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A jam and ham budget

Tuesday, October 9, 2012


As the years go by, one listens with increasing incredulity to each passing budget speech. Budgets, like finance ministers, come and go like flatus in the wind, neither here nor there, up or down, pertinent or not, they seem to make not the slightest difference to day-to-day life in paradise. But this budget, as Marie Antoinette said, takes the cake, for it seems our eager-to-be-elected-and-change-things government has done much the same, remove VAT on jam and ham and let them eat that, increase the price of premium gas a staggering 44 per cent without really thinking it through and encourage people to have more children, again without thinking about the consequences.
The new Minister of Finance, perhaps accustomed to having people come beg him for a loan at five per cent so he can invest it at ten per cent and be called a visionary businessman, must now get accustomed to having politicians come tell him what to do, where to dump it and how fast. One wonders at the effect of that fall on the psyche, even with the elevating influence of a golden parachute.
It was ironical that on page A9 of Friday’s Guardian some brilliant Guardian person placed a picture of a newly launched drug (the new paradigm of investigative reporting seems to be descriptions of new pharmaceuticals), said to help prevent stroke, next to a list of food items to go VAT-free, most of which, when eaten over the years, will produce stroke! Even better was that both fell under the headline “cheap gimmick.”
For cheap gimmick it is to lower taxes on pancake mixes, pancake syrups, flavoured milk drinks, juices, cake frosting, the afore-mentioned jam, canned fruit, processed meats, sausage, bacon—really, the medical mind cringes at the thought of what all that sugar and chemicals will do to our people over the years. The only junk foods missing were those cute little bottles stuffed with sweet potato and flavoured with banana or carrots, enthusiastically called “baby food” by advertising agencies.  
I may have missed the exciting announcement during the temporary hearing loss I suffered after an hour of listening to the budget. If our caring government, hearts aching for the suffering of the poor, really wanted to do something, it could increase the subsidy (is there one?) to farmers. Perhaps fix the secondary roads so produce could get to market or lower taxes on local fruits, vegetables and ground provisions and encourage our fishermen in the same way.
I can understand the accounting rationale behind decreasing the subsidy on gasoline but surely these things have to be done in a gradual manner. Forty-four per cent increase in the price of a key product is not gradual. One gets the impression that by losing money on cake tax, someone said, “We better make it back somewhere else, oui!”
And linking the increase to CNG fools no one. People who drive premium not changing over, even if there were an incentive and enough gas stations selling CNG, until BMW and Audi start selling cars using CNG. The off-the-cuff comment about “making more chirren” is another neat piece of accounting.
It is true that the birth rate has decreased substantially over the years so in time there will be fewer working adults paying taxes to take care of the old. That assumes the Government gets most of its money from people taxes. Most of our tax revenue comes from gas and oil, no? Does the minister believe this will change soon? Then he needs to say so.  
Having fewer working adults is a problem in Europe, where lowered birth rates are a problem and women are paid to have children, either directly with cash or through subsidised childcare, prolonged maternity leave etc. Is the Minister of Finance proposing this? No. Is a kind of simplistic throw-out suggestion. Just like his budget.  
No thought about why the birthrate has fallen. No thought about the consequences to the health, educational and social services systems that more births will have. Traffic. The environment. Crime. Housing. No, just make more children.  
The less said about health the better. Whoever thought up this budget thinks so too. In past years the health part of the budget averaged three small paragraphs. This year it stretched but barely made one.  
Trinis equate good health care with something they call “hospitals” and the rest of the world calls polyclinics. A “hospital” in T&T is anywhere with an x-ray machine, a sign saying A&E, and two foreigners sitting down. Whoever advised the Minister of Finance on health, and it would seem one of those mysterious “health administrators” with a background in secondary roads construction did so, has also bought into the local concept, because all the stretched-out paragraph talked about was building this hospital and that hospital. “Hospital in Arima.” “Hospital in Point.” “Hospital in Sando” and “hospital” in Couva.   
Notice that the useless “children’s hospital” in Couva has morphed into an “adult and children’s hospital.” Rubbish.


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