What Obama Could Learn on Martha's Vineyard If He Got Off the Golf Course

There's an economic lesson to be learned on summer vacation.


President Obama is on Martha's Vineyard this week and next for his annual non-presidential-election-year summer vacation.

If the pattern of past years holds, he'll spend most of his time either holed up in his rental house or out golfing. That's too bad, because if Obama actually explored Martha's Vineyard with his eyes open, he could get a real education in some of the policy issues that his administration and the country as a whole are struggling to deal with.

Immigration. The Martha's Vineyard economy runs on immigrant labor, whether it's the Eastern European young women on seasonal visas working the cash registers at the Net Result or Morning Glory farm or the illegal Brazilian construction laborers and gardeners who build the island's houses and mow its lawns. The president might try to figure out how to allow more such workers into America legally, while also pondering why employers prefer to hire them rather than, say, unemployed young male residents of nearby American cities.

Energy. While politicians and advocacy groups feud over large-scale offshore wind energy projects, solar energy is quietly but quickly gaining ground on Martha's Vineyard—not for reasons of environmental altruism, but because the technology has progressed so much that the economics are starting to make sense. The parking lot at Cronig's Supermarket in Vineyard Haven is now shaded with energy-producing solar canopies. The Martha's Vineyard Times reports that photovoltaic panels have gotten two thirds less expensive in the past five years and quotes the energy services manager of South Mountain Company, a Vineyard-based design-build firm, as saying, "When the guys in navy blue suits and red ties are saying this is a good idea, you know the picture has shifted from environmentalism to economics." 

Regulation. When the Obamas do get out on Martha's Vineyard, one place they like to go is State Road restaurant in West Tisbury. The restaurant was fined $1,600 last year for installing a prep kitchen in the basement without the required building or plumbing permits. Without the kitchen, the restaurant reportedly suspended breakfast and lunch service. If a restaurant wants to serve local fish bought directly from island fishermen, it needs to pay $200 and navigate a different bureaucracy to get a fish wholesaler's license. These may seem like small sums or small hassles, but to small businessmen, they are big deals.

Prohibition and substance abuse. Chilmark, where President Obama is renting a house, is a "dry" town, which bans the sale of alcoholic beverages not only in stores but even in restaurants. Until the past few years, similar rules obtained on most of the rest of the island. The laws haven't done much to prevent a serious alcoholism problem on the island. Likewise, laws against heroin have done nothing to prevent a recent series of a half-dozen fatal overdoses.

Inflation. A small ice cream cone at a parlor in Oak Bluffs can cost more than $5. A gallon of gas can also cost nearly $5 on the island. If President Obama is concerned about the value of the dollar, though, he needs to weigh those high-season prices charged to tourists against the discounted prices paid by year-round island residents with special discount cards. And of course, the prices are lower off-island, and off-season. So the economists calculating the consumer price index have their work cut out for them.

Income inequality. Obama's summer rental is a house worth about $12 million that reportedly has an infinity pool and 8,100 square foot of living space. Meanwhile, seasonal workers shack up in trailers, tents, and treehouses. But even with the dramatic inequalities, the vagaries of Vineyard life have a way of humbling even the most fortunate. The Obamas themselves, for example, were displaced from a prior-year summer rental when it was sold to a new owner, Norman Foster, who didn't want to rent it out. And the Obamas' neighbor at the old rental, Eric Glasgow of Grey Barn Farm, had an enviably gorgeous dairy farm until it was so badly damaged by an electrical fire that the cows had to be sent off-island.

Maybe it's no wonder Obama prefers to stick to the golf course. As they sometimes say about vacations: you can go away, but you can't escape. Martha's Vineyard is beautiful, but it's part of the real, rest of America, too.