Saturday, April 13, 2024

A stark choice

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The United States presidential election offers the American people a stark choice of what kind of society they want.
Do they want a society with few regulatory restraints on profit-making, almost no taxes on the wealthy, a shredded social safety net, and government’s only legitimate functions being defence and security and legislating private sexual behaviour?  
If so, vote for Romney-Ryan.
If they want a society with maximum freedom for honest private enterprise, social diversity, an effective social safety net and a government that protects the common good, then vote for Obama-Biden.
The issue is not big government or small government but, as Obama has always argued, smart government.
This is not without relevance to us in Barbados. Of course, we don’t have the harsh ideological divide of American politics. Here we’re all social democrats.
But therein may lie our problem. Since both political parties believe there’s a strong positive role for the state, neither one seriously examines how the state functions. Up to now public sector reform has been concerned predominantly with getting government to function more efficiently. But few questions have been asked about what functions government ought to be carrying out in the first place.
The fact is our government, since its origins in the colonial era, has grown in a hodgepodge fashion, acquiring new functions to meet new needs without getting rid of obsolete functions.  
Result: we now have a costly, bloated, semi-dysfunctional state apparatus that acts as a drag on national productivity and entrepreneurship. Three different examples:
The National Conservation Commission (NCC) employs a host of people doing debushing and landscaping that could be more efficiently and cheaply done by small entrepreneurs. To make matters worse, we try to defray the costs of this ever-expanding reservoir of political patronage by allowing the NCC to sell landscaping services and plants – at prices that bear little relation to costs.
Grown
The Barbados Tourism Authority (BTA) has grown from an era when it was essential for a fledgling tourism industry to have a national promotional agency, to an Internet information age in which its expensive functions – including obsolete overseas offices – are providing less and less value for money.
It’d make more economic sense to spend much of the money currently allocated to the BTA on improving local infrastructure for tourism while maintaining a far cheaper first-rate professional online/Internet/social media presence. The same holds true for the investment promotion agencies.
The provision of free education up to tertiary level has led over decades to the creation of a large middle class that has been the basis of our social and political stability. But the money now subsidizing free tertiary education for those who can afford to pay would be more effectively used to fund a desperately needed massive programme of remedial education at the primary level.
Generally, our social welfare services should be targeted at the most needy.
What we need now, therefore, is a systematic examination and rationalization of the functions of government. This should not cost a lot. All we need is 12 honest persons, under the auspices of the Social Partnership, sitting around a table and brainstorming the issue until they come up with a blueprint for a Government of Barbados for the 21st century.
Then have public consultation over three months on the blueprint; seek approval by the Cabinet and Parliament; and draw up a five- or seven-year implementation plan to move from what exists on the ground to the desired result.
I’m sure the international financial agencies would be happy to fund a large part of this exercise.
Back to Obama. The Republicans are waging a heavily funded, desperate, subtly racist campaign since they recognize that their electoral base of know-nothing, intolerant rednecks and the conscienceless super-rich is shrinking.
But I still predict that Obama will win the Electoral College handily. If he wins Florida, which up to the Ryan pick I hadn’t thought likely, it’ll be a landslide.
• Peter Laurie is a retired diplomat and commentator on social issues. Email plaurie@caribsurf.com

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