Beyond Bisazza Street
The three quarters of a million euros reportedly spent to pedestrianise and makeover Bisazza Street, Sliema, have understandably caused eyebrows to be raised. Are (finite and scarce) public funds being intelligently and fairly spent? “The important thing,” wrote Lino Spiteri in his column last Monday, “is that available resources are spread equitably and used diligently.”
He added that, as far as he could see, this “has been the case with Bisazza Street”, observing that, however, “controversy hounded the project and is still going on”. I am not concerned with the purely local controversy regarding who wants what and why. I am more interested in the very complex process whereby a government defines its spending priorities, especially when the available means are not only finite but also seriously scarce.
Smart alecs will, no doubt, spring up to tell us that it’s quite simple and straightforward really. It’s just a trade-off, they will say, whereby you give something up to gain another. All you need to do, they will explain to us with the condescending tone of those for whom any mention of complexity inevitably indicates that the speaker is hopelessly incompetent, is to objectively weigh the pros and cons of your choice.
The same smart alecs will ask us if, perchance, we have never heard of “opportunity cost”.
Then, with the impatient show of patience of those who know best, they will spell out that a trade-off implies that, for a given quantum of resources, opting for a certain product means sacrificing another, the acquisition of which would have required the same quantum of resources. If an ice cream costs as much as a beer and you cannot afford to buy both, if you opt for the ice cream then you forego the beer.
A government’s spending priorities, therefore, imply trade-offs. The smart alecs will, at this point, stretch their smile from ear to ear.
All you need to do, they will now suggest as they present their business card, is hire a consultant who will objectively and apolitically weigh the pros and cons of the choice and throw in, for good measure and an unreasonable price, a slick cost-benefit analysis. Of course, it’s not as simple as that. For a government, these trade-offs ultimately translate into political choices.
A government seeking to broaden its support base will endeavour to spread available resources as equitably as possible socially and geographically. The success of such a political strategy implies that the government has sufficient resources and enough time at its disposal to implement it.
If the resources are insufficient, in the best case all will get so little that it will have, again at best, no political effect or some will get what appears to the rest to be a disproportionate lot at the expense of those that got nothing at all. Enough time, too, is crucial. If a government’s days are counted, a sudden terminal display of generosity will – in a politically mature society – work against it. It will be interpreted as extravagant, prodigal and opportunistic.
The problem is compounded by the fact that, unless a government is effectively one government, where ultimately political choices are made according to one set of political priorities, politically advantageous trade-offs become impossible to manage. Ministers will tend to sacrifice the rest of the country for the benefit of projects in their constituencies. The advantage of individual ministers becomes a disadvantage for the whole government. Ants in backbenchers’ pants become hyperactive. Pre-existent cracks in the government, in the ruling party and in the social alliances that support it widen further.
Now, Lawrence Gonzi’s government – some shrewd observers doubt that we can at all speak about such a thing as Dr Gonzi’s government today – is evidently not one “where ultimately political choices are made according to one set of political priorities”. Moreover, it is not as if it were a government that can afford to throw money at all its problems, hoping to smother them in the process. On the contrary, it is a government that says that money is a problem.
Furthermore, it is not a government with all the time in the world at its disposal. William Flynn, in his June 6 comment to this column, wrote: “Whatever the PN needs to do, it has to be done at warp speed” (see www.timesofmalta.com/articles/view/20110606/opinion/Catching-up-with-Enlightenment.369162). Given that warp speed is somewhat difficult for anyone to achieve, one suspects that Dr Gonzi’s government does not have enough time at its disposal to do a turnaround.
Attempts to win electoral favour by spending more money than one can reasonably afford on very visible deliverables will hound whatever the project is and will, as sure as hell, boomerang politically.
Finally, there’s the European dimension to all of this. Greece, Portugal, Ireland, Spain and all that are hardly the ideal backdrop for conspicuous public consumption.
Above I suggested that it takes a “politically mature society” to resist a government’s attempt to buy its consensus. I think that we are finally beginning to see signs of this maturity. Don’t you think?
This article appeared in Dr Mario Vella’s regular column on The Times of Malta on June 20, 2011. The original may be retrieved at http://www.timesofmalta.com/articles/view/20110620/opinion/Beyond-Bisazza-Street.371479