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An honest dollar

Published: 
Thursday, June 5, 2014
London Calling

Sitting at a little food shack in Charlotteville I find myself saying, “Capitalism means nothing to ordinary people in Tobago. Whether you break even, make a little profit or a loss, it really doesn’t matter.”

 

This doesn’t apply to the restaurants, hotels and car rental companies in Crown Point or Cove Industrial Park, the commercial hub of the island. 

 

But in the fishing village to the north, watching the men weighing their silvery catch, we eat a meal prepared by a rasta who appears not to be an entrepreneur. Several times we offer him money. He replies, “Could you please pay me after you’ve eaten?” 

 

He leaves the kitchen and we go looking for him along the waterfront, eventually finding him at the far end of the village. We shove the money in his hand and thank him.

 

“Did he not want us to pay him?” my girlfriend asks.

 

“Maybe it’s a rasta thing?” I say. 

 

From Mason Hall northwards, Tobagonians live off the fat of the land and the fruits of the sea. Profit is pointless, by all appearances. The economy is goats, cows, fish, fruit and vegetables. Occasionally a property might be turned into a guesthouse. Selling a little weed on a sleepy street corner is a career path for youngsters.

 

I’m not trying to denigrate Tobago as a land of peasantry, and yes, I’m exaggerating the bucolic, non-profit-driven island for reasons of comparison that will become obvious. Tobago is actually not massively different from large swathes of Trinidad. In Moruga, the price they asked for freshly caught fish and huge cassava felt like I was robbing them. Guiltily, I gave them extra.

 

Trinidad to an outsider is like a hybrid socialist/capitalist state—Caribbeanomics, perhaps.

 

The cultural difference between the UK and T&T in terms of personal finance vis-à-vis capitalist business feels quite profound. It’s not quite as stark as, say, the difference between Wall Street and the Islamic banking system (where charging people interest is seen as unethical), but people here are less money-grabbing than back home. 

 

That makes back home sound like kind of Dickensian or a Wild West where everybody is out to swindle.That’s not the case, it’s more that anything to do with money, consumption and the provision of services and resources is so massively regulated and tightly controlled that it stifles and squeezes ordinary people out of relatively small amounts of money so corporations can maximise their already huge profit margins in a ruthless, uncompassionate way.

 

Two recent examples might illustrate the difference in mentality.

 

Last week it dawned on me I hadn’t paid my DirecTV bill for eight weeks. I completely forgot. Instead of a threatening letter telling me if I don’t pay within 14 days the arrears will be passed on to a debt collection agency, I had a phonecall from the customer service centre offering me a ten per cent discount on future bills. 

 

Back home, companies aren’t so accommodating.

 

Coming home to Trinidad last week, my girlfriend brought with her all the letters from the past six months sent to my London address. Amongst them I found one from a credit-card company informing me that, erroneously, my card had been charged and that I owed them money. The situation, unbeknownst to me, had escalated.

 

The most recent letter reads: “We are considering legal action to recover your debt…” and “…we will shortly commence further action…”

 

In Trinidad such a matter would be cleared up with an explanation. In Britain, companies pass on the details to external credit agencies. They aren’t debt collectors, they are more powerful: they determine whether you will be allowed to borrow money, in the form of loans or mortgages (essential life things). Bad credit stays on your file for six years and is difficult to remove, even when you provide your explanations. 

 

After reading my letters I took a taxi into town and found I had no small change in my wallet, just $100 bills. 

 

“Doh beat up nuh man,” the driver told me, “next time, next time.” 

 

On other occasions I’ve had complete strangers pay my fare in taxis.

 

It’s a relaxed and relaxing way of life to assume honesty rather than a default position that everybody is out to cheat and avoid paying for bills and services.

 

As I sat back and enjoyed the taxi ride I thought of an incident on a London bus last year, late at night, with the wind and rain howling along the high street, when a young man got on and didn’t have enough for the fare. 

 

People on the bus looked the other way as he begged the driver for clemency. Eventually, the driver ordered him off the bus and closed the door.