Interview with Simon Naitram, New President of the Barbados Economics Society

Simon Naitram is an Assistant Lecturer in Economics at the University of the West Indies, and a final-year PhD candidate at the University of Glasgow. He sometimes scribbles on his blog, We Should All Be Economists at simonnaitram.com, and tweets slightly more frequently at @SimonMNaitram. When not boring people to tears with economics, he can be found on the boundary’s edge ranting about cricket or feeding stray cats.

Simon, congratulations on becoming the President of the BES and thank you for taking the time to chat with us.

Thanks! And thanks for inviting me to have this discussion.

On the Barbados Economy

You took over the BES at an interesting time. We’re under an IMF programme; the Government just implemented a domestic debt restructuring programme and is supposed to be embarking on the external debt restructuring at some point; various austerity measures are being rolled out; government workers are being sent home and entire agencies are being closed. What do you think the role of the BES is in the midst of this upheaval?

The primary role of the BES is as an anchor for the policy debate. We can so easily be taken in by what’s happening right now that we miss the bigger picture. The bigger picture is that Barbados has deep structural flaws, extending far beyond the past 10 years. I think BES must make sure people don’t miss the bigger picture. And we need to make sure we engage in a real discussion about the best way to fix these structural flaws.

But we can’t have this conversation just among ourselves. This is a discussion all of Barbados must have. No part of this conversation can be “above the heads” of the average Bajan. This means that the BES has an important role to play in taking this conversation to the people.

The government released its BERT (Barbados Economic Recovery and Transformation) plan in 2018. Do you think that the measures proposed in the plan, if implemented correctly, would stabilise the government’s fiscal position and position the economy for future growth?

I think the Government’s short-run policies will do a great deal to achieve stabilisation in the short run.

Their medium-term policies designed to encourage growth are actually quite along the traditional lines of stimulating growth. I do think we could see the economy beginning to grow again in the medium term. For the moment, I think we’re getting back on track.

I’m not sure, however, that these short-run and medium-run policies are consistent with the type of growth we say we want in the long-run.  We need to think more deeply about the structure of our economy when searching for sustainable long-run growth.

For example, we talk a lot about how to attract foreign investment. But we need to have a deeper discussion about why is it that we need foreign investment? Who benefits? Is it a sustainable growth strategy?

There has been a fair amount of public discussion about the need for the economy of Barbados to be restructured. What are your thoughts on this?

Without doubt we need to be having this big picture debate on what the Barbados economy should look like. What are sustainable opportunities for growth? What industries generate growth that benefits the many rather than the few? How do we create broad-based growth that is socially inclusive?

The state of the art in economic growth theory tells us that the speed and sustainability of economic growth depends heavily on whether it is inclusive—whether the economic is designed to benefit the many or the few.

We must eventually reach a consensus, not just about what industries we want to invest in. But about who we are as a people and how our economy aligns with that ideal. Are we a caring, open, and kind society? Willing to care for one another? Or do we subscribe to the “every person for themselves” school of thought?

The broader the debate, the more people will pay attention to the effects of every single policy the Government enacts. We can ask ourselves: ‘does it help us to achieve our long-run goals?’

Do you have a particular vision of how the country should be restructured?

My vision is a Barbados where everyone has equal opportunity to succeed. Unfortunately, this is not the Barbados we live in today.

How do you think the Government has performed so far with respect to implementing the BERT plan?

Governments under an IMF programme will always find implementation to be the difficult part. And hitting the targets our Government has set for themselves under the BERT programme will be a monumental task.

The Government has made a great deal of policy changes in a short space of time, sometimes not without misstep. But given the deep difficulty of our economic situation, urgency was paramount, and I do respect their willingness to get a move on. I think things are being done—there’s no inertia, which is usually the biggest threat.

What do you think the role of the private sector is in Barbados’ economic recovery?

Before we can discuss the private sector’s role, there are more pressing concerns about the private sector itself. I mean, who is the private sector? Who are the business owners in Barbados? Is our private sector open to free and fair competition? Does everyone have the same opportunity to be part of this magical ‘private sector’? We need to talk first about who has access to the opportunities and the financing to be part of that private sector. Then we can begin discuss its role in Barbados’ economic future.

That is a very interesting comment. Antilles Economics was created because we believe that the economic development of the region should be private sector-led, and we are doing our part to strengthen their ability to take the lead. Our focus has been ensuring everyone has access to information, data and insights. But we too have had to think deeply about how this can be accomplished. Where do you think Barbados needs to start with respect to figuring out the role we want the private sector to play in economic development?

We want to see market-driven development, not government-driven development. But market-driven development entails a wide range of things that we haven’t achieved yet: free and fair competition, free entry to markets, low barriers to entrepreneurship, no government-granted monopolies. Basically, we need to democratise business in Barbados.

I entirely agree that our future has to be driven by the private sector. But let me put that slightly differently, our future has to be driven by the people of Barbados. At present, those two things aren’t the same. And our institutions appear to be designed to keep it that way.

When our private-sector is a free and fair market, open to competition and innovation from every single Barbadian, then all you have to do is step back and allow the market to lead.

On the BES

What do you hope to achieve in your presidency?

Over the previous year the BES was an excellent source of independent perspective and analysis under Shane Lowe. Just following in his footsteps will be an achievement all on its own.

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