Confronted with social unrest shortly before the recent August general election, Prime Minister Dr Keith Rowley was forced to acknowledge there were socioeconomic problems that need to be relieved.
I remind readers the promise to be kept now is that the Government’s Community Recovery Committee, chaired by Anthony Watkins, will “find working solutions to address some chronic problems which can be found in urban and semi-urban communities”.
The Prime Minister has also reportedly acknowledged the need for “a radical reform of the education system”. Such a reform is obviously one of the working solutions to the plight of those in the disadvantaged communities despite the obstinate belief that free secondary education was all that was needed to stop young men becoming “pipers” or “abled-bodied” men hustling passers-by for a few dollars.
The failed education system, in which CSEC “passes” are the holy grail, without adequate technology and trade education options, and from which the pupils emerge with literacy problems and insufficient life skills, is being inflicted on many children, whose capacity to progress is impaired by abuse, cruelty and an absence of parental love.
Prior to the sudden awakening of the Prime Minister and his team to these problems, they were in denial of their existence and ministers like Hinds and Deyalsingh were scornful in their remarks about disadvantaged young men.
There is a distinct link between confronting these problems and presenting an annual budget and, in particular, to presenting the one that is now announced for October 5—a mere three weeks away.
There is a link also with several severe commercial problems like the indebtedness of State enterprises to the utility providers, such as the Water and Sewerage Authority (WASA) and Trinidad and Tobago Electricity Commission (T&TEC), as well as the significantly subsidised utility rates charged to consumers.
While energy sector revenues were flowing into the Treasury, our governments, for reasons of maintaining an appearance of social stability and of political expediency, did not sustainably tackle the socio-economic problems.
It was possible then to evade these problems by social safety net provisions and make-work largesse. While those lax practices prevailed, the Manning PNM invested in prestige buildings, the Kamla UNC (disguised as the People’s Partnership) spent more prodigiously into deficit and the Rowley PNM maintained budget deficits without reform, perhaps unwisely believing the energy sector would always be buoyant and that the Heritage and Stabilisation Fund was there to fall back on.
But things have turned against us while we were putting off tackling the glaring issues and buying a veneer of peace. The energy sector downturn was followed by the Covid-19 pandemic.
In Charles Dickens’ book, David Copperfield, Mr Micawber, David’s mentor, racks up so much debt through overspending that he is thrown in debtor’s prison. He was the origin of the Micawber principle, the currency of which was expressed in pounds but which I set out in dollars for ease of reference: “Annual income twenty dollars, annual expenditure nineteen dollars and seventy-five cents; result—happiness. Annual income twenty dollars, annual expenditure twenty dollars and twenty-five cents; result—misery.
While he was overspending, Micawber always believed and frequently asserted that “something will turn up”. He became synonymous in popular reference with the dangers of incautious debt and the harsh consequences of something not turning up to relieve the debt.
We cannot blame the various political leaderships for the unforeseeable Covid-19 economic lash, but the challenge now is to stop chinksing and to turn up something for ourselves to meet the largely unrestrained debts and deficits for which they are indisputably accountable. The Government now has to deliver a budget without Micawber’s vain hope of something turning up on its own.
In addition, the pressing reforms, which were evaded, will cost money. How will the Minister of Finance handle both the deficit and yet find money as well to finance the admittedly needed reforms, facing at the same time growing discontent as economic hardship bites deeper and vested interests resist change?
Without meaningful socio-economic reform, our society will surely implode under the twin burdens of economic hardship and dire inequality.