstname.lastname@example.org