Post 333.

Finance Minister Colm Imbert might as well have said, “let them eat cake”. The phrase has historically symbolised disregard for struggling masses ketching to afford even basic necessities by suggesting more expensive alternatives out of reach except to the rich. It’s his buoyancy in the face of obvious, everyday economic challenges that smacks with such disdain.

Commonsense tells us that unemployment has significantly risen, and this has led to contraction across the economy. Statistics can’t disagree with commonsense as we haven’t collected unemployment data since the end of 2017. Are “revenue and expenditure now in broad alignment”? If you are spending more than you are bringing in, doesn’t even an ordinary housewife know that this is mere robber talk?

When our children look back at this moment of creating a “solid foundation on which transformation and growth would now be anchored”, will they see creation of an economy with the capacity for self-sustaining growth? Currently, 63% of government revenue comes from taxing agriculture, manufacturing, construction, finance and insurance, but the majority of foreign exchange comes from energy. Non-renewable fossil fuels, converted into state spending, corruption and patron-clientelism, enable us to sustain our import-dependence, but what happens when prices fluctuate or when the fields empty?

Will there be less reliance on foreign investment and more on investment supported by national savings? Commonsense also tells us that increasing our deficit increases our debt and decreases savings, leaving our children to pay in the future for politicians to gallery today.

Finally, will they see a more resilient and diversified economy? Where? How? Construction is a standard stimulus strategy which assumes that putting more money into men’s hands, as the sector is 80% male, will lead to equitable development, sustainable diversification and socio-economic resilience.

Is this a valid hypothesis in Trinidad and Tobago? We don’t even collect the sex-disaggregated data to track the unequal impact of such a strategy on men and women, and on trickle-out across communities. When the construction money disappears like rivers in dry season, what will contractors do?

Experience tells us that this sector will then fall into some of the highest levels of unemployment, with predictable effects on man-woman relations, family insecurity, and domestic violence. Luckily, as money is being released, this will happen after the election, ensuring the local contractocracy plays the role it always has in financing an incumbent’s campaign.

To draw on Caribbean thinker, William Demas, who I knew as a child, will my own daughter see structural transformation of the economy with growth of inter-industry linkages, reduction of dualism (an-offshore and in-shore economy with different realities), and complete eradication of open and disguised unemployment?

Economic stabilization of our kind relies not only on necessary belt-tightening, but on young graduates remaining unemployed and supported by parents because joblessness is real and entrepreneurship isn’t an easy or always realistic fix. It relies on labour becoming increasingly precarious as health and other long struggled-for benefits are cut by the new regime of short-term contracts even for long-term public servants.

It relies on hospitals, prisons, courts, social services, and schools simply not working as they should for so many. It relies on people surviving through the informal economy. It’s great to hear that food inflation was kept low, but what does that mean when local fruit prices are so high? It’s joyous to hear the Minister Finance pat himself on the back, but what are NGOs saying about the everyday suffering they see?

I know self-congratulation is the key language of the hustings, but I’m tired of it before it’s even properly begun. There’s areas of revenue and GDP increase, there’s profit at the banks, and there’s big projects to disperse the dollars, but there’s also a reality in households at odds with the table-thumping in the House. It’s like how we report 98% literacy when any teacher can tell you that’s not the true story.

There’s no updated survey of living conditions nor household budget survey data to turn to in order to empirically applaud a story of turn-around on the ground. I suppose it’s too much to ask for a little humility just in case those who can’t afford bread are also not yet celebrating with cake.

 

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Post 233.

I’d argue that political and economic elites have greatest responsibility for the persistence of corruption in Trinidad and Tobago. It’s true that state officials, from the most petty to the most powerful, are involved, whether for a bottle of scotch, a bag of cash, a big cheque or small house. It’s also true that citizens of all classes engage in corrupt behaviour, illegality and disregard for law.

However, the scale and impunity of corruption differs vastly among classes, and there have never been convictions of ‘big fish’ or for white-collar crime. The impact of such impunity in a context of economic inequality means that if the big boys can get away with unbridled greed, then the small man thinks it is right to give it a try as part as one of many survival strategies. Even with patron-clientalism, corruption among the wealthy hits impoverishment among the poor more severely. Hypocrisy about this at the top is real.

Political and economic elites also have the most informal and formal influence on legal and institutional protections or their lack, for in all kinds of familiar ways, their business is interlocked with each other and the state.  They may not be able to make public officials or the state bureaucracy work as efficiently or modernly they would like, but the story of a ‘culture of corruption’ is far more stratified than the narrative of  ‘all of us are equally responsible’.

Some have more connected contacts than others and some can gain more than others – it is they who have both more to lose and more responsibility for ending the kind of corruption among their friends to which is regularly turned a blind eye.

Frankly, for the political parties, their financiers and their middle and upper ranking beneficiaries, the entire purpose of the state appears to not be about managing the social contract, but to legitimize and launder questionable personal gain.

This isn’t too surprising. Postcolonial societies like ours were founded on the intersection between elites, government and white-collar crime, known as colonialism, and the virtually unchanged state as we inherited it historically provided the managing infrastructure.

I therefore think its worth tempering a story about the role all of us have to play in curbing corruption with one that demands greater responsibility from those with greater privilege and power, as well state officials at all levels. Keep in mind that, in Trinidad and Tobago, confidence in the police and the justice system is half of the world average, and because people feel ‘advantage’ is the order of the day, nobody trusts anybody.

It’s in this context that Transparency International released its Corruption Perception index on Wednesday. Trinidad and Tobago scored 35, with freedom from corruption being 100, and our score was four points lower than in 2013.  Our public sector is increasingly perceived to be corrupt.

This is a global problem, not defined by race, political party or religion. Indeed, resource rich countries are at highest risk of corruption simply because so much wealth creates greater opportunity for public resources to be twisted into private gain at all levels of the state and society. Such wealth may provoke corruption, but tackling state officials’ and institutions’ failure, and failure to hold political and economic elites accountable, might give trust and truth more currency.

The Trinidad and Tobago launch drew different perspectives about how to curb corruption; the proverbial, ‘What we go do?’ question that persistently plagues us in relation to government and state. Some suggestions were for the reintroduction of ethics curriculum in schools. Some felt that corruption was so widespread in our society that it was everyone’s responsibility to not be enticed to pull strings, use contacts or grease palms in their dealings, whether with the Port Authority or Licensing or in securing contracts.

Other suggestions pointed to promised procurement legislation and official structures for monitoring compliance and breaches as well as the necessity for whistleblower legislation.  Ever hopeful, the Trinidad and Tobago chapter of TI has planned trainings with a range of state officials, from the Auditor-General’s office to the Ministry of Planning.

The bottom line is that we are doing poorly.  Without an urgent shift, the only outcome is greater inequality.