SOMETHING’S GOT TO GIVE IN CASH-POOR POHNPEI

Commentary

SOMETHING’S GOT TO GIVE IN CASH-POOR POHNPEI

By Bill Jaynes

POHNPEI, Federated States of Micronesia (Kaselehlie Press, Aug. 6, 2008) - When I first arrived in Pohnpei in January of 2001 I was shocked to find out that the minimum wage was US$1.35 an hour and that even that paltry sum was not always paid as the law required. Often trainees in new jobs, if they were paid at all were paid an hourly rate as low as 75 cents an hour. Bosses who paid cash to their employees, perhaps to avoid paying tax on those wages sometimes paid even less than that.

In 2001 kerosene for stoves and fuel for vehicles went for just over US$2 per gallon.

The price per kilowatt-hour for electricity in January of 2001 was 22.17 cents. I remember being outraged at the price then. Two days ago I paid 51.06 cents per kilowatt-hour which, now that I think about it is a fortunate price. While gasoline prices at the pump have surged to nearly triple what we all paid in 2001, the price for electricity in Pohnpei has increased by just over 1 and a half times the 2001 price.

In January of 2001, if you were lucky enough to own a stove whose flames were powered by LP (Liquid Petroleum) Gas the price was $120 for a 100-pound tank. Amongst those three "utilities", the cost for a tank of LP gas has had the lowest price increase at only 80 percent.

"Only" an 80 percent price increase in just under 8 years?! Man! I never thought I’d see myself putting those words in print!

The utilities price increases are not like the rice price increases that occurred a few years ago when there was a shortage for a short time due to shipping. At that time, the few businesses that had rice in stock jacked up their prices because so many others didn’t have it. The Pohnpei Price Commission hasn’t been functioning for years and so no one put a stop to it.

Today you can feel free to buy rice at local businesses. They have it but the price has more than doubled since 2001. A majority of those price increases have occurred in the last few months when a worldwide shortage of rice began to be noticed.

There will be more worldwide food price increases as world leaders try to find a solution to the increased price of fuel. Worldwide huge amount of food that might otherwise have been harvested to power human bodies has been diverted to the production of ethanol to power our cars.

At the Conservation Society of Pohnpei’s 10-year anniversary celebration on the 25th of July, Governor John Ehsa pointed out that Pohnpei’s economy has, over the years moved toward a cash basis. Where people in Pohnpei could traditionally live off of the land and the ocean they now need cash in order to eat and for many other purposes.

Many people in the FSM can’t keep up. I’m certainly one of them. The average cash on hand available per person is not enough to keep up with 300 percent, 150 percent, or even 80 percent price increases and still the minimum wage is $1.35 an hour.

I don’t think that raising the minimum wage would solve the problem of cash. Maybe it would for a while, until businesses owners further raised prices in order to pay the increased salary. Before long there would be a general clamor to increase the minimum wage again and higher prices would again be the result and on an on it would go until before too long, as Larry Norman said in one of his songs, "a piece of bread would buy a bag of gold."

Something different needs to be injected into the equation. The same old solutions will simply yield the same old tired, worn out, economically draining results for the FSM. Perhaps more business opportunities and an improved business environment is one possible solution.

People in the FSM are looking for solutions to the cash problem and no one seems to know the answer. They are turning to many things. They’re planting and harvesting and fishing more. They’re cooking over open fires. They’re walking a great deal more than they did before fuel prices got to be what they are. They’re sitting in the dark more than they used to do.

Some people have decided that the solution is to break the law.

According to Pohnpei Utilities Corporation, at least one business owner bypassed several meters in his business so that he had "free" power. Free to him that is; PUC will ultimately have to pass their power generation revenue losses to the rest of the consumers in Pohnpei who actually pay their bills. The customer probably thought that he was above the law and unless there is a prosecution for theft of cash power, he will have been correct.

The Pohnpei State AG’s office says that the offense is a crime called Theft of Utility Services (61pc 6-156) punishable by not more than six months in jail and/or a fine of not more than $100. He said that further charges could be filed that would make it a potentially more serious offense but that would depend on the value of the services stolen. PUC has a separate fine of $500 per bypassed meter.

Within the last week I have heard word that at least two businesses in Pohnpei have begun to make money from prostitution in Pohnpei.

I know. The subject is not supposed to be talked about in public and this paper is very public in the FSM. I apologize for mentioning it.

Because of the "new" cash economy people, more and more are asking themselves, "How do I get cash and how to I get it fast?"

"What do I have to sell that will sell quickly?"

A young girl might think that she has nothing else to sell but her body.

A business owner might think that they could cover their overhead expenses by attracting several girls who think that way. Those girls might be willing to pay for the use of facilities the business owns so that the girl has a place to practice the oldest of trades while men line up outside their doors full of anticipation and with cash in hand.

The streets of Pohnpei are abuzz with rumors of taxi drivers that can be called to deliver a "banana" to your door. I think some people still call them "wanteds" as well, girls who will do nearly anything with nearly anyone for a few dollars.

Do desperate times call for desperate measures? I can see how some people might think so. To quote an old blues man, "Times is hard."

"No man is an island." Law and order is a system of rules and consequences based on what the people of any jurisdiction think is acceptable behavior. It’s supposed to keep the consequences of behavior that the community considers to be unacceptable from spilling over on to other people in the community.

For instance, theft of utility services might result in higher prices for other customers or if enough people did it, complete shut down of the utility because of an inability of the utility company to pay their bills because no one has to pay them for the service anymore. Prostitution, without discussing any of the moral issues involved can introduce diseases into the community that can be devastating.

Without law and order what would keep me from taking something you have just because I think I need it?

Law and order should not be thrown out the door even in times of skyrocketing prices, rampant unemployment, and stagnant wages for those who are employed. It isn’t just a good idea, it’s vital to the people who call the FSM home.

Bill Jaynes is editor of Kaselehlie Press.

The Kaselehlie Press

© 2007 The Kaselehlie Press

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