If ever there was a sign of our coming economic difficulty, it was the haste with which the recent oil find was announced by Petrotrin. While it is good that we as a public are more aware of these developments, there has been very little happening or announced that would provide encouragement about our economic prospects.
The challenge for us, however, is to focus on the problem. This has proven very difficult to do with the daily distractions we encourage. There are several matters in the headlines which would, even if satisfactorily resolved, be irrelevant to the long term direction of the economy or the society. We need to have the courage as a people to face our problems if we are to build a sustainable future. Two of our biggest are productivity and future revenue streams.
There is little chance of focusing on these if our attention is on what it takes to get you admitted to St Ann's, burning tyres and roads filled with holes, mayoral defections, police shootings, light airplane surveillance, unrepentant 1990 terrorists or the massive Clico and HCU failures which, apparently, were nobody's fault.
Our voracious appetite for distraction makes it extremely difficult to concentrate on the problems of productivity which plague our society. This productivity problem strikes at the heart of the role of labour in a 21st century society — a subject which all the labour unions and their representative groups appear very happy to ignore.
The recent wage settlement at Petrotrin said little if anything about productivity. Taxpayers gave an increase which would absorb the entire property tax if we were collecting it, and none of the politicians who spoke on the matter appeared to understand that this is an annual increase. The performance of Petrotrin last year is irrelevant. It is their ability to pay over the medium term that is important, and that has not been addressed at all. Not encouraging.
The reality is that our economic future is at best uncertain. Mr Dookeran has done a good job of stabilising the economy; where future growth will come from has not been resolved at all. The Economic Development Board and the Competitiveness Council do not have the answer, nor do they have the technical or entrepreneurial expertise to find the answer. The Medium Term Policy Framework doesn't have it either. So while we work in the background the country has not fully recognised the coming economic reckoning.
Racing toward the iceberg, Titanic-style, we are instead obsessed with Cabinet reshuffles, credit card use, the Prime Minister's sneakers and air conditioned helicopters. It is almost as if we wilfully look the other way.
The elites in Trinidad and Tobago pay too little tax. We all do. Yet water is practically free, healthcare is free, education is free or heavily subsidised, gas, flour, port services, electricity and landline telephones are subsidised or price-controlled. Milk and vegetables i think are zero-rated for VAT. Then there is GATE, MUST, HYPE, UTT, UWI, YTEPP and many more. There is unbridled freeness here, and with it has come a dependency culture not just of the poor, but of the entire society, the rich included.
So don't look to the chambers of industry for the answers. Business groups are often crying for the same handout help as everyone else, and this has done enormous damage to their legitimate demands that the Government improve its efficiency so that they may improve their competitiveness. Sycophancy reigns where instituions are weak, and our institutions have been brought to their knees by an executive arm with too much power. The legislature (Parliament) and the judiciary have been strangled slowly over many years. The legs of the chair are uneven. It is left to the press to bacchanalise while we spend gas money we did not earn.
We wrongly fixate on government. The society itself is unwell. The rash of violence in schools, incivility on the roads, the failure of the State of Emergency all tell us that we are in the midst of a parenting and community crisis, manifesting as violent crime. Our response? The police are at fault. We need a new crime plan.
This isn't going to get us anywhere. Our capacity for self-deception is massive, and the academics have not shone a light. Calypsonians might, but who listens to them anymore? A democratic system needs at least one or two key stakeholder groups to hold the strain when others falter or fail. Here, politicians, business, labour and academia have all let us down. Who will point the way?
Leaders will. Leadership, a straight conversation with the country, and courage are what's needed. Not just more and better distractions. We have only a few years left before the reality we so proficiently avoid comes looking for us, probably violently. At that point, there will be no more running.
• Rolph Balgobin is an