Monthly Archives: May 2012

TESTIMONY: WE FIGHT!

Got an urgent call from a friend after his board meeting. My name came up on their agenda. Before they got to that matter the chairman stated as fact, “Well we already know that Rubadiri received $2 million from the PP government as payback for NAPA…” Then the board discussed the new matter. So my friend on the phone- who’s supposed to know me- then said, “Diri. Yuh mean to say, so long we know each other- yuh couldn’t call yuh pardnah fuh a piece ah dat money boy?!”  This is how gossip works in T&T. Hearing this I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry. Why? Because at that moment I was scrounging for 10 cent pieces to make enough money to buy $2. bus tickets. So broken was I in the wake of the victimization that followed my activism.

The sacrifices and victimisation that follow activism are real. Not the least of which is the destruction of your name by carefully planted gossip. I’ve heard myself called con-man, thief, spy, upstart, and a paid member of at least 3 opposing political parties. My imaginary gossip self lives a much more exciting life than I do!… The real me lived on $100 a week for a year and a half after a wave of victimization- which came after my activism made certain politician’s and their friends lives difficult. Hundreds of thousands of dollars owed to me were withheld, gunmen showed up at my office, laptops were stolen after Commission of Enquiry hearings… I had to close down my business, send employees home. I survived on the charity of friends, settled back home on my mother’s miraculous cooking. You ever try to live on $100? A week? As an adult? In Trinidad in the 21st century? So when people want to talk about me ‘profiting from activism’- or from some imaginary payback from the PP government, I have to laugh… Read the rest of this entry

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THE BILLION DOLLAR VISIONARY FUND

This is a counter-intuitive article. What I mean is this: what I’ve encountered with T&T’s leadership class- especially amongst politicians- is a profound distrust of ‘People’. A benign to malign refusal to empower ‘People’. They always have a million reasons to shower the ignorant with welfare- but a billion arguments why not to grant Genius even minimum wage. It’s a genetic refusal of Trinidadian leaders to resource the Visionary Citizen. It’s the single genetic strand holding us back from greatness and the ability to transform our lives beyond the sad mud we’ve made of this glorious place.

Which is why revisiting the idea of this fund makes no sense. The Billion Dollar Visionary Fund calls for the opposite impulse. It’s about granting license to Dreamers- releasing the Visionary Citizen. I am saying there’s something called the Visionary Citizen. I am saying that it’s the perennial sabotage of the Visionary Citizen by hundreds of acts of petty spite throughout national life that has destroyed our Republic. I am saying this is sanctioned by the most massive acts of spite by our leadership who continually refuse to resource the work of Visionary Citizens at the centre. The country looks at this and takes pattern. The armies of the mediocre cheer and take heart at the destruction of Genius that ensures they’re never shown up as incompetent or average.

This Fund is about the destruction of that crap country and its replacement by a Renaissance Republic.

So: I’m saying a local Venture Capital Fund needs to be set up with $3 Billion whose sole purpose is to fund brilliant ideas and business start-ups. It’s for people who are inventors, artists, scientists, businessmen, and innovators. The purpose is to help brilliant people make ideas real- and to rip T&T away from its mono-crop moorings into a brave new future… This Fund’s purpose is to kick-start next generation T&T enterprise, culture and innovation. Only an intervention like this can radically re-transform the industrial and entrepreneurial DNA of the nation.

Government is refusing to spend enough to risk and kick-start non-oil industries. For instance, government’s subvention for the Film Industry is $6 Million. For an entire industry!!! That’s barely the catering budget on a small Hollywood film! And T&T has Oscar winners! $25 million should be the starter for the Film Company… What needs to happen nationally requires more than pennies. Government has to believe in these industries. Really Believe!!!

Government needs to kick-start the creative. This is fundamentally the spirit of risk. Our present financial institutions are very conservative. They have frustrated local visionary enterprises that wanted to emerge. The 300 Trini-style Carnivals started by Visionary Citizens are now worth $15 Billion annually, but stagnated because visionaries were strangled of seed capital to consolidate gains and industrialise processes. Most are now dead.

Visionary venture capital created the modern information-technology economy by risking money on internet start-ups. From 1995 to 2001 millions of dollars were made available to thousands of start-up internet companies called dot.coms. Technological and creative innovation soared in America fundamentally transforming her industries, making numerous millionaires- changing the DNA of the world.

Bill Gates and Steve Jobs were funded by venture capital when literally just nerds in garages experimenting with computers. If no one had risked money on them the world would be a very different place. The downside- of course- is risk. Many dot.coms failed… When the internet bubble burst it took a lot of businesses with it. At the same time the gains geometrically outstripped the losses.

Trinidad has Venture Capital companies- but they perform like traditional banks. They’re risk-averse-unwilling to let visionary ideas play. This remains America’s strength: despite its shortcomings, capital finds its way to those with ideas. We openly punish people with ideas…

This is a call to government to set up the Visionary Fund- managed by the nation’s (and world’s) best risk managers. Outsider watchdogs must be brought in to oversee operations to prevent corruption. Why? Because corruption breeds mediocrity. Mediocrity is the enemy of us all. People must fail and succeed on merit. Make money available to all comers. No prejudice. No pre-suppositions. Let anybody come off the street with ideas.

Let there be tiers to the fund. One may be to help some present ideas properly. Another to build proto-types. Another to help mass produce. Another to help young businesses jump the next level. Another to help established businesses jump to global competitor status!!! Films, farms, computer programmes, pan factories, new inventions, new food-products, new genetic breeds- all will be the fruits of this fund. The beauty is we don’t know what beauty will emerge!!!

The fund may give grants from $10,000. to $100 Million. Let’s make the billions we have work for us. There’ll be about a 55% failure rate- but the 45% that succeed will re-engineer this country for the better. Forever. This Fund will transform communities and the very possibilities of the Trinbagonian. Let’s fund Genius and show we understand development is about People and Ideas- not buildings and things.

DREADNESS Pt 2

In my last article I spoke of a meeting with some Energy company executives who told me that that the era of oil and gas will soon be over. ‘In ten years time,” they said, “this country “will look like Haiti”. This article continues to look at the implications of this warning.

There have been many who have been screaming this gospel- Lloyd Best, Gregory Mc Guire, Mary King, and Afra Raymond have for decades. The Central Bank Governor himself has been raising alarms every chance he gets. He recently spoke of the CLICO fiasco costing the region somewhere in the vicinity of 10-15% of regional GDP. He chorused recently, “We need to undergo considerable structural transformation, if we are to maintain or increase the relatively high living standards which we now enjoy… In Trinidad and Tobago real GDP is estimated to have declined by 3 per cent in 2009 remained flat in 2010 and declined again in 2011.” In my last article I spoke of the fact that education, gas, and electricity are all subsidized to the tune of billions from oil money. With oil’s collapse all these artificially low prices will escalate. Some to 1000% present levels. We will also have to subtract from our life the massive subsidies in programmes like CPEP, URP, and housing. Household goods and services that now cost $2000 will now cost $6000…

Our standard of living cannot be sustained in a post-oil economy if we do not diversify because we live in a massive welfare economy. Journalist Anthony Wilson corrected something I said in my last article when I said that the mismanagement of the $300 billion boom by the last administration was so great that that it did not trickle down substantially to the middle class. Anthony correctly positions that actually the middle class- and everybody else- benefitted from these massive invisible subsidies. He calculates that as much as 53% of the non-stolen boom money may have gone into subsidies! Everyone- except government- knew that this money was better directed into economic transformation and citizen empowerment.

The rub is this: we in T&T live ultra-consumer lives. Comparable to Americans living in cities, in our consumption of food, entertainment, cars, and consumer items. And we pay 6 to 10 times more for the same items because of the rates of exchange. Yet we earn the same dollar for dollar income! A worker here earning $6000. is working- more or less for- the same $6000 abroad. In other words we are living American lives with 1/10th of the income! A music CD cost $11 in the States but $130 here. A Range Rover costs $50,000 in the States- it cost almost $1 million here. You can eat full meals for $7.00 in the States. You’re spending $40. to eat lunch here- and over $120 if eating at a ‘restaurant’. Our Food Import Bill is $4 billion! And all we earn from that is diabetes, high blood pressure, heart attacks, and strokes…

We are at a crossroad called ‘Diversify or die.’ And this administration unfortunately is paralysed at the fork in the road. We have 50 years of hard theory- it is time for the rubber to hit the road. Government has all the feasibilities and blueprints in their hands. Sectors have fought and gotten initiatives in the last 2 budgets. To their credit this administration adopted the policies. Budget 2010 was particularly visionary, with major plans for transforming numerous sectors. Not one of these initiatives has been implemented…

We’re now 5 months before the next budget- 2 years after the first promises. Once again visionary initiatives are being betrayed. When the dreadness comes, our political classes will pay high prices… When the masses see what was stolen, squandered, and the opportunities we have lost they will not forgive…. The problem as Lloyd Best said is cultural. Diversification means breaking strongly with habits of the past. Our leaders lack the risk-taking creative DNA to make the necessary leaps. They need to prove me wrong.

Culture for instance- which currently adds $1.9 billion to the nation- can be worth $6 billion annually to us in as little as 4 years if the initiatives approved by Cabinet are implemented.

Oil’s decline means that $25 billion annually will be removed from our Budget. To maintain a semblance of our standard of living something else must take its place by hook or by crook. I have seen estimates that put T&T’s annual drug economy at $75 billion- so it might be ‘crook’. If drugs are the replacement- we can add a ‘Mexico’ to the ‘Haiti’ in our future…

We have an opportunity in the next 3 years to engage the visionary re-engineering of our economy- we must make the poetic leap and implement. This will mean empowering citizens who have ideas. I am going to again pitch my concept of a Billion Dollar Visionary Fund- a Venture Capital fund available to individuals to corporations, a fund open to every innovative idea from any member of the public. I will revisit it in my next article.