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Raffique Shah


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Living on the edge

October 29, 2006
By Raffique Shah

In debunking UN-fed statistics on poverty in Trinidad and Tobago in my column of last week, I suggested that we may be victims not so much of poverty as of wanton, wasteful consumerism. I pointed out, too, that the poverty line needs to be re-defined. Whereas 30 years ago a salary of $3,000 per month meant affording a middle-class lifestyle, today that means living on the edge. But one wonders if a re-distribution of the nation's wealth would bring us closer to eradicating poverty or not sink us deeper into debt.

Consumerism and debt are the bane of most societies that experience economic growth or windfalls based on spikes in the prices of commodities on which they depend. It's a global phenomenon that few countries-mainly those that are regimented-escape. Singapore's success, often cited as exemplary, was based largely on the autocratic leadership of Lee Kuan Yew, who demanded the people give up many of their rights and work hard, while his government promised them prosperity and a better quality of life.

The tough measures he introduced, the tight regulations that governed the lives of his people, will hardly be accepted elsewhere in the world, least of all in Trinidad. Lee's policies promoted productivity and reined in consumerism while they also imposed harsh discipline. People are still jailed for spitting on the sidewalks and ownership of cars remains restricted long after he retired.

Trinidad and Tobago has degenerated into a most ill-disciplined country in which corruption is endemic and where freedom is epitomised by our behaviour on Carnival days. For us, every day must be like Carnival. We have groomed a society in which freedom means freeness, it means enjoying whatever one feels like doing without consideration for the rights of others.

A simple example is the "motorised boom-boxes" that assault one's ears from every second vehicle on the road. Or the firecrackers, illegal but available at every street corner, from which no laws or arms of the law can protect us. It's this mentality that has triggered the gun culture, fuelled the crime spiral, and now threatens to lead us into the valley of debt.

In the year 2000, consumer loans stood at $7.8 billion-and that's only loans from commercial banks. By the end of 2005 this portfolio had risen to $12.9 billion. I imagine this year we may well exceed $15 billion. The value of imports stood at $20.8 billion in 2000 and revved up to $35.6 billion by 2005. Since 90 per cent of the food we eat comes from abroad, is it any wonder that inflation here has hit 25 per cent? Or that overall inflation is on the brink of entering the netherworld of double-digit numbers? I am not saying this; it's Central Bank Governor Ewart Williams who is signalling, "Danger ahead!"

But neither Government nor citizen is listening to the voices of reason. At the risk of sounding like a stuck record, I say again that the Government's massive spending is largely responsible for fuelling inflation. Mr Manning and his colleagues tell us: we are not about to put the brakes on mega-projects, although we know the deleterious effect it's having on the economy.

It's the same way the gunmen tell you they will not put down their guns. And the consumer says: what if I want a fourth car, a tenth cell phone, and other foreign goods? It's my money! Who the hell are you to tell me how to spend it? Same khaki pants-the Government or consumer or criminal. That's what I mean about a society steeped in ill-discipline, one destined to taste the bitter fruit of hyper-inflation.

Sadly for us all, more so the few sober citizens in this sea of insanity, all of us will suffer. At the risk of being dubbed a "prophet of doom and gloom" as Ellis Clarke once said, we have only to look north to see the effects of this kind of madness. US foreign debt grows by US$1.5 billion a day. It now stands at $3 trillion. Consumer debt in that country is a mind-boggling $9 trillion-an average of $30,000 for every person.

The world's greatest exporter has become the world's greatest importer. Foreigners own nine per cent of all shares on US stock markets. They also own 17 per cent of commercial bonds and 24 per cent of government bonds. US industry shrunk by half to 17 per cent of GDP against 26 per cent in Europe.

Do these startling numbers not signal to us that wanton consumerism will lead us into deep trouble? Can the Government not see that the bad example it's setting, gorging on oil dollars, signals to others they can consume without end?

Who has the moral authority to rein in this madness, to impose discipline on this society? I leave readers to ponder on this very preventable disease that afflicts us, but where those who hold the cure are themselves incurable.