In the end, the Finance Minister came with a budget very much like the banker that he is: tidy on the surface with undercurrents of seething contradictions.
Somewhere between declaring an intention to "unleash the creative energy and potential of our people" and his delivery on Monday, Minister Larry Howai had decided to settle for the line of least resistance.
Perhaps, having come to the job in medias res, he was overwhelmed by the sheer scope of the budgeting process and elected to stick to his areas of comfort. Apart from the gas subsidy, overtly contentious issues were deferred to line ministers, while the VAT vaps was gladly handed to the Prime Minister for maximum milking on the party platform.
The loudest signal from the Prime Minister's speech at the "pre-budget rally" was the United National Congress's strategic shift into a class-based campaign.
With labour re-mobilising on the political front, the party propelled into power by high octane financial investment, has now begun to invoke the spectre of the "parasitic oligarchy".
From a financial and business aspect, Mr Howai's budget has been splendidly critiqued by a number of professionals, including Ernst and Young's Wade George and Neal and Massy's Gervase Warner.
For the politics, however, the clues may lie in the fine print of allocations to the expansionist ambitions of the National Security super ministry, now rapidly annexing turf in social, youth, sport and community development, all within a planning universe of its own.
Having requested a "little more than $4.2 billion", Minister Jack Warner, aka chairman of the UNC, was gifted with $5.5 billion!
While the finance minister was at pains to say no allocation would be made to the contentious Constituency Development Fund without the appropriate legislation, we might wonder if he, too, hasn't discovered the many ways to skin a cat.
Remarkably absent from Minister Howai's budget, however, was any plank from which he might, someday, deliver on his dream to "unleash the creative energy and potential of our people".
Minister Howai can comfort himself with the knowledge that he is merely the latest in the succession of finance ministers to be defeated by the challenge of employing the budget as an instrument of economic transformation in post-colonial Trinidad and Tobago.
Perhaps, the problem is one of perspective.
In financial and business terms, the Government is not just the instrument of governance; it is the single largest business in the country. Its behaviour—as market for goods and services, as employer, as corporation and as policy-maker—is a key determinant of the shape, structure and behaviour of the economy.
In real terms, the private sector is a satellite of T&T's big government whose importance diminishes with every increase in the size of the national budget.
Ask yourself which business could survive a sudden drying up of money from the Government and its agencies and you'll get a sense of the impact of the State's crowding out of business, big and small.
It is the best of all worlds for Government, with its curious and contradictory hybrid of state capitalism, with its non-accountability to the people; and free enterprise, with its freedom to blame the market and the people.
Call it Adhocronomics: the economics of an elected government in an impotent society.
With business and consumer confidence in decline, the minister might have considered his own power for introducing some new dynamics into the market for stimulating economic activity, restructuring the economy and creating jobs.
Therefore, unabashedly on the side of the "Made in T&T" label, this column offers, for provocation and consideration, the following pro-local content initiatives for unleashing the "creative energy and potential of our people".
All numbers are merely indicative and drafted on no scientific basis.
Feel free to critique or add your own.
Discussion and challenge are equally welcome:
1. All meals bought with public funds, from State dinners to school feeding, must have local content of no less than 75 per cent, graduating to 100 per cent within a defined period. (This one's for our farmers, scientists, agro-industrialists.)
2. All clothing bought with public funds, from the expansive wardrobe of the Prime Minister to CEPEP uniforms, must have local content of no less than 75 per cent, graduating to 100 per cent within a defined period. (This one's for our dying textile industry, designers, shoemakers, tailors and seamstresses, as well as artists whose paintings have real potential for fabric design.)
3. All television advertising paid for with public funds must be placed only in local programmes. (This one's for our film and audio-visual sector, where even a 50 per cent programming quota will not solve the problems of financial viability and sustainability.)
4. All music paid for with public funds must be local. (This one's for our panmen, composers, musicians and singers.)
5. All vehicles maintained by public funds, from PM1 to the Public Transport Service Corporation, police, travelling officers, etc, should be immediately converted for compressed natural gas (CNG) usage. (This one's for the environment and wiser use of petro-resources.)
6. All furniture bought with public funds, from the President's desk to the school desk, must have 75 per cent local content. (This one's for our carpenters and craftspeople.)
7. All textbooks and other materials for the entire public school curriculum, from early childhood to university, should be converted into audio-visual content for access via computers and DVDs. (This one's for the full range of professionals in the knowledge and creative sector: pedagogical experts, historians, scientists, intellectuals, academics, teachers, video producers, script writers, actors, animators, musicians, et al.)
8. All construction supported by public funds must have a designated local content. (This one's for the construction people who are welcome to offer content quota.)
9. Finally, as an immediate economic stimulus: a 30-day deadline for the settlement by the Government, its agencies/institutions and enterprises, of every bill owed to every contractor of goods and services, with a penalty for every day beyond that. (This one's for everyone doing business with the Government, big and small.)
We could go on, but perhaps you get the drift of a policy approach that recognises and locates the State as a strategic player in the economy.
We have always known what we need to do. What we have not been able to achieve, however, is the political space for negotiating our competing interests in order to secure the peace and support for embarking on the challenging path of transformation.
For that, we will need an uncompromised government with broad public trust.