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Raffique Shah


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Greed is killing us not so softly

By Raffique Shah
Oct 16, 2019

Some day last week, after I had eaten a very modest lunch, I was snacking on a few locally-manufactured crackers when my wife asked, "You still hungry, nah?" She has noted with unnecessary concern that I eat smaller portions, which I attribute to ageing and my now mostly sedentary lifestyle, the latter imposed on me by my infirmity. I don't need calories that I won't burn as I did during my very active pre-Parkinson's life. That reality notwithstanding, the urge to snack on junk remains undiminished, much to my dismay.

"No," I replied, "I'm just greedy!" I should have felt ashamed of myself for eating junk, a very unhealthy habit that I have long condemned as wastage even as hundreds of millions of people across the world go hungry for want of basic nutrition any given day, and often, many among them, especially the very young and the old, dying from starvation.

I thought of that simple, seemingly irrelevant episode as I considered the 2019-2020 Budget, the state of the country's economy, hell, the state of the world that seems to be hastening to its demise, propelled partly by men in leadership positions whom the gods have already made mad, but also by an insatiable greed that has gripped humanity. Man wants more of everything, far surpassing his needs, be it food, clothes, property, vehicles, money, power. And politicians want as much of other people's money as they can lay their dirty paws on, hence the decade long deficit budgets that drive us deeper into debt, some of it unavoidable, but much of it driven by greed to spend more than we can afford.

Take the total annual expenditure as an example. With an estimated population of 1.4 million, governments were not satisfied with spending no more than TT $50 billion per year, which averages out at $35,000 per man, woman and child. They took it up past that mark from as far back as during Patrick Manning's last term in office ($53.8 billion in fiscal 2008), made merry during Kamla Persad-Bissessar's tenure when they spent a staggering $62-plus billion in fiscal 2014 and 2015.

People forget that budgetary expenditure in fiscal 2005 was a paltry $27.2 billion, and the country's affairs were conducted quite well, thank you. In fact, that year we enjoyed a surplus in revenue of $2.4 billion, a very healthy fiscal position that few countries experience. When oil and natural gas prices surged thereafter, Manning increased expenditure to $37 and $39.7 billion in 2006 and 2007, respectively. The latter was also the year in which the Heritage and Stabilisation Fund was established, belatedly setting aside some of the oil and gas revenues for the proverbial rainy day and for future generations.

Luckily that concept of a sovereign wealth fund was adopted—Norway had set the standards for such savings. It proved to be a saviour when the Treasury almost ran dry in 2015-2018.

The point I'm on here, though, is this: did we citizens see the quality and value of government services improve by 100 percent between 2005, when expenditure was $27 billion, and 2014/2015, when expenditure more than doubled? Serious crimes did not decrease by 50 percent. The health services showed no dramatic improvements, and while it is true that the numbers of students accessing free tertiary education likely doubled, the quality of those graduating remains questionable.

All that money spent and three governments later the highway to Point Fortin remains "a work in progress". Traffic congestion is ten times worse almost everywhere in the country because none of them saw wisdom in implementing, even in limited ways, mass transit systems. So every man Jack and every women Jenny own vehicles, of necessity, they will tell you. This tiny country has an estimated 800,000 vehicles on its limited, potholed roads. People sit in their vehicles spending hours in traffic rather than on their jobs...and these are merely a few of the more glaring failures we are condemned to endure in spite of the politicians engaging in wild spending and wanton wastage, not to factor in stealing substantial sums of money allocated for public works.

Greed, avarice, that burning desire for material things, always wanting more, never satisfied with what you need to live in relative comfort, is in large measure behind the unholy position we've found ourselves today. Before the financial crisis struck in America in 2008, triggering a 30 percent crash in property prices and a recession that almost enveloped the wider world, we were doing pretty well on lower revenues. Oh, for sure greed was there: it has always been, listed as one of the "seven deadly sins" from biblical times.

But before the global crash impacted our bottom line in fiscal 2009, when we experienced our first deficit budget ($6 billion), we actually ran surpluses in revenue in 2008 ($2.9 billion), 2007 ($268 million), 2006 ($1.8 billion). However, once we dived into the debt hole in 2009, we never looked back...

Oil, gas and other energy products prices rebounded post 2010. In fact, with oil soaring above US $100 per barrel and gas fetching US $14 on premium markets where our LNG was sold, revenues also rebounded to unprecedented heights. That did not deter Kamla's government from spending more than we earned, continuing to borrow and to drive us deeper into debt.

Greed, from top to bottom, from the average public sector worker, to his boss, to government ministers, to contractors kept demanding more and more, with little regard for the state and fate of the nation. To be fair to the incumbent government, it has reined in expenditure to a limited extent, although it engages in projects that are not necessarily priorities at this time.

Maybe there is yet hope that we can salvage something to save us from an IMF-imposed crash. But first we must each deal with our personal greed.

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