The report on the economy presented on Wednesday by Central Bank Governor Cleviston Haynes painted a rather discouraging picture of an economy depressed. According to the report, in the last quarter of 2017 the island’s foreign exchange reserves plunged a dramatic $139.7 million to a 22-year low of $410 million, or just 6.6 weeks of import cover.
Frighteningly, on the same day Mr Haynes was delivering the disheartening news, the International Monetary Fund (IMF), was painting an even gloomier picture, predicting that economic growth would slow even further this year to 0.5 per cent, on the heels of an unimpressive 0.9 per cent last year.
Through it all the Central Bank Governor urged us not to panic, insisting that “panic won’t get us anywhere”, but the little faith that Barbadians had in their Government to resuscitate the economy is sinking fast. He tried to be optimistic, but the facts are much too stubborn.
The bitter economic reality made clear by both Mr Haynes and the IMF, and more so, the – some will say belated – admission today by Minister of Finance Chris Sinckler to Barbados TODAY that “the IMF option is always on the table”, but that “there is an election coming up and . . . we will see what the mandate is”, bring to mind The Principle of Unripe Time identified by the British classical scholar and translator FM Cornford.
In his 1908 pamphlet Microcosmographia Academica (Latin for A Study of a Tiny Academic World), Mr Cornford explained why in politics hard choices are postponed. He listed three key “principles, or rules of inaction”, one of which was The Principle of the Wedge, which is that you should not act justly now for fear of raising expectations that you may act still more justly in the future – expectations which you are afraid you will not have the courage to satisfy; and another was The Principle of the Dangerous Precedent – that you should not now do an admittedly right action for fear you, or your equally timid successors, should not have the courage to do right in some future case.
Both of these can adequately describe the “rules of inaction” which Government has adopted in recent years in dealing with the issues surrounding the economy.
However, it is The Principle of Unripe Time – which is that people should not do at the present moment what they think right at that moment, because the moment at which they think it right has not yet arrived – that sums it up best.
It has been about two years since virtually every economist here – the first being former Prime Minister Owen Arthur who led the country during its booming years – has been advising the Freundel Stuart administration to seek help from the IMF.
All we have had for a response has been a virtual “whatever” – for this is the age of “whatever” politics – and a defiant “there is way too much historical evidence to show that countries which have been unable or unwilling to do so have been left having to implement badly designed IMF programmes which only reflect the wish list of Washington technocrats but end up causing massive destruction in their wake,” from Mr Sinckler.
There was also Mr Stuart washing his hands of responsibility for the state of the reserves, saying Barbadians should look no further than their own lavish lifestyles.
Through it all there have been the austerity measures that further stagnated the lassitudinous economy, shattered public trust, virtually impoverished the country and created a further mess in which we seem destined to remain for a long time.
Therefore, we cannot afford complacency, arrogance or polemical emptiness. We cannot keep telling ourselves the time is not ripe.
Economists, including the former Central Bank Governor Dr DeLisle Worrell, have also been advising the administration to reduce its spending by shrinking the public service. Clearly, in the administration’s eyes, the time is not ripe for such a decision, with a general election now a matter of months away.
We have become used to the complacency of an administration that seems incapable of accepting that on the question of the IMF and its many homegrown austerity programmes, it might be wrong.
Therefore, Mr Sinckler’s apparent softening of his position today is a welcome change, if only the administration would act now.
“There is only one argument for doing something; the rest are arguments for doing nothing,” Mr Cornford wrote. “The argument for doing something is that it is the right thing to do.”
We have had too many arguments for doing nothing – or rather, not acting justly now. We simply cannot afford any more. The decision not to do the right thing because it is not politically expedient is bothersome, and the risk of gambling away the fortunes of an entire country by not acting is disconcerting.
Microcosmographia Academica was published as a satire on faculty intrigues. All these years later we might be tempted to approach our economic situation and its handling as a piece of satire, but this is too serious, too sad for levity.
Mr Cornford wrote that time is like the medlar; it has a trick of going rotten before it is ripe. We all hope our economy has not reached the state of rottenness due to the principle of unripe time.