Club Soda and Salt

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Posts Tagged ‘Trinidad’

On the election

Posted by clubsodaandsalt on May 28, 2010

Trinidad had an election on Monday. We’ve known about it for six weeks, of course, but I didn’t post anything. Frankly, I just didn’t have much to say – while I wanted to see Manning repudiated for his incompetence, I found Kamla and company totally uninspiring (quick: name 5 policy promises made by the People’s Partnership. “No more Calder Hart” doesn’t count.) Still, the size of Monday’s landslide was heartening, and it’s hard not to feel at least some of the optimism that our predecessors must have felt in 1986 – with Manning’s resignation, we now have new leadership on both sides of the aisle, and maybe, just maybe, we can put the foolishness that ran rampant between 1991 and now behind us.

In fact, every time Trinidad pulls off an election, it’s hard not to feel a little tinge of pride. We take the peaceful transfer of power as a given in much of the English-speaking Caribbean, but it’s worth remembering that in Trinidad, it hadn’t happened before 1986 (because it hadn’t come up, not because of resistance). It might not seem like a big deal, but it’s a basic requirement of democracy, and incredibly rare occurrence in human history. We’re doing pretty well in this respect, especially for a former colony with two equally balanced ethnic groups, each aligned with one party or the other.

And I have to admit that I also swelled a little while reading about Kamla Persad-Bissessar being sworn in with the Baghavad Gita. It really drives home how unique Trinidad is. I live in a country that considers itself the melting pot to end all melting pots, but where people head to their fainting couches at the mere suggestion that our President (or even a couple of members of Congress) may have read the Koran a couple of times. Meanwhile, Trinidad elects a Hindu Prime Minister and no-one there bats an eyelid (well, about the Hinduism, in any case). Trinidad is a place where diversity is just a part of daily life, rather than an aspiration or a political billy club, and I feel lucky to be from there.

That’s enough positivity. Time to return to the usual complaining about the sad state of Trinidadian government! I’m sure seeing Jack Warner in the cabinet will provide plenty fodder down the road…


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The Trinidad Express makes Baby Jesus cry

Posted by clubsodaandsalt on March 24, 2010

So there’s been this debate raging on in Trinidad about whether the trial-by-jury system should be replaced with verdicts from judges. I don’t really want to get into that debate (I happen to think that trial by judge is not a great idea, but I can understand the concerns about jury tampering in a place like Trinidad). I DO want to comment on how atrocious this article (click here to read in a format that won’t make your eyes bleed) is. First off, the article starts off as follows:

During the 2005 law term, State prosecutors brought almost two hundreds criminal cases to the High Court for trial.

In only one in five cases did the jury return a guilty verdict. And the jury acquitted in forty percent of the trials, according to the statistics in the Judiciary’s annual report tracking the state of the justice system.

OK, this is actually a really interesting start to an article! So. If 20% of trials ended with a guilty verdict, and 40% with a not guilty one, does that mean that 40% of trials ended unresolved? Were there that many hung juries? That seems like so many! Is it actually a high number, or is that normal? Were the other 40% of trials just not ended in 2005? And are these numbers actually any “worse” than usual? Do we know about comparable percentages from the past? Or from other countries? What about in places with trial-by-judge?

You will be shocked to hear that none of these questions is ever answered (or even asked), and that we never hear about these statistics ever again. I feel uninformed.

Then we get a lot of anecdotal “evidence” with some examples of judges being upset with jury verdicts. I’m sure judges have a lot to say about this issue, and their opinions are obviously valuable, but instead of giving me that, I just get these random stories of one time they were vex. In fact, it’s only really one story that’s discussed, and it’s not even presented well:

’Members [of the jury]’, Justice Narine said, ’I mean no disrespect. I feel compelled to say that this system of justice is not working and it frightens me. It worries me as it should everyone else in this country.”

He had presided in a case in which the nine-member jury took only 20 minutes to find a man not guilty of kidnapping a 16-year-old girl in 2002.

OK. Presumably we are about to hear some details of the trial, so that we can be shocked at how stupid the jurors were! I’m looking forward to being presented with information that I can use to draw a conclusion.

The teenager said she had to jump out a window to escape the man when he took her to a lonely road in Penal. The man’s defence was that the two were friends.

OK. Well, this seems very he-said, she-said. Was there any evidence about their prior relationship? How did she end up in his car (I assume we’re talking about a car window, though that of course is left to guesswork)? Were there signs of a struggle? Anything else I should consider? We’ll never know, because this is the Express we’re talking about. Instead of anything related to what was presented at trial, we get a repitition of the comments from the judge, and then a comment about a completely unrelated case (I didn’t realize at first that this was about a different case, because it is an offhand mention in the middle of the other discussion):

Justice Narine also referred to ’one of the strongest cases I have ever seen, it was a sexual offences case’ where the accused also went home.

He said the accused had been served a sentence for murder, granted a pardon by the President, acquitted on the rape charge and rearrested two months later for murder.

I don’t really know what this is supposed to prove, partly because all the relevant detail is missing. OK, so he was convicted of murder. He was imprisoned to await execution (murder, and I’m assuming that they got the actual charge correct, carries a mandatory death sentence in Trinidad), and then pardoned. Why was he pardoned? It’s not like presidential pardons are terribly common for convicted murderers! The Express feels no need to ask. So, then he goes on trial for rape. I guess the fact that he was convicted of murder was supposed to mean that he was DEFINITELY guilty of a different crime, even though he’d been pardoned? What kind of logic is that? And of course we hear nothing about the rape trial itself, so we have no way of knowing what the jury in question had presented to it, which is of course crucial to the whole debate. And THEN we hear that he was “re-arrested” for murder, but of course we have no idea whether he was convicted, or even went to trial. Seriously, WTF? All this example did was leave me with major doubts about whether judges, especially this one, are equipped to decide verdicts, forget about juries.

Then we hear from the foreman of the jury in the first trial, who basically complains a lot about how his feelings were hurt – irrelevant – but does say this one thing:

The foreman said it was a jury of six women and three men and ’we believe our verdict was truthful. Yes we delivered a verdict in 25 minutes but we were discussing it during the trial, for three days, the problems we had, the doubts in our minds’.

At this point, you will be shocked to hear that details on the doubts appear nowhere in the rest of the article. Which is truly amazing, because the foreman DID EXPLAIN THE DOUBTS:

The juror went through the evidence, and pointed to the prosecution’s weaknesses.

WTF? So this guy explains the jury’s reasoning to you, the reasoning that is at the root of the story you’ve built the article around, but you leave it out?

God, the Express is awful.

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Absentee landowners better walk with printer

Posted by clubsodaandsalt on December 8, 2008

I’ve complained about the ridiculous attitude of Trinidadian banks towards online banking before, so I was a bit skeptical when I saw this ad in the Express:

So, Republic is not explicitly targeting the diaspora? Surely that means that they have proper online banking now, right?


They still want you to print out a form and walk it into a branch (you can’t even fax it, not that that would be acceptable anyway). Not sure how that helps those of us in the US buy property back home, but hey – why bother to have a marketing strategy that is aligned with the reality of your crap customer service?

Trinidad really is a deeply unserious place.

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Wake me up when it’s over

Posted by clubsodaandsalt on July 27, 2008

Another July 27th, another anniversary of the worst day in our nation’s history swept quietly under the rug. Our leaders have once again demonstrated how deeply unserious they are. Former PM and President Robinson puts it best:

I don’t think they understand the significance of the anniversary and of the memorial in the grounds of the Red House! That is part of our problem in Trinidad & Tobago: we really don’t have the sense of what it means to be a nation.

Of course, when I heard what was said about the then leaders of the opposition-that one had said, “Wake me up when it’s over” and the other that it was a matter between the Robinson and the Muslimeen man-when I heard that, I said, “No, this is not a country at all!” I just couldn’t understand it.

Given the uninterested reactions of Manning and Panday during the coup, I’m not sure why we’re surprised about their actions today. They’ve never cared about the country, and they’ve given us plenty of opportunity to see that, from 1990 on.

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Free money for all: a fresh new approach

Posted by clubsodaandsalt on April 27, 2008

The continuing spike in food prices seems to be making people say deeply silly things. On the one hand, you had the recent comments by the Consumer Affairs Minister, in which he declared that he’s had just about enough of this “specialization of labour” fad, and told everyone to plant vegetables in their backyard. Then today, I chance upon this.

Government should reconsider its refusal to subsidise basic food items for T&T citizens, as publicly announced by Prime Minister Patrick Manning.

Economist Dr Dhanayshar Mahabir said Government did not base its decision on a detailed consideration of subsidies and how such a programme could be implemented and managed and should be reconsidered in light of the hard times being suffered by citizens.

“I completely disagree with the Government,” Mahabir said during a telephone interview last week.

“There is no basis why we can’t offer a subsidy to consumers on rice, flour, cooking oil-if the price of that is also to rise-and milk.”

Really? You’re an economist and you can’t think of why subsidies on specific products might be a bad idea? You’re a professor at the main tertiary insitution in the Anglophone Caribbean, and you can’t think of a reason? I would like to suggest that UWI serious consider opening a vacancy in their economics department, because, yikes.

Anyway. He continues.

“But given the information technology available to us now, [black markets, and other inevitable results of this kind of plan] need not happen. For example, of the total cost of a package of flour, if it is to be $55-it is easy now for a company like the National Flour Mills to send a package of flour to a supermarket, charge the supermarket $35 and then send a bill to the Government for $20.

“At the same time, the flour can be stamped ‘Maximum Retail Price $40’, so the consumers are aware.

Oh, thank GOD we can use technology (ink? paper?) to stamp an MSRP on the packs of flour. Surely when there are flour shortages (which there will be if the government does this), people will not happily ignore those kinds of controls and pay whatever the market will bear. Because that never happens.

“I think that in the short period, given the incredible hardship being faced by the poor and middle class, the latter also slowly slipping into poverty, I now call them the working poor, the Government has to re-think its position on the four basic items.”

Emphasis mine. I hope he doesn’t think that using the term “working poor” to refer to the lower end of the middle class is somehow creative. In any case, this illustrates the problem I have with this sort of thing quite nicely. He is assuming that flour, rice, milk, and cooking oil are the “basics” for everyone, and would have the government assume the same. But why? I actually tend to eat more vegetables rather than starches. Why don’t I get a subsidy?

Also: Mahabir is correct to say that the working poor are struggling with the jump in food prices. But his subsidy plan doesn’t transfer money to just the working poor who need it – it transfers money to *everyone* (except me and my quasi-Atkins eating habits — I’m bitter!). If you want to help the poor, why not just help them directly with food vouchers and/or plain old cash? Then they could spend it as they saw fit, rather than having the pointyheaded elite decide for them, Dr. Mahabir.

Mahabir pointed to what he said was a fact being lived by thousands across the country-four years ago, a food bill that was around $1,000 has now doubled while salaries have remained the same.

We are in agreement that this is a huge problem, for the record. I just don’t think we should be subsidizing food purchases for people in Westmoorings and Fairways to solve it. Call me crazy.

But the good doctor isn’t done yet.

Along with subsidies on food items, he also suggested the removal of Value Added Tax (VAT) on more items, including electricity.

“There is no good reason why the Government, in its healthy fiscal position, can’t subsidise a basic commodity like electricity,” he said, noting that a subsidisation programme does not have to be permanent.

Oh. My. God.

In a country that is already one of the world’s most prodigious polluters (per capita, granted), and a country with comically heavily subsidized energy costs, we should encourage *more* pollution? In fact, you’d like us to subsidize it?

Dr. Mahabir and John McCain should really hang out.

Also, the idea that the government could remove VAT on electricity, and then have the nuts required to put it back is either really stupid or really naive.

He also argued that it was time that T&T adopted the long-held European method of subsidy, where a cash transfer was made to farmers should prices fall below a mark set by the State and it was found that farmers’ profits were reduced.

You know, having given this a little thought, this isn’t the worst thing in the world. It sure beats price controls, and it’s not like the Trinidadian market is big enough for this to cause the problems caused by subsidies in the US and EU. On the other hand, it would direct capital to farming when it could be better applied elsewhere. Yes, this might be OK as a temporary effect, but things like farm subsidies have a funny habit of becoming permanent.

“There is nothing wrong at all with subsidising the farming sector of the economy,” said Mahabir, noting a significant decline in agriculture-the farming community has shrunk from 30,000 in 1988 to 20,000 today while the acreage cultivated has also declined, with lands either being abandoned or going to housing and other industries. Following the closure of Caroni (1975) Ltd, the contribution of agriculture to the Gross Domestic Product (GDP) went from four per cent to half a per cent, he also noted.

1. What’s wrong with the land being used for housing? People need houses.

2. The decline in acreage tells me nothing about the food being produced on the land (yields may well be down too, but he doesn’t talk about that). Ditto the decline in the number of farmers.

3. That tidbit about Caroni, if true (sounds pretty hard to believe to me), really drives home what a great idea closing Caroni was (no wonder both the UNC and PNM supported it when each was the party in power). Apparently, 3.5% of our economy was tied up in a horrible inefficient and unprofitable industry, and now that land and capital can be used for better things, like, say, planting food.

“We need to look at the capabilities of the existing 20,000 farmers and at their impediments. Their impediments are largely State-induced. They are not getting the research that allows them to produce high-yielding crops. We have to put the farmer at the centre and gear all policy-making towards that.”

If they don’t have information about high-yielding crops, then why not give them that information, instead of the taxpayers’ money? I don’t see how dulling competition with subisidies is going to solve this at all.

To Dr. Mahabir’s credit, he does point out the obvious: that the run up in food prices is *global*, something that frequently gets lost when Trinidadian media address the issue. There are a lot of things that are the PNM’s fault. This isn’t one of them. Of course, he makes some rather stupid comments about how farmers are UNC and so the PNM hates them, as though (1) the UNC did much of anything for poor farmers when it was in power and (2) the PNM doesn’t depend on people who, you know, have to buy food for its votes. So it’s a mixed bag, but it’s like 80% crap.

Frankly, it’s pretty disheartening to see an economist spouting this sort of thing. Neither of these plans is likely to work. Perhaps it’s a reflection of how desperate the food situation is becoming that learned folks are running around calling for price controls and farm subsidies and other plans that just. don’t. work.

Not that I can think of anything better, to be honest.

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Posted by clubsodaandsalt on March 15, 2008

Given the drumbeat of murder reports from Trinidadian newspapers, there’s always a fear of becoming desensitized to the violence. Sometimes, though, you get a heartbreaking incident like this:

Sherwyn Joseph scolded a four-year-old boy for breaking eggs and was shot dead minutes after the child’s relative threatened him for what he did on Thursday night in Sea Lots, Port of Spain.

Joseph worked at the National Flour Mills, but that night he was at home when he saw the four-year-old and his friend, also aged four, breaking the neighbour’s duck eggs.

“What allyuh doing that for?” he reportedly shouted and “tapped” one of the boys on the head. The other boy (Joseph’s relative) was not hit. Both children then ran off.

The other [not tapped] boy ran to his female relative as well. She asked him what happened and he told her. Enraged, she walked over to Joseph’s house and started to “cuss him out” for scolding the boy. He argued back and explained to her why he shouted at the boy. They argued. It was a heated quarrel.

Finally, she walked off, shouting at him, “your shot call!”

This captures so much. Not only is it sad to read about a 27 year old begin shot over something silly, the fact is that the reaction of that “female relative” is all part and parcel of the mess we’re in. Someone scolds your child (completely legitimately!) and your reaction is “nobody talk to my child that way” and to have him shot? Ultimately, this man was shot for doing what so many of us lack the courage to do: taking responsibility for the children in his community, instead of just ignoring them.

It’s just unbelievably depressing. And it happened in Sea Lots, so no-one will care.

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The cost of bad policy

Posted by clubsodaandsalt on January 20, 2008

Shocking good sense from our new Minister of Trade:

Trade and Industry Minister Dr Keith Rowley says the annual subsidy on automobile fuel prices is now costing the State $2 billion a year.

And he says the time has now come for the Government to consider whether it should be spending this much money subsidising the price of gasoline and diesel.

Rowley, who is my new favourite politician, even makes the argument explicit:

“And, in so far as we have been buying at that price and subsidising local transport to the tune of $2 billion a year, the time has come in this country to ask ourselves if that is the best way to spend $2 billion.

“Subsiding[sic] transportation to the extent that nobody considers fuel cost when you plan a trip to go anywhere in this country,” Rowley said.

And people wonder why we have so much traffic? Here’s a big part of your answer. I can only hope that Rowley’s cabinet colleagues are paying attention.

I should note that we shouldn’t get rid of the subsidy in a vacuum, of course. It is just one part of moving toward a sensible transportation policy. Bear in mind that $2bn (that’s 300MM USD) can really get you a good deal of transit, and that’s where I think the money should go. We’d all be better off, I think. So of course that means that Rowley’s likely to be ignored…

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Posted by clubsodaandsalt on January 11, 2008

So I’ve been on a personal finance management kick lately, and I’ve started using a tool called Yodlee Moneycenter to manage my accounts. (So far it works well, and I’d recommend it despite the mediocre interface.) Anyway, since I have a mortgage account with Trinidad’s own Republic Bank, I figured I’d take a shot at setting up an online account there as well, so I could add it to my portfolio. So I head over to the Republic Bank website, click around to the online banking setup, and arrive at a form to put in my information.  I’d just started to fill it out, when I noticed this:

Fill in the form below, click register, print, sign and drop off at any Republic Bank branch.

Come again? Investigations revealed that yes, there is no way to set up your online banking account ONLINE. The irony of this doesn’t seem to register with the geniuses in Republic’s customer support. Their reason for this foolishness is, of course, “security”. Because you know what’s secure: having a bunch of printouts that contain my name, address, all my account information, AND my online username and password sitting around your bank branch, waiting for some disgruntled employee to steal them. Not only have they designed a system where I can’t set up an account from abroad (fuck you, diaspora!), but given this obviously insecure system, I wouldn’t even WANT to set one up if I could. Good job, Republic!

And needless to say, RBTT has the same idiotic policy.

I can haz a real banking system?

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Pocket Veto

Posted by clubsodaandsalt on January 10, 2008

The Trinidadian presidency is usually thought of as a ceremonial position, but this isn’t entirely correct. A good example of one of the President’s powers crops up in today’s Express:

In 2000, under the United National Congress government, then attorney general Ramesh Lawrence Maharaj piloted to Parliament an act entitled “The Dangerous Dogs Act, 2000”, to provide for regulating the keeping of dangerous dogs which present a serious danger to the public, to make further provision for ensuring that such dogs are kept under proper control and for connected purposes.

The act was debated in both the House of Representatives and the Senate and was passed.

In order for a bill or act to become law, however, it must be proclaimed by the President.

Parliament can pass whatever it wants, but if the President wants to sit on it, he can sit on it for his entire term. It doesn’t happen that often (at least not deliberately; the sort of incompetence seen above is depressingly common), but it could. Something to keep in mind the next time someone rails at you about a switch to a presidential system. At least that system is honest.

What’s a pocket veto?

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In which I talk about traffic policy again

Posted by clubsodaandsalt on December 30, 2007

As discussed here and elsewhere, Trinidad is currently suffering from a serious traffic problem, which is the focus of an article in the Express today. Somewhat surprisingly, one of the traffic officers interviewed hits the nail on the head:

The main cause of traffic: Too many cars. ASP Jackson stated that there were more than 400,000 cars on the nation’s road according to the Licensing Division. He said he would not be surprised if there were significantly more.

“What is the need for all these cars? Families that used to have one car, now have two and three,” said ASP Jackson.

Pretty much. Among the trappings of economic development: greater access to private vehicular transportation. Naturally, respondents in the article mention things like “more roads” as being the solution, but any transportation engineer worth her slat will tell you that that’s a short term solution. Besides, it’s also a solution that comes at great expense, what with having to tear down homes, businesses, and farmland to accomodate the new cars. In reality, the solutions that are likely to be effective aren’t likely to be popular:

  • Eliminate the massive gasoline subsidies
  • Introduce congestion pricing in downtown POS
  • Toll the major highways
  • Reform parking policy — no more free parking in POS, and stop building parking garage after garage!
  • Improve public transportation: build the promised train lines, keep going with the ferries, and make the PBR into a BRT corridor (and please please don’t allow private cars onto it as some people suggested! That is insanity!)
  • Improve bike and pedestrian friendliness of downtown POS and environs

These are the quicker solutions. Of course, there’s also the important long-term solution of focusing on transit-oriented development, which gets no attention that I can see in Trinidad (just look at all the weak attempts we make to emulate the worst of American suburban sprawl; Trincity is particularly horrifying).

You’ll  be shocked to hear that the government isn’t talking about any of this, even as it drives construction in POS to a fever pitch. After all, solutions are hard, and buildings are shiny! Instead we depend on traffic management serendiptity to save us. After all, God is a Trini.

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