Notes From a Nativity Son: Drinking in the Last Chance Saloon

Hal Austin

As we collectively sleep-walk in to another general election, the bells are tolling for a once proud nation that has become caught up in the tangle of political and economic mediocrity and individual egotism. But the warning bells signal more than that we are in the last chance saloon; it is the mourning sound for a nation on its way to the grave yard, a people being swept away by time and change and incompetence, as ordinary people unaware that time is short.

The weakness of Barbadian political gravity is partly fed by a press that is both out of its league and badly in need of proper direction. The problem with this is two-fold: Barbados national conversation revolves around personalities and the two-party political system, neither of which advances the quality of that discussion. Time and time again, despite reminders that one is not a member of any political party, one finds oneself the target for personal abuse on the grounds that one must be a secret party member. The rationale for this simple thinking is that to oppose the policies of a particular party then one must be an opposition member. This is a natural outcome of the educational system in which debate is based around – and encouraged – the demolition of personalities and point scoring. One explanation, although I am not convinced it is the only one, is that the educational system, based as it is on learning by rote, does not encourage critical thinking. And since our higher education does not include philosophy, it is not part of the public discourse to reason. This is compounded by the fact that since law, litigation rather than academic or theoretical, is the main professional training, it develops a model of argument based on taking a position, rather than following the facts.

To a large extent, those unsure of their arguments use party politics as a defence mechanism, a protective shield which blocks out all other streams of discourse. Let us take, for example, the way political views are communicated. Most politicians speak from a platform, ridiculing the opposition, and caring very little for the factual content of their speeches.
But there is no political culture of getting the opposing politicians to sit down together and answer questions in an orderly fashion from constituents. It is just not done. The result is that people celebrate the speaker who does not resort to notes, or who is the foulest, or ridicules rivals in the most humorous of ways. Content of the argument and relevance do not matter.

As the economy bottoms out and bumps along at an officially statistically insignificant growth, but suspiciously still in deep recession, our policymakers, journalists and politicians are indulging in party political gibberish while the vast majority of Barbadians face an economic Armageddon.

But time is slipping away, as the current DLP government finds itself increasingly out of its depth. Two things illustrate the DLP’s failure to grasp government: the first was the unexpected general election victory, which caught them unawares; and the second, was the sad and unexpected death of David Thompson, who stood head and shoulders above the other members of his Cabinet. The net result of the first development was that the party did not have a programme for government. It had a manifesto, or what passed for a manifesto, which lacked a road map for progressive change in Barbados, so Thompson’s first policy initiatives were blatantly populist – an unnecessary and expensive pay rise for the public sector, and the giving away of much-needed social housing. Neither initiative would enhance the popularity of the DLP government with its voters, since the people benefiting from the ownership of homes they should not have had would almost certainly be in the main majority DLP voters.

The public sector pay rise was economic recklessness at that particular juncture – the middle of the global recession – with the Barbados economy locked down with a burdensome current account deficit, a heavy massive unemployment, including huge underemployment, and the other social problems it inherited from fourteen years of BLP rule. Under Stuart and Sinckler, the party has been wrongly interpreting party and government and state as one and the same. Even worse, they have been allowed to ge4t away with it. So, the very idea of putting country above party or self is a contradiction, since the ruling mafia sees them as one.

Under this collective DLP failure, all the BLP opposition had to do was to stand by and allow the DLP to commit political suicide. But in its wisdom it has decided to publish a pre-election 15-point plan, and its rivals, quite rightly, have made those points the subject of political debate. It is a clear example of putting your foot in dog’s mess.

As a nation we are fiddling while Rome burns and, sadly, none of our senior politicians, policymakers or public intellectuals or civic or religious leaders are providing the kinds of leadership that is badly needed for this time in our history. They are all behaving like crabs in a barrel: a nation hypnotised by the self- deception that it has a high standard of education, punching above its weight, yet each succeeding generation seems to be falling further and further back.

To develop a vision of a progressive Barbados, our political leaders must first understand the nature of the society, who are the people who have brought us from the threshold of an impoverished post-slaval society to one that put a high value on education by the end of the 19th century and, in the early 20th century established this little island as the driving force of Caribbean knowledge.

In fact, up until the eve of constitutional independence, Barbados still had a regional – and international – reputational of which it could be proud. Now we have a nation that, according to officials, where young men and women cannot pass the basic entry tests to the Defence Force, the police or nursing, traditional lower middle class jobs that historically have always been over-subscribed. An island that, only a few decades ago, filled the understaffed British national health service, the British army and London Transport.

This decline is not a party political issue, it is a failure of all post-independence governments and of a people who have lost their anchor.
The people who have driven this nation have been the hard-working lower middle class and the aspiring skilled and semi-skilled workers, who set examples  of decency, hard work, a search for knowledge and a desire to get on. Post independence, what we now see is a generation of public sector workers who think being a civil servant is a walk in the park, people who have no sense of commitment to their colleagues, the public they serve or the nation.

Economic Policy:
Both leading parties have an economic policy which emphasises Barbados being an offshore financial centre and attracting wealthy individuals to the country as tourists and/or business people. Implicit in this policy is that super-wealthy will use their money to create jobs and buy goods and services, and, therefore, the economy will benefit. There are a number of serious flaws in this supply-side economics, the notion of trickle down benefits.

First, neither the big offshore companies nor wealthy individuals spend the money in the country that policymakers hoped they would. To the multi-millionaires, Barbados is just a holiday location and they have no real business interest in a nation of about 300000 people. Those who do, may venture in to a business supplying their peers with goods and services: golf courses, five-star hotel accommodation, luxury chauffeur-driven cars, etc. But the main provider of jobs continues to be the public sector, or private businesses which depend on the public sector for most of their work, such as the major construction companies and those who depend on government procurement.

Neither of the leading parties has come up with plans to radically rebalance the economy in a transformative way. All they are offering is more of the same: more hotels, more tourism marketing, more incentives for offshore companies, more public sector jobs, more shouting and screaming. Lip service is often paid to developing the private sector, but in truth neither party has any workable policies for so doing. Three is no broad line of the niche manufacturing or service sectors that would fit neatly in to the Barbadian cultural and social landscaper; there is no comprehensive skills training programme, apart from the fiddling about at the Samuel Jackson Prescod Polytechnic. What they do not seem to understand, however, is that these proposed new ‘policies’ have been failing for the last 45 years and will continue to do so in a rapidly changing world.

The most important preparation for the middle to late 21st century global economy is the realisation that things have changed for ever. The global rebalancing that is taking place will not be reversible in our life time, or our children’s, or our children’s children. Given this reality, Barbados has two broad alternatives: going with the flow and steadily declining over the decades; or, providing young people with the high-quality skills, world-class education and creative intellectual environment which would help them to compete in the fast re-shaping world.

In the ideas-free so-called political debate we have in Barbados, the public is served a politically nutritionless diet of character assassination, innuendo and waffle, dished out from a platform by some party apparatchik, who then walks off in the dark night. They are rarely questioned by voters and asked for opinions on the burning issues of the day. When they do express what passes for ideas, such as mantra of economic growth, they repeat it like a semi-comatose monkey. To talk of social equality or job creation is to upset the cosy little world our politicians and policymakers live in. We live in a society in which a huge number of selfish people will rather sacrifice the future of the nation so they can continue to hold on to their non-productive public sector jobs.

It is a classic case of me before anyone else, only this selfishness has been so hard-wired in to Barbadian consciousness that most people think it is normal. Recently, the Cambridge-educated economist, Nick Dewhirst, wrote a thoughtful article on why the Barbados dollar needs to be devalued. It should be compulsory reading for all in government, the central bank and senior levels of the civil service. As things stand, public finances are in a mess, the tourism and leisure industry are in collapse, the foreign-owned banks are on strike and not lending money to households or businesses, although recently they have been paying lip-service to lending, and the people are getting restless.

The reality is that with a reducing tax take, greater stress on national insurance and businesses using VAT as cash flow, the government is in more trouble than it will admit. Further, the main opposition party is either colluding in keeping the people in the dark, or itself has no answer to the frightful problems facing the nation.

If the economy remains sluggish, burdened with debt and a growing current account deficit, it means that it will take much longer to emerge from the historically deep crisis and reach anything like the level of economic activity that will sustain sustainable growth. In the meantime, the central bank is sitting on a massive Bds$1.3bn foreign currency reserve pile, which is not doing anything for the nation. It is like a household piling up personal debt at massive interest rates while keeping a reasonable amount of money in a non-interest bearing account. It does not make financial or economic sense. A substantial part of that reserve, up to half, could be used to fund small businesses with strict conditionality, creating more jobs and stimulating the economy.
But, through adherence to an out–dated economic dated which died a natural death in the 1970s, when most of the economic advisers were undergraduates, has got the nation held prisoner in an intellectual head lock.

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