By Raffique Shah
December 16, 2019
I confess to being somewhat confused when the Minister of National Security, Stuart Young, and not the Minister of Finance, Colm Imbert, led the charge for the introduction of the new polymer $100 bills on behalf of the Government. It took me minutes to understand their motive for the swift phasing out of the old bills, rendering them of no value, and replacing them with the multi-security-features polymer notes.
When I caught on, I thought, “Smart move!” Oh, I’m sure it won’t capture the “capos” of the local criminal world, the really big drug dealers and gun-runners, locals and Latinos, who will never secure their ill-gotten gains in the weak and uncertain Trinidad and Tobago dollars. Surely, they are smart enough to store their hundreds of millions in US or Euro-dollars. But their not-so-smart underlings in this country decorate themselves in kilos of gold jewellery and store their cash in trunks filled with TT blue notes, sometimes stupidly videotaping themselves literally rolling in cash, and posting it on the Internet.
These latter will be in a bind—either flushed out trying to change large sums they will claim to have earned selling properties or motor vehicles, or writing off their stashes as losses, hoping to recoup something in their future enterprises. The most vulnerable victims of the “shock and awe” attack—two weeks to convert the old TT dollar for the new—are legitimate professionals, business operators and small-but-financially-successful entrepreneurs who stash substantial earnings or profits in cash in their mattresses, as Trinis would describe the practice, primarily to avoid paying taxes.
The illegal economy, dealing mainly in guns and illicit drugs, is valued at approximately TT $8 billion a year—I’m sure I heard some minister say as much sometime ago. The informal economy—farming, vending, micro-manufacturing, catering, PH taxis, etc—must also amount to billions of dollars. In the informal economy, government’s sole interest must be to have them comply with taxation laws, such as paying VAT if they transact business above the annual threshold, and paying taxes on incomes and profits where these apply.
We cannot continue with the grossly unfair system in which only fixed-income employees in the public and private sectors, and registered businesses that adhere to the law, bear the burden of taxation in the country. Every able-bodied citizen who earns above the current $72,000 annual non-taxable personal allowance should pay his 25 or 30 percent as applicable. If it takes this currency switchover to add them to the Board of Inland Revenue roll, then so be it.
In implementing the “blitzkrieg” switchover from the old notes to the new, Government will not have considered the mass of ordinary citizens, many of them old and infirm pensioners, who simply do not trust the banks, and who keep their pensions and small savings in their homes. They will have panicked on hearing that their $100 bills will be useless come January 1, 2020, hence the rush to queue up for long hours in foul weather to salvage their savings.
That, and the wild rumours of every kind, especially those on the anti-social media on the Internet, will have helped fuel the near-chaos that erupted last Monday morning at almost every bank in the country. Adding fuel to the fire, unnecessarily so in my view, were some in the commercial sector who, through an amalgam of chambers, complained about a drop in consumer spending during the Christmas season as people focus on getting rid of their old notes which, I have heard, many of the said merchants are not accepting even though they remain legal tender.
Rather than complain and seek extended time, these business operators can help relieve the stress at banks by readily accepting the old notes. They enjoy the benefit of by-passing the queues and making their daily deposits in special bags. These are added to their accounts overnight. I am sure, too, that all such deposits, as well as those made by individual customers via ATMs before midnight December 31, will be honored by the banks. And Government has already made provisions for persons who may be abroad and have old $100 bills to exchange after the deadline: they will go to the Central Bank and conduct the transactions.
So why the furore over an exercise that is both an anti-crime and tax compliance measure? By nature, many among us are cantankerous. We rant and rave over having to queue up for hours, in foul weather as happened last week, for something that might bring some criminals before the courts, and likely add thousands of citizens and residents to the tax-net. But the same noisy complainers will zip their lips tight and be of their best behavior when they queue up outside the Marli Street embassy of the United States for visas to visit or otherwise enter that country. The said loudmouths who will cuss over having to pay more for gas or other subsidised products stay silent and are compliant when Marli Street tells them they have to pay more for visas that they may not get.
Regarding the Muslim mouthpieces who have suddenly awakened to the tenets of Islamic banking, what do I say? Ninety-nine percent of Muslims I know use the capitalist banking system in this country and across the world. In fact, I feel certain that those who were making a case for Muslims to stash bundles of cash below their mattresses or wherever, had in their wallets, even as they spoke, credit and/or debit cards that are prime symbols of interest-driven banking. So what nonsense are they spewing?
Clearly, these Imams do not deserve the titles they carry. I ask them a simple question: how many of them pay their annual Zakaat in accordance with Quranic injunctions? A devout Muslim must pay annually 2.5 percent of any increased savings for the year to a central authority (like the executive of his mosque) or distribute the sum as charity. How many of these mouthpieces comply with this Islamic tenet?
Dem boys with their hidden agendas…