Monday, December 18, 2017

Unresponsibility and the Otherworld

Lloyd Best diagnosed the cancer of Caribbean societies as their “unresponsible” elites decades ago. He used the term to describe an influential class, which, by accident or design, was wholly unaware of its responsibilities to the society from which it drew its wealth and power.

What Best could not foresee was that the upshot of an unresponsible cream practicing an ingrained and sophisticated form of elite capture would be an extremely weak institutional framework overlaid by politically-driven swings in policy and operations, which is exactly what we have here today.

Tenderpreneurship, the phenomenon where people develop businesses to get government contracts, is only one pervasive symptom of the problem. There are many others.

Since we are unable to connect the dots, only the prescient would have anticipated that the perpetuation of such an environment would entrench an underclass and give rise to an underworld. Underworlds generally conform to the normal distribution rule. That is, the criminal underworld occurs several standard deviations away from the mean of law-abiding citizens, generally operating on the fringe of a society.

Leave an underworld alone however, and it transforms, growing in power and sophistication until it transmogrifies into an Otherworld, an alternate society which competes for primacy in the same geographic space as the State which gave it birth. It moves from being a segment on a curve to being a curve of its own, making a clash inevitable.

That is what we have here.

The unresponsible elite birthed the problem by failing to put in place the institutional frameworks needed for societal progress. Robinson and Acemoglu, in Why Nations Fail argue that the strength and independence of national institutions have a deterministic impact on the quality of the experience of citizens, visitors and investors alike. Institutions ensure fairness, justice, deliver education and healthcare and do the things which regulate, control and direct the society. Institutions, not politicians, ensure transparency, fair play and equality of opportunity.

However, it has long suited the purposes of the elite in this country to have a dual system—one highly structured for the poor and another, highly unstructured one for the powerful. This latter system is accessed like the Matrix—via telephone. A call gets you an appointment, changes a rule, relaxes a requirement etc. This gave rise to people saying Trinidad is “contact country”, but little did we understand what this meant. With every call, every bend of a rule, every concession, a terrible price was paid. Our institutions were weakened slowly, insidiously, without anyone realising what the endgame would be. We did not map the simple equation that contact country equals institutional failure.

This wanton weakening of local institutions has made it possible for criminals to take control of our sense of safety, and to develop in plain sight, an Otherworld.

The elite are trying to understand this problem. Lately, I keep getting invited to discussions where the elite pontificate privately on the state of the nation. They do not understand the Otherworld, so much of what they have to say sounds like the impotent bleating of future victims—lambs having a debate before the slaughter.

This wringing of hands is a key part of the repertoire of the unresponsible elite. Great concern expressed eloquently and still, nothing changes the next day, because they don’t think they are the problem. Our fixation with symptoms means we bypass the problems completely. And that problem is us.

Thomas Picketty in Capital has argued that the odds for achieving wealth are stacked in favour of the rich. This is largely because the long-term rate of return on capital exceeds the rate of economic growth in most countries. This means that capitalism as we practise it perpetuates inequity unless explicit steps are taken to redress the imbalance.

The elite therefore must shed unresponsibility and accept its role in the development and positive transformation of the society, including change that fetters their own power and influence and wealth. Doing this means a radical reset of the mindset of the rich, the educated, and the powerful.

This is a tall order, but a necessary one. For our unresponsible elite have yet to understand that the end of the Otherworld benefits them most of all. Those who have the most to gain should stop mouthing insipidities and accept the burden of serious change. It is time to stop whining at politicians from the sidelines and get muddy on the field.