The presentation and discussion of a national budget usually focus on competing ideas about the future of a country. The process is a statement about the development of the country.
In 2020, Branko Milanovic, a reputed US economist, wrote, “the most important role economic policy can play now is to keep social bonds strong under this extraordinary pressure.”
It is now indisputable that our country’s social bonds—the safeguards against deviant behavior—are unravelling. Instead of economic development, we are witnessing the denuding of our people.
According to the theory of social bonds (Hirschi, T 1969), we resist criminality and embrace positive lives because we hold prosocial values, are linked to prosocial people and have prosocial institutions. It is these bonds, Hirschi held, that end up controlling our behaviour when we are tempted to engage in criminal or deviant acts.
These bonds depend on social trust—you would do what you said and contribute to the common good. When people lose faith in their nation’s institutions, they remove a block from that which holds us together.
When foundation blocks are removed, the people despair. They question what kind of nation the one they knew and loved has become. If this loss of trust is left unattended, the distrust becomes explosive, and some become so angry they seek to blow up the entire place or rob and kill indiscriminately.
This week, while the Senate budget debate was proceeding, brought a double whammy—the collapse of the multi-million dollar corruption case against a former Attorney–General and another former Senator plus the cruel killing of 15-year-old Vishesh Dookran.
We should not argue that it is another day in paradise.
A rotting tree always appears strong until the wind blows it over. The naked eye cannot easily discern the rot. The roiling cascade of national pain may have blurred our vision, blocking the realisation that “something is rotten in the State of Denmark” (Shakespeare in ‘Hamlet’).
It would be folly to believe that we have suddenly arrived here. Social fissures begin slowly over a long period—a combination of crises usually pushes the country over the edge.
The most telling signs of national decay are the state of its institutions and the behaviour of its elites. The cost of that decline is disproportionately borne by those who are marginalised.
Vishesh, like many of our school children, may have never seen a meal costing TT$500, while the cost of Mr Vincent Nelson to two of our administrations tops $50 million. This split-screen existence in our country is akin to slavery: a back-breaking way of life for some while others store away their ill-earned wealth in foreign lands.
The collapse has long been taking place for our poor, while the fortunates now hurry to leave the country. It begs the question of the Parliamentarians: “Which society are we talking about?” The poor or the fortunate or Trinidad and Tobago?
We were going along our lives, dealing with whatever happened. Then the Covid-19 pandemic turned up, and the revenues of our major export, oil and gas, decreased and then went up. This rush of events made our lives more uncertain since our lives need the revenues.
We have been perpetually Trust Fund babies. The prospects of the roller-coaster ride calming are remote, yet we caterwaul shrilly like a soaked cat. We are convinced that life has ended.
This last week, the IMF said that the world economy was headed for “stormy waters”. “In short, the worst is yet to come…the risks are accumulating,” said Pierre-Olivier Gourinchas, the International Monetary Fund’s chief economist.
“The poor are hurt the most,” David Malpass, the president of the World Bank, reported.
This trainwreck is not a Dr Keith Rowley issue—we now face the bill for our several leaders’ endless string of poor decisions. To scapegoat a single individual is not helpful in this crisis. Yet we nurse the primal need to blame someone.
Branko Milanovic had this to say about the impending dangers: “Those who are left hopeless, jobless, and without assets could easily turn against those who are better off. If more people emerge from the current crisis with neither money, jobs, nor access to health care, and if these people become desperate and angry.”
And as a word to those who yearn for aggressive policing: “ If governments have to resort to using paramilitary or military forces to quell, for example, riots or attacks on property, societies could begin to disintegrate.”
But history teaches us that the more the population is squeezed into nothingness, the more the need for increased policing will be.
A study of why good governance fails (Blanton et al, 2020) identified a thread: “an inexplicable failure of the principal leadership to uphold values and norms that had long guided the actions of previous leaders, followed by a subsequent loss of citizen confidence in the leadership and government and collapse.”
Have we not been witnessing the same locally? Do we believe we could stem the tide once it starts to break?
In a moment of staggering irony this week in the Senate, Senator Jearlean John said: “an organisation takes on the DNA of its leader—an organisation’s behaviour is reflective of its leader.”
Maybe, she did not see her leader’s then most recent press release. That less than 70-word press release, which heaped scorn on the present Attorney-General, was not considered fit to print by any of our newspapers. That horrendous attack may rank beyond the recent errors by the Government ministers.
How, then, do we interpret this horrible piece of behaviour? Is Mrs Kamla Persad-Bissesar influencing her friends, Anil Roberts and David Nakhid, or are they changing her?
For all of us who saw the press release on Twitter, we no longer wonder. Thank God for discerning Editors!
Amazingly, the Opposition continues to deflect the behaviour that has led to this sordid impasse. The then AG, Anand Ramlogan and former Senator Gerald Ramdeen are accused of a conspiracy. A man known to them has confessed to participating in the criminal activity but now refuses to testify. When will we distance ourselves?
Their partisans give the misbehaviour of those leaders the proverbial bligh. Where does that leave us?
The institution of our Attorney-General, once regarded as a home of sobriety, has been tarnished. Associated legal practitioners have stained our country. In brazen partisan responses, our national ability to feel shame has disappeared.
Calder Hart fled the country, but these characters defiantly hang around and some advocate for their return to office and the Senate. How low can we get?
To bring charges against a political opponent is the ultimate test of a system that aspires to impartiality. But we do not wish to be caught up in a never-ending cycle of reprisals—therefore, these actions should not be taken recklessly and in a manner that could be interpreted as an attempt to humiliate a political rival. The proverbial man-in-the-street must agree that the case is legitimate and the outcome fair.
But our present plight results when showboating takes the place of serious hard work. The public’s hope is built up and then crushed.
We, as a people, love guys who can dress well and chat well. The proverbial test “the fellas we could lime with and drink a beer with” does not naturally deliver the hardworking folk needed to run the country.
Governing is hard work. Dedicated public servants, like those in the Director of Public Prosecution’s office, are essential to institutional trust. But we do not care for such niceties. We do not make the connection between social trust and our crime situation.
Repeated polls speak to the loss of faith in our leaders, but does anyone care?
We witness ever-increasing bile being spouted as politicians race to gain or retain power and the wealth it generates. And the country continues to lose confidence: this loss has real-life effects on every aspect of life.
We see it in the bold criminal behaviour, where home invasions are rising. But the wealthy and prominent lawyers and the other elites sip their drink of choice while shipping their money abroad.
We can only hope that the people of this country can use their creative skills to re-invent a future and that our young people will show us a new way. Our religious leaders must find their voices.
If we sink into this quagmire, we are doomed. Will a Haiti-like country be our end?