Our problems are more cultural than fiscal, thus every dollar counts

When it comes to managing overspending in a budget, Premier Cox and I differ in the view of whether every dollar counts.  This was one of the few points raised for discussion during the lunch I had with the Premier and interestingly, has arisen in the debate of whether MPs should take a symbolic pay cut.  The Premier seems to approach our budget problems purely from a financial angle, targeting the biggest wins while my advocated approach is one which targets our culture.  A purely financial approach may solve our short term problems though I question whether they’ll get to the root of addressing the issues that got us into this mess in the first place.  It is my belief that we need to change our culture of overspending and sense of entitlement in order to resolve our fiscal issues.  In the vein of refining our culture, every dollar does matter because it sets the tone.

The Premier, like many I’ve had similar discussions with, seems to take the view that only low hanging fruits matter when it comes to cutting spending because big and easy cuts make a bigger difference than small or difficult ones.  She’s correct in that if you had the choice of focusing the same energy on saving one dollar vs. one million, that you’d be far better served with the latter.  However, the old adage of whether it is better to give a man a fish or teach him to fish arises in this case, as are we aiming for a short term quick fix or a long term solution?

Spending is a very cultural notion and it is our culture, not just spending itself which has led us into our current predicament.  We’ve developed a culture and belief that it is perfectly acceptable to live beyond your means and that prosperity will be endless.  The problem is that neither of these beliefs are sustainable and will eventually lead to a predicament like the one we’re presently in.  This is what led to one of the more brazen questions I had for the Premier at our lunch, which was who exactly was paying for it?  The details of this discussion are perhaps best left for another piece, but you can take comfort in knowing the Premier graciously accepted my request that I pay for my own lunch and assured me that she would personally be covering the other’s bill rather than the government. 

The question of who was paying for lunch raised an interesting discussion point where the Premier seemed amused by my suggestion that my $15 lunch matters in the grand scheme of a billion dollar budget.  She is certainly right that my $15 had nearly no impact, however the point wasn’t just to save $15 but to set the tone regarding whether a ‘free lunch’, especially if footed by the government and subsequently our taxes, should be an expectation.  It was with considerable interest as I noted the other attendees quietly avoid this discussion and happily accept someone else picking up the bill.

This is the very conundrum we face, far too many have come to expect a free lunch.  We’ve entrenched it in our culture that we’re entitled to such things.  This is why we’re seeing rises in foreclosures on homes, and people struggling to pay their bills.  We have a cultural problem, not just a fiscal one.

This is the very crux of the argument why every dollar counts, even a lowly $15 lunch.  At its very core our personal financial crisis will need to be solved through a change in attitude.  People need to stop expecting free lunches.  The only way to change that expectation is to set the example from the top and ensure it trickles down and is embraced collectively by everyone. 

If we’re really all in this together then we all need to be pitching in, not just the select few.  To suggest that the unions must make sacrifices while condemning the notion of symbolic pay cuts for ministers simply breeds notions of hypocrisy.  Rather than our public servants looking at their jobs trying to figure out ways to save every possible dollar here and there, they note the cavalier attitude of our politicians and question the point.  They are led to ask themselves that if that small symbolic cut doesn’t matter or make a difference in the eyes of our leaders then why should they strive to find a solution that costs only one dollar instead of two?  That one dollar may not matter, but if collectively every public servant found a dollar or more we could save we’d be much further on our way to resolving our spending issues.

This is the very core of the disconnect we face between the preaching of our politicians vs. their actions.  They implore us that we must be doing more with less, that we must strive to make the big savings and that services can and must be cut in order to address our deficit crisis.  Big cuts make a difference, but only in the short term.  Instead, we need more ways to get everyone collectively working together to find savings, to change our culture from one where we expect free lunches to one where we all chip in to do our part.  The very problem we face however is that the leader of this initiative does not recognize and is not addressing the entrenched cultural problems which got us into this mess in the first place.  Every dollar does count and collectively we’re all in this together.  My $15 dollar lunch does matter and so too does a pay cut for Ministers.

No ‘politics of appeasement’ now that the cog is at the wheel

With her first address our Premier reminds us of the disappointing disconnect between our politicians and the people.  We are told that now is the time that we must do more with less and yet our politicians continue to showcase that when it comes to themselves, they continue to focus on doing less with more.

In her address Premier Paula Cox said:

“It takes grit and character to resist the temptation to indulge the politics of appeasement and to say there will be no symbolic cuts in Ministers’ salaries.

Where was this grit and character when it came to the many promises of “free” necessary to appease the population in order to win an election?  Where was this grit and character when it came to managing the budget and saying no overt spending and budget busting projects?  We are certainly discovering the true cost of “free” as it is us who is expected to do more with less, our people who are to take pay cuts and lose jobs while the size of public purse governing their salaries continues to grow.

Premier Cox suggests that symbolic gestures have little value and as such, why undertake them?

“This, in my view, would be an empty gesture, inappropriate for a Government or for any team facing the prospect of having to do more with less and having to do it in half the time under double the pressure.”

Half the time?  Double the pressure?  Perhaps if our Premier had focused less on indulging in the politics of appeasement when she was Finance Minister then she would not find herself in this predicament.  Our people have waited 12 years for the promise of a better Bermuda to be fulfilled and even after they have stuffed their own coffers our leaders refuse to give up their fancy cars, lucrative salaries, fat pensions, paid credit cards, fancy travel and other perks of power.

Six months into the much acclaimed ‘new government’ comprised of the same faces we remain so terribly disappointed with the lack of progress.  Our Premier may call for sacrifice but refuses to accept that every dollar counts, that sacrifice must be made across the board and must come from the top.  Our Premier should throw down the cog and lead from the front in showcasing that sacrifice should be made everywhere possible, symbolic or not, that we are all in this together and that together we can get ourselves out of it.  By proclaiming such a symbolic gesture as empty and inappropriate, our Premier simply adds emphasis to who got us into this mess in the first place.  It is terribly saddening that it is only now that our Premier has chosen to refrain from the politics of appeasement, for had she chosen an earlier date to do so we likely wouldn’t find ourselves in such a predicament.

Opposition Stalemate?

We're quite busy with far more important things, but let's take a quick moment to review the UBP/BDA merger situation.

People seem to think that if an election were held tomorrow, the BDA and the UBP would split the opposition vote like happened in the last by-election.  It is our belief that this wouldn't be the case, instead the BDA would fall to a distant third and the UBP would have the potential to be a strong contender for leadership.

Let's examine what we know:

  • The BDA came in at a close 3rd in the last by-election with one of their strongest candidates vs. one of the UBP's weakest.
  • People generally speaking are not terribly impressed with any of our current parties.
  • The BDA, despite much rhetoric, have failed to clearly distinguish themselves as different from our incumbent parties.
  • The BDA is conceeding defeat by suggesting that the only answer is to join with the UBP to create a new entity following rather arrogant boasting that the UBP is dead and should fold.
  • The UBP has a strong track record of managing the economy in a time when many are fearful for their livelihoods.
  • Given a lack of compelling options, people will either not turn out or will vote for the lesser of 3 evils with the most chance of winning.

The opposition vote in an upcoming election will not be split between the BDA and the UBP, the BDA will lose the majority of their support much like they have in the polls.  The reason being that given the choice, opposition voters who genuinely hope to see a real change in government rather than deckchair rearranging will vote for whoever is more likely to win.  

The UBP proved that despite a poor candidate and a great deal more effort by the BDA that they are still second rather than third place finishers.  People will look at their options and choose to support the UBP out of necessity because the BDA have not shown that they can win.

This is the crux of the two party system, the third party is destined to remain irrelevant unless either one of the two dominant parties screw up on such an immense level that we have not yet seen or make such a compelling case as to woo enough support on the basis that things won't change if they don't win.

The BDA sadly does not have much of a leg to stand on.  Unfortunately, if the UBP can at minimum get candidates for every seat they will hold a solid chance of contesting the next election without the reform they so desperately need to make for a solid government should they actually win.