Kiran Mathur Mohammed
The empty bottles, streamers and party hats have been responsibly dusted away. Usually time to earnestly embark on soon-to-be-broken resolutions and hit the gym. Yet in the past few years, many have felt too beat down to find comfort in these rituals of renewal.
Most people are still deeply pessimistic that their lives will improve. This is a critical problem: people who feel that way will not invest now or save for the future. The last published consumer confidence report for TT was in 2014. Back then, three in four felt that that their lives would not be better off in the future. And this was before our economy dropped off a cliff three years ago.
We are a resilient people. This pessimism is a defence mechanism. If you have low expectations, then you are less likely to be disappointed. Our pessimism is grounded in missed expectations and the perverse incentives of our oil and gas history.
And it is true that dissatisfaction propels us to seek better lives -- and to progress.
But exposure to a consistent narrative of pessimism leads people to underestimate the probabilities of success. This often leads us to adopt a fatalistic approach.
Nobel prize winning behavioural psychologist Daniel Kahneman showed that people’s decisions depend on the probabilities they place on future outcomes.
If we are too fatalistic, we distort these probabilities when we plan -- leading to worse decisions. Rüdiger Bachmann and Steffen Elstner’s research backs this up. We have all felt that self-doubt that prevents us from offering to take on a new project at work, sign up to a night class, or invest in a new business.
Confidence and hope directly impact growth. When people are more confident, they are more likely to go out and spend in the economy -- the ‘animal spirits’ famously documented by economists Robert Shiller and George Akerlof.
They are more likely to invest in projects with future returns. This has a circular effect. More economic activity is created -- leading to growth.
Still, given the frustrations we face, why should we be confident that we can improve our lives?
Well, we have access to free education up to university level. We have free or subsidised healthcare. There are one and a half phones for each person in TT. Anyone with a phone can access to almost unlimited knowledge through the internet. We have our Caribbean culture that values sticking by family during tough times.
We all know that shootings, murders and fraud have increased. But this surprised me: between 2013 and 2017 reports of general theft fell by 17 per cent, vehicle thefts by 25 per cent, burglaries and break-in by 27 per cent and home thefts by 34 per cent. This was before our new police commissioner bolstered confidence in the police service. Reported crimes have fallen by approximately 20 per cent between August and September 2018, as compared to the same period in 2017.
Though slow and sometimes difficult to obtain, we can access grants for school supplies ($500), household items ($6,000), pharmaceuticals ($2,500 for those drugs not already provided free), house repairs ($15,000), food ($415 per month), sanitary plumbing ($15,000), electric house wiring ($25,000), funerals ($7,000) and new businesses ($15,000). If you need help learning to read, you can go to Paula Lucie-Smith’s Adult Literacy Tutors Association. We have a committed group of non-profits at the ready.
Horror stories still abound; and reality remains harsh. But we should not let that stop us from taking steps to improve our own lives.
This is the year to do it. After shrinking for two consecutive years, the non-energy economy arrested its decline in the first nine months of 2018, according to the Central Bank. We enter 2019 exhausted but ready to grow after three long years of recession.
In the Harvard Business Review, organisational scholar John Gardner has advocated “tough minded optimism” for leaders. They can lead with hope. The chambers of commerce can coordinate a campaign to showcase members’ investments. The Central Bank can collate and share positively trending statistics. Call it a "hope" index, if you will.
We live in a time of magical technological advances. The fourth industrial revolution is upon us. As World Economic Forum founder Klaus Schwab has written, in our lifetime we may see: "artificial intelligence, robotics, the Internet of Things, autonomous vehicles, 3-D printing, nanotechnology, biotechnology, materials science, energy storage, and quantum computing."
Our island lives as we know it will simply not exist in the next ten years. In that context: we can and must instill hope in ourselves -- and take control of our lives.
Kiran Mathur Mohammed is a social entrepreneur, economist and businessman. He is a former banker, and a graduate of the University of Edinburgh.