Staying Woke!

By Dr Selwyn R. Cudjoe
August 14, 2019

Dr. Selwyn R. CudjoeLast week I urged the government to suspend or postpone the construction of the Toco-Manzanilla Highway. I drew on Lord Maynard Keynes to emphasize that an economist must possess several gifts (mathematics, history, philosophy) and “must study the present in light of the past for the purposes of the future.” This implies that development consists of more than building roads, particularly if citizens are unable to walk or ride on them in relative safety.

Therefore I was pleased to read Samuel Thornhill’s letter in which he urged government to engage in more genuine dialogue with the community on the subject. Thornhill noted that the lack of respect for public input “has been an unpleasant reality throughout the successive political administrations of at least, the last three decades” (Express, August 7).

My concerns are related but of a different kind. If, as Keynes, a major proponent of full employment and government intervention to stop recession, has argued that a consideration of the past is important in planning for the future, then it is imperative to learn from our past experiences.

In 1847 the Trinidad Railway Company (TRC) proposed to the Colonial Government to lay down 90 miles of railway at a cost £1,000,000. The company also demanded that the government grant them 100 acres of crown lands for every mile of rail they laid down and to designate the timber on those lands to be considered “the exclusive property of the company.” The company also requested a guarantee of an annual dividend of 5 percent from the Colonial Treasury for its shareholders.

William Hardin Burnley, who described himself as “a capitalist,” objected to this economic arrangement. He argued that the government should not grant the terms TRC wanted. He said they would redound to “the exclusive profit of…the monied company in London” rather than to the “advantage of the community.”

Burnley did not oppose the TRC’s terms because he believed in the needs of the communities. He feared the African workers would leave his plantations to work for the railway company. It was a time when “railway mania” was the rage of the day and every country wanted part of the action. (Chapters 32 & 33 of Slave Master of Trinidad contain a discussion of this issue.)

Burnley’s objections seemed selfish (and they were) until 1870 when the Trinidad Government accepted another offer to build the railway. Glen Beadon, the expert in this area, has written: “The first line of the Trinidad Government Railway (TGR) was built by a contractor supplied through the Crown Agents for the Colonies under the directorship of a government resident agent, Edward Tanner.”

He noted further: “The successful contractor won with a bid for a construction cost of £99,111 and an annual maintenance fee of £1,500….The initial loan was raised through Government debentures…for the sum of £150,00, half of the original sum proposed by the Trinidad Railway Company in 1847.”

Although Burnley was the largest slave master of the country and acted in his own self-interest, his analysis was correct in this instance.

The next major instance of misreading economic realities—that is, acting on short-term gains which turn our disastrously in the long run—occurred when the government closed the TGR in 1968.

Following Robert Madory Report (1963), the government decided to phase out the railway and use buses for public transportation. In November 1964 it established the Public Transport Service Corporation (P.T.S.C.) which replaced the TGR.

By the 1960s people had stopped using the railway and its revenues from freight traffic were declining. The service lost $3.6, $3.2, $2.7, $1.6, and $1.2 million in 1964, 1965, 1966, 1967, and 1968 respectively.

The Southern main line closed in 1965 and final closure occurred on December 28, 1968.

Fifty-one years later, we know how disastrous that decision was in light of our present transportation needs.

Citizens can make better decisions if they closely examine proposals that are supposed to be in our best interest. It is always necessary to consult our historical experiences when we make weighty national decisions, particularly when decision makers presume they know it all.

Many citizens support the construction of the highway for commendable reasons. One reader suggested it will result in the “relief of the lives of citizens who live in the area,” much financial benefit will accrue from its construction, and it “will counter current struggles to satisfy the basis psychological and safety needs” of residents there (email to this columnist, August 6).

Given the mayhem in our society one wonders whether monies allocated to this project can be spent better in the projects I have suggested. They are aimed at cultivating minds, improving moral behavior, and strengthening the physical and spiritual health of our younger citizens. Inherent in them is an attempt to determine what kind of citizens we want to shape?

Thornhill notes that further consultations will take place this month. I would like to ask the planners to look at the historical record to see what they have learned from the 1847, 1870, and 1960s experiences and whether building the highway at this time is the best way to spend our monies.

Since this project will cost $2—5 billion dollars, the conveners should advertise future consultations at least seven days before the meeting “through newspaper, social media, and television” as Thornhill has suggested.

It is important to be on one’s guard. In Home, one of Toni Morrison characters says: “Misery don’t call ahead. That’s why you have to stay awake—otherwise if just walks on in your door.”

Or, perhaps, as the young people say, “We got to be woke.”