For about 30 years, we have been told myths about our economy. Many of these myths have become commonplace and embedded in our psyche and national consciousness—through the media, the education system, and, more concretely, enacted in the laws and policies by every government since the late 1980s.
Covid-19 has been an existential shock to the system that embalmed these lies and clearly exposes them. The current oil price collapse which has seen the international price of oil dip below US$20—and to which national budgets have long been pegged—tells us we cannot repeat the mistakes of the past and expect a different result.
Here are a few of the economic myths that have brought us to this point:
Myth 1: austerity and cutbacks can stabilise the economy
Before this novel coronavirus pandemic, the government told us that cutting back public spending was the way out of the previous crisis, and that we could not afford nice things like free university tuition. All the while, private sector contracts were continuing apace, in housing, security, healthcare and many other areas where they could make a profit at the public’s expense.
Yet the housing stock remains significantly below public needs and are unaffordable to many—the repeated mantra has been the government cannot provide housing for everyone. If private contracting was restricted and profit-making removed from the public system altogether, a more purposeful housing programme would mean better, more affordable houses for lower income earners.
The government will once again tell us as part of the ‘recovery’ that the country will need to endure cutbacks. Again that would be used as a ruse for enriching a few at the expense of the many.
Myth 2: getting nice things means only the private sector should provide them
In response to criticism about how the government delivered public grants, the Prime Minister, even during this unprecedented crisis, opted to repeat one of these lies. He has said we cannot turn the country into a ‘welfare state’.
While in Trinidad and Tobago ‘welfare state’ sounds like a bad thing, welfare states all over the world—from Northern Europe to East Asia—are positive signs of development where people gain high-quality public services and social transfers in exchange for the taxes they pay.
In the 2000s, according to national budgets and the allocation of billions of dollars, Trinidad and Tobago governments have deemed healthcare to be a priority. Yet it remains abysmal, unless you go to a private clinic or pharmacy.
I recall, some time ago, DOMA president Gregory Aboud wrote, in my interpretation, that the public health system should be turned into an American-style insurance system in which profits come before people.
Meanwhile, a parallel private healthcare system ballooned due to outright neglect of public healthcare and resources being reallocated through contracts to private pharmacies and nursing homes, to the detriment of the public hospitals and pharmacies.
Myth 3: The private sector is the ‘engine of growth’
The recovery task force will undeniably adopt this mantra saying that government should do less and the private sector should do more. If this crisis has shown us anything, it is that the private sector does not have the will or the capacity to handle a public health emergency or replace the government, even in normal times.
Businesses are clearly not structured to offer the kind of social support that a well-coordinated state system should be equipped to offer. Instead of maintaining their staff and supporting them through this crisis, many local businesses let their workers go.
Because this would mean social chaos, the government had to take up the slack by providing grants and food relief cards to ensure more people could survive and afford the necessities of life.
There is more that the government can and should do, as other countries have done, including ensuring policies and efforts are directed to meet the basic and productive needs of the population during the crisis and beyond.
Businesses need to be better regulated to ensure that profits do not come before the well-being of their workers. Government should have therefore linked any support it offered to businesses in exchange for preserving their workers and ensuring sick pay, benefits and pensions remained intact and provided during tough times.
Two possible futures
After a crisis of this magnitude, there are a number of possible directions. On the one hand, there can be a seizure of the state by business elites and other economic gangsters to further their own interests at the expense of the public as a whole.
They can form a plutocracy through control of vast aspects of economic resources and property. Economic gangsters do not wish their selfish interests to be known, so they can instil censorship against criticism of the government. Not only is this course of action dangerous, but it can have serious negative political and social repercussions.
On the other hand, crises can highlight the need for more democratic ways of managing our economic resources. They can spur us to come together and work more democratically towards a saner system of governance in which we redraw the economic fault lines, so that our families and communities are better off.
Due to its make-up, the government’s recovery task force does not show an inclination towards the latter vision. While we all may be citizens and carry blue passports, not all of us are equal, or occupy similar economic positions.
Our history tells us that certain privileges, especially those shared by several of the task force members, have come about by the class position they occupy and their political and social connections.
Who would tell you francamente they are going to steal yours and your children’s economic future so that their clique can be better off?
Instead, they would spread economic myths as they have for forty years, and disguise their intent in terms like ‘patriotism’. Meanwhile they steal the resources and distort the system that prevents a better more prosperous future for all.
We cannot let them get away this time.