The Government is rightly rejoicing in the recent Standards and Poor's (S&P) revised rating of the country's debt from B+ to BB-. This is the best rating the country has received since S&P started rating the country's debt in 1999.
Its long-term foreign and local currency debt obligations have been placed in a more favourable position, with a stable outlook for the future as the country continues to meet its debt reduction targets. One wonders if this rating would have been achieved had the Government acceded to the Opposition's post-pandemic tantrum to run the deficit by over $40 billion for dubious economic expansion.
From this significant achievement we can deduce a number of things. First, this rating puts the country on a real track to achieving the coveted BB+ rating. This would be an investment grade rating, which would make the country eminently attractive to foreign investment and open it to billions if not trillions of dollars around the world seeking somewhere to go. We would have come a great distance from the pariah status that Jamaica once had when it came to foreign investments. Then we were seen as an international beggar, not to be respected but to be derided each time we had to approach the foreign capital markets.
Many young people today, especially those 30 years and under, would not readily understand the ignominy that the country had to undergo, especially the 20 years between 1976 and 2000. The financial sector collapsed in the late 1990s under the unsustainable weight of debt. It was a fitting culmination to the orgy of debt and reckless partisanship of the day, when sound economic policies were discarded. The Financial Sector Adjustment Company (Finsac) was the royal salute to this reckless adventurism.
Outside of anecdotal references from their parents or others who lived through that harrowing period, many young people may not still understand why their elders do not want to go back to the reckless spending and borrowing of the past to the level of indebtedness which chained the country's future to an inglorious spot.
They must resist the voices of those who preach indebtedness and "run-wid-it" economic approaches to national development. We cannot afford to abandon the proven path of fiscal prudence which is now becoming normative in Government. The shackles of taxation to pay recurring bills are now being removed. The private sector is in a better position to access capital because now they do not have to be the victims of the gargantuan appetite of a Government hungry for every available cent to be utilised in retaining political power.
It is true that the Portia Simpson Miller Administration under its then finance minister, Dr Peter Phillips, placed the country on sound fiscal footing under the watchful eyes of the International Monetary Fund (IMF). This column has in the past praised their tenacity in keeping with targets set despite the pressure they may have come under from their own colleagues to lighten the burden. But I find it disingenuous that the present leader of the Opposition, Mark Golding, at the recent People's National Party (PNP) conference at the National Arena, should make the preposterous claim that the stability we now see in the fiscal space is as a result of the astute management of the economy under that Administration, of which he was a part. Disingenuous, because his remarks merely brushed aside the epic efforts by the present Andrew Holness Administration to hold things together through the worst pandemic of living memory while maintaining the economic strength that finally garnered S&P's rating.
To ignore this achievement when they themselves in budget presentations were calling for policies that could reverse these gains — such as running the aforementioned deficit — is the height of hypocrisy. People must not allow themselves to be fooled by untruths and political hype by those seeking power.
Second, the country must now have a serious conversation as to whether we possess the carrying capacity to absorb the investments that are likely to come our way if the coveted BB+ rating is achieved. Time is not on our side and we certainly cannot wait to have a well-trained and vibrant workforce on which foreign investors can depend. Already we are operating at a deficit as far as this kind of workforce is concerned.
Again, HEART/NSTA Trust must be re-evaluated and beefed up to become a strong polytechnic organisation that can complement on a micro level a new, improved, and repurposed University of Technology, Jamaica (UTECH). Money must be poured into these endeavours. Government should not be too tepid in this regard. There has been enough pussyfooting around the matter of training young minds for the future.
Third, the Government must be conscious of the disconnect between macroeconomic policies and the difficult struggles that too many Jamaicans are experiencing at the micro level. I refer to this as the "micro suffering" of the ordinary Jamaican. Strong investment ratings and applause from international bodies may be one thing, but how all this relates to people in their existential pain is the real test that the Government will have to pass. People vote their existential pain. In pain, they cannot resonate with any futuristic prognostication of how well fiscal sustainability will ease that pain. They want action and they want it now.
Political polls repeatedly reflect this disjunction between what the Government is doing and what is happening to ordinary Jamaicans on the ground. One of the failures of the Government's communication machinery is its inability to educate people to see the nexus between the economic gains that have been made and their own personal situation. It takes time for macroeconomic benefits to be felt in people's pockets, but they are trends in the right direction which, if sustained, will augur well for people's improved living standards. But who is talking to them about this? The prime minister alone cannot do it.
While doing this I would again urge the Government to attend to the small things for which lack of attention looms large in the people's eyes. For example, brush the verges and sidewalks on a consistent basis; fill potholes before they become mini-ponds; end the indignity that too many Jamaicans have to endure in dealing with government departments — the long waiting in line at the tax offices and the lack of seating for the elderly. There must be more punitive assessment of utility companies and banks that fail to treat the people's business with efficiency and empathy.
Let me tell every politician a secret: People tend to judge large national issues through the lens of the little frustrations and indignities that are in their path daily. This is the psychology of their vote. They can wait on the big road projects or hospital buildings to come if they can trust you to remove these obstacles to their daily lives. Ultimately, they vote their feelings. Enough said.
Dr Raulston Nembhard is a priest, social commentator, and author of the books Finding Peace in the Midst of Life's Storms; The Self-esteem Guide to a Better Life; and Beyond Petulance: Republican Politics and the Future of America. Send comments to the Jamaica Observer or firstname.lastname@example.org.