National Budgets, including the last one, have hardly dealt with the issue of the fundamental economic structure of our society. Instead, the logic of policymakers and the general public alike coalesced around a set of assumptions about the relationship between education and wealth on a micro basis, and the role of government as a key redistributor of wealth on a macro scale.
These assumptions have had a tremendous impact on the development of our society.
First, the linkage between education and financial success has been documented worldwide, strengthening as social and organisational complexity took root. Even when limitations to our intelligence embarrassingly surfaced, such as with the real estate crash that sank the Thai baht in the 90s to the sub-prime crisis of more recent vintage, our belief in the benefits of education was unshakeable.
This certitude extended beyond the capacity for mere economic ordering of a person’s prospects. As a society, following long established examples, we felt that educated people were better, more just, and more righteous. This bias can be seen even today, and is perhaps why people with education are generally the ones listed as acceptable recommenders for, as an example, a passport.
But the massification of education, coupled with various social, economic and political developments, including secularisation, has twisted things out of recognition here such that an educated person cannot afford to live, receives very little human development in the education experience and is given every encouragement instead to bend the rules and to steal.
To understand the depth of the problem one has to do a little math. The average starter home today costs no less that $1.5 million if you assume a house on a lot of land (about 5,000 sq. ft.). Maybe a cheap property in a rural area might cost less, but vehicular overpopulation means now that everywhere is far. So the truth is that the cheapest one might get a home would be in the region of $1 million.
If you ran a mortgage at six per cent over 20 years for $1 million, you are talking about $7,164 per month. Being more realistic, a mortgage at seven per cent over 20 years for $1.5 million will cost you $11,630 every month.
I wonder how many university graduates can afford that? Not many. Our cost of living as a result of an impaired economic structure really has little bearing with what people earn and what even an educated man can pay.
This has created a generation of working poor who are not what we would expect. These aren’t people working at KFC or McDonald’s. Rather, they are professionals, highly educated, who cannot afford to buy a home, pay the insurance for it, as well as buy a car, pay the insurance for that, and still manage to live.
And so Trinidad and Tobago has come to an interesting place where the education promise has been broken. Add to that little or no character development in most schools and university offerings. The upshot of this is rent-seeking behaviour and individualistic thinking. These are poor professionals, and they desperately want to be rich.
A few rungs lower on the economic ladder lies another difficult problem, an underclass which has been cemented like hard fat across the belly of the society. The last census posits that more than 38 per cent of the population over 15 has no education qualifications at all. This number rises to more than 50 per cent in the over-50 age group. These are the professionally poor.
This is that large number of our people who have little or no education, and therefore are marginally employable or unemployable. The government recognises this as the basis for CEPEP and URP and their prior incarnations.
However, these things were politicised beyond recognition, ensuring that the people using these stopgap systems became dependent on them. No effort was made to wean them from the government teat. From there it was a shot hop to becoming poor as a way of life.
These two groups occupy a large part of the economic landscape, and their sheer numbers should be of concern to us all. Their inability to cover the costs of their lifestyle and related lack of productive impact creates a drag on the economy which unreasonably taxes productive citizens and sectors.
God, as they say, is a Trini. And it may indeed be so, with recent energy developments promising more returns and an extension of the good times. But for too many, the good times aren’t so good, requiring government intervention to correct imbalances caused by anolamous economic structuring and lack of economically relevant skills.
Laziness and mediocrity also play a big role. Being qualified no longer means you can do the job. And having a job available doesn’t mean that you will take it, or do much with it. And then there are parents who will carry you in many cases. The problem has clearly grown complex, but at its heart remains simple enough to understand.
We need a mature discussion on the future of our economy, and by extension, our society. There are a few with enough, some more doing okay financially, and then a large part of the population who cannot pay their own costs of living. This informs some of the blatant stealing we see in the workplace, and which cripples the SME sector and large corporations alike.
We have a class problem masquerading as, inter alia, race, ethnic, geographical, educational problems. The intellectuals who want us to follow these garden paths have not thought it through, prosecuting their own narrow interests at the expense of societal development. The issue is class inequity.
This is too important to leave to any administration governing for only some of the people, the rest dragged on unwittingly or unwillingly. We take great risks when we leave the energy sector to provide the balm needed to avoid societal friction. As any engineer will tell you, gas is not as good a lubricant as oil used to be.
• Rolph Balgobin is an