Dennis Jones is a Jamaican-born international economist, who has lived most of the time in the UK and USA, and latterly in Guinea, west Africa. He moved back to the Caribbean in 2007. This blog contains his observations on life on this small eastern Caribbean island, as well as views on life and issues on a broader landscape, especially the Caribbean and Africa.







**You may contact me by e-mail at livinginbarbados[at]gmail[dot]com**

Sunday, May 17, 2009

Losing The Plot?

I guess I am not alone in saying that the attention I give to concerns is related to how credible I think they are. If my child comes to me screaming, "There's a dragon in my bedroom!" I tend to think, no there isn't, but then go on to ask myself "What is she afraid of?"

Over the past few weeks, I have been wrestling with this credibility of concerns issue on the political and economic level. A local political strategist who is also a government adviser, Hartley Henry, has written several articles that make me ask whether his musings reflect correctly the kind of advice being given to the government on political economy issues. His weekly newspaper columns, which are also submitted to another local blog, Barbados Underground, have left me struggling to find a logic and direction for any suggested economic policy. I have said to myself that if he is being paid for the columns then it's money for old rope. His adviser's post is paid and I have read concerns about whether tax payers are getting value for money. I wonder then what are his real concerns and the meanings that seem to elude me, other than meeting an obligation to supply a certain number of words to the newspaper, or to puff up his party in some vaguely disguised partisan fashion.

What first caught my attention was a piece in early April (see Advocate, April 2), sparked by parliamentary discussion on the Budget Estimates. It lauded the fact that:

"I have always favoured English over Arithmetic...thanks to the career I have chosen, I have had little need for use of half that which I learnt in Mathematics at St. George Secondary 30 years ago. Thankfully, in Barbados today there is a leader that is comfortable speaking to the population in English and not only arithmetic...This is not the time for 'bamboozling' the public with ambiguous economic interpretations."

The way forward was clear:

"We need to know what is wrong and what it will take to fix it. We want to know that the advice coming from those we believe know what they are talking about is genuine and well meaning and not the product of hidden agendas or jaundiced perspectives. ... This land belongs to us. Let us speak the language we all know and understand. Let us wrap our thoughts, words and actions in the national flag. Down with economic babble! Up with good old fashioned English!"

This contained a thinly veiled criticism of the previous PM, who is known as a professional economist and one who is comfortable with the economic numbers, when compared with the current PM, a lawyer better known for weaving words well.

However, the core of the argument held for me some disturbing propositions in a country that prides itself on its level of educational attainment and sees itself as atop the list of developing countries. Mr. Henry's career choice could be said to reflect the limitations that his lack of mathematics forced on him. Not being capable at mathematics does not seem like something of which one should be proud, if the idea is to truly encourage a new level of excellence in education and variety in economic options for the population of this small island. Most of the world's fastest growing sectors over the past two decades have been geared to technology and without a good grasp of mathematics (and science) in a broad sense, a country could well be left at the port when it is time for economic prosperity to set sail again.

Then, two weeks ago, after a visit to the UK, he wrote an article that bothered me on a different level (see
Barbados Advocate, May 7). Its essential argument was that Barbadians need to come together now more than ever to weather the storms created by the world recession. That is laudable enough. But what bothered me by seeking to draw parallels with PM Brown and the UK, was whether there was thoroughness underlying the arguments. Certainly, the piece displayed some discomforting ignorance, and was just downright misleading. He wrote:

"Life in Britain today is no bed of roses. Simply put, it is dread. Job losses are as common as dips in temperature. You are going to work each morning, not knowing whether it’s your last day on the job or even if the doors to the office will be bolted shut. The cost of living has gone through the roof and public confidence in the political directorate is at an all time low...

"[PM Gordon Brown], from all reports, has failed to inspire voters. Indeed, he has failed to inspire members of his own British Labour Party...No one can point to any major commission or omission on his part, but yet the arrows of anger and vengeance are pointed in his direction."

Now, I no longer live in the UK but visit occasionally and keep abreast of developments via the BBC and newspapers and journals online. It has been no secret that Gordon Brown has been mired in unpopularity ever since he took over from Tony Blair as PM in June 2007. He and his party have weathered accusations about improper party donations; they both saw a dramatic fall in poll approval ratings. The weight of the economic downturn made his government unpopular and it suffered heavy defeats in by-elections. His unpopularity was only stemmed briefly by some high profile suggestions on how to deal with the current world financial crisis. Now PM Brown and his colleagues are mired in a scandal about bogus expenses claims (see
Times report for the latest saga).

None of this was easy to ignore or be ignorant of; even through a quick search on the Internet. So, how could the columnist erect the straw man with "No one can point to..." when almost ANYONE can point to? What is the real beef? Is it a pre-emptive defence that says something like, the current government, if its popularity is waning, is suffering for reasons that no one can understand?

This week, the same commentator wrote a long rambling piece about how the recession has made a long-sought after piece of travel luggage, a Tumi Pullman, affordable (see
Advocate column, May 14). He wonders why the widespread sales and deep discounting in the US, even on the most luxurious of items, are not apparent in Barbados, and asks if local businesses are not sowing their own seeds of doom by not lowering prices to move goods and attract customers. Pointing to the upcoming Budget, he notes:

"But, we must not despair. Whatever Mr. Thompson can do, I am sure he will do to help the vulnerable and to encourage the progressive and conscientious. Let us work smart in the weeks and months ahead. Let us do what is necessary to keep our doors open and our loyal staff employed."

I have struggled to follow the logic of the various arguments, and to think of who is being served and how, and to weave a picture of where the story is headed, but I am hopelessly lost.


Anonymous said...

Henry is a man whose credibility is tenuous at best yet he is paid handsomely and used by a host of Caribbean governments for his 'intelligence'.

It is sad indeed.

Anonymous said...

You are assuming that logic is a prerequisite for Henry's arguments.