By Raffique Shah
October 04, 2017
When you have lived as long as I have, and for most of your adult life you have had an interest in politics and affairs of state to the extent that you actually pay attention the annual Budget presentation by the Minister of Finance, you will have learnt that you waste valuable time listening to a mostly boring speech that contains little or nothing that is dramatic or surprising, and you’d be better off doing something more interesting (reading a good book, in my case), and await the summary of its salient points as captured by journalists who are paid to do such scavenging, or, if you have the stamina, listen to analysts who more or less say the same things year after year.
Which is why, writing as I am before Colm Imbert’s 2017-2018 Budget, I can safely say that with the national economy at its worst in decades, government after government having squandered the largesse from oil during the good times, and crooks and citizens having aided and abetted them in stealing or wasting the windfalls, Mr Imbert will offer no solutions to the near-insoluble billion-dollar challenges that are baying at our back door, intent on rupturing our sewer main, inundating us with our own excrement.
We are too full of it, I tell you.
Look, we did not descend into this sea of sewage overnight, yesterday, or since 2015 or 2010. It took decades for the decay of this society to yield the mountain of manure that is finally seeking to suffocate us. One-time PNM minister Desmond Cartey famously summed it up succinctly when he said, “All ah we t’ief.” Because even if we did not participate in the plunder or wanton wastage, by our silence we consented to the rape and pillage of our resources.
Given the hundreds of billions of petro-dollars that passed through this country over, say, the last sixty years, there is no explanation for this tiny nation of just over one million wretched souls being in the unholy mess we are in today—drowning in debt, tens of thousands steeped in poverty, inadequate infrastructure, under-performing utilities and services, overwhelming crime, a justice system in crisis, and so on.
If I may wax biblical, like the sinners of Sodom and Gomorrah, generations of Trinis have done the impossible—turned a potential paradise into a living Hell.
There is little or nothing that Mr Imbert can do to reverse the slide into the arms of the International Monetary Fund, whose austerity measures can be likened to punishing the poor and middle classes in a purgatory-like inferno which never singes the wealthy. They thrive in any economic climate.
Let’s say Government heeds the experts’ clamour and devalues the TT dollar 10-to-one US dollar, who will suffer? Immediately, the prices of all imported goods and services, which is 90 percent of what we consume, will increase by at least 30 percent. Poor people will starve-no KFC or pizza, since that’s what they eat. Their smart phone services, without which they cannot breathe, will be beyond their now-shrunken wallets. Rents, transport, clothing, school supplies, everything will be priced beyond their pockets.
The wealthy will hardly skip a beat. Their money will not even run low, far less run out.
I don’t think Government will increase basic taxes such as VAT, income, etc. The challenge here is to expand the net and capture all those who are liable to pay or remit such taxes, but who evade them, putting the burden on employees from whose incomes tax is automatically deducted. There are tens of thousands of self-employed, contractors, businesses ranging from vending to large commercial enterprises that pay no taxes, denying the Treasury of billions of dollars annually.
Whatever happened to the tax on the multi-billion-dollar gambling establishments? Are these dens of iniquity above the law?
Government should not even think of imposing new or increased taxes, or hiking water and electricity rates, until its agencies can collect 100 percent of existing taxes. There may well be no need for additional taxes. Oh, and a Board of Inland Revenue (BIR) number should be mandatory for all nationals and residents over the age of 18—a kind of tax-tracker.
But back to the perilous economic times we face: we’d be lucky to escape the jaws of the IMF, as Prime Minister Dr Keith Rowley promises. To stave off disaster, citizens must be prepared to make sacrifices, and these must be equitably, not equally, shared.
In other words, if workers must endure a wage freeze, then the sub-elite and elites of the society (say individuals earning $500,000-plus a year), must be prepared to take pay-cuts from five percent upwards—for a limited time, until the economy rebounds.
Productivity at all levels must improve significantly. Corruption and nepotism must not only be stamped out, but the guilty brought to justice and punished.
At my age, I’m allowed to dream, not so? If I live to see half of what I suggest materialise I’d be a happy wonderer.