By Raffique Shah
October 11, 2017
As I digested details of Government’s 2017-2018 Budget and monitored the furore that followed its presentation, I kept hearing “in mih head”, somewhat like calypsonian Shadow and his “Bassman from hell”, the lyrics of a song that was popular about ten years ago, “Everybody wants to go to heaven, but nobody wants to die (to get there).”
This universal truth is so applicable to our society, it’s not funny: all Trinis want to live high on the State-subsidised hog, but few are prepared to work hard to produce the wealth that might allow us to enjoy that extravagance.
The Government, indeed all politicians know that they who have held power conjured a false sense of prosperity among the populace that was premised on recklessly doling out our petro-dollars, which was always unsustainable, and which inevitably must be reined in or completely dismantled. But pursuing their narrow self-interest of winning and retaining power, they were prepared to share money to win votes, even if that led to economic ruin.
And when, as happened with this Budget, they finally summoned some fortitude to bite the bullet and mount a rescue mission that may yet prove to be too little, too late, they continue to “chinks”, as the late Lloyd Best might have said.
As for recipients of the largesse, the bulk of the population, rich and poor, who participated in the feasting, knowing all along that the freeness they enjoyed could not continue forever and ever, since they had not sacrificed to get to this half-heaven, they are now prepared to kick and scream and riot if need be to retain the suite of subsidies they see as their entitlement, whatever the state of the economy.
Watching the charades command prime-time television, especially the headlines-stealing side-shows—who is mad and what is sterile, illegal casinos taking centre-stage, learning that this country actually allows the importation of foreign-used tyres, hearing that even our fishes are preparing to flee our waters in protest against the increase in the price of diesel—I could not help but conclude that this nation is simultaneously mad and sterile.
I cannot believe that the population does not see the stupidity in having across-the-board fuel subsidies that cost as much as $6 billion a year, with Jaguars and Range Rovers pulling up at the pumps alongside Lancers and Datsuns, their drivers shouting, “Fill ‘er up!” Equal opportunities, unequal pockets.
Billions of subsidy-dollars frittered away on water and electricity, on the inter-island air and sea bridges, enjoyed equally by millionaires and paupers, and everybody’s happy. Free education for all, from nursery to tertiary. Free health care, however dysfunctional the system and service. Hell, free medications for all.
Why should the wealthy or the upper-middle class decline the generosity of the government in the only country in the world, that offers hefty taxpayer-dollars support to them? They don’t need it. They didn’t ask for it. But our not-so-smart government, over many years, offered free or heavily-subsidised rides…well, thank you very much, sir or madam!
What bother me are not the expressions of outrage by the masses: they have been politically conditioned to expect the freeness in exchange for supporting Bim and Bam. It is the righteous indignation of supposedly intelligent people, their demand that the subsidies stay.
Look, I understand poverty: I was born into it and I’ve spent most of my life living among the poor and advocating on their behalf. So no one has to tell me about their living conditions, that they need State support to survive. But I have shown that most of the State funds allocated to alleviate poverty through subsidies end up further enriching the well-to-do and the wealthy.
Government could save $10 billion a year, maybe more, by removing them and by focussing directly on the needy. I assume by now the ministry or agencies responsible for social mitigation programmes have comprehensive databases on the destitute.
They should be categorised by (a) the able-bodied who are jobless, and who will receive support until they find employment (or be kicked out if they are plain lazy); (b) others who are in persistent poverty because of poor choices (illiteracy, many children); and (c) the aged and infirm who cannot help themselves, and who will need State support until they die.
If there are 200,000 such persons, and they are each given $1,000 a month via a “smart card” that will also enable them to access free public transport and medical attention, that will cost the Exchequer $2.4 billion a year-a massive reduction from $10 billion.
In the above scenarios, I have not factored in URP and CEPEP that cost $1 billion a year for approximately 25,000 unproductive persons, or non-essential State enterprises that perennially lose money, which should be sold or shut down. I haven’t mentioned corruption that must cost another few billions.
We can re-create heaven in this hell-of-a-country…but that calls for serious sacrifices by all. Who knows? We may not need to die to get there—just work hard. And “hard-wuk” never killed anybody.