In a recent statement downgrading Belize’s credit rating, Standard and Poor’s described our United Democratic Party (UDP) government as “center-right.” We were struck by that description, one reason being that the notion of “right” wing in economic policy description suggests a philosophy which has the inefficient public sector taking a back seat to the productive private sector. This is not the case in Belize, which features an onerous tax regime wherein the Government of Belize can always find tax cash for politically-motivated projects, whereas small and medium-sized private businesses have been dropping here like flies over the past few years.
Politics is often referred to as the art of the possible. We would then say that economics must be the social science of the real. According to economist Bill Lindo, when governments need money all they have to do is print more. Bill would know, of course, that there are inflation implications to that kind of political decision making in the realm of finance. Economics must be the social science of the real because it takes into account what a society possesses in hard statistical terms and uses that data to plan and project for society’s fundamental needs, in the first instance, and expanding prosperity, in the second. Economists cannot afford to dream: it is only politicians who are allowed to engage in dreaming.
Before we proceed, let us point out that there are two kinds of private sectors in Belize. The indigenous Belizean private sector has complained to us that the foreign immigrant private sector has an unfair advantage because they are ripping off our tax regime. That, to borrow the words of Donald J. Trump, “makes them smart,” but it also makes them crooked, and the clear assumption has to be that Belize’s public sector bureaucrats are complicit, which makes them corrupt.
Now, at this newspaper we have been emphasizing for years how vital it is for us to discuss economic development philosophy. As a poor, stressed economy, Belize has to focus on using what we do have to the best of our ability. This is what economists describe as one’s “competitive advantage.”
The old-time political name calling is so outdated, or, better said, it should be so outdated. One reason that name calling may not be so outdated, when one reads and listens to the media organs of the two major political parties, is because a close examination of their economic development philosophies would brand them as one and the same in thought. The ruling UDP and the Opposition People’s United Party (PUP), and we would welcome being corrected, would be viewed by Standard and Poor’s as six of one and half a dozen of the other.
There was a time in the 1970s when the PUP was close to being “democratic socialist,” as the Michael Manley years between 1972 and 1980 in Jamaica are described. Manley himself, as Godfrey P. Smith writes in his recent, important biography of the former Jamaican Prime Minister, had become practically neoliberal capitalist in thinking by the time he returned to power in 1989.
The Rt. Hon. George C. Price, who oversaw the “democratic socialist” years in Belize in the 1970s, did not himself change in his personal philosophy when he returned to power in 1989 after being defeated for the first time in 1984, but he was surrounded by three favorite, powerful Cabinet Ministers – Said Musa, Ralph Fonseca, and Glenn Godfrey, who were thinking along the globalization, free trade, and liberal market lines the whole world appeared to be espousing in the 1990s. Mr. Price’s thinking was soon overpowered by that of the aforementioned troika, and by 1996 they had succeeded in retiring Mr. Price as PUP Leader, a position he had held for forty years.
To be simplistic, we would say that neoliberal capitalism believes that only the rich can help the poor, whereas democratic socialism, or whatever, says, in effect, that it is the poor who themselves have to help the poor. Neoliberal capitalist governments are always reducing taxes on the rich, presumably to assist them in helping the poor, whereas democratic socialist governments, such as Nicolas Maduro’s in Venezuela, always have to be intervening in the economy to protect the poor from the rich.
The debate on economic development philosophy is much more sophisticated than our simplistic descriptions in the previous paragraph. And, that is precisely our point. Where are the Belizean thinkers and scholars who should be in serious public discourse on our economic development issues? If Belize has never been in an economic crisis before, we are sinking into one now. The ruling political directorate cannot even bring itself to the point of admitting just how desperate our situation is. This is because acknowledging our financial predicament would reflect ill on some politically motivated decisions they have made. In a crisis such as ours, how can it not be a prominent subject of discussion that our Belizean money insists on fleeing north across the border in a mad frenzy? What is this saying about the mercantile, productive, and entertainment sectors of the Belizean economy? Why is it not a matter of absolute concern that our Belizean dollar be protected?
Who was stealing what and when back then is now only of academic interest, because it is established that the two parties are compulsively corrupt. What is of serious concern, and yet what is being ignored by our thinkers, is Belize’s decision making in the economic domain. Our personal thinking at this newspaper on the economic development matter is of little importance. We are a small minority. What is important is that the thinkers of Belize force the PUDP politicians to come clean with respect to the policy and philosophical considerations which influence their economic decision making.
The man who would be UDP Prime Minster has consistently and openly defended the use of Belizean tax dollars to entertain his Collet constituency campaign workers last year on a recreational outing on the Corozal Town beach. This was definitely not a “center-right” decision. In fact, it represents an indefensible decision. On the PUP side, the man who would be Prime Minister is locked in the business embrace of the same foreign investor predator who has ruined Belize’s foreign exchange stability. How you figure?
The two issues cited above are only examples of areas where the public debate should be going in Belize. In November 2016, we are not interested in the physical characteristics or social habits of our leaders. We demand to know how the hell they intend to save Belize from a default.
Power to the people.