THE BIG PICTURE: Waste and taxes
An American writer once stated that he liked to pay his taxes because by so doing, he bought “civilisation”. I doubt that taxes can buy civilisation but what he probably meant was that his taxes could serve to improve society of which he obviously felt himself a part.
Historically tax gatherers have not been popular. Generally speaking, people do not take kindly to rendering to Caesar even that which Caesar might legitimately claim as his. For most of history taxes were pernicious and iniquitous as it was mostly the poor, the “little people”, who paid.
The advent of liberal democracy led to a significant shift in the burden of taxation. Under the mantra “from each according to his ability and to each according to his need”, the concept of “progressive” taxation was widely accepted. The tax burden which now fell mostly on the higher socio-economic strata was central to redistributive politics that sought to reduce inequities recognised as unfair and dysfunctional.
In the Caribbean as black politics reigned, taxation was one means of fashioning a welfare state that would lift the “emancipated people” out of abject poverty. The working class in the region looked to politicians to provide a network of social provisions that ensured some measure of upward mobility. Politicians were legitimately inclined to expand the social safety net. Sometimes this reflected a genuine attempt at social engineering, sometimes it was little more than the extension of political patronage to guarantee the mass vote.
Indeed opposing parties were apt to “back-raise” each other to gain or hold on to power. Persons of all classes clamoured for less in taxes and more benefits even as the burden on the state increased and taxable capacity was stretched. Taxable capacity remained reasonable because although brittle, the Barbadian economy was reasonably buoyant, always “geared for take-off” but never quite in full flight. Barbadians appreciative of social equity and equilibrium are generally not ill-disposed to paying their dues. Hence the numbers lined up to pay an ostensibly “pernicious” solid waste levy. A lady caller to Brass Tacks said, “I doing my best to pay de tax”.
What Barbadians resent is incompetence, wastage, the misappropriation of public funds and governments that seems not to comprehend the taxable incapacity of people and corporations already stretched to the limit. Excessive taxation can actually dry up the productive sources and deployment of capital.
The global financial crisis that began in late 2007 has exposed the soft underbelly of the Barbadian economy and the incapacity of a governing class and a populace to come to terms with a harsh new reality. Indeed Barbadians still seem to feel that they entitled to the good life and a government that will somehow outlaw economic insecurity and retain the social entitlements that Errol Walton Barrow apparently promised ad infinitum. Indeed a University spokesman recently stated that there was no shortage of resources to underwrite tertiary education. The problem he noted was that tertiary level administrators had just not won “the debate”. For some people, everything is pompous rhetoric.
The furore over the municipal solid waste tax has indicated governmental inefficiency. Firstly it couldn’t get the quantum of the imposition quite right. Then the title is clearly a misnomer as it has little or nothing to do with waste collection. It is property tax imposed on an already existing property levy to garner more revenue. Too little thought seems to have been given as to the incidence of the impost. Given the dissatisfaction with the tax, there clearly was a deficit of due diligence on an issue that required a broader level of communication and consultation beyond the “eminent persons” constituting the Cabinet.
Barbadians addicted to freeness must acquaint themselves with a reality of what Margaret Thatcher once called “a prolonged bout of economic and financial anaemia”. Given the already heavy taxation, Government must do a better job of collecting what is legitimately owed to it and deal with various avoidance mechanisms. Unlike one writer, I do not scoff at what he calls “the needs of the Government”. To some extent the fiscal needs of the Government are not indistinguishable from my own sense of social well-being.
As a citizen, the ecological integrity of Barbados is as much my concern as it is the Government’s. Barbados as a developed consumerist society is producing a large amount of solid waste. Given the limited landfill capacity, not to mention the fact that nobody wants a landfill in their backyard, a long-term solution has to be found, to which cost the taxpayers must contribute. As Polly Toynbee has written, “Taxes well spent are a great social good. They are not a burden – they are the most important communitarian thing that we contribute as citizens”. What we insist on is greater competence, transparency andl honesty in the expenditure of our hard-earned and not so grudgingly paid tax dollars.
• Ralph Jemmott is a retired educator and social commentator.