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Calling all the king’s horses and all the king’s men…and women

By Dr Marlene Attzs, Economist
Email: marlene.attzs@gmail.com

The fall of the fabled Humpty Dumpty required great effort on the part of all the king’s horses and all the king’s men to put him back together again.  They were unsuccessful in their efforts to rebuild but it is their collective response to the task that history and the fable records.

In March 2020, Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, a British religious leader, philosopher, and award-winning author, described the Covid-19 catastrophe as “the nearest we have to a revelation for atheists”. The statement captured the biblical sense of shock that many felt in the face of such a sudden, extreme, and swiftly accelerating crisis. The crisis brought an acute awareness of human frailty and vulnerability.

In an interview with BBC in 2020, Rabbi Sacks said that “…We’re all part of circles. There’s a narrow circle of family, then community, then society, then nation…” His comments were in the context of the impact of the pandemic on individuals and on societies and nations – all are interwoven.

Two years after the onset of the pandemic, the world is reeling yet again as we confront the realities imposed by the war between Russia and Ukraine.  We are threatened, once more, by global food shortages as the significance of these two countries as major players in the international arena becomes more evident.

To place the current geopolitical goings-on in a national context, Trinidad and Tobago remains vulnerable, even as energy prices soar.  At an economic forum earlier this year, I suggested that perhaps now is the time to contemplate a new economic model in which Government takes on a greater role as facilitator for efficient economic activity rather than its current role of primary actor for economic planning and regulation.

One consequence of this suggested new economic model is that the population will be weaned off Government transfers and subsidies which are again in jeopardy as traditional sources of revenue become more challenged.

The reality of the choices facing our nation because of the Russia/Ukraine issues, has resulted, in part, in an increase in fuel prices at the pump. To put it simply, the increase in energy prices globally has two impacts on Trinidad and Tobago at this time.

First, since the Government, which still subsidises the cost of fuel at the pump, will have to pay more to insulate citizens from the true cost of fuel for vehicles – the price currently paid for premium, super or diesel is not the true market price.

Second, between 2007 and 2021, gas production in T&T’s energy sector has declined significantly meaning smaller revenues to the country.

While I appreciate the angst that some vulnerable members of our society will face from higher transportation costs, coupled with higher prices for all the food we import (global supply chain impacts), there is a choice to be made at this time – either the Government uses the dwindling financial resources to continue subsidising our vehicles or they use limited financial resources to support expenditures such as old age pensions and other transfer payments.

The irony is that some opposed to the increases at the pump do not blink an eye when on their travels abroad they are required to pay the full price for fuel.

Then there is the still unrealised revenue from the not-as-yet implemented property tax.  Amid continued institutional failures at several levels nationally, we must decide to confront and resolve our national challenges and bring about fundamental change.

An important question at this time in our history, should be on the role of government, institutions, and individuals. Over the past two decades, in advanced economies, responsibility has generally shifted from institutions to individuals.

As we celebrate Mother’s Day this Sunday, we reflect on the sacrifices many mothers have made to keep families together, even during crises. Some families will be without mothers for the first time this year and once the mother is gone, the role she played in ‘holding the centre’ becomes a stark reality and the unit of the family falls apart.

The choices we make now can shape our country and our mentality for decades to come. What is undoubtedly critical is the need for collective action – all the king’s horses and all the king’s men –  to hold the centre and put Trinidad and Tobago back together so we can commit to, and hopefully deliver inclusive economic growth, prosperity, and safety for all.

The most important lesson from all that continues to impact us nationally is the importance of working together on problems that affect our nation.

We are much stronger united than divided.

That’s just my point of view.