Money—The Importance, the Pleasure, the Pain

How important is money? Try this. Walk into that high-end store and grab the watch you have been salivating over forever. Next, walk out the door without exchanging some form of money at the cash register. Your next portrait could be a mug shot and you might later be spending time in rent-free accommodations at Her Majesty’s pleasure, squeezed in with roommates not of your choosing.

Whatever form it takes, from cowrie shells, to metal coinage and paper currency, to credit cards and now to cryptocurrency, money has been around from before Christ and is something you try not to leave home without. It helps to ensure that we have the basics of life such as shelter, food, clothing, as well as other necessities—health care and education, for example.

Money helps to pay for our freedom. With it, we are mostly in the driver’s seat of our lives; without it, others control us.

Money can represent a life of ease and indulgence. For the fortunate few, the two or so percent who possess most of the world’s wealth, money can underwrite a life of luxury, replete with mansions across the globe, private jets, daily fine dining, and owning the works of long-dead artists whose price tags figure in the tens of millions. Besides, you will have a turnstile of worshipful friends, new ones every day, if that is your inclination.

Then there can be the descent into pure hedonism. I’m talking about the mega-yachts that guzzle enough fuel in a single voyage at a cost that could run the economy of several small nations. And let’s not forget the arcane, no-tell pleasures that some pay fortunes to keep hidden, as their discovery might lead to the ruination of one’s manicure, one’s deletion from the membership of certain nose-in-the-air clubs and foundations, the unflattering mugshot or even a firing squad in less enlightened areas of the world.

Money might be fun for some, but, unhappily, it has its grim, painful side for individuals and countries. The poor management, lack, or the excessive love of it has led to loss of jobs, homes and families, addictions, and lifelong hardship. Twisted perceptions of money and ways to gain a lot of it have certainly underwritten terrible crimes local and global.

For all too many Bahamians, money, its sourcing and management, all lie in the land of fiction, fantasy arithmetic and playing “Fantasy Five” with borrowed cash and calling it “an investment”, a situation which has boded ill for individuals and country. Such of our fellow citizens are the ones who hold it as an article of faith that the Bahamas Government has the power and the right to mint money whenever it wants to. There is no thought that there must be assets to back the currency, repay loans and pay for goods from other countries that don’t accept Monopoly money.

The four main commandments of this dangerous money gospel are as follows:

1: I may make $25,000 a year and my expenses come up to $30,000. Savings? What’s that? No worries—I have a credit card!

2: I don’t have a job and I’m not looking for a job, although my children need to eat. (“I ain’t about to be sweepin’ no street.” My ticket to ride is somethin’ they call “Social Security Network”.

3: I have no insurance—property, health, life—Zilch. No worries! What’s government, friends with jobs, rich relatives for, eh? (No, a gun or other weapon is not insurance, only a guarantee of fingerprinting, the unflattering mugshot or quality time spent with Butch in a place you can’t escape).

4: No taxes ever—no Customs duties, no stamp tax, no VAT, no NHI. Hey, let the government get its own money and stay the hell out of my pocket.

 

Every religion has its belief in miracles, the Bahamas money gospel included. When the public hospitals, schools and streets need upgrading and public workers demand higher salaries, the believers are convinced that money angels adjust their halos, tuck up their robes and get to work. If they don’t make it happen soon enough, we complain bitterly and threaten strikes with no thought that such disruptions will make it even harder for government to pay.

This careless approach to money of a large segment of the population is certainly a painful thorn in the flesh of government, but the gut kick comes from without. The blow is dealt by the clever policies Europe and her North American offspring have instituted to continue their imperialism and keep subject the rest of the world. Never mind that they have already had five centuries of digging holes under the possibilities and economies of lands and peoples from the Caribbean, to Africa to Asia or cutting the top rungs of the ladders of success.

Like Tantalus, the eternally punished character from Greek mythology, The Bahamas may have juicy fruit of possibilities hanging overhead and plenty of fresh water below, but we, like many other target countries, must always struggle to eat and drink and deal with perpetual hunger and thirst. The offending overlord nations hide behind false cloaks of righteousness with acronyms for names. These international money police train electron microscopes on the attempts of developing nations to score a slice of the huge financial services pie, while directing on Europe and North America less acute lenses.

Moreover, we may be forgiven for thinking that the goal of the unrelenting scrutiny and sanctions may be the strategy for wrenching self-sufficiency from developing nations and keeping them borrowing from the self-same police nations at ruinous rates. It certainly keeps the greater part of the world shackled and biddable.

It must be said, however, that the tropics have long been viewed as places where the warmth of the sun and water relax all inhibitions, including any that might cause one to question why some largesse has fallen into one’s lap. The post-World War II flight of capital from embattled Europe also brought carpetbag banks, and equally embattled economies withering under that tropic sun, lifted up prayers of thankfulness, while leaving the carpetbags discreetly closed.

Even if there is no revolutionary permanent solution to our shooting ourselves in the feet with guns supplied from without, there can be mitigating practices to prevent our falling into the cold hands of external regulators. We need to make some foundational changes in our thinking and habits. We need to firmly put to bed notions of tropical insouciance and slackness. Let our financial services industry become known for white-glove service and benefits that don’t have to be discussed or accessed by dead of night. And there are many advantages—let’s start with stability. In The Bahamas, we don’t change governments faster than we change our bedsheets.

On the individual level, fantasy arithmetic must be unseated as a tradition and replaced by honouring bills and other obligations in The Bahamas. Flying-by-the-seat-of-our pants or jumping into purchasing and debt blindfolded is not a sustainable money management strategy for government or for John or Jenny Doe.

Every economic and social sector must begin to recognize that safer funds are the ones we earn and amass through rational planning, creativity, innovation and hard work. We must engage saving with a ferocity that signals a deeply held belief that the practice is a reliable bulwark against many of the storms of life.  We must acknowledge that hard times will come and when they do, we all—politicians and people—have to get off the gravy train at the next possible stop. It’s time to understand the necessity and great value of practising austerity. A little self-denial now and then has been the salvation of many—even the world’s greatest.

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