Emerging from the cocoon of self-isolation into the streets of West Trinidad has been a thing of wonder. Last week a Lamborghini, a million-dollar vehicle, was sighted in the WestMall carpark.
Luxury vehicles of every brand, all less than two years old and costing more than three-quarter million dollars, have mushroomed across the nation.
Were the reports of Covid induced hardship in our country genuine? Where is the foreign exchange for these vehicles coming from? How is this use of scarce resources justified?
Are these vehicle owners the same ones who called upon the Government to help their struggling businesses and staff? Why did they not use this capital to support their businesses?
Adam Smith, the Scottish economist well-beloved by business people, reminds us that rich people do not have to behave morally to earn the esteem of others, most of whom are dazzled and enchanted by their riches. These vehicles show moral carelessness (in a Covid period) and emphasise ‘proud ambition and ostentatious greed’ that Smith described as character traits of the rich.
Smith added, ‘the rich man glories in his riches because… they naturally draw upon him the attention of the world’.
This posture is the antithesis of how citizens should behave per the ‘Social Contract’ that Hobbes envisaged. In that scenario, all the citizens would reach an agreement on how we would govern ourselves. Without such an agreement, our lives would be ‘brutish and short’.
This agreement would facilitate trade and ensure security. But if our citizens were selfish, then the Contract would not hold, and our society would be in tatters.
Our aloof elites charging in their chariots while the ‘essential’ workers wait for uncertain public transport is evidence that this agreement about how we may live together is under threat.
Mr Richie Sookhai, president of the Chaguanas Chamber of Industry and Commerce (CCIC), acknowledged the hard times that citizens have undergone. Yet, his take was ominous.
He opined: “Given that now a lot of people have been without jobs for the longest while, we know that we will expect a spike in crime.”
He then pivoted: “The criminal elements are accessing firearms easily because T&T is a huge transhipment point, and it seems that we are not able to curb the importation of illegal firearms as we would like to. However, the citizens need to protect themselves.”
Who is the danger of which Mr Sookhai speaks, poor people or criminals? Or are poor people criminals? According to one newspaper, having dispensed this woolly analysis, he advocated, ‘keep the guns coming’!
Mr Sookhai did not elaborate on the fate of the rest of us ( are we non-citizens?), who do not qualify for either set of guns. A gun and a chariot work well for some; not all have the same fortune.
Meanwhile, more pressure is ahead for the ‘lot of people without jobs ’. The food stalwart, Mr Balliram Maharaj, pointed out in August that: “The price of pigtails skyrocketed by 74 per cent, canned corned beef went up by 36 per cent, yellow split peas and lentils rose by 34 per cent, brown sugar climbed by 25 per cent, and canned tuna increased by 15 per cent.”
This list represents poor people food, and he was attempting to influence the Budget deliberations. In October, Mr Rajiv Diptee, the Supermarket Association head, admitted: “It’s a situation whereby you feel for the consumers, those who are now emerging from Covid-19. We are very cognisant of the fact that savings have been depleted and that the average consumer is poorer coming out of the lockdown and that they need time to catch themselves or recover from this tumultuous period.”
Poverty is hell! When is that timeout?
These price increases are coming at the worst possible time. Christmas beckons; will the traditional joy be possible?
What should we expect with a 30-year record inflation (6.2%) for October in the USA? Ours has already hit 4.9% in July, and we have a huge import bill. Are our merchants fearmongering? Are they milking the market because they could?
Given the high concentration of ownership and market share in the food business, we should be mindful that such power can lead to inexcusably higher prices. If markets are competitive, companies will keep their charges down to prevent competitors from grabbing away customers.
Furthermore, we need to consider the temptation to mask the flight of our US dollar stock by increased input costs quoted in US dollars. Are our elites using the inflationary pressures to hide their grab for larger profits in US dollars?
What we are witnessing is the entrenching of social and economic inequality. The elites will get richer faster than ever, while the poor will not make ends meet. Social mobility has stalled; in 2017, only 20% of the population believed that they would be better off than their parents (MFO Consumer Economic Sentiment Study, 2017).
Stagnant wages, job insecurity, and a slowing down of GDP growth will further handicap the social and economic mobility of the young.
Access to private and ‘prestige’ schools gives no incentive to wealthy parents to push for better public education. This neglect closes the loop on our poorer neighbourhoods, which will have worse educational outcomes and more brutal policing.
The marvellous and inspiring story of Avah Atherton is an instructive tale for us to consider. Her story is one of overcoming immense hurdles.
It should not be interpreted as a moral tale of ‘work harder and success will come ’. Yet this is what was contemplated when Common Entrance Examinations were introduced.
The big idea was to level the playing field by increasing access to secondary school for all the nation’s children. However, we have erected significant barriers that block hard work.
The strongest predictor of academic success in recent years is one’s socio-economic status. Raj Chetty and his research team demonstrate that this follows through into lifetime earnings. Avah would have had to shrug off her neighbourhood’s influence (how many of her primary school peers fell by the wayside?) and its toxic pressures.
Those harmful pressures hamper brain development and affect long-term academic, health and economic outcomes. This situation is substantiated locally via a pilot study done under then minister of education, Dr Tim Goopeesingh. We also see the evidence in our crime statistics.
Having overcome these hurdles, she would have entered St Augustine Girls’ High School and met other girls whose parents could afford to provide more lavishly the ‘whole experience’ that such a school offers. Was Avah able to play hockey? Or join the Hiking Club or go Dragon Boat racing?
One may suggest that this exposure is unnecessary and that she would be none the worse for it. To such persons, I would say, the perils of teen life and the subtle pressures of secondary schools have escaped you. Avah would have been an incredibly ‘bad mind’ person to overcome these pressures and not give up.
A supportive, wise network would have helped her understand that you do not let your GPA drop. Is Avah really a ‘Second Class Honours’ graduate, or was she capable of a better grade? I guess that she underperformed.
Her graduation photo showed the lack of support, as was pointed out by astute readers of the story. Scroll through the scores of the UWI graduation pictures and see how many ‘wear the crown ’. A caring advisor would not have allowed this.
We will not comment on her absent middle-class father.
Avah is not proof that anyone from poor neighbourhoods could succeed. She is an exceptional person and worthy of our admiration. However, we must do better and provide a broader opportunity to the many who, like Avah, can overcome their difficult start in life.
It is silly to wait for the police to raid their homes and for the young women to become pregnant and replicate the cycle of poverty. But our business community, which has the political clout, has to step up. They can agitate for better funding of our pre-school system and the better targeting of the safety-net programmes.
But will they?
Is our business community proud of its efforts to help the vaccination drive? Did they put out their best in the advertising campaign? How much did those efforts move the needle of acceptance?
In this context, it is therefore laughable yet sad to see the concern about possible future lockdowns. Should we hope they would commit to a longer-term goal of improved public education when the short-term goal of national vaccination seemed to have eluded them?
These are all fundamental business issues. Would there be any business if our society disintegrates?
Our business elites must influence better public policy to give our children and struggling families a better chance of success. The need to resolve the structural causes of poverty cannot be postponed.
Giving out hampers meets an urgent need but is a short-term response. Our business elites should do their civic duty; our nurses and doctors are showing how it is done.
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