The Only Solution

By Raffique Shah
October 04, 2021

Raffique ShahI am writing this column before Finance Minister Colm Imbert delivers his Budget speech and announces measures that government intends to employ to finance its operations over the 2021-2022 fiscal year. What I write here is not new. Other commentators, economists, politicians and informed citizens will have said or written scholarly critiques of the economy, offloaded tonnes of advice and mountains of metrics on the minister.

He will likely ignore all of us. But I continue to write hoping that he will pay attention to what Citizen Shah says because I have no personal agenda, no interest in politics, not even in adding a few extra dollars to my paltry pensions, since I know my time left in the land of the living is very limited. I seek only to offer my thoughts on the humungous challenges we face in the hope that Minister Imbert does not make fatal errors in his Budget presentation, genuine miscalculations that could push this precariously poised and very divided society towards an implosion that would obliterate it from the map—and there are self-styled patriots waiting to see that happen.

Now, I know I am sounding alarmist, and maybe that’s how I want to come across. You see, while I remain cooped up in my humble abode because of issues larger than Covid-19, I keep my eyes, ears and instincts fully alert, so I see and hear things that a busy finance minister won’t. So I crave the minister’s indulgence. Listen up.

The big challenge you face is how to raise approximately TT $50 billion to meet expenditure for the next fiscal year, based on citizens’ expectations, on their consumption patterns which, let’s be honest, have been hammered into their psyches by politicians like you, your friends, and your holier-than-thou opponents in parliament.

Out of that grand sum, you will spend approximately $9 billion in wages and salaries, which, sad to say of my own people, could have cost half of that if those who receive their pay-cheques like clockwork would at least work, not just report for work.

You require $5 billion to meet just the interests on money you and your predecessors borrowed, not the capital sums, which is another $120 billion-pound-gorilla we must face some time. The King Kong and Count Dracula created by successive governments is the $30b expenditure on transfers and subsidies that mountains of leeches suck out of the marrow of our economy with little or nothing to show in return.

That’s a frightening prospect that you face and others before you as well as those yet to come if you managed the financial affairs of this country the way it was and has been for several decades. There is no way in the current circumstances, the revenue side of the economy can produce sufficient money to satiate such vulgar profligacy.

So, Minister what do you do? The best option is of course to run and leave the mess behind. Somebody or bodies will come along and attempt to do the impossible and you could be in Malta or Dubai enjoying the rest of your life. These are not options for you. You are a fighter and you will know well that while you face an insurmountable task there is hardly anyone else in the chamber who can do better than you.

I suggest, you select the best negotiators available, a kind of rescue-dream-team, and negotiate the country’s way out of this mess. I specify ‘country’ because when the creditors come to lay claim, they are not looking for ministers, they look at the country to the choicest parts to pocket.

It won’t reach that level of crisis because looking at it objectively, every country in the world, post-Covid, bar a few super-wealthy states, is deep in the doo-doo. Creditors will then have to work with us to help us out of this crisis, which will not last forever and which once we have the resolve and we use our brains we can overcome.

First, by the time you start speaking on Monday, you announce that all parliamentarians, ministers and consultants and sundry loafers in the bureaucracy have agreed to a fifty percent cut in their salaries and perks. This exemplary move excludes, of course, their ‘rides’ and housing.

Next, all public sector employees and their unions will be invited virtually to negotiate an unprecedented agreement whereby nothing is added to their current emoluments, big thing will be subtracted from those who insist on ‘lahaying’ on the job and seniors who do not earn their packages will be sent packing.

In the private sector, those who evade taxes, do not remit NIB contributions and otherwise engage in thievery will appear before a special court set up to jail their backsides.

I shall return to my mitigating measures soon: I ‘ent all that dread.

9 thoughts on “The Only Solution”

  1. Expect another blame Kamla budget speech. The PNM supporters will be delighted for the first 20 minutes of a virulent attack on all the UNC did and how bad it was for the economy. They raid NGC, spent and borrowed money that we don’t have now to repay. It is the way the finance minister justify draconian tax measures, something he delights in. More money for pan, for Tobagonians, more for Port of Spain city corporation, as for UNC areas none fuh allyuh, pay the blasted property tax and shut up.

    The deficit is a $135 billion out of control borrowing since 2015 when it was $57 billion. A staggering $78 billion borrowed in 6 years. The Chinese own this economy and therefore they will be the chief predators of the future. The Finance Minister just goes and borrow from the Chinese a cool $1.3 billion here or there no strings attached.

    The budget will be another tax centre revenue generating take more from the people budget. With a few cheese and crackers thrown here and there. Better to spend your time doing something productive.

  2. I like Raffique’s take on assessing the budget, he speaks as Citizen Shah, clear eyed and unbiased. I would also like, to aspire at least, to speak as a clear eyed citizen, so here are my two cents on the 2022 budget. Firstly Colm Imbert is proving to be one of the most astute Ministers of Finance of Trinidad and Tobago. A national budget is not merely an accounting exercise where revenue is balanced against spending and the objective is simply to balance the budget. As Lloyd George showed when he introduced the 1909/1910 budget together with Winston Churchill in Britain, which he called the “people’s budget”, it’s really about Government policy, where is the Government taking the country and how does it plan to get there. The “people’s budget” of 1909/1910 was called a revolutionary budget because it outlined a radical vision for Great Britain, it sought to redistribute wealth, it had a clear objective. So a budget is really about a vision for the country and the financial infrastructure for how this vision is to be brought into being. On those criteria for a budget, I thought Imbert did a great job. I think he outlined a vision for the country and he outlined a plan for getting there, he laid out the financial priorities and he filled out the revenues expected (43.3 billion) and the amount of Government spending (52.4 billion) envisioned. Our budget is highly dependent on external global factors, the price of oil and gas, the price of imports, so until we have reached a sufficient level of diversification of the economy we have to look at and be able to assess those factors to really predict our revenues and, depending on Government spending, our deficits.
    There is a historical aspect to a budget, it is connected to the ones that came before and it determines to some extent what comes after it. Minister Imbert prefaced his budget by stating that there were commentators who wanted T&T to go to the IMF, he pointed out that T&T did go to the IMF in 1988 and what the painful remedy of the IMF turned out to be. Government spending was cut back, many people lost their jobs, wages were cut, social security spending was cut, there was widespread unrest, connected or not the 1990 coup followed. Dennis Pantin, a University economist, was warning around that time about going to the IMF. He wrote a book about it in 1989, “Into the Valley of Debt” outlining an alternative path, rather than going to the IMF. In some ways, Imbert is also laying out an alternative path instead of going to the IMF, we can think of it as the economic philosophy which underpins the budget.
    In terms of the historical aspect to the budget, one can discern three phases. Firstly when the PNM came in 2015 there was the phase of “responsible economic management”, the second phase came in when the Covid 19 pandemic struck, it could be called , “surviving Covid 19”, and now that vaccines are here and the world is in (or may soon be) in an economic recovery, this phase could be called “economic revitalization and transformation” I think when Imbert assumed the office of Minister of Finance, his goal was to ensure prudent financial management of the economy, something that was sorely lacking in the previous five years, but which was necessary if the economy was to be brought back to some sort of stability. I think he succeeded in that endeavor, but while he was setting about that unenvious task, Covid 19 struck the country. More nervous Ministers of Finance would have had a breakdown. As Raffique said, “So, Minister what do you do? The best option is of course to run and leave the mess behind. Somebody or bodies will come along and attempt to do the impossible and you could be in Malta or Dubai enjoying the rest of your life.” But as he continued, “These are not options for you. You are a fighter and you will know well that while you face an insurmountable task there is hardly anyone else in the chamber who can do better than you”, you really never know whether Raffique is writing lyrics like those old calypso bards, Roaring Lion or Atilla, but I think there is some truth in what he is saying. I think the perfect storm of Covid 19 and the global downturn caused by it, created the conditions for what had to come next. The country had to ride out the storm, to do what was necessary to ensure that those who were affected got some relief and basically wait on the vaccines to take the country and the world out of the economic pandemonium created by the pandemic. I think the country did that, to some extent successfully, although our vaccine rate could be higher. But at least we have the vaccines; we have the choice to save lives and livelihoods. After we reached this stage, the next step, which seems to be reflected in the budget, is to plan for the revitalization of the economy knowing that the global economy is also being revitalized and that global recovery would create a synergy with our own economy.
    The Covid 19 pandemic has taught us a number of important things, which seem to be also reflected in the budget. Here are some of them and as you can see they all contain an element of diversification of the economy. (1) The importance of digitalization, the importance of online communication, we have seen how because of the requirements of social distancing, online teaching became necessary, online marketing became necessary, people could even do their jobs from home rather than going into the office and save many hours travelling. Digitalization is one of the master keys for transforming the economy, and it has been heavily emphasized in the budget. (2) The importance of agriculture, food security and healthy eating. Food prices are going up, we import much of our food and global prices are going up. Import substitution may be the way forward. We can transform the economy to grow more of what we eat. (3) The importance of revitalizing the economy through encouraging entrepreneurship particularly among our young people, through encouraging the growth of small and medium sized enterprises (SMEs) and generally doing whatever is necessary to take advantage of those entrepreneurial opportunities that are there.
    We may quibble about some of the fine points of the budget; we may have to wait on the eventual prices of gas, electricity and water, but in any case there have been provisions made for those with a low income. Kudos also to Minister Imbert for attending to and resolving to solve the problems some health professionals who are concerned about their status, we owe a great debt to our health professionals for their yeoman and unselfish service during the pandemic. All in all, Colm Imbert has introduced a budget that fits our particular time; he has outlined a path towards revitalization of the economy and has told us how he intends to get to that destination. Well done Minister.

  3. As I was watching the Budget speech, the realization came to me – whilst the PNM was building the infrastructure for the nation from its inception, roads, schools, hospitals, industrial parks, etc., the opposition UNC, particularly under Kamla Persad-Bissessar, was building another type of infrastructure, a structure of illusions built on misinformation, propaganda and lies. Not real things, not real schools or such, a structure of words, mere words that had no connection to reality, an infrastructure of words that seemed to have an inner coherence but words that had no ground in reality. Today we call it fake news, but the UNC’s infrastructure of misinformation has been built up over the years, so that now every diehard UNC supporter can quote all the illusory things the UNC has done and all the bad things the PNM had done to the country. It is this infrastructure of misinformation and propaganda that guides the UNC and its supporters in their reaction to what is happening to the country. The power of words disconnected to reality was noticed very markedly many years ago when HG Wells published a book “The War of the Worlds” that was turned into a radio program with a narrator bringing those words live as if the events narrated in the book were actually happening. The book was a science fiction book about an invasion by aliens from Mars, “It was most memorably dramatised in a 1938 radio programme directed by and starring Orson Welles that allegedly caused public panic among listeners who did not know the Martian invasion was fictional.” (Wikipedia) The power of misinformation and fake news has been amplified many times over by the influence of social media which can reach billions of people globally each day. When we listen to KPB’s response to the budget, this is what we will be presented with – an infrastructure of misinformation, illusions and propaganda – meant to cause public panic among those who did not know the infrastructure of words was in fact … fictional.

  4. Here is alist of the REAL schools built by the Kamla UNC government. Birdie can visit these to notice that they are real, not illusory.
    The UNC with Gopeesingh as the Education Minister named the schools he said the former government had built. These included the six secondary schools of Marabella South, Aranguez North, Couva West, Princes Town East, Five Rivers and St Augustine.
    Gopeesingh listed the 31 primary schools as Rousillac Presbyterian, Riversdale Presbyterian, Tunapuna Government Primary School (GPS), Balmain Presbyterian, Penal Rock Road SDMS, Mt Pleasant GPS, Palo Seco GPS, Lengua Presbyterian, Arima New GPS, Tulsa Trace SDMS, Barrackpore ASJA, St Barbara’s SS Baptist and Eckel Village AC.
    Monkey Town GPS, Febeau Village GPS, Enterprise GPS, Union Presbyterian, Manzanilla/Nariva GPS, Lower Cumuto GPS, Kanhai Presbyterian, Charlieville Presbyterian, Egypt Village GPS, Rose Hill RC, Rio Claro Presbyterian, Paramin RC, Pt Cumana RC, New Grant GPS, Cap-de-Ville GPS, Penal-Quinam GPS, Munroe Road SDMS and Durham Village SDMS.
    He also named 69 ECCE centres the PP government had built.

  5. Mr Tman, a bit of clarification, several of the Primary schools allegedly built by Gopiesingh already existed in 1966 including Debe Hindu School, which I attended, Penal Rock SMDS, and Tulsa Trace SMDS. All three were built in most part by volunteer labour from each of these villages including my father, uncles and other relatives and later labelled as cowsheds by the great Dr Eric Williams.

    1. Looking at Tulsa Tr. I can tell it was rebuilt. Of course there was a school on that spot built with local volunteer labour. Mr. Mitra with your knowledge on these schools I am sure if you revisit you can tell it not the same school you attended. Tulsa is on Facebook and certainly looks rebuilt to me. The wide shutter windows did not exist back then instead red bricks with holes facing downwards was the norm.

  6. When we consider the infrastructure of words and illusions and it’s disconnect with reality, we have to wonder how does the narrator manage to make it appear that those fictional things are real. How does he or she sell the illusion? Because ultimately that is what makes the illusion, the grand infrastructure of words, appear real; makes it appear that there is some connection between the words and reality. The narrator makes use of certain stratagems, mechanisms, to make that connection. When we listen to HG Wells’ radio program “The War of the Worlds” some of the mechanisms are there. The narrator gives you the impression that he is right there, hot on the spot we may say, and one of the important strategies used is that he or she must exaggerate the reality of the situation, so much so that it intrudes on your consciousness and by that intrusion create a link between the words and reality. Exaggeration is the key. You don’t say merely that the Martian was ugly; you say that the Martian was the ugliest creature you ever saw. It’s that tone of hyperbole, that focusing on, not that OMG there is a Martian there, but his overwhelming ugliness that preempts you from wondering about his existence and instead focuses on his ugliness which implies that he exists. See it’s like a magic trick, you distract with one hand and you present with the other. A former President of a powerful country used this to great success, and some of our politicians, impressed with this style, of course mimic it. He said for example it was an “innocent form of exaggeration” and a “very effective form of promotion”, that’s how you sell it. And why am I saying all of this? Because I think it is the only way to understand and translate really that infrastructure of words that we are going to hear from our Opposition Leader in her budget reply. You need a translator; words are being used in a different sense. For example, you don’t say that the PNM budget is bad, it needs revamping. No, you say the PNM budget is the worst budget in the history of budgets, the worst since the world began, a la that other guy I was talking about. It’s not just an oppressive budget, you must say rather it is the most oppressive budget ever and will pauperize everybody in Trinidad and Tobago and the fishes in the sea. You don’t say for example that the UNC built a few schools here and there, you say the UNC built hundreds of schools, and one note of caution don’t try to present facts to their alternative facts, because they are not concerned with facts, they are concerned with the perception of facts. In other words, just by putting forward these alternative facts, by articulating them, they are giving them a measure of reality, giving them the plausibility of existence. So in our world of facts and alternative facts, or reality and illusion, let the play begin. And with this guide to translation, this guide for the perplexed, let’s wait for the show.

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