Where has the country gone wrong? Is it the personal ethics and psychological profile of candidates? Or is it a question of leadership at the helm of the country?
Matters of the Moment
Our democracy is going through difficult times. The government has been plagued by a series of scandals which have regularly made headlines. The country has been jolted by an unprecedented array of shocking incidents and allegations involving Ministers, a Private Parliamentary Secretary (PPS) and MPs as well as related images and videos posted on social media. Instead of focusing their minds and earning their keep on the serious business of the National Assembly, a PPS has allegedly been using its august precincts to concoct and send lewd messages and photos. Others like the VPM Showkutally Soodhun have sullied its sanctity by reportedly making threats to kill the Leader of the Opposition in the National Assembly had his bodyguard given him his service revolver. The country has never witnessed such unbecoming conduct and behaviour from those elected by the people to selflessly serve them and intelligently contribute in framing policies and legislation aimed at improving the livelihoods of people and standards of living in the country.
The candidates elected to be MPs by the electorate basically enter into a contract of trust and service to the people. The MPs are expected to act as role models in society through their actions, principles and values. They are expected to adhere to a high code of ethics and have an exemplary conduct towards the people and in particular towards women at all times. No odious behaviour or conduct unbecoming of MPs can therefore be condoned. These have to be sanctioned. These are absolute rules which cannot be the object of compromise. These sacrosanct rules have of late been repeatedly flouted with impunity. Inaction by government has been justified by lame and contrived excuses.
Sordid and objectionable per se
The tenor of the recent verbal abuses of the VPM and the Deputy Chief Whip against women are objectionable and condemnable per se. Similarly, the allegation that lewd messages and indecent photos have been sent to a woman by a PPS against the backdrop of a promise of using his position to help her find a job is sordid per se. These shameful acts should have elicited swift and exemplary sanctions against them. Instead the Prime Minister, despite adopting a holier than thou stance regarding his rectitude, has chosen to procrastinate by opting to wait for the outcome of the ongoing investigations.
Such a complacent and weak approach towards serious breaches of conduct by MPs cannot help enforce the high code of ethics and benchmarks of behaviour expected of the elected representatives of the people. It saps the authority of government and undermines its standing in the eyes of the people. It can only breed and encourage licence of every kind. Loose cannons are already running amok. Are the tenuous public standing and legitimacy of the present government despite the daily tiresome propaganda blitzkrieg on state TV causative factors? A vibrant democracy is measured by the yardstick of the high standard of ethics championed by its political class. Conversely, a watering down of the code of ethics and probity expected of MPs undermines the country’s standing.
Such seedy incidents blemish the repute of our democracy as we approach the 50th anniversary of the independence of the country. Where has the country gone wrong? Is it the personal ethics, caliber and psychological profile of candidates fielded by the various parties responsible for such appalling behaviour? Or is it a question of leadership and authority at the helm of the country?
Prime Ministers by virtue of their position are expected to epitomize by their unimpeachable conduct the trust placed in them by the people at the polls. This trust can only be earned and legitimized through general elections at the polls. They are therefore expected to abide by the highest code of ethics, behaviour and governance and lead by example. Then, why on earth should the constituency of each Prime Minister become the centre of gravity and location of government projects and activities of every kind with each change of PM? They must remember that their actions and decisions are under the constant and objective scrutiny of the people and that smart phones and social media have become ubiquitous and potent weapons of exposure and… windows of voyeurism.
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Negative income taxes
The national context is marred by widening inequalities where the rich are becoming substantially richer through a distorted economic model which is skewed and fuelled thanks to generous government incentives by inordinately massive investments in multi-faceted real estate developments. Legitimate questions are therefore being raised on the policy choices made by government to correct the fundamental imbalances in the economy.
Thus, last week government decided to advance the implementation of the Negative Income Tax (NIT) scheme from August 2018 to November 2017. Some 150,000 persons earning up to Rs 9,900 per month will obtain under specific conditions a supplementary pay varying between Rs 1,000 and Rs 100 depending on the level of monthly income. This will be paid on a quarterly basis. It must be said that although such a system has been discussed over decades by economists across the world, it has never really been fully implemented. Despite the country’s economic woes, the government has decided to, in some sort pioneer NIT in Mauritius. NIT is going to cost some Rs 975 million to the Public Exchequer.
Whilst helping low income earners has to be a priority for all, this government measure begs a host of questions. Is NIT sustainable over time and how is it to be financed annually going forward? Has any study been carried on its long term impact before its implementation? Is the government decision to advance the payment of the NIT lamely aimed at distracting public attention from the series of scandals undermining it? Are successive Prime Ministers bent on taking credit for having extended the Welfare State to cover new benefits at the expense of the Public Exchequer without generating commensurate revenue to compensate such expense nor rigorously assuring the efficiency of every Rupee spent on the Welfare State?
Free education has thus been followed by free transport for students and senior citizens, free examination fees and now by the negative income tax scheme. Once granted, it is difficult to take such Welfare State schemes back. Why has there been such undue haste especially when the committee mandated to establish the long overdue minimum wage in the country has already established the bases for its computation and is about to submit its recommendations? The implementation of the minimum wage would significantly reduce government expense on NIT which would benefit strapped public finances and the country.
The Indian Financial Assistance is funding a host of projects including the Metro Express costing a total of US $ 983 million (Rs 35.2 billion) as per the 2017-18 government budget. This has enabled significant capital expenditure under the budget which would have otherwise not been possible. However, the financial leeway provided by the Indian financial assistance should not be used to finance recurrent schemes such as the NIT which the country will have difficulties to sustain going forward.
A cost effective Welfare State must remain an important cornerstone of our model of development. However, it is important that the onus of significantly reducing inequalities and of introducing the safety net of a minimum salary to enable large swathes of people earning low salaries in principally the private sector to live with dignity and essential comfort against the backdrop of a constant erosion of their purchasing power, is not shifted from the private sector to the Public Exchequer through NIT handouts. It is equally important that every effort is made to move every employee out of NIT dependence to the dignity of being self dependent through remunerative and gainful employment.
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Universal basic income
The whole approach to assure decent income to people must also take on board the ongoing debate in diverse countries regarding the proposal of granting every citizen a universal basic income (UBI). The results of research carried by the University of Oxford with inputs from the world’s best artificial intelligence (AI) experts, released in May 2017 showed that ‘there was a 50 percent chance of AI outperforming humans in all tasks within 45 years. All human jobs were expected to be automated in 120 years.’ Asian experts expect these timelines to be shorter. The burning concern for most people is that they will eventually be losing their jobs to machines. Government therefore has to provide an appropriate policy response to this grim eventuality.
A new economic study carried jointly by Roosevelt Institute and an Italian University released in August 2017 found that giving every adult in the United States a Universal basic income of $ 1,000 per month would add 2.5 trillion to the US economy in eight years. According to the report, the larger the universal basic income, the greater will be the benefit to the economy. After examining various financing options, the study also concluded that financing the UBI through a federal deficit will maximize benefits to the economy. There would be no net benefit to the economy if the UBI were to be financed by increasing taxes.
In a major game changer, technology leaders from Silicon Valley such as Elon Musk of Tesla, Facebook CEO Mark Zukerberg, Sam Altman of Y-Combinator, Venture capitalist Marc Andreessen, web guru Tim O’Reilly, Stewart Butterfield, the CEO of Slack and others have become the most vocal proponents of UBI. Some are even financing a pilot study of 100 families in Oakland, California. Across the world, pilot projects of UBI are being operated in Switzerland, Finland, Brazil, Canada, Netherlands and Scotland. Politicians across Europe have spoken in favour of the concept. Technology leaders represent the future. They do not have the capitalist mindset of oil barons or bankers. Their commitment towards people and support for UBI will assure its sustainability.
The world of tomorrow will therefore be materially different. The mindset must change radically. The prospect of increasing automation of human jobs will represent a huge challenge at different levels of society. AI will play an increasingly more important role and has to be aptly harnessed to stay ahead of the game. It will require that our business model is reshaped accordingly. The human element must occupy centre stage. Although it is early days, UBI, subject to rigorous validation, is a possible response to large scale redundancy of working people in a highly automated and AI driven world. We cannot stay trapped in a time warp.
* Published in print edition on 6 October 2017