THAT IMF SNAKE

At least the past twenty budget debates have been farces and this current episode is shaping up to be yet another of tragi-comic proportions.

To my mind, the presentations I’ve seen from the government side can be summarized by a single acronym, PNP. It stands for Promises Not Performance.  The lone Opposition contribution that I’ve seen (Audley “Are You” Shaw) was the most ludicrous of all (with apologies to Christopher Brian Bridges).

But, the impression of farce came not so much from content as attitude.  We’re at our lowest ebb financially.  We’re overtaxed; our credit maxed; our belts tightened to our backbones; our rear-ends cushionless; our business community driven to distraction; some to suicide.  We live in fear.  Even afternoon strolls with our children can end in sudden violent attack and loss of life.  Our health systems are a ramshackle; our education system in decay; our transport “a chronic”.  According to the latest government promise, we’re once more in the IMF’s loving arms.  We know.  It has already begun to hug us to death.

                   “I’m getting swallowed by a Boa Constrictor;
by a Boa Constrictor; by a Boa Constrictor.
I’m getting swallowed by a Boa Constrictor                                                         and I don’t like snakes one bit.

If we’re ever to dig ourselves out of this deep, dark, dank hole into which we’ve been cast by decades of bad governance, it’ll take all hands on deck. We can’t afford partisanship, tribalism or division at this time.  Any hint of any of the above and we can start planning Jamaica’s funeral. So, in this gloomy context, I could only watch with despair at the enthusiastic desk thumping by government MPs at each and every politically favourable announcement.  The glee was not only transparent, it was blatant.  The Prime Minister’s body language at the end of Dr Phillips’ speech was worst of all.  As the one with the greatest responsibility to reflect what’s required, her anxiety to score political points not only by thumping loudly but performing what I saw as a celebratory jig was just plain sad.  

The context in which this vulgar display of merriment caught my attention includes the stubborn refusal of any government member to accept even a token sacrifice at this time.  The SUVs are still being paraded.  Cabinet cuts and salary cuts are called “optics”.  But, it seems “optics” can be important for reacting to Finance Ministers’ budget speeches because, since this speech presented one of the most austere budgets in Jamaica’s history, jollity couldn’t possibly reflect realism.  Accordingly, the gaiety’s purpose must be “optics”. Reality?

                   “Whaddaya know?                                                                                              He’s swallowed my toe.                                                                                      Oh gee!                                                                                           He’s up to my knee.
Oh my!                                                                                                He’s up to my thigh.                                                                                           Oh yummy!                                                                                                           He’s up to my tummy.
Oh fiddle!                                                                                         He’s up to my middle.                                                                                        Oh glum!                                                                                                         He’s mashing my lungs.

Jamaica’s reality required polite applause when appropriate; a serious visage; and body language messaging grim determination.  I realize I’m messing with decades of budget debate tradition but it’s time.  Everybody and everything evolves especially under pressure from that lawless entity called necessity.  It’s time for 50 year old Jamaica to grow up; remove politics from parliament; and govern like governors burdened by momentous tasks in sombre times.  In order to be coaxed (not bullied) aboard the rescue ship, Jamaicans need hope.  This can’t be encouraged by puerile MPs thumbing their noses at ordinary Jamaican’s plight with mob scenes of inappropriate jollification. 

Unfortunately, the contents of the speeches did lend more to frivolity than serious attempts to govern.  Peter Phillips began with this whopper;

          “This Administration, this country and this Parliament will forever be                indebted to the tens of thousands of public sector workers who                      WILLINGLY AND WITHOUT DURESS (LOL) signed-on to the                         programme of wage restraint in order to…… service the debt. I don’t          think it’s appreciated or widely known that all of us as members of this                   Honourable House and as members of the Government will be bound                     by the same provisions as the rest of the Public Sector.

Oh, come on, Peter.  It’s a fact that, some years ago, Minister’s salaries were fixed by reference to Permanent Secretaries’.  But wasn’t that changed by the last JLP Administration?  Regardless, surely you don’t want me to accept unreservedly that “members of the Government will be bound by the same provisions as the rest of the Public Sector.” How many Public Sector workers have personal assistants; drivers; free accommodation; and so on and so fifth?  Show me the Nurse, doctor or policeman who gets a refurbished government house to live in rent free and I’ll show you a cabinet member.

Don’t get me started on the “no new taxes” announcement (to thunderous desk thumping).  Why, Peter?  If all you want as Finance Minister is good governance, why do that?  That’s pusillanimous pandering to partisan party politics.  The intellectually disingenuous nature of the false but populist announcement is exposed by its contradiction within the same budget presentation where you said (about NDX);

          “These have been difficult decisions. Raising the primary surplus from               3.1 per cent…..to 7.5 per cent as it is in the present Budget…. has    required two significant tax packages.

So, you acknowledge that “..the present budget…..has required two significant tax packages” yet still you just can’t resist the populist, politically tribal nonsense about “no new taxes”?  How are ordinary Jamaicans to treat the present fiscal crisis with patriotic maturity if you won’t?

Phillips also spoke of the result of the tedious, IMF talks like this:

          “…the end result was nevertheless that….. The IMF increased its                      commitment from 175% of quota to 225% of quota or approximately                   US$958M, an increase of US$200M. Simultaneously, the IDB and                World Bank have confirmed a minimum commitment of slightly more                than US$1B.

Thump, thump, thump.  OMG!  Why’s the Minister not explaining the context to Jamaica? What’s this IMF “commitment”?  Is it not a loan which our children must repay?  What’s it to be used for?  What’s this IDB/World Bank “minimum commitment”?  Is it a “commitment” properly-so-called or a loan request?  Why’s the Minister using obfuscatory words like “commitment” and not telling us like it is? 

What are the projected net inflows from the IMF this year?  Does Jamaica owe it money that has to be repaid like NOW?  Is this the reason for the increased IMF “commitment” or is it love for the Jamaican poor?

The Minister disagreed with the “sign now at all costs’ lobby (as do I) but then went on to lambast the lobby to which I belong (the no IMF lobby).  He argued:

          “What would be the consequences here?

          1. The immediate effect of not having an IMF programme would be the   total absence of external financing which would be compounded by       capital flight;

          2. The end result would be deeper economic contraction affecting mostly those who can least afford it;

          3. Worsening poverty especially among the most vulnerable and    disadvantaged segments of our population; and,

          4. Sharper cuts to the Budget resulting in significant reductions in the   availability of public goods and services such as Healthcare and        Education…..

My brief responses, in order:

1.    What do you mean by “immediate”?  We’ve not had an IMF programme for 3 years.  We still don’t have one.  Has there been no external financing over that time?  If yes, how’d we survive?  If no, what’s the problem?  Maybe available financing won’t allow for political slush?

2.    This has been our lot for decades.  The difference would be we’d be contracting initially for a purpose other than to repay foreign debt.  We’d be contracting with a view, again driven by necessity, to becoming self reliant;

3.    A repetition of #2 using different language

4.    Another repetition of #2.  If it’s said often enough, the poor may be frightened into believing that the madness of the IMF will help them.

The simple truth is the IMF path is the easy way out for our government.  It’ll permit them to kick the self reliance can down the road for someone else to start-up; order more SUVs; and approve more contract over-runs.  The alternative would mean (horror of horrors) stricter internal budgetary controls and elimination of waste (a.k.a. living within our means).

                   “Now, look here snake,                                                                           I don’t look good with this long tail on me.
That’s about all I can say snake                                                                 except give me a break snake!
My torso’s cold and it’s startin’ to mould!                                                  Boa Constrictor how much can you hold.

Audley was no better.  Too much of his speech was used up in his personal vendetta with Omar Davies.  Get over it Audley.  Focus ahead for Jamaica’s benefit. But what amazed me was the number of out-of-the-box solutions he had up his sleeve.  He was against the NHT raid (as am I) and proposed all sorts of equally illegal and useless alternatives.  But his government raided the UAF; the TEF and every other available statutory fund it could find in the blessed name of “fiscal consolidation”. 

Apparently, he knows what’s needed to improve tax compliance.  But, wasn’t he in charge of tax compliance up to a couple years ago? He proposed that growth be driven by a fixed exchange rate.  Why didn’t he implement this when he was Minister?

This is why senior cabinet ministers voted out of office must retire and allow new, fresh faces to take over.  Opposition must be capable of being taken seriously.

                   “Oh yes!                                                                                                              He’s up to my chest.                                                                                        Oh heck!                                                                                             He’s up to my neck.
I’m nearly all in!                                                                             He’s up to my chin.                                                                                               Oh dread! He’s swallowed my…..(BURP) ‘excuse me’.

Shel Silverstein, who wrote some of Johnny Cash’s biggest hits (including the seminal “A Boy Named Sue) penned the humourous Boa Constrictor for one of Cash’s live performances.  It became a cult hit which I used for years as a bedtime story for my three sons.  None had nightmares or became warped by this.  Laughter, when appropriate, can be the best medicine.

Finally, Philip Paulwell’s speech really sounded good.  Apparently he’s taken over Paul Robertson’s pipeline.  Grand announcements were made.  But my light bill exceeded $40,000 last month and will do so again next month.  And I’m still waiting for the Luana Oil Refinery to be built.

Peace and Love

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