“You never want a serious crisis to go to waste. And what I mean by that is an opportunity to do things that you think you could not do before,” Rahm Emanuel, (2008).
The context for that quote—which is really a riff off one made by Paul Romer, who in turn modified the famous slogan of the United Negro College Fund ‘A mind is a terrible thing to waste’—was Barack Obama’s election.
Faced with the effects of the 2008 financial crisis, Mr Emanuel was insightfully noting that ‘competing interests suspend their antagonisms only when they confront an alarming common threat’. At this moment, we like the rest of the world, face such a situation. Can we, in Trinidad, follow suit?
Prime Minister Dr Keith Rowley announced the Recovery Committee as the team to imagine the future of our country in the post-Covid-19 situation. Inter alia, he said at the first meeting of that Committee:
“Throwing borrowed billions of dollars into unproductive subsidies, increased social welfare, increased pensions and massive grants is an unsustainable approach which will further wreck the economy and damage any chance we have of balancing the national budget in the foreseeable future. This will destroy the progress we have made in expenditure restraint, domestic production and income generation over the last four years.”
The news of Robert Le Hunte’s resignation therefore raises the question about the potential impact of this Committee in fulfilling their set task: are we ducking the hard issues to continue with business as usual?
Reading the Wired868 and the Express accounts of what went wrong should stop us in our tracks. Wrong questions lead to wrong answers. How one frames a question determines the kinds and number of options that emerge. Questions open up a stream of thought.
Was the Cabinet answering the right question about the objective of a water policy? Should not the increase of availability of water to all households be the objective?
Do we know that shortages of water affect disproportionately the women in the households? Do we know that a lack of a reliable water supply is a major contributor to illnesses?
Apparently, we do not know the difference between cost and investment: an investment has future returns and pays back the capital used. Is the Cabinet bereft of that understanding, given this brouhaha? Giving money for social support is easy, transforming the economy is tough. Without transformation, we are toast.
Was the Cabinet admitting that metering was a good thing but like Black Stalin told Dorothy, it is the wrong time? What were the other more pressing things?
Minister of Works Rohan Sinanan, in March 2019, affirmed: “…you do not govern a country based on winning an election. You govern a country for its improvements.”
Did he remind his colleagues of this position? He was then justifying the Toco port project with a price tag cavalierly placed as ‘not less than $2 billion and not more than $5 billion’. Should we now expect that this project would be scaled back? Will either the Cabinet or the Committee review the cost/benefit analysis of that mega-project?
What about the hardly needed Diego Martin Overpass—yet to be costed, but sure to begin according to newspaper reports?
The UNC government took the largest ever IADB loan (US$546 Million) plus embarked on the Beetham Wastewater Facility for TT$1 Billion to provide ‘water for all’ but left office without achieving that. We pay Desalcott $1.8 Million per day and are still short of water.
Today we turn our backs on the drive to ‘use data to improve the distribution of water’ (Poon King, 2019), ignore that our dams can be empty after heavy rainfalls and gloss over the impact of the new pipes financed by that loan. There have been efforts by the WASA team and Le Hunte to bring water to central and the south western peninsula, is that unimportant? How does metering help this cause?
The track records of Minister Fitzgerald Hinds and Senator Jason Williams, the replacements for Le Hunte, should not lead us to expect any pleasant surprises.
We apparently forget that the Public Utilities ministry now includes working with the BPTT/Shell joint venture on developing a solar power system to reduce our electricity costs. It is ironic that the logic for the introduction of solar power and the current water metering proposition is the same, yet our Cabinet now arrives at a different decision.
A penny saved is a penny earned is a simple business principle.
An argument raised is the weight of a $1 Billion debt to achieve this metering in the time of a pandemic. Fearing debt is old-school thinking—ask any businessman or wise public finance expert. Have we not seen how we magically can find money when before we begrudged others for the pittance sought by them?
Minister of Finance Colm Imbert, the Recovery Committee, our UWI and other economists need to read economists Mariana Mazzucato and Stephanie Kelton, if they wish to break the fetters and dream of a new future for our country.
Companies must pay their fair share of taxes. The Revenue Authority is an imperative. The Public Procurement Act must be implemented. Kelton advises us that we should see ‘public services as investments rather than liabilities’.
Have we not noticed how the great USA and UK have shifted positions on financial policies? Why are we sticking with the outdated positions? Is it that we are not serious about transformation and want our children to be crew members on cruise ships or call operators in a call centre, where they are dispensable tools?
Look at what has happened in Jamaica, where the Royal Caribbean line plans to deposit more than 1000 workers with or without the consent of the government. The call centres chose not to close down with the complicit agreement of the government and now is responsible for the major portion of infected cases. What do we want as a people?
A history lesson is in order. The Water Riots (1903) happened because a third of the population in Port of Spain, those who lived around the Savannah, used 86% of the volume, yet the poor in the East Dry River area were blamed for wasting water. Metering was recommended but turned down.
The underlying problem was, according to Vicar Keay of St Michaels in Diego Martin: “…a supercilious and insolent disregard of enlightened public opinion…” Governor Maloney triggered the event by closing off access to the Chamber debate from the man in the street.
We should note that it took place in the wake of the 1854 cholera epidemic. The rich people blocked the establishment of the Maraval dam and then the government abolished the Port of Spain borough.
History can bite you when you do not know it. Careless throwaways expose ignorance but do not change the reality.
I can only hope that the Recovery Committee, if not the Cabinet, take note.