The Paradox of Thrift

Over the course of his debate on the Estimates and, later, the Budget, Arnhim Eustace introduced a novel, seemingly oxymoronic, economic concept:

The Election-Austerity Budget.

On the one hand, during debate on the Estimates, Mr. Eustace accused the Government of presenting an Election Budget. He pointed to its size ($911 million), which rivaled that of previous election-eve budgets. He commented on the “bunching” of major Government projects, many of which seem slated for completion or commencement this year. He said that optimistic revenue expectations were based on accounting sleight of hand. All indicia of pork-filled election budgeteering.

On the other hand, he claimed that the 2014 Budget was a Spartan exercise in blatant austerity belt-tightening. To support his argument, he relied primarily on the assertion that the Budget makes no provision for salary increases, continuing a “wage freeze” that will be entering it’s third year. Low projections and ambitions, particularly in the agricultural sector, were also highlighted as austerity indicators. Northern Grenadines MP Godwin Friday, for his part, singled-out cuts to the tourism Estimates as evidence of misplaced priorities, if not austerity.

With the exception of Germany, politicians do not present austerity budgets as a pre-election inducement. Election budgets are typically generous and goodie-packed, with the squeeze coming in the budget that immediately follows the polls. Around the world, austerity budgets cause protest, force early elections, and get governments removed from office.

To table an Election-Austerity Budget, as Eustace suggested, would either be an act of extreme political hubris or schizophrenia. Entire post-graduate theses could be written on the concept of an Election-Austerity Budget. It’s a shame that the Opposition didn’t seize the opportunity to develop the concept further during the Budget debate. I, for one, was intrigued.

Prime Minister Gonsalves did not take great offence at the accusation that this was an election Budget (hint, hint), but was robust in his defense against the “austerity” charge. How can a budget that added jobs, increased the wage bill, expanded and strengthened the social safety net, and began major infrastructural works be accused of austerity, he asked. How can this be austerity when, in addition to largely maintaining current levels of spending, you are also introducing a farmer’s support fund ($6 million), rehabbing the South Leeward Highway ($46 million), redeveloping Little Tokyo ($2 million), implementing the CARCIP ICT infrastructure project (the $2.1 million), expanding the one-laptop-per child programme ($13 million), introducing the Support for Employment and Training (SET) programme ($1.5 million), and spending $9.5 million on the modernization of the health sector, asked the Prime Minister. He described any cuts or restraints appearing in the Budget as “prudence,” and juxtaposed it with evidence of State “enterprise” in other sectors.

More importantly, for the purpose of this particular blog posting, was the debate of the efficacy and desirability of austerity as a growth strategy, particularly in the context of Small Island Developing States like SVG. Despite his recent finger-pointing, Mr. Eustace is on record as a pro-austerity disciple, famously asking the Prime Minister “what’s wrong with austerity?” a couple years ago, and predicting the growing need for austerity in SVG each time extreme cuts are imposed by various regional and international governments.

The Prime Minister, by contrast, is unabashedly anti-austerity, calling it “a dangerous idea.” He is most proud of his record of “counter-cyclical” budgetary expenditures (increased State spending when the economy is contracting, i.e. using stimulus to spend your way out of a recession). His usual retort to Mr. Eustace’s charges of budgetary excess is to challenge the Opposition Leader to specify what sectors should be cut: Jobs? Wages? Welfare? Education? Health? I can’t recall Mr. Eustace ever responding explicitly to that particular challenge.

In any event, count me as standing squarely in the anti-austerity camp – not for political reasons, but for macroeconomic ones. Austerity has proven to be much more than a dangerous idea. It has been disastrous in practice, and it has become apparent that the economic underpinnings of austerity policy are grossly incorrect. In the practical context of small island economies like SVG, in particular, where the State plays an outsized role in growth and development, austerity is a particularly ruinous prescription.

[Caution: Boredom alert! This blog may drone on in a slightly wonkish manner from this point onward. Feel free to disembark the blog at the previous paragraph].

IMF SAYS “WE WERE WRONG ABOUT AUSTERITY”

In October 2012, over the course of three pages of charts and graphs in their World Economic Outlook, the IMF made a startling admission that sent shockwaves through the economic world:

“Sorry, we were wrong about austerity.”

Keynesian economists and academics did a smug victory lap of I-told-you-sos. Mainstream press outlets like Bloomberg, the Economist, Business Insider, the Washington Post and the New York Times weighed in on the stunning mea culpa. However, for whatever reason, the IMF bombshell didn’t cause a ripple in our regional press or academia, even though the not-so-invisible hand of the IMF is tightly around the throat of many Caribbean economies, imposing austerity prescriptions based on assumptions that the IMF itself is calling invalid.

Those of you so inclined should take a peek at “Box 1.1: Are We Underestimating Fiscal Multipliers?” on pages 41-43 of that 2012 World Economic Outlook. In summary, the IMF confession is based on their misreading of the size and impact of fiscal “multipliers.” Economists try to figure out the effect that particular types of spending or consolidation will have on GDP. If the multiplier is small, then austerity is not that painful and stimulus is not that effective. If the multiplier is large, then the opposite is true.

For example, if you have a big multiplier, of, say, 1.5, it would mean that if you increased government spending by 1%, GDP would increase by 1.5%. This would be a pro-stimulus multiplier, because the GDP would grow at a rate that exceeds government spending. However, the IMF had been basing its economic prescriptions and projections on a multiplier of about 0.5. This meant that if you reduced spending by 1%, your GDP would only shrink by half that much. With a multiplier of 0.5, there is a mathematical argument in favour of austerity. The closer the multiplier gets to, or exceeds, 1, the weaker that mathematical argument becomes (this is ignoring all of the broader economic, ideological, social and political anti-austerity arguments). Similarly, with a multiplier of 0.5, stimulus isn’t that efficient, because a 1% rise in government spending would only get you a measly 0.5% increase in GDP.

Well, it turns out that the IMF multiplier estimate of 0.5 was completely off base, and groundless. In the October 2012 World Economic Outlook, they confess that “our results indicate that multipliers have actually been in the 0.9 to 1.7 range since the Great Recession.” Other economists have suggested that, in current conditions, the multiplier is actually around 2. Simply put, the IMF’s unjustified and uninformed assumptions abut multipliers forced a counterproductive austerity on countries, which deepened and lengthened the global crisis.

This is an absolutely stunning admission of guilt by the IMF, and one that reinforces Keynes’ famous statement in every Economics 101 textbook that “the boom, not the slump, is the right time for austerity at the Treasury.”

But the IMF goes further. It concludes its mea culpa by saying “More work on how fiscal multipliers depend on time and economic conditions is warranted.” In other words, multipliers (and by extension, the impact of austerity) depend on context, and the IMF doesn’t have the necessary contextual data. Can any of the pro-austerity advocates in SVG and CARICOM point me to any serious analysis of fiscal multipliers in small, open, island economies with a limited production base, inability to dictate terms of trade, small private sector, and large public service – all within the greatest global economic recession in living memory? What about multipliers in the OECS region, where individual governments do not control their own monetary policy?

IMF SAYS (AGAIN) “WE WERE WRONG ABOUT AUSTERITY”

The IMF followed-up the October 2012 World Economic Outlook with an even more shocking piece of self-analysis. In a June 2013 paper called Greece: Ex Post Evaluation of Exceptional Access under the 2010 Stand-By Arrangement, the IMF took a look back at the debacle that was their 2010 austerity package, which almost completely destroyed a Greek economy already battered by the economic crisis. After recognising the “notable failures” of the IMF package, the paper looks into why their proposed prescriptions almost killed the patient. One of the main reasons that the Greek policy failed, according to the paper, was that the IMF grossly underestimated just how much economic damage would be caused by austerity in that context. (Interestingly, their other main finding was that they (and the EU) should simply have acknowledged from the start that Greece would not be able to repay its debt, and that major debt forgiveness should have been in place from the outset). Here is a New York Times article on this IMF admission.

IMF SAYS “OH, AND AUSTERITY WILL INCREASE YOUR DEBT TO GDP RATIO”

A 2013 IMF Working Paper called “The Challenge of Debt Reduction during Fiscal Consolidation” makes an interesting, if obvious point:

Studies suggest that fiscal multipliers are currently high in many advanced economies. One important implication is that fiscal tightening could raise the debt ratio in the short term, as fiscal gains are partly wiped out by the decline in output.

What this means is that austerity is a highly questionable course of action in the current economic climate for countries with high debt levels. What will happen, essentially, is that imposing cuts in this climate will result in an INCREASE in the debt to GDP ratio. The reasoning, stripped from the mathematical mumbo-jumbo, is basic and intuitive: Austerity will shrink weaker economies and reduce the GDP (see earlier multiplier section). Smaller GDP means greater debt to GDP ratio.

The impact of this worsening debt to GDP ratio is potentially calamitous. According to the IMF:

[Raising the debt ratio] could be an issue if financial markets focus on the short-term behavior of the debt ratio, or if country authorities engage in repeated rounds of tightening in an effort to get the debt ratio to converge to the official target.

Imagine that you are the minister of finance of a small, indebted country, with a weak economy, in the midst of the current crisis. Imagine that you subscribe to an austerity programme with the goal of reducing debt and/or increasing investor confidence. According to the IMF, a very real possibility is that the opposite will happen: Your economy may shrink too rapidly, resulting in a deteriorating debt ratio. That shrinking economy and ballooning debt will make financial markets and credit ratings agencies jittery, resulting in credit downgrades and less favorable loan terms. The financial markets will then tell you, as minster of finance, that your debt-to-GDP is out of whack because of “structural” problems in your economy. You will also be told that your problem is a “lack of investor confidence.” The solution that they may well propose: More austerity. Thus, the spiral begins, and “repeated rounds of tightening in an effort to get the debt ratio to converge to the official target” becomes a grim socioeconomic and political nightmare.

Austerity, Structural Adjustment and the Washington Consensus were largely unchallenged conventional wisdom when these policies were being applied to strangle growth and ferment social unrest in poor and developing countries. When the global economic and financial crisis hit, the expectation was that these same policies would be applied with equal strictness to “advanced” economies in Europe and Asia. However, all of a sudden, when the problems of austerity showed up in the cities and governments where IMF economists actually lived and worked, the IMF suddenly became introspective, reflective and rigorous in testing its assumptions and formulae. The “revised” conclusion is now that austerity may not be such a good thing after all. Of course, the IMF economists try to insulate themselves by saying austerity is not a good thing “in advanced economies,” suggesting that the concept may still have utility in the developing world. But that distinction is also false, and born of a paternal arrogance that assumes profligacy and corruption in developing countries, and that values a rich European’s economic discomfort as more real and tragic than the suffering of poor peoples.

Prudence and enterprise

Stimulus has to be of a certain size to be effective at spurring growth. In a prolonged global crisis like this one, now in its seventh year, countries like SVG do not have the economic space to continually spend their way out of trouble. However, what is equally clear is that it is impossible to cut your way out of trouble. Austerity will not work in the Vincentian, or indeed Caribbean context. As Jamaica may soon learn, the only prize awaiting the successful completion of their current IMF standby agreement is their qualification for a new standby agreement, which will impose further economy-weakening cuts in the name of “discipline” and “investor confidence.”

A partial solution lies in the mix of “prudence and enterprise” being proposed by Prime Minister Gonsalves. “Prudence,” as I understand it, means eschewing extravagance, and being particularly cautious with the public purse. It does not mean across-the-board budget cuts. If it is possible to achieve genuine savings in various sectors, then by all means do so. But those savings, and other monies, should be devoted to “enterprise:” targeted Government spending on areas most likely to stimulate growth and/or development (“growth” and “development” are two very different – and not always related – concepts, although the terms are often used interchangeably in our local discussions). If the monies dedicated to this targeted “enterprise” spending are generated using grants or soft loans from political allies or understanding development partners, then so much the better.

Is our current “enterprise” spending large enough? Is it targeted with sufficient precision? Is it possible/advisable for us to borrow even more money to engage in further countercyclical spending? Are the priorities reflected in the new Government projects (Agriculture, Infrastructure, Education, Jobs, Health, Technology) the correct ones? Are we doing enough to develop new revenue streams or maximize existing ones? These, I believe, are all appropriate and urgent questions that merit further debate and reasoned analysis. These are all questions that, regrettably, weren’t raised or posed during the recent, abortive Budget debate.

However, the question of austerity, and its usefulness in the Vincentian context, is one that we should shelve until we are well into the post-2016 growth spurt predicted by the World Bank. Until then, any austerity advocacy is born of ideological, not economical convictions. The 2014 Budget is not an austerity budget, in whole or in part. Nor should it be. There is no mathematic or economic support for the idea that austerity can work in this place and time. On the contrary, the recent evidence says that it would be a disaster.

Even the IMF says so. And I almost never agree with them.

A Tale of Three Narratives

The Problem:

Civil political discourse is dying a messy public death in Saint Vincent and the Grenadines. In an increasingly partisan climate, political chatter is at its peak, but civility at its lowest ebb. People with opposing political viewpoints don’t even engage each other in conversation, much less debate. We talk past each other, we shout at each other, but rarely, if ever, talk to each other. And when we do, the conversation – if it can be called that – is polluted with personal attacks, baseless accusations, and relentlessly vicious negativism.

There is nothing new in that paragraph. Nothing unique to SVG either. This is the condition of the modern world, of the perpetual campaign, of talk radio and Internet bloggers; of spin-doctors and campaign advisors; of scarce benefits and spoils. It is the logical byproduct of competitive western electoral democracy, freedom of speech, and a sensationalist sound bite culture. Almost every country in the modern western world is afflicted with this condition. We all struggle with the side effects of increasing politicization of thought, coupled with democratization of media.

Yet, in SVG, the death of political civility seems somehow messier, its murder more vicious. Part of that reason is size: Our population is so small, our islands and villages so tiny, and our families so interconnected, that the venom engendered by political tribalism is much more personal and in-your-face.

In SVG, in the past, such proximity would mean that neighbours would only disagree once every five years over the month-long “silly season” of a General Election campaign. However, in an environment where electoral campaigns never truly end, and where each camp is constantly fanning the flames of partisan discord, this proximity, and familiarity, breeds a simmering contempt that permeates the social fabric.

Mind you, my lamentations on the disintegration of civility have nothing to do with a desire for us all to get along, or to agree with each other. Far from it. Disagreement is not only healthy, but necessary. Debate is to be desired, contrarians celebrated, viewpoints valued. But it is the tone and tenor of the discourse that is so deeply distasteful. Today, our discourse is so toxic that no two people with differing political opinions can stomach listening to each other. In an environment where a disagreement or a differing philosophy is cast as a life-or-death struggle against tyranny or backwardness, each side retreats to the comfort of its respective echo chamber. There is no exchange or cross-pollination of ideas, and we are, collectively, the poorer for it. [For a contrary view, see this opinion].

I could go on. But describing our current malaise isn’t the point of this post, nor is it particularly interesting. We all feel the deteriorating climate of civility in SVG. Let’s not belabor the point.

The aftermath of the Christmas Floods has crystalised the terms of an apparent suicide pact that exists among our political mass parties, civil society and the press. Each party to this suicide pact has committed itself to various courses of action and inaction, which, whatever their narrow individual benefits, combine to create massive impediments to a political discussion free of nastiness, name-calling and negativism. Of all the cross-cutting and overlapping narratives that define any group’s purpose and personality, let me highlight three that help to bring this point into sharper relief:

NARRATIVE #1 – The NDP’s “Bribery” Narrative

The NDP has lost the popular vote in four consecutive General Elections, but has never conceded graciously. A standard trope of NDP mythology is that the ULP is corrupt and dishonest, and that it clings to the reins of power through an unholy trinity of intimidation, victimization and bribery. (This, despite the fact that the ULP’s first two popular-vote victories were achieved while in the opposition: a position wholly unsuited to intimidation, victimization or bribery).

The results of the 2010 elections, which the NDP fully expected to win, have been particularly difficult to swallow for the party. After an initial declaration that the results were invalid and illegal, the NDP settled on a narrative that has come to define its post-2010 existence: “We had that election in the bag until Hurricane Thomas came along, then the ULP stole it from us with blatant bribery and purchasing of votes using hurricane relief supplies.”

Settling upon the “Bribery” narrative was very comforting to the leadership and core supporters of the NDP. Primarily, it allowed them to sidestep the internal soul-searching and reform that would normally accompany any major political party coming off its fourth consecutive popular defeat. If the ULP victory was due solely to the happenstance of a storm and a surge of last-minute relief supplies, it means that the NDP was defeated by bad timing, not bad strategy/leadership/candidates/message/etc. As such, no need to disturb the internal status quo of the party. Between 2005 and 2014, there has been almost no change to the upper echelons of the NDP party structure and leadership. The “Bribery” narrative also placated the party’s dispirited rank-and-file, whose ever-increasing hatred of the ULP and its leadership is impossible to reconcile with Labour’s continuing electoral triumphs.

As such, it has been instructive to witness the NDP’s near hysterical response to the heartbreaking tragedy and destruction of the Christmas Floods. After an initial, statesmanlike response in the hours immediately following the storm, the NDP is increasingly descending into a state of tone-deaf political warmongering that is out of place and ill-timed. It is, however, understandable: having conjured up and convinced itself that the bogeyman of “storm relief bribery” is real, it must be politically terrifying to see another epic disaster befall the electoral swing states one year ahead of the next polls.

However, the impact of this narrative on our civil discourse is devastating. Imagine, for a minute, that the NDP had decided instead that the reason for its multiple defeats was a failure to properly articulate its vision; or a failure to offer a sufficiently compelling alternative to the status-quo. The intervening years would have then been spent refining the articulation of a vision, or trading honestly in the marketplace of ideas. Maybe even listening to the ULP, to understand what themes and visions seem to have resonated with the electorate over the last 15 years.

But having convinced themselves that the election was “bought” with bribes, the NDP has dealt itself and political discourse a double blow. First, if the ULP is merely a crass wholesale buyer of votes, there is nothing to be gained by engaging the party in a reasoned debate. Instead, above anything else, it is imperative that the NDP be vigilant, to avoid future “purchases” of elections. Reasoned engagement, at the party or parliamentary level, becomes superfluous.

Second, if the voters themselves are simply mindless lemmings who are easily swayed by last-minute plywood deliveries, there is no need to structure a policy to engage them intellectually. Since it is difficult for an opposition party to outspend the State in a nationwide bribery campaign, and since the electorate is simply a collection of votes for hire, the logical opposition strategy is to deter the government from distributing assistance, distract from the effectiveness of such distribution, highlight any inefficiencies in the process, and embarrass individuals from accepting any such offerings.

Apart from the obvious, elitist, disrespectful view of the voting public that they aspire to represent, such a narrative and outlook reduce political discussion to a series of baseless accusations and far-fetched conspiracy theories. It ratchets up the levels of inter-party distrust and paranoia to such levels that it fatally poisons the well from which goodwill and civility normally spring.

NARRATIVE #2 – The ULP’s “Counterpunch” Narrative

Despite the ULP’s enviable string of electoral triumphs, its recent history is not without anxieties and missteps. For one, the party’s share of the popular vote, while dominant, has been slipping steadily since 2001. Left unchecked, this trend leads inexorably to a return to the opposition benches. For another, the resounding “No” vote on the constitutional reform referendum was a sobering reminder that the party is not infallible, and that trust in the political leader is far from absolute.

But those anxieties, when coupled with the pugnacious personalities of the party leader and Chairman, have themselves given birth to a civility-affecting narrative: “The ULP only ever loses a fight when it doesn’t fight back.”

Exhibit “A” in this narrative is the stinging loss in referendum campaign. While the “Yes” Vote campaign was not, strictly speaking, a ULP campaign, the major figures on either side of the debate split along party lines (with the notable exception of Parnell Campbell, QC). The inability of the “Yes” vote to cross a 50% threshold, much less the 67% required for its passage, was viewed by many at the time as the death knell of the ULP’s time in government. History proved otherwise, but one of the enduring lessons and narratives emerging from the referendum campaign was that you don’t win a political fight in SVG with one hand tied behind your back. No matter how high-minded your arguments, you can’t talk your way out of a brawl. If a guy punches you in the nose, punch him back. Harder.

During the referendum campaign, ULP leader Ralph Gonsalves forbade wearing party colours and ordered party members to avoid any attempt by the No Vote/NDP to lure them into partisan political mudslinging. Take the high road, was the instruction, and focus your comments and advocacy strictly on the merits of the proposed new constitution. The result was a mountain’s of unanswered NDP political attacks and an island flooded in yellow “no” t-shirts, with nary a red jersey to be found.

The loss cemented the “fightback” narrative, whose seeds were first sown with the creation of the ULP Radio Station, StarFM. Before StarFM, the only overtly politically-controlled radio station was NDP’s Nice Radio. The NDP, given voice by the slanderously gifted EG Lynch, was hammering the ULP with a barrage of below-the-belt potshots and ridicule. Nice Radio, then and now, wasn’t doing much exposition of issues or changing of minds. But it was effective in shoring up a wobbly NDP base, and in drawing increasing listenership from political junkies of all political stripes. Even diehard ULP supporters could ruefully quote Lynch’s most colourful attacks verbatim, because listening to Nice Radio briefly became SVG’s favourite guilty pleasure.

The answer, of course, was to fight fire with fire. StarFM took flight, providing an effective counterpoint to the NDP’s air war. While Star, on the instructions of the legally savvy ULP, took great care not to cross the line of defamation with the frequency and glee of an unconcerned and unconstrained Nice, the tone of the competing stations – from hosts to callers – were often indistinguishable. (My personal opinion is that the Star hosts are of a much higher quality, generally, than Nice – particularly since Lynch’s departure – but I concede that my view may well be a product of political bias and personal friendships).

Political radio stations, unlike nuclear weapons, have no deterrent effect. We lob partisan bombs back and forth at each other from the relative comfort and security of our respective echo chambers. ULP’s access to its own radio station, combined with the pressure to stay interesting on a daily basis, and the “counterpunch” narrative, means that no loose talk or stray comment from the other side is left unanswered. The “counterpunch” narrative compels the elevation of skirmishes to battles and battles to wars, each of which must be individually – and convincingly – won.

The result is a political divide in which one side refuses to listen, and the other side listens only to refute and ridicule. The implications are as obvious as they are unfortunate.

NARRATIVE #3 – Civil Society and the Press’ “No sellout” Narrative

Like most small island states, SVG does not have a particularly strong set of, homegrown, influential, civil society organisations. Beyond churches and labour unions, the pickings are relatively slim. Very often, the memberships of local NGOs are microcosms of Vincentian society: small and politically divided.

In many societies, Civil Society and/or the press can be counted upon to be the adults in a room full of squabbling politicians. An economic think-tank can refute this or that claim from a political party. A reputable human rights body could shine a light on victimsation or discrimination (or he absence thereof). A scientific body could settle a dispute about how a common weather system could metamorphose into a one-in-500-year event. And a courageous, opinionated, but basically impartial press could dig beyond the simple reporting of competing “he said/she said” political statements and keep the parties honest, if nothing else.

But our local NGO community has a narrative too: “in the long run, our group’s credibility is more important than any individual political dispute. So unless you want to be called a sellout, bootlicker or backward lackey, its better to be silent than weigh in on any partisan squabble.”

There are numerous NGOs that are – correctly or not – viewed as politically partisan. Their pronouncements may play well internationally, but are automatically disregarded on the local scene (more on this in another post). They are rubbished as impotent and ineffectual contributors to any civilized discourse.

Those few “non-aligned” NGOs guard perceived independence and impartiality with such jealousy that they are afraid to put it to good use. But in refusing to get their clothes dirty, Civil Society places itself in its own echo chamber: a tiny world of pseudo-intellectuals who quietly bemoan “what politicians do” or “the way people think” without doing a single thing to effect any meaningful change or expand the influence of the non-governmental sector.

In ensconcing themselves in an imaginary ivory tower of impartiality, these Civil Society actors abandon the very role that they are collectively designed to play. In their cowardly retreat from the possibility of criticism, they cede all political debate to political parties. These parties, fighting without a referee, lacking respect for their opponent, and confident in the knowledge that no third party will call them out on their excesses, slide predictably down the rabbit hole of incivility.

The Solution?

No political party will unilaterally disarm in the face of constant enemy fire. Civil society (and the press) must find a way to lead us back to civility. Such leadership will be messy. It does not mean a disdainful aloofness that places self-appointed Civil Society leaders on pedestals above those of popularly-elected politicians. It does not mean heaping scorn on the populism and pugilism that must form part of any competitive Western democracy. Nor does it entail placing genuine disagreement in a stifling straitjacket of civility that elevates style over substantive disagreement. Civil society and the press must encourage debate, while having the courage to name and shame those who depart from the bounds of decency, honesty or integrity.

The first step, therefore, is for the “non-partisan” sectors of society (assuming they exist) to abandon their “no sellout” narrative and insert themselves squarely into the local political discourse. Once engaged, they must demand a level of genuine, reasoned interaction between the political parties, while simultaneously seeking ways to chip away at the narrow narratives that stifle civil debate.

That said, let’s be real: Politicians are trying to score intellectual as well as emotional points; to harness energies and tap wells of joy, fear and discontent. Those with neither the stomach, the work ethic nor the aptitude to engage in political combat must resist the temptation to sit in the idle comfort of their armchairs and arbitrarily judge the actions and motivations of those who offer themselves in the service of their nation.

Competitive politics in a small island democracy cannot and should not be an academic debate or seminar. Nonetheless, our context, our interconnectedness, and our Caribbeanness means that our disagreements must occur against the backdrop of good faith and good-natured exchanges: substantively serious, passionately political, and geared towards producing a clear winner and loser. But, leavened always with humour, common decency, and a recognition that we will be seeing each other later in church, the rum shop, the cricket game, the fete, the beach, or at our next family gathering.

These are not the whiny pontifications of a wimpy, mealy-mouthed liberal who can’t take the heat but won’t leave the kitchen. Far from it. I am unabashedly partisan, firm in my political support and convictions, and personally invigorated by the clanging of ideological sword and shield. But even in real war, there are rules (no nuclear/chemical/biological weapons, treat POWs with respect, don’t torture, wear uniforms, etc). No less should be expected of and demanded by SVG’s political combatants.

We can lift our game. And clean up our act.