The ‘baddest’ billboard in decades

Make no mistake: we old fogeys know a good old-fashioned recession, when we see one. And, tell you the truth: I ain’t actually seeing any sign of one, right now

Ok, let’s start with the obvious. There are bad electoral campaign billboards; there are bad electoral campaign billboards; and then there are… um… bad electoral campaign billboards.

And under no circumstances should those three (entirely different) categories ever be confused.

But just in case that last word also describes your precise state of mind right now: allow me to elaborate.

The first category includes political billboards which are ‘bad’, because they are ‘childish’, ‘petty’, ‘immature’, or…. let’s be kind, and just say: ‘retarded’. (Needless to add, this is the biggest category by far).

Examples might include the recent ‘tit-for-tat’ billboard exchange over Edward Zammit Lewis’s notorious ‘Ġaħan’ gaffe… in which the two parties played a brief (and spectacularly puerile) game of: “Mirror, mirror, on the wall: who’s the biggest ‘village idiot’ of us all…?”

Or the PN’s infamous last billboard before the 2013 election: which presented us with a choice between images of Joseph Muscat and Lawrence Gonzi …

… with their faces painted bright red, and bright blue, respectively.

I kid you not: they actually used ‘blue-face’ and ‘red-face’…. on a billboard! Now: as for myself, I’m still surprised they never got actually got sued by any blue- or red-skinned racial minorities that may happen to exist out there (though as I recall, when the Manoel Theatre tried pulling off a similar stunt for ‘Othello’… all wokedom broke loose...)

Seriously, though: did it not occur to anyone at the PN – or at least, anyone who actually saw (and approved) that monstrosity, before it was presented public – that, by painting Lawrence Gonzi’s face a bright shade of Navy Blue… all you’re going to really achieve, is make him look like a goddamn SMURF?!?

Jeeze: and to think that some people actually get paid – anywhere up to 65K a year, too – to come up with ‘Puffati’ like that…

But let’s not digress. Secondly, there are those billboards which are ‘bad’, because their original message simply hasn’t aged very well. Like, for instance… pretty much any pre-2013 Labour Party billboard with Konrad Mizzi’s face on it (actually, now that I think about it: pretty much any pre-2013 Labour Party billboard… AT ALL.)

Lastly, however, there are those political billboards that are so utterly execrable, that their precise level of ‘badness’ cannot even be measured by the universally-recognized Michael Jackson scale. (And you can probably guess why, too. Because they’re “really, really bad.”)

And it seems we now have a whole new contender for ‘baddest billboard of them all’…. only this time, it’s ‘bad’ for very, very different reasons.

You may have already seen it on roadsides – though I myself only saw it on a news report – but it’s the one that proclaims: “The Worst (sorry, ‘Baddest’) Recession in the Last 40 Years…”

Erm… really? Is that what Malta is actually going through right now? Reason I ask is that: well, some us do actually have memories that stretch back 40 years, you know (even if only just)... and those people may also remember all the economic hardships that have always been associated with the worst (sorry, ‘baddest’) of those times.

You know: empty restaurants; empty supermarket shelves; skyrocketing unemployment; Pink Floyd’s ‘The Wall’, always pumping out on a stereo in the background somewhere….

Make no mistake: we old fogeys know a good old-fashioned recession, when we see one. And, tell you the truth: I ain’t actually seeing any sign of one, right now…

Ah, but let’s not be too hasty. For one thing, the word ‘recession’ has a rather specific meaning – and, surprisingly, it doesn’t actually refer to any form of economic hardship at all.

I believe the text-book definition is ‘two successive quarters of negative economic growth’; and, applied meticulously to Malta’s current economic predicament… who knows, really? The economy has indeed contracted since 2019 – and I reckon we also all know precisely why, too – but… to what extent, in practical terms?

As far as I can see, there is no obvious way of telling. So it could very well be that Malta IS undergoing a ‘strictly textbook’ recession at the moment… but that the effects have not been felt so far, because the economy has been artificially kept afloat by all those State-subsidized wage supplements.

And certainly, an argument could be made that COVID-19 – in and of itself – is not the only cause of the 2020 slump: perhaps Malta had already started tasting the bitter fruits of all the issues that would eventually lead to its grey-listing by the FTAF…

Above all, however: Malta certainly WAS in a recession, at this time last year – and yes: after a record drop of 7.75% in GDP, the IMF did indeed describe it as ‘the worst recession in decades’.

All the same, however: is that what the billboard’s actually trying to tell us? That we’re still in that recession today? And if so… can this hypothetical “second (or even third) quarter of negative economic growth” realistically be described as “the worst recession in 40 years”… when it doesn’t seem to be having any visible effects on any of the usual indicators: employment, consumption, and so on?

The answer would, of course, depend on the exact figures for Malta’s current GDP – data which is probably not even possible to just ‘pull out of a hat’, so to speak – and, more specifically, how they compare to the last fiscal quarter (negative growth of 7.75%, remember?)

Without direct access to the raw figures, however, we shall have to rely on economists’ projections. And what better place to start, than the IMF itself?

This brings us to the first instance of pure ‘badness’ in that billboard. For while it is perfectly true that last year’s IMF projections – published in April 2020 – were of a 7.75% drop in GDP… and while those projections did go on to be fully confirmed, by the end of the year…

Well, that was last year… not this one. The IMF’s most recent Malta report actually came out on 17 September, 2021 – that’s exactly a month ago, folks – and it is from this report (or, alternatively, a certain opinion column, published in the Shift, which took its headline from the same source) that the ‘worst recession in decades’ part was originally borrowed.

This, however, is the actual quote, as it appears in the IMF’s 2021 Malta report:

“The COVID-19 pandemic has hit the Maltese economy hard. […] As a result, real GDP contracted by 7¾ percent in 2020, the worst recession in decades. Nonetheless, the authorities’ swift and bold policy response helped mitigate the impact, preventing large-scale layoffs, bankruptcies, and credit disintermediation…”

Hmm. Now, I think you’ll all have noticed a couple of things there. First, the use of the past tense: i.e., “real GDP contracted”… NOT “is contracting” (and that makes a teenie-weenie little difference, to the question of whether we are currently in a recession, or not).

Then there’s the curious omission of any allusion to the second part of that statement, which – while not exactly refuting the possibility of a recession (those ‘large-scale layoffs’ were only avoided because of the wage supplement, at the end of the day) – seems to point in a somewhat different direction.

Which of course, brings us to the IMF’s actual projections for this year – and may I take the opportunity to remind everyone that we’re actually in 2021, not 2020 – and… erm… they seem to tell us almost the complete opposite.

According to the IMF, the Maltese economy is expected to grow by 5.7% by the end of 2021… and by 6%, by the end of 2022. So not only is the IMF clearly under the impression that Malta’s real GDP is currently growing, as opposed to contracting… but even the rate of economic growth itself seems to be increasing (admittedly, not by much); rather than decreasing…. as, after all, you would expect it to do, if we were really in a recession.

Now: once again, I stress that these are only ‘projections’ – even if they do come from the world’s foremost financial authority – but, if they turn out to be as spot-on accurate, as they were for last year…

… it would mean that, not only are we very emphatically NOT in “the worst recession of the last 40 years”; but, quite frankly, we are a not even in a recession… AT ALL.

In a nutshell, then, this masterpiece of political ‘billboard-badness’ has so far managed to:

a) make us all question what year the Nationalist Party itself even thinks we’re all in (seeing as it is very clearly referring to outdated, obsolete financial data), and;

b) remind us all that: hey, you know what? Labour did manage to pull Malta out of a recession, after all. And ‘the worst recession in decades”, too…

All with a little help from its friends in Brussels, of course; and all at an unimaginable cost that will have to be passed onto future generations. But still: if the purpose of that billboard was to somehow ‘score political points’ over Labour, on the issue of economic management…

Well, what more can I say, that Michael Jackson hasn’t said already? “The whole world has to answer right now, just to tell you once again:

“That’s bad…”

(Oh, and one last thing. You will have noticed that I used ‘bad’, badder’, and baddest’ throughout this article. Naturally, I am aware that this is grammatically incorrect; but let’s just say that – in this glorious age of heightened moral sensitivities – I didn’t want to accidentally offend any German sausages…)