Sunday 04 December 2022

“|t’s his money, he can do what he likes with it”

This article first appeared in the Sunday edition of Malta Today 

The quote above is what many people, especially (but not only) Labour supporters, are saying about the news that the Prime Minister spent over 11k on a one week stay with his family at a Dubai hotel. He charged the whole thing to his credit card and went on record as saying that he will be paying it off in installments, as you do.

It might not be the response which one would expect from those who consider themselves part of the ‘workers’ party’, but then let’s face it, the Labour party these days is a far cry from the party which used to represent the true blue collar voter of 50 years ago. Today’s PL is more centre-right than ever before and its economic policy is openly described as being pro-business, so I suppose it stands to reason that there was not more of an outraged outcry against what has been described as “frivolous spending.”

Here, I am not saying whether people should or should not have roundly criticized Muscat for his spending; the first thing that popped into my head when I saw the amount was that, with that kind of money I would have preferred at least a three week holiday somewhere more exotic and replete with natural beauty, or at least a bit more culturally uplifting than the man-made creations, no matter how impressive, of superficial Dubai. But, then again, that’s just me …to each his own.

However, what really does interest me is the unpredictability and often hard to fathom swings in public opinion on such matters. So for me, what really made me sit up and take notice was the significance of why the majority of people did not react as (presumably) was expected. Over and over again, the reaction I read was: “was it his from his own money? Well, then he can do what he likes with it!” I think this is very telling and quite an indicator of how our society’s spending habits and general attitudes towards money, have changed.

Most people work very hard for their money, and apart from those who are handed very lucrative jobs on a silver platter for doing nothing much because of who they know, the rest of the nation slogs away every week putting in 40 hours and even more for salaries which are (let’s face it) not that great . Some even work two jobs to make ends meet; others take on a part-time job to be able to enjoy life’s little luxuries. There was a time when all the hard-earned money was saved up religiously, and spending was done very carefully, and in some cases, frugally. Buying major items such as cars and furniture on hire purchase was the norm, but again this was done very carefully and sparingly. If you were paying off a car, for example, you would make sure that was paid off before taking on another hire purchase commitment. It was a sensible and down-to-earth way of handling one’s expenses and budgetary limitations, and most people did their very best to live within their means. Brought up by the generation which had gone through the poverty of war-time, those of my generation, broadly speaking, were raised to respect the value of money and not fritter it away just because it’s there. You only spent it if you had it, and if you didn’t have enough to buy what you wanted, you waited and saved up until you did.

In fact, if my memory serves me right, up to around 25-30 years ago the Maltese did not even really believe in using credit cards that much, and certainly no one would have dreamed of taking a holiday by charging it to their card. You saved up your money, made sure you had enough to pay for everything plus something extra for the compulsory “shopping”, and that was it.

But obviously, times change, and so do attitudes, moulded and influenced by what we experience on our travels and the international trends which we subconsciously absorb through globalization-by-media. More and more, the concept of living for the moment has taken over and working hard all week is rewarded by a weekend of socializing, dining out and buying rounds at bars and clubs. The money which takes so long to earn is often very easily spent in a matter of hours. So, what is wrong with that? I hear you ask. Absolutely nothing of course; we are all free to spend our money any which way we like. And that is probably (and precisely) why there is a distinct lack of shock at the amount of money which Muscat charged to his credit card for his family on a one week holiday. If many of us common mortals do it, the reasoning goes, surely a Prime Minister has the right to do so as well?

The argument that, as a Labour Prime Minister who is ostensibly representing that sector of voters who are just scraping by, Muscat should not have been so ostentatious, was one which simply went over many people’s heads. Rather than begrudging him his expensive holiday, many working class and lower middle class voters just shrugged and called it a well-deserved break, probably because even they have been known to just close their eyes and buy whatever they wanted, rather than worrying about tomorrow or how they are going to pay for it. Measuring him by their own yardstick of how they lead their lives, today’s 30 and 40-somethings, who are his contemporaries, are completely in tune to this ‘spend now, pay for it later’ mindset. It didn’t astonish them, nor did it make them think he was flaunting his money when he should have been more low-key.

Our relationship with money and our aspirations have become a matter of pride; a symbol to show that “we can afford it” (even if we cannot). It explains a lot of the behaviour we see around us: restaurants and bars packed to the gills, special family occasions which require booking three weeks ahead of time in order to get a table and even expensive tickets for shows and concerts which are scooped up and sold out within hours. We have become a nation which spends money even before it is earned, not caring if there is anything set aside for a rainy day. The sun is shining, life is meant to be lived, and that is all that matters.

Within this context, a Prime Minister who lives his life with the same type of philosophy (no matter how misguided it may seem to others) is simply a reflection of Malta as it is today.

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