Home' Trinidad and Tobago Guardian : December 5th 2013 Contents The events of the past week
have left many in T&T faced
with a sense of despair. We
seem to be sinking further into
a cesspool of societal decay
with many an outcry of "who
can do such a thing?", "how can such a thing
happen?" and "what can we do about it?"
While we are prepared to explore every kind
of knee-jerk reaction to our broad societal
problems maybe we should step back for a
moment and explore the systems that we
operate under and consider whether it pushes
us collectively towards a state that lends itself
to a focus on "I" at the expense of "we".
Address that issue and a lot can be put right
in this country.
Appreciate the value of cooperating and
then imagine yourself in the following situ-
You have been arrested and charged by the
police and are being kept in a holding cell.
You and another person are accused of com-
mitting a crime. You are guilty but you plead
your innocence to the officer who then gives
you the following choice.
You can confess to the crime or you can
remain silent. If you confess and the other
accused remains silent the charges against
you will be dropped and your confession will
be used to prosecute the other accused. If,
however, you remain silent, but the other
accused confesses, then he will go free and
you will be prosecuted.
If both of you confess, then both of you
will get a lighter sentence. However, in the
back of your mind, you know that if you and
the other accused remain silent, then the
police has nothing to go on and you can both
be released. Since you and the other accused
are being held in separate rooms, there is no
way to know what the other person will do
so you have to weight and consider the options
as it has been laid out.
What would you do?
If you remain silent, there is a chance you
may go free, but that only depends if the
other person also chooses to remain silent.
Your destiny is not in your own hands. If you
confess, you are guaranteed a lesser sentence,
and there is the possibility that you may get
off completely under the deal offered by the
This is the prisoner s dilemma that deals
with the issue of cooperation versus self-
interest. Cooperation may mean some amount
of jail time but not as much as the full sentence
for the crime. The police don t have to spend
time and resources investigating the case and
the courts are not tied up with a long litigation
process. Society on the whole is better off.
Remaining silent may produce a big payoff
for you, but could also leave you considerably
worse off as well. Replicate this concept across
the broader society and one can make a case
that T&T will be much better off if we were
to co-operate, even if it involves some amount
of sacrifice, inconvenience or cost, than if we
were to seek our self-interest.
Co-operation becomes more of a conun-
drum if we include the fact that T&T is a
democracy. We have the opportunity to come
together to bring about the results that would
be in our overall best interest. Yet look at
where we stand and the issues that we face.
To understand this better, let us move from
"The Prisoners Dilemma" to "Public Choice
Theory". Appreciate that while there may be
incentives and even a better outcome for being
concerned about others and co-operating,
people generally tend to focus on their self-
interest, even if that self-interest proves to
be a gamble with extreme payoff.
Whether you are a voter, politician, party
supporter, financier, lobby group and
bystander, you operate primarily in the sphere
of what you would consider your self-
interest. The result is decisions and outcomes
that are often in conflict with the broader
needs of society, even though the choices
made at a point in time may be perfectly
rational for the individual making the choice.
To appreciate the disconnect, start with
your actions in your private life. When pur-
chasing a car, because of the cost involved
and the fact that your decision to purchase
is absolute, you spend the time to find out
about the car. It is in your interest to do so
since you can directly affect the outcome.
When you vote in an election, it is unlikely
you can directly affect the outcome. In fact,
our system is designed in such a way where
hundreds of thousands of votes have absolutely
no impact on who forms the Government. In
such a circumstance, the rational person will
not waste their time following up on issues
or taking an activist stance because, individ-
ually, they have zero impact on the outcome.
This leaves the door open for those with
a vested interest to get involved. They may
fund a political campaign.
On account of that funding, there is a suc-
cessful lobby for a project that "costs" $200
million with half of that going in kickbacks
to the party financier. You are aware of this,
but also aware that you can t affect the out-
come, you feign indifference. The $100 million
in corruption spread across a voting population
of 800,000 works out at 13 cents to you, and
is most likely not worth the time and energy
to get involved in changing that scenario.
Of course, the corruptly earned $100 million
will be multiplied many times over by different
financiers and different politicians, but more
often the voter is presented in isolation and
so we feign indifference. It is only when people
are directly impacted by a cost that they react
in self-interest. This is why the "axe the tax"
movement had such a profound impact on
the last general election.
We have a mass of people individually, but
more importantly, collectively powerless to
effect change, at least under the current con-
stitution. Further, the costs of crime and cor-
ruption are diffused across the broader society,
so that unless you are directly impacted, the
effect is miniscule.
When you are directly impacted, there is
an extreme reaction by the impacted minority
while the rest of us look on helpless, in the
first instance, but rationally concluding that
individually, our time and energy are better
directed towards serving our self-interest.
The latter conclusion comes about because
we all have to earn a living. Our poor gov-
ernance has seen the cost of living increase
exponentially through inflation. The targets
of seven per cent inflation mean that our
spending power is halved in ten years unless
our earning power is doubled during that
time. How many of us have this as a realistic
expectation? To emphasise the point, the
inflation targets were set by our politicians
across the political divide. Few citizens have
objected, even though the implication is as
Other countries with similar political sys-
tems have overcome this indifference to
achieve great things. More often than not,
you find a war or some other extreme event
around which the society will coalesce, which
ultimately produces a culture of co-operation
that transcends generations. We have no
such experience here in T&T.
Many argue that even under the same
political system "it was still different long
ago". They are right. The difference is that
individually, our debt burdens are higher.
When you have your mortgage and car instal-
ments to meet, you are more likely to focus
on how you can meet your individual com-
mitments. Few with a mountain of debt will
put their job at risk to take on an activist
Co-operation for the greater societal good
takes a back seat, especially when the cost
of living is increasing, but your salary is not.
Add to the mix "handouts" by the State and
we become even less socially responsible and
more focused on "what I can get" and "how
can I get it". Sometimes, we individually con-
clude "by any means necessary".
We are in urgent need of a reformed con-
stitution. How many have participated in
this process? Your answer may prove the
points being made above. We are even more
oblivious to the role that finance plays in
We give tax breaks for using debt, ensure
low interest rates so you can borrow even
more. However, we have very few systems
to facilitate partnership, equity and profit
and loss sharing, in other words: co-oper-
In summary, our political system leaves
people predisposed to focusing on self-inter-
est and our financial system solidifies that
In the end, we ask ourselves why has it
all gone so wrong? Yet even then our focus
is so myopic that we fail to appreciate the
big picture changes that are required to extri-
cate ourselves from this quagmire.
Ian Narine is a broker registered with
the Securities and Exchange Commission.
DECEMBER 2013 • WEEK ONE www.guardian.co.tt BUSINESS GUARDIAN
COMMENTARY | BG21
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