Entry 356.

Christmas is such an important cultural ritual. Daniel Miller, my old PhD supervisor, describes Christmas as the most global and local of festivals at the same time. It’s materialistic, but also unapologetically about family and kinship. It enables us to keep up with the newest and latest in modern products on the internet and TV and, yet, is celebrated for its distinctly historical customs.

Christmas in Trinidad and Tobago is also an unapologetically nationalistic moment for affirming that, despite corruption, inefficiency and inequality, “Trini Christmas is the best”.

If you’ve had a hard year, struggle to figure out your next step each morning and sometimes wonder at the point of life, there’s a sense of belonging that this season can provide across ethnicity, religion and geography. But, can we also see the effects of economic tightening on changing social practices of tradition, home and family?

There were probably 15 000 workers retrenched in the last four years, and it doesn’t seem possible that they have been fully reabsorbed into the legal labour market. Many were factory and refinery workers. Others were public servants and even tertiary educators.

In addition, there’s an entire tier in the public service on short-term contracts of a month or three months, with no wage security. There is also a broad informal economy affected by these lay-offs, such as those in catering or hair dressing. Only so many of these could be surviving as small-scale entrepreneurs.

Yet, the malls and grocery stores were full of shoppers. Where is all the money coming from? How are so women and men managing a time of year that relies on having money to spend?

Would these under-employed or unemployed women and men be looked after by family with more stable income, and invited to their homes this Christmas as costs for food and drink are absorbed by those with more, as part of the spirit of giving?

Would those with more time and less money help out more with preparations such as cooking and cleaning of the house, putting in greater labour as their contribution to collective sharing? Do neighbours still expect to be able to drop by for drink, and has this become more important as human connection bridges hardship at these times?

Giving toys to poor children has long been an act of generosity by a wide range of organisations and individuals. Have the numbers of these children increased? What are the shifts felt by our youngest, whose parents may be working more jobs or longer hours to earn the same income, and for whom this has become a time of anxiety and management of their self-presentation for when they return to school in January?

As social as Christmas is, it’s also deeply economic, and can tell us much about families’ adjustment to new realities. Still, keep in mind that these realities are cyclical, and another generation will remember us being here before.

Miller’s research on Christmas was conducted in the 1980s, and presents a curious mirror to now, given the downturn that characterized the early part of that decade. The Trinidad Mirror of December 13, 1988 begins, “Do you remember the time when you couldn’t get that Christmas feeling unless your home was well stocked with Europe’s best whisky, cognac, brandy and wines, not forgetting the apples and grapes that lent some colour to the joyous occasion?” The Christmas Day Sunday Guardian supplement contrasted the year to an earlier boom period when, ““It was a straight case of who could outdo who . . . who could have the bigger staff party; who could buy the more expensive gifts.”

As nostalgic as Christmas is, we are unlikely to return to our elders’ coping strategies with greater poverty.  Miller quotes Angela Pidduck,  in the Trinidad Express, 19 Dec. 1990, describing how her “grandmother pulled out the old hand sewing-machine, she cut the curtains and Morris chair cushion covers, we the children (boys and girls) took turns turning the handle . …But there was warmth, sharing and love.

Warmth, sharing and love will carry us through the day and its demands, just as it has carried the country through the financial struggles of our energy-dependent economy.

As you eat, drink, unwrap gifts and admire new curtains, painted walls and polished floors, know that many had to make difficult and creative decisions to connect to a tradition that excludes as much as it creates belonging, and is expressed by care as much as by money in a recession year.

 

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.