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Starship budgets and the “Bicycle Brigade”


Comments / {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}} Views / Friday, 17 November 2017 00:08


One has only to read the wide and varied responses to Budget 2018 (B18) to realise how fissured our society is. Some like it so much as to say that they love it. Others loathe it so much they’re dying of envy, or apoplexy, or both. There is little point in analysing the fiscal big picture of the nation in these columns again and adding more woes to woahs or vice versa. Because the management of a nation’s wealth, treasure, assets (generally received in trust and more often than not administered in profligacy) is more than a mere fiduciary undertaking. It is more an exercise in expressing and defending the incumbent administration’s worldview than a mere matter of balancing the columns, pure and simple. 

Managing a country’s finances is never pure and rarely simple. Be that as it may the harvest of responses yielded to B18 reveals that a reward of encomiums appears all but balanced with the expression of reservations. Even if the maxim that it takes a finance minister to move a nation’s growth up a notch from 5% p.a. to 5.5.% p.a. holds the weight of cold water, one can’t help suspect that our more serious mandarin’s mouthings are a tad more than hot air. And the very virulence of the brickbats as well as the scarcely veiled bouquets of admirers suggests the depth and range of the proposed fiscal policy of a coalition government struggling to restore its credibility and command confidence across sundry sectors.

In assimilating the significance and impact of Budget 2018, your columnist finds it helpful to arbitrarily – and to some extent artificially – cluster the kaleidoscope of responses (spanning the gamut from ‘good’ through ‘bad’ to ‘ugly’) along the following spectrum.

Brave

We are given to understand in a perhaps apocryphal version of its true inspiration that Finance Minister Mangala Samaraweera’s maiden budget owes much to the TV series Star Trek. He for sure has a reputation for boldly going where no cabinet minister has gone before. If the resounding endorsement of his political colleague State Finance Minister Eran Wickremaratne’s rational engagement is to be taken at face value this Budget is brave, visionary, and ambitious; or at the very least consistent.

(This is a usually political CHARITABLE view which is par for the course for defenders of neoliberal evangelicalism.)

Basic. Solid.

Business in general and enterprise in particular have been less ebullient if not less enthusiastic. On the one hand, for e.g., fronting the automotive sector as representative of trade and commerce, a stakeholder has appraised B18 as equitable to all segments of the industry, with a system that is transparent and easy to track and administer. On the other, an erstwhile economic policy savant now heading a global property development company has described Mangala’s “enterprising Budget” as a breath of fresh air. Both would agree it is a good budget but reasonably hard to implement across resistance on many fronts.

(This is an understandably supportive CONVENTIONAL view of sectors receiving substantial concessions who may find it an uphill task to convince the unconverted.)

Balls. Shame. Crime.

As is only to be expected, the political opposition and their apparatchiks remain dauntingly critical. In parliament, B18 has been traduced for lacking both truth and beauty. Past economic policy shapers have excoriated it for telling tall stories, being impractical and hard to deliver on, denying key afflicted sectors their much desired relief, and adding to cost of living burdens. In the newspaper opinion columns, dismissive commentators have critiqued it for its market fundamentalism based on ungrounded neoliberal dogma as well as recklessness in fast-tracking liberalisation oriented toward not development but rapid growth. The Ranil-Mangala economic philosophy – as one critic casts it – has been condemned for being based on a fraudulent lie in a fading universe of neoliberal globalism where (to them) neo-socialismstill holds the keys to the kingdom.

(This is the unrepentantly cynical CONTRARIAN view of those who live in denial of global realities and ideological power shifts.)

With that said, the litmus test is not how good a budget is or appears to be on paper or on a political curriculum vitae. But rather how well it will light a fire under a lackadaisical bureaucratic ethos as well as set ablaze a lacklustre business environment that turns sour at the slightest pressure of the tax tourniquet. If ugly to bad to good is to become a ground reality rather than political propaganda, more key stakeholders need to take – not fake – the acid tests. As will be seen in our end piece coda, those who could otherwise responsibly critique the Government’s fiscal policy are to busy playing silly buggers to bother with their political responsibility as a sitting opposition.

THE TAX FORM ORDER TESTS

(Take this exam only if you’re a taxpaying citizen. Sit up straight. If you’re a tax avoider, you can slouch a little. If you’re a tax evader, you may be no slouch in the cooking, er balancing books, game… in fact you’re sitting pretty.)

A.Essays.

1.Budget 2018 is an “enterprising” piece of proposed fiscal policy. Critically evaluate with reference to visionary economic outlooks and the penchant of certain Government mandarins “to boldly go where no man has gone before”. (You may split your infinitives but try not to split hairs.)

B.Short Answers.

1.Explain the ‘greening’ of macroeconomic policy. (Hint: it has nothing to do with the UNP. Think not of ‘five acres and a cow’ but futuristic anti-pollution eco directives.)

2.Explain the ‘bluing’ of macroeconomic policy. (Hint: it has nothing to do with the SLFP. Think rather of the thousands of miles of marine entrepreneurship at our shores.)

C.MCQ.

1.You have to summarise the Budget in one word. What would it be?

a.Enterprising

b.Pragmatic

c.Popular

d.Populist



2.If it takes a finance minister to grow the economy at 5.5% when left alone it would have grown at 5% anyway, how would you evaluate the incumbent’s mission to fast track the growth component at possible exposure to sustainable development?

a.A bridge too far

b.Boldly going where no FM has gone before

c.Challenging the ‘boru budgets’ of the past with a controversial big picture

d.Dooming the country bumpkins for the sake of the cosmopolitan globetrotters

3.A budget that has a big picture consonant with global economic trends while being redolent with ground realities such as a string of forthcoming elections is best described as:

a.Enterprisingly going great guns

b.Government’s “saving grace”

c.The key to the kingdom

d.The need of the hour

I am not a big fan of unabashed neoliberalism. But unrepentant neosocialism that touts China as a model to be emulated by us puts me off in equal measure. Since sitting governments have a better handle on ground realities unfettered by Pie in the Sky theories as much as There be Dragons in the Dungeons cautions, laissez faire! laissez passer!

One thing we cannot let pass sans comment: The unfortunate propensity of past shapers of economic policy which brought state coffers and national assets to the brink of ruin to play silly buggers on bicycles. That kind of brinkmanship is passé, and the sooner the vicious cycle of cycling against Good Governance while hankering for a recycling of the bad ends the better.

(A senior journalist, the writer was once the Chief Sub Editor of The Sunday Leader, 1994-8, and is ex-LMD, having been its Editor, 2004-8. He has made a career out of asking questions, and not waiting for answers.)


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