COLUMN – A clear failure to lead
All practitioners of economics, by definition if not default, focus almost exclusively on the tangible side of public policy. This would help to explain to a large degree what some may perceive as our obsession with measurement.
We measure GDP, which is the total of all net transactions that take place between willing buyers and sellers during a particular period. Basically the difference between what it costs the seller to provide the good or service and the price that the buyer is prepared to pay, known to the profession, as value added, is what makes up any estimate of GDP.
We measure inflation, which is the average rate at which the general price level changes in the economy. Inflation is used commonly to make inferences about the cost of living, but these are very different concepts.
We measure the level of public debt and its compositions in relation to the state of public finances. We measure employment and unemployment levels as a means to monitor issues not only related to economic activity, but also social issues, including poverty.
The measurement and accompanying analyses of these and other metrics keep economists like myself pretty busy, because, like any grandmother cooking a soup, timing of when to prepare ingredients and when to add them to the pot, when to lower the intensity of the fire, and so forth, all determine how good the soup will taste in the end.
I refer to these things as the tangible side of the economy because they can be easily measured and assessed. Economists cannot predict the future simply because of the dynamic nature of the relationships that exist between economic variables and the unpredictability of human behaviour. Having said that, we can however provide a series of outcomes (scenarios) which are all equally likely, though some will have a higher probability of occurrence than others.
The reason for this is that there is always some piece of data and/or information that is not available to the economists at the time of making said predictions or projections. This is why making information available is so very important to the running of a well- functioning economy.
I think sometimes we (Barbadians) forget that this is actually the 21st century, which is also known, ironically, as the information age.
I have spent the better part of this article thus far focusing on what I termed the tangible side of economics and how information is so very important. As in the past, certainly in the future a lot of focus will be on the tangible side of Government; that is, how large is the fiscal deficit? Is the level public debt sustainable? Is Government procurement transparent and open to all who wish to participate? How large should the Public Service be?
These are but some of the challenges we will face from Government on an economic front, all of which can be measured objectively and appropriately dealt with.
The intangible side of Government whilst not immediately measurable is absolutely fundamental to the good operation of an economy. Economists and, I daresay, all citizens take for granted that persons who hold public office at any point in time understand that whilst they may be duly elected on the ticket of a political party that their responsibility is to all Barbadians and residents therein.
The incident that occurred last week at National Union of Public Workers (NUPW) headquarters is nothing short of terrorism. The deliberate use of the white powdery substance in an envelope is synonymous with the anthrax scare that occurred in the United States in the early 2000s.
I wish to place on the written record that irrespective of the industrial relations climate in which NUPW unions representatives and the Government officials are currently embroiled, the person holding the office of the Prime Minister, who incidentally is also responsible for national security, was obligated to make a public statement vehemently condemning the obvious threat to the lives of these Barbadians. The rhetoric that “Barbados is more than economy, it’s a society” demanded such a response. Though the Government is cash-strapped, the Prime Minister’s public statement should have indicated that all available resources would be brought to bear to quell any element of domestic terrorism, and that the offending persons would be brought to justice.
You may recall that I got a Grade C in the lone politics course I read at the University of the West Indies; so perhaps I am misguided in the notion that given the administration is struggling to managed the economy, it should never allow an opportunity to pass to clearly demonstrate that it has all our interests at heart and will leave no stone unturned in pursuit of finding the perpetrators.
Part of the reason why terrorism does not have as significant impact on economic activity in developed countries over the long term is that the response from authorities is almost instantaneous, and information is updated and provided at regular intervals. Though there is always a short-term effect on activity, the public response to safety and security concerns is designed to get citizens to continue their daily lives with calm and assurance.
At the time of writing, to my knowledge no information has been made available to the public as to the nature of the substance in the envelope. My sense is that it does not matter whether it is baby powder or tile cement, the intent to instil fear cannot go unattended. Persons who hold public office, temporarily or otherwise, must understand their responsibility and take it seriously.
Over the weekend, someone asked me whether I thought Barbados was on the road to recovery and if the Government had things covered. Economies thrive on certainty and confidence which, as I mentioned before, have both tangible and intangible parts.
This recent incident at the NUPW and the lack of apparent action or concern from holders of public office tell me that we will not likely recover unless something fundamental changes in the nature of the relationship that exists between the governors and the governed.
The failure of Prime Minister Freundel Stuart to provide that glimmer of hope and comfort to all Barbadians that he is on top of things and is looking out for us is just as if not more important than the development and implementation of any public policy. What further compounds the issue for me is that his public comments seem to suggest that in his mind his party was elected for five years and he will not concern himself with too much else.
It is in the national interest for Mr Stuart to at least pretend that he is holding the office of Prime Minister. That must mean something to the ordinary citizen. Being responsible for national security, he should at least pretend that the threat of terrorism to the life of one Barbadian is a threat to us all.
In the kind of society in which I want to live, there would be no need for pretence. As cynics, we sometimes give politicians a hard time, but we have become accustomed to politicians at least pretending that they care. When Mr Stuart no longer sees the need to at least pretend, which is the minimum we have come to expect from politicians, then he is irrelevant in our lives. In my view, his lack of direct response to this threat of terrorism to NUPW personnel constitutes a dereliction of duty and a breach of the public trust. His failure to lead, and our active participation in making excuses that it is his style will make any economic recovery under his slumber much harder to achieve.
(Ryan Straughn is a Barbadian fed up with what passes for leadership. Email: email@example.com)