Here’s to a happy new ‘Yeh!’: Thoughts for Jamaica as 2020 approaches

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Many people take the turning of the calendar from one year to another as a time when they should make all kinds of promises. The change from 2019 to 2020 has many taking this practice to another level–seen every 10 years–of celebrating a new decade. Well, let’s squash that straight away: a decade is a span of 10 years, so every year is the start of a new decade. Spoiler! Sorry!

So, let me move into what I want to see in the new year, and it’s in the form of new “Yeh!”, as in things that I want to be much better than before and hope to have more of in my life. I am not going to open up about my personal emotional wants, however, so if you were looking for a bit of titillation, time to change channels.

I live in the highly dysfunctional country of Jamaica, which I love like cooked food, as we say there, so my first ‘yeh’ would be to simply see and experience less of that dysfunction. What would that mean?

    • Sidewalks on most roads: I am honestly appalled that a country with so much foot traffic finds it acceptable that people have to manoeuver at best concrete paths that are uneven and incomplete, and at worst, just non-existent. How can we lament road traffic deaths and at the same time ignore the risks to most pedestrians are subjected to across the country?
    • Events with politicians who arrive on time, make short speeches and tell us things honestly and from their hearts. Wow! That’s a lot to hope for in one year, so let me just hope for the first. However, as a society, we pay too little attention to timeliness and the negative impact that has on so many things and so many people. If we opine about wanting to grow, progress and do better, then it could start at few better places than putting the right value on time and the cost it imposes when it is wasted. I’m sorry to say that many of our politicians almost make a sport out of not being on time. As many notice, they are often put to shame by foreign diplomats and business people who are both timely and apologetic if they are not. Being ‘fashionably late‘ is one of those elements of ‘brand Jamaica’ we should drop like a hot potato.
    • Days and nights when I do not feel that I am a prisoner in my own home, not least because my windows have bars on them and my doorways are reinforced by grills. I’m not one who takes politicians at their word most of the time, but I understand their need to give hope to their constituents, so when the current PM stated during the 2016 election campaign that we would be able to “sleep with our doors open” under a JLP government, I know many took him at his word in terms of the safer world over which he would preside. When he came back early last year (2018) with assurances that he meant this, the palpable descent into political paranoia was a marker, and when that was followed by
       

      I didn’t know what to think. To me ‘aspirational’ is politicode speak for ‘another unfulfilled promise’, which has also been taped to the much heralded growth ‘objective’ aka #5in4 (5% GDP growth within 4 years).

      • Roads that are not potholed like the surface of the Moon, and roads that collapse soon after they are built. Why should a country’s taxpayers endorse such shoddiness and finance such nonsense year after year and no one be made accountable? When Michael Lee-Chin suggested dismissing permanent secretaries for failing as ‘CEOs’, I hope his mind included any public sector agency (and for completeness, seeing the private sector act as it should for poor management).
      • More accountability across the board. If the many complaints are true–and I have no reason to disbelieve them, we need to haul people over the coals for their shoddy and persist lack of control and oversight over their basic functions. In that box, I will put our National Solid Waste Management Authority (garbage collection), National Works Agency (road construction and maintenance), National Water Company (public water supply) and Jamaica Public Service Company (electricity supply). These have in common a persistent inability of deliver on their core activities. That private sector shareholders have similar woes is also appalling, and the name of National Commercial Bank ranks high (woeful system upgrade that left many still without the banking services they expect nearly 6 months after the ‘upgrade’ was made); the following shows that reality through October:

      Our mobile phone companies seem to have a terrible reputation amongst their customers, with dropped calls, intermittent Internet access, and high charges being amongst frequent complaints made to the Office of Utilities Regulation.

      • Squatter settlements that have robbed many of our urban areas of any sense of cohesion and truly exemplify a perverse interpretation of our national motto, ‘out of many, one people’. Like so many problems in Jamaica, these persist because they were not nipped in the bud, or more cynically, they served the political purposes of a few to the social detriment of the many, remembering that the practice of wide-scale land-capture dates back to emancipation times in the mid-19th century.

      My second ‘yeh’ would be to enjoy more of the things that Jamaica offers and Jamaicans do that are really better than in most other places. My daughter, who is now away at school, helped me focus on these:

      • Our food. Whenever people meet Jamaican food most times the reaction is ‘Where has this been all my life?’; the flavours are amazing and the simple settings in which it is often served adds to that. It’s what many of us yearn for when we are abroad. When I bucked up on this lovely ‘pop-up’ restaurant in Portland, during a recent visit there, it was both unbelievable and so ‘very Jamaican’. Thank you, Belinda! Jamaica is full of places like this, and we need to cherish them and let many experience them, as well as our flourishing brand of food presented in lavish ways, sometimes seen in restaurants and events. If ‘brand Jamaica’ means something then the good of that has to include our cuisine.
      • Our landscape, or as my kid says “all of the countryside, outside Kingston”. We’re blessed with some breathtaking nature in our midst. More people are finding this as they try to escape the pressures of urban life, taking hikes, or a few days’ break, showing it off to visitors, or whatever. I love our mountains, and am lucky enough to get to be there often, but I also love our waterways. So, I leave you with some scenes from a rafting visit to the Rio Grande on a recent lazy afternoon.
      • Our people, who display the ‘sparkle’ that is in many a true Jamaica. Most of us do well to survive a day in Jamaica without going crazy, yet within that we meet people all the time who are just warm and kind and considerate. In my most optimistic moments, I believe that these people far outnumber those who are cold, mean, and inconsiderate. Sadly, more of the good people might have withdrawn as things like crime has set fear higher in their minds and they cannot beat that back unless they are either alone or with their loved ones–not a bad thing, in a way, but also a bad thing because good things in life are better if shared.
      • Qualitative signs that some are committed to improving the country. I’m lucky to have friends who do so much to show off the better side of Jamaica. I love Thalia Lyn and Island Grill. I adore Jean Lowrie-Chin and what she tries to do through ProComm and the Caribbean Community of Retired Persons. I admire those who are rebuilding downtown Kingston through ‘Kingston Creative’, which is showing the power to transform space through an appreciation of its aesthetics.

      Much still needs to be done to rebuild the community and reshape the economic base of downtown Kingston, but it’s the kind of change that many need to see to wash away the many negatives that beat us each day.

      I could add in this vein some of the new architectural developments that seem well-thought out and designed, such as the AC Hotel and certain residential developments, which compete for attention amidst some really poor construction projects and the all-too-present squatter developments.

No place I’d rather be? A brief look at Jamaica through the years: starting points.

It’s 2020. I was born in 1955. I left Jamaica to go to England in 1961. I have always loved Jamaica, even with all of the things I see and hear and sometimes experience that I dislike intensely. I also love England, in a similar way, but because I’ve not lived there for nearly 30 years, my sense of the place is dulled and I read about changes that make me feel that I would like it much less on a day-to-day basis now than when I was growing up and living there. But, I’m always happy to visit and my cousins who live there don’t seem inclined to move to Jamaica, so I guess that on balance they prefer to be there.

I spend an enormous amount of time trying to figure out where Jamaica is and where it’s going. To do that with any real sense I have to look back and ask myself ‘What has changed for Jamaica?’ Last week, I decided to try to list in my mind things that I could state categorically had changed, and try to assess whether those changes were for the better or worse. It’s a personal set of recollections and, though I would like to be really analytical and tabulate them and give them weights and say that overall they show clearly a move in one direction or another, I know I cannot. But, it’s a way of moving past things like macro- statistics that I know are incomplete because so many important things are not and cannot be captured.

As a starting point, I recall my feeling when I came back to Jamaica in the 1980s how startling it was to see the kind of housing and lifestyles of people living in ‘uptown’ Kingston. Then, I was a young man just a few years into a nice-looking career in finance. I could not imagine attaining some of the things I saw seemingly similar Jamaicans having. Admitted, they were mostly further along in their careers, but were on what I saw as a similar track. Housing was the thing that struck me most, being much larger and better appointed than anything any of my acquaintances could manage. When I look around Kingston now, that feeling is still there. But, let me cast my eyes further. I’m not good at remembering things in a biographical way, so I wont date them instead of listing them. Note that I grew up in downtown east Kingston until I was 6, around what is now Rae Town, and much of my earliest memories are of downtown Kingston and bits of St. Andrew to what was then called Racecourse (now Heroes Circle), and never extended beyond Hope Gardens to the north, Palisadoes and Harbour View and Kingston Harbour to the east, south St. Elizabeth to the west and south; I had no recollections to the north. One of our common trips was to go on my father’s motorbike to Harbour View for the ‘drive-in’ movie theatre, and to the airport (to watch planes land and take off), when there was no highway but the main route was via Windward Road.

Boyhood memories:

Corner shops (mainly the image of Chinese traders, who sold everything and where I was trusted to walk to get small items like sugar, flour, matches, and who had things like pigtails in barrels and sweeties–very important for a child 🙂 ).

Markets downtown, of which I don’t really have vivid memories, but knew that most of our fruit and vegetables came from them.

Ward Theatre and Parade and King Street, always bustling.

My school (called a ‘prep’ school, run by a man called ‘Mr. Stone’), where I learned to read, write and do arithmetic, using a slate and slate pencil, with a large alphabet chart (A is apple, B is for bat…Z is for zebra) and a globe. It was a single room (in a house).

My home, a little house where we rented rooms, with a vernada around it, on which I recall sleeping outside some nights, and it had no grill bars.

The prison and Bellevue Hospital (where my father worked) and Jubilee Hospital (where my mother worked).

Country buses, gaily coloured and always packed with people.

‘Chi-chi’ buses (the former Jamaica Omnibus Service buses) with their hydraulic doors which made a ‘chi-chi’ sound, that looked so sleek and graceful.

Lambretta scooter vans (like Tuk-Tuks now seen in Asia) that used to fly around downtown, often taking things to/from record studios, but the most common form of motorized transport for those who could not afford cars.

Taxi cabs, yellow and checkered; Morris Oxford and Austin Cambridge cars.

Walking around and climbing trees and falling out of them.

Ice block trucks and the man on a bicycle coming around on Sundays yelling “Fudge and ice cream!”

Talk of crime was rare, though we knew criminals existed and were ‘bad men’: I was terrified of walking past the prison. My father’s work with mental patients made me terrified of ‘mad men’ and ‘mad women’ (and they came violently into our lives for real later).

Policemen (I recall no women), often standing tall and stately and sometimes directing traffic with elaborate hand movements.

No telephones or TV, only a radio and newspapers.

No mention of travel abroad for the family, though both parents had siblings who had gone to England in the late-1950s.

+++++

That’s where I’ll leave things, for now, not as a teaser but to let the images filter from me to you to give an idea of where my mind is heading. For context, I’ll say that I came back to Jamaica to live having visited many times since I first left and my situation as a ‘returning resident’ was somewhat similar to my parents’ in that I was retired, as were they, but I came to live in Kingston, while they chose the balmy location of Mandeville. I’ll let my mind pass through the decades and share some more in a while.

For clarity, I do not think of Jamaica as just being ‘the good old days’; far from it. But, I want to pass to where we are now, so that I can set a better (at least, personal) context for things like being able to do internet banking, make international phone calls without need for an ICAS code, and hear of my wife’s visits to the supermarket that have never had the words “The shelves were empty” attached to them. I think I understand well a lot about the economic turmoil that Jamaica has endured. I also understand something about the social turmoil through which the country continues to pass. I dislike how politicians want to carve Jamaica into two places not one and spend more time claiming ‘victories’ and trying foist blame on the other party for many things that have some negative aspects to them. I see a country that hasn’t had consensus for decades and know well (from the UK) where that can take you.

So, I’ll let more thoughts gel.

Port Royal: no cruise needed 👍🏾🤔🇯🇲👏🏾🙏🏾

When the story of how Jamaica really became #NewJamaica is told, I’m sure there’ll be a page dealing with the ‘revival’ of Port Royal. I won’t add to my will that some of the royalties (no pun) flowing from the sales of that story need to flow to my estate. However…

I am sure that today more than a few sighs of relief have gone up because the anticipated arrival of a first cruise ship in Port Royal occurred yesterday, and seemingly with few if any major mishaps. I wish all those associated with the project nothing but success and join those who hope that local residents of Port Royal see and play a major part in any success for the town. My other wish is for this to be a sort of ‘wake-up’ call for the many ideas that have languished in the box of unfulfilled blueprints that are strewn over Jamaica. As I noted in a thread this morning on Twitter, Port Royal is emblamatic:

But, the significance of Port Royal and what is happening there is many-layered. Like much that starts off well in Jamaica, the proof will always be in how well will this go on and for how long. That is not to wish failure on any venture; it’s just that we have a poor record of implementation and ‘stickwithitness’. So, let’s hope that day 2 sees progress on day 1. Please, those whose aim in life is to spoil, exploit, harass, destroy, steal or otherwise disrupt positive developments in people’s lives, take a break. What such people never understand is that by ‘killing the golden goose’, they’ve eaten one meal instead of seeing the benefit of letting it get fat, lay some eggs and provide meals for themselves and others for a much longer period; a simple example of ‘beggar my neighbour’ or ‘zero-sum’ thinking that’s so prevalent on this island.

But, I stray, as I’m not really off on a deep dive into the history of Jamaican failure. More simply, I want to put down a marker for all those Jamaicans and visitors who have, despite the lack of real incentive to visit places or do things in places that should have been seen as of major importance, persevered and made their ‘pilgrimage’ and have a memory that was not framed for them in some brochure. So, to all of the friends whom I’ve driven along the Palisadoes Road and stopped at the lighthouse, and walked along the dark grey sand, and peered at the cemetery, and rambled around Fort Charles when the guide said it was closed, and walked in the narrow streets by Gloria’s and looked at the fishing boats and pelicans, and taken a glance inside the Anglican Church, and waited patiently to get their fish meals (never a bad wait, in my experience), and who’ve seen Port Royal in the dark of night, and eaten on the sidewalk, and driven home looking across the harbour at the lights of the city and those of the uptown communities, this is for you. 🙂 You were pioneers, though you did not realize it. If and when you come back, I hope the ambiance is still the same, even if the setting may look much more spruced up.

A dilapidated building, typical of what Port Royal has become, long after buccaneers made it home and filled it with pirated riches

Eating fish at Gloria’s is a must

Raw simplicity is an emblem of Port Royal, but it’s also a sign of a depressed economic location

One my visitors, on an early morning tour of the beach and historic sights

Sharing some of nature’s beauty: week 3

If you didn’t know before, then you should now, that I love sunlight, at both ends of its time with us. I’m especially lucky to have a good sight of it most days, early and late.

Dawn, looking towards Kingston Harbour from Caymanas golf course.

The coast meets the golf course, and man’s bad influence is sadly there as trash

When nature comes to you on a plate: fruit breakfast of star fruit, sour sop, pineapple and tangerine

When the angles change, the view isn’t the same, looking at a green from behind, at Caymanas GC (#17hole)

View of bunkers, green and coast, from beside #7 hole, Cinnamon Hill GC

Is YouTube the answer?

So, if having a YouTube channel is free, and is visual as well as sound, why would I opt for a sound-only presence that costs me to be maintained? So, while I think that through for myself, I will share someone else’s thinking on that matter, Podcasts vs YouTube. Happy viewing!

Podcasting: the next frontier?

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I’ve just finished watching a good drama series entitled Truth be told, which is based around a woman podcaster whose reports were behind sending a young man to prison, only for her to find that some 20 years later she has doubts about his guilt. The story is good and I’d recommend it, if you have access to Apple TV. However, what gripped me was the notion of podcasting.

Honestly, I’ve not gotten into listening to podcasts as much as I should have, but have been thinking about how it may offer an avenue to tackle something that I’ve been pondering for some time. I’ve been writing blogs regularly now for the better part of 12 years, and I like them as my thinking space. Much though people have pressed me to ‘write a book’, I’ve not gotten the urge to do that as my way of telling what could be an interesting personal story. One reason for that is, having started several times, I’ve floundered as I’ve hit some emotional barriers. But, oddly, that’s where podcasts may come in to help.

In the TV drama, the podcaster ends up having a deep introspection into her desire to find truth only for that to cause her to dig deep into several hidden truths about herself. The process of oral story telling can be as trying as writing, but it also offers something the written word can do only with a certain difficulty–give real meaning to the notion of ‘voice’. Find the right words to express some sentiments can be truly hard, and subtle emotions can get lost in written words, but are clear in spoken form. I like the idea that hearing the stories can carry much more weight. A part of people also feels that, for posterity sake, it’s time for that spoken voice to get a better hearing, literally.

Many of us regret that we never got our now-dead relatives to share stories, and much of that regret centres on not hearing them tell the stories, because their own words and expressions were deeply important to us. So, I’m thinking about the podcast venture to deal with that, for my own personal sake.

The other aspect is to be free to tell the stories as they flow, rather than as a book tends to dictate, in a certain chronological fashion. I find that memories come flooding back and the same notion can easily span decades and seem quite logical when told orally but can be hard to track when written.

Anyway, I have the notion rolling my head, so have to now decide to lay out some wonga to buy some essential podcasting gear–microphone, and sound editing hardware, etc. So, keep watching this space, as I update on the steps.

Sharing some of nature’s beauty: week 2, 2020

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Things growing in my garden include some blue tomatoes (though some are putting on a super show of redness), plus pigeon peas (called ‘gungo (or Congo) peas’ in Jamaica), which also show the power of a single seed, as the crop from one bush gave about 800 grams/1.75 pounds of green peas that have served one nice meal of rice and peas (the bowl of green peas below shows a few dried brown peas, which could offer more for later planting).

The blossoms on the Otaheite (rose) apple tree are now forming into fruit, which have the firmness of pears in temperate zones, and are so far a sweet-tasting crop that has graced my breakfast plate and been offered to a few friends. You can see the large crop that is growing and the inside of one of the first apples I ate this week, its white interior making a sharp contrast to its red skin.

Orchids placed on isolated spots are also thriving and showing off some splendid blooms.

Some orchids are trying to re-establish themselves and showing sign of new life.

Nature is more than things that grow and seeing the passage of time in the movement of the sun is one of the constant pleasures of tropical life, where our winter months have shorter days but the sun still rises relatively early. The coming of dawn as natural and artificial lights challenge each other is always interesting.

Sharing some of nature’s beauty: week 1, 2020

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I find much pleasure in enjoying natural things and being outdoors. Many know that they can often find me on a golf course for that reason, rather than actually playing golf. It’s why I enjoy gardening: my father said “Always stay close to the land”. Many of my pictures are of flowers, plants, landscapes, animals or other things I encounter by chance when out and about. Someone suggested on Twitter that when we encounter nice natural things it’d be good to share them. What a great idea. So, for this first week of a new year, I’m going to try to do that and continue on a weekly basis. It fits with an idea I had last year to move more towards visual storytelling rather than literal storytelling.

The selection below spans the two weeks I have spent during the Christmas season, which ends tomorrow, January 5. What I notice from these is how nature has been touched by humans; I’ll even say enhanced, not least in making the sights accessible. You’ll see, too, that some of the natural shots have no human interference (eg sunrises, or wind effects), and some show nature largely left to itself (banana ground). The golf course video is intriguing because of how nature has adapted to man’s influence, with the sea birds taking advantage of new shelter and feeding opportunities. That’s a nice spread of what is often on display to all of us. I’m not sure, at this early stage, if I will start to shape my observations to focus on certain elements, but let’s see. Enjoy!

If Jamaicans were more anally retentive

My favourite dictionary defines ‘anal retentive‘ as ‘extremely or excessively neat, careful, or precise‘. Faster than a speeding bullet, most Jamaicans would recognize those traits as almost totally un-Jamaican. Much of the country and its people are, sadly, seen as untidy, careless and imprecise, at the least, and wWe could add traits like untimely, vague or dismissive of truthfulness. I’ve written before that Jamaica is often seen best from afar, ie from the air or looked at from a boat offshore. As one gets closer to the ground, literally, what’s in front of the eyes is really a series of horrible eyesores. Yet, if one goes into most Jamaican homes, the places are neat and tidy and clean. There’s something about public spaces, however, that leaves much to be desired. What’s odd about that is how rare it is that public space is treated much differently if its truly public (like road verges and parks) or open to the public (like shop frontages–the inside of many corporate entities is more like homes, but I can also cite many instances where the surroundings are slap-dash, if that nice). Why is there this attitude of ‘can’t bother’, or ‘it’s alright like that’ (when it really isn’t). But, to recognize the usual crappy look, give us a few days before a major holiday, and out come the bands of workers with cans of paint and brushes to ‘spruce up’ the place. How about every month, week, or even more frequently? Please don’t argue that we need to give road cleaners work to do! They try early every day to remove small amounts of roadside debris, but that doesn’t change what one faces once the sun is up and we are about.

One thing I’ve noticed from the various places I’ve lived or visited which people argue are desirable places to live or whose people are worth copying is the tendency for high degrees of orderliness. I recall vividly being told in Switzerland that I was not allowed to sit on the grass as it needed to be protected and that I should go and sit on a bench in the park. The Swiss are renowned for neatness and precision, much exemplified in their famed watch industry and the state of their railways, whose safety and punctuality are legendary.

People often look at Jamaica and say the people are lawless. But, I’ve often noticed that this is far from true. If one looks carefully, it’s easy to see that many Jamaicans are conformists. What Jamaicans do often, however, is to ignore rules which they know from experience or the attitude of enforcers to be meaningless–ie the rules can be broken without much, if any personal costs. That’s what we see most evidently on our roads, where in the extreme one can see transgressions in plain sight of police officers which are ignored by said officers. People often counter with the observed orderly behaviour at the US Embassy, when people are applying for visas. But, if they misbehave or literally go out of line, they will lose their turn (expensively obtained for US$160). We are more in fear of transgressions on the road, but unless your eyes don’t really see, only a small minority of drivers run red lights (possibly, the scariest of incidents), or don’t stop at junctions, or drive on sidewalks. Yes, we can find instances of that, but I defy anyone to track incidents thoroughly and tell me that this is common behaviour. We know a good number of PPV drivers have done and do these things, but even they are not all birds of a feather. What we have observed is that many of those instances happen because most people know that nothing much happens to those who try these stunts, and we are also in the midst of many who validate these actions by either ignoring them as passengers or, worse, urge them on, because personal concerns about time and convenience trump all others. We do not witness what I did when I first visited Germany, and acting as if I were still in London, decided to cross a road when I saw a gap in traffic. “Nein!” I heard from about 20 mouths around me. Shocked, I looked around at a see of wagging fingers and an old lady pointing to the crossing light, whose figure was still red, meaning don’t cross. Meekly, I stepped back, and waited with the others for the light to change. On the contrary, we teach our children to cross in the gaps of moving vehicles, and hope that a hand held high will be seen as enough to give us the pass we need. So, of course, as adults, that’s how we will proceed. Watch how people cannot navigate the new designated lights crossings in places like Barbican: same old, wait for a gap. Worse still, people will ignore the crossing area and just traverse where they want to. I often see school children walk from the Texaco gas station on Jacks Hill Road/Barbican Road and cross as soon as possible, rather than walk the 5-10 yards to the designated crossing. Admittedly, we have made life more complicated by some badly-thought out road designs, but our nature has been nurtured to do the wrong things.

If someone were to say that it’s because Jamaicans tend towards laziness, I’d have to hesitate to agree. What I would say is that most don’t want to spend time and effort to do things well, and the inevitable result is that we have lots of examples of imperfection. The night chart below shows what most will understand as a basic truth: that one has to spend time and effort to do things well. But, perfection isn’t really where one wants to be, but much better can be a far cry from where we are.

Many people talk about ‘cool’ Jamaicans, but many of my compatriots are people who love expediency, and we love to ‘get away with it’ as much as possible. Now, that’s cool when it involves, say, ‘getting something for nothing’, but it’s uncool when a worker does nothing (or little) and expects to be paid something. I wont use the examples we often see of several men standing idly by watching one digs a hole; we don’t know the work flow, so may misinterpret the roles that are being played. Instead, I will cite a few examples that I have experienced and I witness often.

  • Inability to complete tasks (phone calls unanswered; promises not kept; unfinished building works; road completed but furnishings missing for months, maybe years; holes dug but not filled for weeks, even months–all examples of essentially the same problem). My worst personal experience was the doctor who kept my daughter and me waiting for nearly 2 hours one evening for an appointment, and when we said we would leave, around 6pm, promised to call us the next day to reschedule. That was nearly 4 years ago, now, and I have still not had that call. Fortunately, my daughter was recovering and we have had the ailment treated elsewhere.
  • Low standards accepted as the norm (our roads are a good example, so are many of the associated elements, such as sidewalks–if they exist). At its worst, that low standard means the absence of provisions, because someone thinks that just because it’s the norm elsewhere, it need not be the norm in Jamaica. Exhibit 1 could be many restrooms, where taps that don’t function, no soap to wash hands, no towel or paper to dry hands, no receptacle to place trash, doors with no handles, tiling that must have been done by people with poor sight and no sense of balance, are common features. Exhibit 2 could be the inability to understand that information (especially signs) is literally the guidepost many need. I remember when I used to visit Jamaica and my father would take me somewhere in the country and we had to find the route through landmarks, not road signs. These were not journeys to uninhabited places, but either no one saw the need or it was assumed that anyone needing to go to these places would figure out how to get there. We’ve lost some of that mystery in Jamaica, but when I drove from Montego Bay to Mandeville via Trelawny, I don’t think I would have arrived in a day without GoogleMaps. In most countries with developed road networks, there is a hierarchy of road signs from the local through regional destinations. But, this inability or unwillingness to inform is so pervasive. I’ve often contrasted how so many of our road projects end up with worse traffic, but one of the reasons is that the agencies doing work rarely seem to give advanced notice (and I’m sorry, sending out a press statement, beforehand, isn’t the answer that could be offered by some well-placed signs on roads, and offers of alternative routes). Exhibit 3 would be our absent national waste management, which is a series of downward spirals that start with lack of adequate equipment, resulting in erratic scheduling, descending into garbage that is collected and dumped en masse not sorted in places that do not control waste and become hazards themselves, which at worst end up ablaze, sending noxious fumes into the surrounding area. When economists talk about ‘vertical integration’ it’s not normally about how one designs enterprises to worsen what they try to do, but our waste mis-management ought to be studied by some keen student for its reverse application of economic principles.

It’s sometimes hard to separate these two traits, as they often result in similar outcomes, which are poor quality whatever, or incomplete products or services whatever. I read a post, yesterday, from one of our esteemed economists, Dr. Damien King, about an experience at a Kentucky Fried Chicken outlet:

We often read or hear of complaints about the total absence of service, or interrupted services from many of our major utilities and phone companies. What is often odd is how these go on for years without real solutions. That leads to another trait:

  • Empty promises. These work well in Jamaica because we have low degrees of accountability and often not good at following up on our own complaints, aka the ‘nine day wonders’. Politicians play on this trait a lot and have gotten away with it for decades, but that’s also the nature of politics in many places. We an understand how monopolies in the public sector get away with it–people have few choices of who can supply electricity and water. What’s odd is how, in the corporate world, we end up with companies that are supposed to compete but seem to compete for ‘first to the bottom’. Part of the oddity comes from the absence of true competition, so our two main phone companies are just oligopolies, and happily live high on the hog sharing out the misery. For all the failings that have been evident in Jamaica over the decades, our country is not littered with the corpses of dismissed executives or managers. On the contrary, one often reads of how some have fled the country and remain far out of reach.
  • Giving a bly. This is a close cousin to the empty promise and is often founded on the notion that all should be forgiven, but especially if it’s someone well-known, or related, or just because our way is to say ‘give the person another chance’. Where we get this compassion badly wrong is that we give bly, upon bly, upon bly, with little or no sign that the offending behaviour has been corrected, let alone addressed. We had the absurdity of this attitude rammed up our noses earlier this year, when a motorist was pulled into public gaze for doing doughnuts in a fast car at a major intersection, which was caught on video. Instead of the police throwing the book at the alleged driver, they turned it into a PR moment and offered the driver the chance to become the face of ‘road safety’. Those with a keen sense of the absurd will note that the officer in charge of this ‘event’ is a ‘bishop’, whose name is ‘Welsh’ (which means fail to honor), and who felt that using his discretion was the better part of valour.
All friends together? Photo credit: Jamaica Observer

Of course, the story wasn’t so simple: the owner of the flashy car was one of our star cricketers (next to a deity, for some; the alleged driver was a man whose light skin tone is often seen as a pass through any Jamaican gate; the Commissioner of Police ordered a further enquirer into the whole affair, the police officer was ‘ relieved of his post’ and ‘reassigned’ to somewhere that has not yet been made public. Now, so much dust has settled that no one really remembers what happened, or for that matter now cares.

That is the state of affairs that would have many cast Jamaica as a failed state, incapable of seeing what it does wrongly so often so unable to correct it.

Jamaica and aesthetics are not often in the same sentence, for good reason. Our natural beauty stands in stark contrast to the monstrosity of a country we have built. The nursery rhyme about the crooked man who built a crooked house could be a metaphor.

Visitors from abroad come and tell us that we’re quaint, but that’s their way of trying to avoid hurting people’s feelings by saying “How on Earth do you people live like this?” When it’s blurted out plainly, we get into a hissy fit about how we are being disrespected, not seeing that we have showered ourselves in mutual disrespect.

Finally, we are the perfect illustration of ‘you are what you tolerate’. We were out driving yesterday in Nassau, The Bahamas, and passed a disused supermarket lot that is the perfect picture of urban blight, with dishevelled store, broken concrete in the parking lot, and other signs that no one cares. A woman and her daughter had erected a tent and were hanging clothes on it, presumably to sell. My mother-in-law gasped “What in the name of Jesus is this?” She was horrified that anyone would just put up a ‘store’ and start selling. Now, she knows Jamaica well and has a similar reaction when she sees our sidewalks overtaken by vendors, often under signs that state ‘No vending’, or narrow roads made impassable by the spread of ‘entrepreneurial prowess’ as she witnessed during a resultant traffic jam in Port Antonio last month. Now, The Bahamas is no paragon compared to Jamaica, but the reaction shows what is often missing in Jamaica, which is a sense that this should not happen, rather than the ready acceptance of its happening.

I can distill all of this into Jamaica being a place less desirable to live in than many, though it offers some of the best natural experiences that a country can offer: our quality of life should not be as low as it is. I can also distill it into a country that does much worse than it should more of the time: read the many stories of how ‘unprepared’ our sports teams are for events. One of my common themes is about Jamaica’s poor productivity record and it’s easy to see how this gets fed by much of what I have described.

So, where do we go? Hard though it will be for many, we need to stop tolerating the things that we say we don’t want to see. Friends and relatives and others can go hang and we need to not only call out this misbehaving and force changes because it’s not happening voluntarily–we’re too far gone in many areas for gradual measures. How can we? Well, that’s part of the tough ask. We each have to be ready to be the line in the sand.

Arguments for a cut in GCT: Dr Haughton has unfinished business

I’m personally saddened by my fellow economist, Dr Andre Haughton, retracting quickly his remarks about the merits of his party leader’s proposal that GCT be reduced by 2 percentage points (from 16.5% to 14.5). In politics, there’s nothing wrong with offering things as ‘bait’, especially when your party is not in power and in place to (yet) deliver: you have to have something to offer voters. However, he asked the right questions, about the costs and benefits. Unfortunately, he didn’t’ answer the questions, though his tone during his senatorial presentation suggested he thought it was on balance not beneficial.

I understand his need to draw back on the manner of his utterances–not having made himself familiar with ‘stated’ party policy and not running the ideas past the party hierarchy. However, those gaffes in protocol do not matter to the argument, as the Senator noted in a subsequent radio interview. Let’s put that down to ‘youthful exuberance’ (which can cover all manner of sins).

His questions are those that should be posed of any economic policy proposal, and it’s good to have shown that such considerations have been made, whether or not one agrees with the analysis. It’s exactly what previous finance ministers and their opponents did most recently in deciding whether to give Jamaicans a tax break (you must remember the J$1.5 million income tax relief proposal): imposing lower income taxes on people is the same numerically as reducing indirect taxes on them. Now, the current government has taken a policy position to move from direct to indirect taxes, so would be less likely to like the GCT reduction idea on those grounds, whatever the perceived costs and benefits. Results since that move show much better than expected results in tax collection.

What the good doctor did not explore was what may happen with a lower tax burden on Jamaicans at this time. Who are likely to be the gainers, and how will that affect other aspects of their behaviour? The general understanding is that richer people will save, while poorer people will spend tax relief. So, what is the expected balance between saving and spending? How will people decide to spend the tax relief, and on what, and will their spending be on domestic or imported goods? Will some of the saving turn into investment in other assets now seemingly more attractive and accessible? All of this goes to whether and how far the tax cut will stimulate other activities. Some have questioned the internal consistency of the government’s growth ‘policies’ that gave income tax relief but clawed that back by raising GCT, so a reduction in the latter would help to correct that. The sluggishness of GDP growth since the current government’s tax measures were introduced tends to suggest that domestic demand has been stifled and ‘putting money back into people’s pockets’ is what’s needed, especially as tax revenues have been overperforming for a considerable time since the switch to GCT.

GCT is not imposed on all goods and services, so the reduction of the tax rate (assuming it’s across the board) will make those goods and services that attract GCT more affordable absolutely and relative to goods and services that do not attract GCT.

Simply put, there are many economic consequences we need to consider before either running with, or dispensing with, any tax change idea. No kidding, it’s not necessarily an easy exercise, but it ought to be done, and I hope that the PNP has done, or is doing, some poring over the likely outcomes.

In the meantime, I’d suggest the senator-economist do a little more probing beyond looking at the estimated J$26 billion that the national treasury may lose and his casting the gains for individuals as paltry.