One of the embarrassing things about the scramble for new policies to rescue the national economy is the paucity of ideas coming from the self-selected band of politicians and career civil servants. If nothing else, this alone is a reflection of the shortcomings in the framework of our education by rote, and of the building of intellectual barriers between party-affiliated thinkers, policymakers and unsure academics. It also reflects a stubbornness on the part of those in power which is in many ways a core part of popular Barbadian culture, something that the objectivity of a liberal education should have erased. In fact, on a wider note, this has been the promise of the Enlightenment – scientific truth, objectivity, impartiality, etc – which Northern European post-mercantilist culture has been preaching since the 17th century and continues, to this day, even if with less vigour.
Enlightenment values had a hole right at the centre of its beliefs, and that was filled in during the mid-19th century by Karl Marx in his long analysis of the battle between labour and capital. But, if the great dividing line in Europe, and in particular Britain, was between the mill owners and the chimney boys, to those of us who came of age during the black power movement of the 1960 and the post 9/11 Muslims, who see religion as more important than class, not only was the sc9ientism of the Enlightenment wrong, so too was the post-Darwinism of Marxism. Some social attachments are more powerful than class or religion, a reality that may be more expressive in some societies than in others.
The Decline of a Nation:
Most readers in this forum are familiar with the empirical historical evidence of the commercial and political value and political importance of Barbados to the British colonisers in the early to mid 17th century. They will also be aware that within a relatively short space of time that commercial value started to decline and in its place emerged a kind of ‘soft’ influence in which Barbados assumed a role in the Caribbean, and within the wider Empire, based not on commercial prospects, but on the alleged quality of its education.
The late 20th and early 21st centuries have seen this steady decline speeded-up until it has now reached a crisis point. But there is something in our cultural and social genes that prevent us from rebelling, or rioting like the Greeks, Egyptians, or Spanish or Brazilians or even the British and Americans. Apart from the 1937 riots and a little gathering of people outside the Abed store in Swan Street in the mid 1960s, there have been very few social disturbances. Ironically, given a culture of aggression and one-to-one violence, mob violence is not a feature of Barbadian culture. Had this not been the case, the daily abuse inflicted by this government on young people – through high unemployment, a repressive criminal justice system and an obnoxious social snobbery – would have led to a series of uprisings by now. Instead, given the absence of political leadership, these young men and women are quite prepared to waste the most important years of their lives playing dominoes, gossiping and doing the things that healthy young men and women do. This apathy will be the epitaph of a docile generation that has sat idly by and allow a group of over-ambitious politicians and career civil servants deliver them as offerings to the Gods of middle class pride, vanity and materialism. What is even worse is that these young people are trapped like rabbits in oncoming lights, unable to do anything for themselves, to form small cooperatives, to wash cars, help elderly homeowners, teach each other the skills they do not have. These are young people, the future of the nation, sitting idly by waiting for the government or private sector to rescue them from the depths of their own perceived failure. A generation that has lost confidence in itself, that official Barbados has given up on, and who have internalised that objectionable belief and have given up on itself. At some point, the younger generation must realise they must take their futures in their own hands and challenge the system.
Public Sector Reforms:
On the national level, however, we have now reached a fork in the road, a time when the trickery of civil servants and incompetent politicians have to make a hard decision. Already we are seeing the rats leaving the sinking ship: the governor of the central bank, once the principal cheer leader of the DLP government, is now saying publicly that he disagrees with policy; we are witnessing Donville Inniss launching an attack on the governor of the central bank, of minister Ince, the only properly qualified economist in the government, making a speech that can be read as a job application. And while all this is going on our prime minister is in hiding from his own ignorance, afraid that his shadow may expose his lack of knowledge of policymaking. All this goes on while the nation waits, and waits, and waits, all the while giving so-called trade unionists an opportunity to see no further than their noses.
Look at any public sector for an example of a system in decline: the administration of justice, the fight within the police and between the policy and the community they are paid to serve. Look at the failure of our educational system, both in terms of the poor quality of teachers, their street-wise rowdyism, and the colossal failure of our children in the classroom. It is all there, for the world to see, a once proud island community that has lost its confidence, its ability to govern itself and which, like addicts, is too proud to seek help. We have a government that has lost the ability to set clear, transparent and effective performance indicators, after negotiating with workers and their representatives; this is the failure of our nation.
Given the limitation of the government’s monetary and fiscal policy, and the clear evidence that minister Sinckler is not the most competent finance minister in our recent history, it is also my case that he has no knowledge of policymaking. A simple suggestion, but one that will be very relevant and effective in the current climate: a life-long savings vehicle.
Ignore for the time being the economics of savings’ impact on growth, apart from an irresponsible venture in to (Exchange Traded Funds) ETF’s early in his job, which I found horrifying – by the way it has not been mentioned since, and rightly so – Mr Sinckler has failed to develop any savings vehicles fit for our times. Had he offered households a long-term savings vehicle: saving taxed income to a maximum of Bds$15000 a year, with growth and withdrawals tax free and allowing only four interventions: marriage, university fees for self or children, home purchase and death, there is a highly likely chance that people would save more. Further, if the way that saving pot is invested is legislated for – 25 per cent in Barbados, 25 per cent in Caricom and 50 per cent globally – there will be a vast increase in liquidity and therefore the non-bank financing of SMEs, which is currently a major problem in Barbados.
Analysis and Conclusion:
The unpredictability of policymaking in Barbados is clouded by self-interest and the party dimension. Although in theory we have a generation of politicians and senior civil servants who worship at the altar of bourgeois nationalism, it is in fact a secular belief system that is contaminated with the narrow and selfish view of greed and corruption. Sometimes this manifests itself through party affiliation, seeing political parties more as lifeboats for achieving personal ambitions, than because of an ideological or commitment to social or religious values. Quite often these biases are echoed through a semi-educated chamber, devoid of any understandable of logical reasoning.
Where is our Tea Party, our Ukip, our rebellious young demanding better government, improved education, jobs and decent service? Why are we as a society tolerating 11 per cent of our productive labour – and even higher among the 16 to 24 demographic – staying late in bed, absolutely and totally economically inactive? I have said before, we are not just economic people, there is a wider social dimension to us as a society, living on a crowded island. It is this aspect of our lives, this sociality, that politicians and career civil servants find so difficult to deal with and to translate in to policy. Translated in to political economy, this economic crisis is an ideal opportunity for government – and the private sector – to be innovative, fantastically radical in policy formulation, forceful and dynamic.
What is the medium and long-term economic future of our little island – reaching out to 2030, 2050, and beyond? How are we going to cope with a demographic that will live to 80, 90, 100 and more years, and in the process demand hip-replacement operations, knee surgery, heart by-pass operations, women having children in their 50s and 60s because of the magic of medical science?
As professor J. Bradford de Long has observed: “To create wealth, you need ideas about how to shape matter and energy, additional energy itself to carry out the shaping, and instrumentalities to control the shaping as it is accomplished. “The Industrial Revolution brought ideas and energy to the table, but human brains remained the only effective instrumentalities of control. As ideas and energy became cheap, the human brains that were their complements became valuable.”
One of our greatest, if not the greatest, institutional failure is the economics department of the UWI Cave Hill. This economic crisis is their historical moment, it is a time when they can bring their expertise to bear on the national development programme. Yet, their silence is deafening and when they do intervene in the national debate they make juvenile contributions like a drunken uncles aroused from an afternoon nap. They have nothing of substance to contribute to the nation’s plea for help, no originality of thought, absolutely nothing of worth to inject in to the discussion. This is along with the other failings: to properly and independently analyse the national economy; to offer sound forecasts; estimate output; analyse public finances.
There are huge gaps in our knowledge of how our economy functions; the economics department should be our fiscal watchdog, but it has let us down. The same can be said for the school of business. I always find it difficult understanding why all students on the MBA course are not compelled to produce a workable business plan as a project, rather than some abstract thesis, so that on graduation they could seek funding to put their ideas in to practice. In fact, in an ideal world, the UWI itself should have a venture capital project doing just that and making a handsome return on its investments. This is a time when our public intellectuals should be coming out with competing grand visions of the way society should develop, of the kind of society we ought to be.
It is important to mention here that Errol Walton Barrow, one of our national heroes and a founder of the nation to his many fans, was educated at the London School of Economics in the early 1950s at a time when the economics department at the School was dominated by a West Indian, Sir Arthur Lewis, whose Theory of Economic Growth is still a must-read in development economics. Even as a law undergraduate Barrow’s intellectual curiosity should have driven him to a private reading of Sir Arthur’s works. Yet, since constitutional independence we have drifted in to a stultifying form of centralised bureaucracy, typical of India. This is the heart of the structural reform the nation is crying out for. Barbados is much worse off than is generally believed.