Sat | Jul 22, 2017

Daniel Thwaites | How to catch monkey

Published:Sunday | March 19, 2017 | 3:00 AM

A year and two Budgets later, there are three possibilities: the $1.5m was a joke, a massive miscalculation, or an outright lie. Or maybe it's a bit of all three. I will get there. But first, let's talk about how to catch monkeys.

Take a jar and cut a hole just big enough for monkey to fit its hand through. Inside the jar, put in $18,000 and let monkey know what's in the jar.

Monkey will come and put its hand through the hole, grab the $18,000, and then try to pull its hand back out. But it can't. The hole is small enough to put its empty hand through, but not big enough for a hand clutching the fistful of dollars. Monkey stuck.

Now, at this point, monkey should realise, "B**cl**t, dem ketch mi! Leggo de $18,000." But monkey doesn't. Monkey is feeling the money in its hand. So monkey strains harder, refusing to drop the dollars. That's when the genius Shawlatans clobber him. With a tax club.

Enough parables and proverbs.

What we need now is a forensic political scientist or 'historian' to track the conception, articulation, and continuous evolution of the infamous $1.5-million promise as a case study in how politics undermines any likkle progress in this country.

 

VIVID LESSON

 

Ordinarily, it takes longer than just one year to see the mess that's created when decisions are taken on fly. But this time, the distance between fun Friday night on the political platform and Saturday morning STI tests at the doctor's office was gloriously short. So the lesson will be vivid.

It began as a raw promise that if you earned $1.5 million or less, you pay no income tax, and that no new taxes would be levied to make up for the shortfall. All the numbers had been worked out by the geniuses.

There was a rush of criticism showing that 'the plan' couldn't work. So it began to 'evolve'. The geniuses hadn't even worked out the basic maths. But that's OK: Monkey already had been told that something was at the bottom of the jar.

Turns out the threshold was arbitrary and would lead to irrational outcomes such as giving people an incentive to earn less. So that was scrapped. How to save face? Reinvent it as a $1.5m exemption applicable to everyone. The fiscal impact is more severe, but you keep the '$1.5m' number and look like you know what you're doing.

Of course, that only compounded the bigger problem, which is that revenue loss was seriously undercalculated. So the promise of NO NEW TAXES disappeared like Clive 'Lizard' Williams. Then we heard, let's "phase it eeen!"

Another genius insight: Actually we're switching to 'indirect taxation'. Never mind that its regressive and harmful to the poorest. Yeah, that's what we were doing all along. We just hadn't mentioned it.

Philosophical detour: This new fetish for indirect taxation is largely an admission by the State that it is incapable of collecting from its wealthiest citizens. And with a mere six per cent of wage earners now paying income tax, we are very close to hearing that it is completely abolished.

Back to politics: The promise of a handout to the lowest taxable earners among us will ultimately turn out to be a boondoggle for the wealthiest taxable earners. I cannot make this ish up!

On no account must I be read as denying ingenuity in this pattern of announcement, improvisation, further announcement, and further improvisation. No, sir! It presents a crystal-clear spotlight on amateurism in Government, but professionalism in politics; recklessness with economic facts, but cold exactitude with political facts; miscalculation, or lying, about basic data, but strict Machiavellian precision with manipulating people's hopes and dreams.

"Hire a helper with the new money," they said. "Build an extra room on your house."

So how did a joke become such a serious thing? Or if it was a miscalculation, how come there are no consequences for that? Worse yet, are there any consequences for propagating obvious and dangerous falsehoods that undermine the basic credibility of the country's leadership, institutions, and trust and faith in Government?

So it also speaks to our collective stupidity. Is that too harsh? Let me rephrase: It speaks to our deep desire to believe in economic magic and fiscal legerdemain. We are, after all, the nation of Olint and Cash Plus.

Too many of us believe that somewhere there's a pot of gold, which, if only we could finally have a 'massa' kind of enough to not fight us down, is waiting to be shared out. If we get the right overseer, he will break open the rum barrels, or distribute the $18,000 hidden in the vault.

 

NHT'S STEADY SLIDE

 

A word on the NHT. It's now a steady slide. Mr Patterson dipped into it for education. Then massive deductions were approved to steer away from Audley's 2011 fiscal cliff. We were told that Jamaica faced a unique emergency. But here we go again! Today, Audley proposes another massive withdrawal instead of admitting that he (and Andrew) monumentally blundered.

I understand. According to our system, you have to trap the monkey again every five years, so you can't just admit that it was a massive hoax. You have to bore another hole in the NHT jar, even though barely one-tenth of annual need for housing is being met. Clearly if this raid to save face is permitted, we may as well accept it as the new normal.

My humble proposal: we stop BS-ing ourselves and recast the NHT for what it has become. Right now:

"The NHT is not a housing agency. The NHT is a financial institution and we have to treat the NHT like a financial institution ... ." We might add: "From which politicians can order up billions at will."

Wait deh! Is who dat first mi? Andrew? LOL! They say, "A gaffe is when a politician tells the truth!"

- Daniel Thwaites is an attorney-at-law. Email feedback to columns@gleanerjm.com.