Brian-Paul Welsh | Desperation and disparity
Recently, I found myself seriously contemplating whether I should eat lunch or buy gas.
I never thought I'd live to ask myself this question, but as I used one phone to check my meagre bank balance and the other to sheepishly beg my barber if I could trus' this week's trim, it occurred to me that the paradoxical title of working poor is an appropriate description of the realities facing those of us currently being stifled by a high cost of living and increasingly impotent salaries.
If I don't eat, I'll most certainly get bad gas, but making a purchase at a petrol station these days has the probability of yielding the same result, except that a cup of tea won't cure that ailment.
I eventually decided that it was better to walk home with some fuel in my stomach than risk driving on these roads with gas on my brain, and so I visited the nearest food cart for one of their cheap midday delicacies.
As is customary after consuming the high-calorie, low-nutrition mush in a styrofoam box popularly called 'lunch' in Jamaican parlance, I was practically catatonic at my desk for about 20 minutes after.
AWAKENED FROM FOOD COMA
I was jolted from this postprandial somnolence (there's nothing ethnic about a food coma) and back to this dimension by some jibber-jabber on the office radio about taxes and the national Budget. At first, I couldn't make out who was the protagonist in all this rabble-rousing, but a husky lisp and merry chortle soon revealed the presence of Audley Shaw, Jamaica's finance minister and the Jamaica Labour Party's affable election mascot.
The occasion was his highly anticipated Budget presentation and the grand revelation of exactly how the Government intends to finance the income tax relief promised to PAYE workers ahead of the last general election.
As the minister huffed and puffed inside the House, defending his strategy from rowdy opposition, cynics and sycophants gathered in the gallery to get a good view of the pantomime unfolding while, elsewhere, the dollar continued galloping furiously towards the horizon.
I have always felt the administration of taxes in this country is primitive and medieval. The poor are forced to present their pound of flesh to the collector while the rich, engorged on the teat of excess, toss some crumbs in a tantrum but still curse the cow at every opportunity. For most of Jamaica's labour force, life in this country can be as oppressive as it must have been for our ancestors to slave in the tropical sun. Money certainly seems to melt once exposed to this atmosphere and taxes, as we know them, have largely served to inflame the situation.
The roads are as bad as they have always been, water comes sparingly in the pipes yet gushes wastefully into the sea, income disparity has widened to a chasm, and the cost of living is spiralling upward while the value of life itself has cheapened.
Highways were built to encourage movement into affordable dormitory communities outside the density of Kingston, but the seemingly uncon-trollable costs of fuel, transportation, food and security erode the little savings.
Sitting for hours in traffic while the vehicle sputters along on fumes is a very stressful way to begin the day. And with regular increases in the price of gasolene, toll fees, vehicle maintenance and consumer goods relative to the steadily decreasing power of the Jamaican dollar, that stress is visible on the sweaty faces of motorists as they crawl into Kingston each morning for work.
Fortunately, for us in Jamaica, vices are cheap and abundant, so we can find momentary relief from our frustrations by making merriment like drunken pirates. If we didn't kin puppa lick and sweat out our tears in the dancehall every night, perhaps there would be more energy for active resistance to the status quo.
Successive regimes have encouraged financial prudishness among the largely destitute population through prohibitive taxation, even while prone to glut in their private lives. In 1999, then Prime Minister P.J. Patterson proposed a 31 per cent tax on gasolene that sparked riots; and the last time Audley Shaw was finance minister he imposed taxes on salt, sanitary napkins, and coffins.
Governments must understand that just as our bodies fall into a stupor from processing the empty calories of poor nutrition, so too can our spirits be overcome by tax fatigue when there simply isn't any money left. I wonder what nightmares will be conjured if the population ever reaches that point again.