Since I studied economics and politics at university I have taken a keen academic interest in government and I'm constantly drawn back to that subject.
I am very surprised at how partisan so many people are, because I find it difficult to give continuous support to any political party. The truth is I believe the people of Trinidad and Tobago have been very badly represented by politicians in general and that a great deal of the wealth of our country has been squandered by venal politicians more interested in personal political mileage than the common good. No political party has shown much virtue in their management of our resources and the current government is no exception.
For Christmas I received both Tony Blair's and George W Bush's autobiographies and found them interesting reading. I will concede that while both men ended their careers exceedingly unpopular, both had a strong sense of duty and principle which guided their decision making. Both also had clear but completely opposite political philosophies. Bush believed in minimising taxes and the interference in the economy by government and Blair believed the government had an obligation to protect the weaker members of society by provision of services. In T&T no party or politician has demonstrated any political philosophy whatsoever, and prefer to be regarded as pragmatic. However, political gain always trumps economics, as decisions are made that are seemingly expedient and likely to win votes, rather than in the national interest.
Economics is all about prioritising expenditure to maximise the common good from the taxpayers' purse. Now that the Carnival is over we should take a look at Government's expenditure and see whether it measures up as in the public interest. The chairman of the NCC disclosed that Government allocated $130 million for Carnival 2011.
Forty five million of this was spent on much increased prizes for a wide range of competitions. But he also indicated that Carnival activities would generate an additional $1 billion in economic activities and that number is confirmed by the Prime Minister.
The question arises, however, as to whether this economic activity generates sufficient income to justify the taxpayers spend or whether there is some public interest need that requires the taxpayer to subsidise Carnival. And surely this estimate of an additional $1billion of economic activity should be subject to serious analysis taking account of the lost productivity and other costs from a two- day national holiday?
Are Carnival shows not viable themselves and is the level of prizes paid to successful artistes appropriate when they have to be subsidised by the taxpayer? Would Carnival not survive and be an enjoyable festival if managed solely by the private sector? Is the "investment'' of $1.3 million in a "peoples'' band (reported to have only 100 participants) not bizarre?
It was interesting to note that Sat Maharaj launched an attack on Carnival expenditure as an abuse of State funds to subsidise "uninhibited sex and alcohol'' rather than showcasing the country's art form.
Of course he has no objection to subsidising cultural events but "where we do have a problem is when they use State funds to glorify rum drinking and 'uninhibited sex'''. Sat is, however, an advocate for the State giving more support to Hindu cultural events. There are others, however, who believe the State should not spend taxpayers money on (or give State lands to) religious bodies unless for something demonstrably in the national interest (e.g. helping the poor and destitute).
Not surprisingly there was one editorial in a national newspaper that juxtaposed this government's generosity with the austerity over public salaries, stating, "By hiking competition prize monies by 300 per cent in some cases, the Government has lavished the riches of the State on pan men and singers, some of whom are already fabulously wealthy by local standards. Surely police officers, teachers and public servants, who contribute as much or more to the county's development, deserve similar generosity?'' This seems a reasonable viewpoint and it is difficult to understand the Government's almost schizophrenic behaviour.
It would be nice if we had some independent economic watchdog that could examine Government's expenditures and help educate us as to their effectiveness. I know the Nicki Minaj concert was a public scandal like so many others we have endured (flags, pianos, etc). But is NAPA a commercially viable project? Did we get any tangible benefits from the two international summits? Was building Tarouba the ambition of a crazy person? Would it not be better to provide desktops to schools for the use of all students in a controlled environment, rather than giving laptops to 12 year olds to carry around? Will we get a cost benefit assessment of that project or are we doomed to repeat it as a form of political bravado?
I suppose we get the Government we deserve but that doesn't prevent me from despair at times. And, of course, within all the wastage there must be some projects (the flyover on Churchill Roosevelt Highway, CDAP etc) that have been very worthwhile and in the public interest, but it seems to me we have been very badly served over the years.
Regretfully, I have no idea how we can improve things because so many people like it so, and continue to give unconditional support to these political parties.
• William Lucie-Smith is a
chartered accountant specialising in corporate finance