What did you spend, and why did you spend it? The bad optics of ministerial luxury spending

Good management of public money is really quite simple, until that management forgets the essential principle: the money is not for personal benefit, but for the benefit of the greatest number of the population. Once that principle is forgotten, all bets are off, in a sense, because any number of reasons can be used to draw on that source of funding for reasons that are geared towards benefitting a group less than the greatest number. Jamaica is one country where that principle has been abandoned often, and has struggled to be reinstated. One problem is the accumulated ‘scar tissue’ of funds having been used for the good of a small group (let’s call them party faithfuls), so there’s a reactionary impulse that says something like ‘We were underserved in the past, so let’s get back what we were due, before doing anything else’. Evidence of that was put forward clearly last week in the form of the remarks by a minister of state for finance–ironically, someone whose hand should be carefully tight around the public purse strings. But, like many a drug addict when faced with one last ‘hit’ before giving up, old habits die hard.

I’m on record as not being a fan of public money being spent that sets public officials on a pedestal. I understand that many are in public office for the profile it gives, but I would hope that those people have very short tenures, but it’s not something I can control. For that reason, the furore that erupted yesterday about alleged government spending on luxury vehicles for ministers is close to my heart, as concerns go. It brought back to mind a situation when I was working for the IMF as resident representative for Guinea. At the time, the country had no program with the Fund and was trying to get its economic policy in order so that it could be considered or one. Public finance was out of control but there were few options left to stop the bleeding. Cuts that affected social services were not going to be popular in a country that has some of the worst poverty. What then? Well, as a gesture but also as a clearly quantifiable saving, the idea came up of ‘downgrading’ the vehicles used by ministers. Now, Guinea has some terrible roads and many officials visits need to go into rural areas where an four-wheel drive vehicle is necessary. But, the optics of ministers driving around the country is such vehicles was not good. So, in the blink of an eye the president was persuaded to authorize that the ministerial 4x4s (often Toyota Land Cruisers) were confiscated and replaced by ordinary Toyota Corollas. Let me leave the story there, and say no more about my part in it 🙂

Author: Dennis G Jones (aka 'The Grasshopper')

Retired International Monetary Fund economist. My blog is for organizing my ideas and thoughts about a range of topics. I was born in Jamaica, but spent 30 years being educated, living, and working in the UK. I lived in the USA for two decades, and worked and travelled abroad, extensively, throughout my careers and for pleasure. My views have a wide international perspective. Father of 3 girls. Also, married to an economist. :)