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Economic limitations

Tennyson Joseph

Economic limitations

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V.S. NAIPAUL’S MIGUEL STREET tells a story about an apprentice mechanic who, having encountered a faulty carburettor on his first engine proceeded to offer a standard diagnosis to every subsequent vehicle: “The carburettor not working”. When the fault of the second vehicle on which he worked was one of “knocking tappets” his standard diagnosis quickly moved to “the tappets knocking”.
Naipaul’s story was instantly recalled following the reaction of the Minister of Finance to Moody’s Investors further credit rating downgrade for Barbados. Like Naipaul’s mechanic, the Minister of Finance has been unable to creatively and intuitively respond to the challenges of the Barbadian economy.
Thus, the fixed handrail of the Medium Term Fiscal Strategy provides an indispensable prop for the minister, despite the evidence that the desired fiscal improvements have not come.
This is not meant as uncharitable criticism. It is an honest reflection of the role of formal training, and its practical application to real life situations. There is a close relationship between “intuition” and training. In sports, it is this formal training combined with intuition, which marks out the seasoned professional from the amateur, particular in “clutch moments” of a game.
Sadly, the economic single-mindedness of the government has confirmed opposition criticisms about the dearth of economic expertise in the ruling party.
This is not to accept party propagandist claims that Caribbean leaders must be trained economists. Indeed, the examples of Williams, Manley and others not formally trained in economics, but who are perhaps among the most revered of post-colonial Caribbean leaders, serve as arguments against that claim. However, the failure of the ruling DLP to demonstrate flexibility and creativity in the face of obvious failure has raised genuine questions about the comfort of the leadership with the practice of economics, beyond the written formulae handed down by non-political advisors.
There is no doubt that the 1990-1994 experience had traumatised the new DLP administration into a psychology of caution, timidity and insecurity on the economic front. Having inherited the 2008 crisis, every effort was geared at burying the ghost of 1994, despite the differences in the internal and external circumstances. The situation has not been helped by the death of the first Minister of Finance (a lawyer) and his replacement by the new (a trade specialist). The new Prime Minister (a lawyer) has shown little inclination to lead or oversee economic affairs, and no replacement to the current economic leadership has been contemplated, mooted, or appears readily available.
The straightjacketed nature of apparent options resides not only in personnel but in development plans. Urgent questions on new growth areas remain unanswered, while energies are spent on fiscal issues in a socio-political vacuum.
The people can expect more of the same.
The entire engine appears to be failing, but limited knowledge confines the focus on the carburettor.
• Tennyson Joseph is a political scientist at the University of the West Indies, Cave Hill Campus, specializing in regional affairs. Email [email protected]