Identity crisis? Some personal reflections on a national identity document system

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I like the idea of a national identity document (NID). My reasons for being a skeptic about NID proposals for Jamaica are more about competence and performance than principle, though there are issues of principles such as privacy that I do not think are as clear-cut as some would wish to suggest. My issues with competence is based on history: poor implementation has been a constant knock against Jamaica for much of its post-independence life. They also are based on what I see as a lack of preparation in the sense that things like integration of data don’t need a NID program to get going, but if they’ve waited on a NID program a lot of inefficiency and redundancy has been cemented into processes. I think there’s not enough evidence that the bases to which the NID may be tied have been made strong enough so far. My worry is that NIDs is a top-down approach, rather than a bottom-up one, and I find it hard to see how that approach will be successful. The image I have in my head is placing a heavy table top on legs that are not well-built; toppling over is more likely.

Current behaviour reflects some of these inefficiencies and redundancies, eg, the need for a traffic ticket amnesty rests on the simple gap between police records of fines issued and tax records of fines paid and that the gap is not visible in real-time so that the status of any road user who is transgressing is flagged immediately to the police officer who has noted the transgression. So, fines have no real bite. People know and understand that gap and naturally exploit it. I had a recent experience where the records of a transaction with the Customs authorities was not reflected automatically in the database at the Tax Administration, which required more person-hours in getting that updated. If time is money, then Jamaica is letting it dribble away. But, it’s not just ordinary citizens, but also those who operate the systems, which are known to be flawed, but still to them and are happy with that because it preserves their jobs.

So, my issues with competence and performance also go to why our economy performs poorly, how our productivity is impaired and why we do things that are more likely to make us poorer than we otherwise should be.

I’ve never lived anywhere where I’ve had to have a NID, though I’ve travelled to many places that had one, especially in Europe. I remember, from my first trip to France in the mid-1960s, how I was often fascinated on such travels to see people reach into wallets and purses to pull out a NID card (in France, carte nationale d’identité), often to prove who they were for some transaction, or engagement with a government official, including the police. I recall the near panic a friend had when he was not able to find his NID. Such cards could often be used for travel within the European Union, making real the notion of a borderless union. All of that spoke to an orderliness of affairs and uniformity that was good. In the UK, there was no such thing during my time there: we had various forms of ID, depending on age and circumstance, such as driver’s licences, passports, National Insurance numbers, National Health Service cards, each of which were the best available at the time, but only the passport had a picture. However, most things in life could be done without the need to show any of these, but to get certain services, one of them was likely to be necessary. Yet, funnily, to move through life one also did not have to prove without doubt who one was. Often, systems were self-validating: you exist in some official database already, therefore you are. So, I went from primary school to the world of work after university without having to prove unequivocally who I was. The only time I stumbled was when I had to prove what I was, and I thought I was British, but was not, according to the official documentation.

My story is a simple one, which I’ve told before. Born in the 1950s, I was British because Jamaica was a colony, part of The British Empire. I left Jamaica in 1961 with that status. Jamaica became independent in 1962, and my parents took steps to take Jamaican status (passport, mainly); they had rights to retain their British passports/citizenship at the time (and for several years after). I went with the flow, being a minor. I know of my British status, not least because I had travelled to England on my father’s passport. But, as happens, I felt some affinity to Britain as I was living there. No big thing, for a child. As I grew I was eligible for things British, including temporary overseas travel documents and importantly for me, being included in squads for national sporting representation. Fast forward.

I was offered a job at the Bank of England, for which one had to be a UK citizen. That’s when the penny dropped. Hastily, I had to regain my British status. No big deal, as I still was within whatever time limit existed for this, apart from a few trips to Somerset House to sign and seal the deal.

But, I knew I was also Jamaican, and to prove that I applied for and got a Jamaican passport through the High Commission in London. Therein lay the seeds of problems to come.

All my life, I had not needed to hang onto Cogito ergo sum (I think, therefore I am); I existed and was flesh and blood and had been part of activities that were real. I was also Dennis Jones (as my parents wrote my name of every document I could read); all of my documents showed me with that spelling, including my Jamaican passport. But…Deep in some official vault was the other me…the real me, whom I did not know…Denis Jones. Fast forward, again.

I was living in the USA and working in Washington DC. My Jamaican passport needed renewing. The system now required proof of my existence, through my birth certificate. I got the document from my mother and sent it forward. Trouble! That document was NOT my birth certificate–it was what Jamaicans called a ‘birth paper’, merely registering the fact, but not the official certificate, AND it showed my name with one N not two. No real problem, though. I contacted the Registrar General’s Department (RGD) and they provided me with a computer-generated certificate, with 6 copies. Wow! Good to go. New, crisp, Jamaican passport, but with my name now with one N (remember the old one had two Ns).

Life moved on smoothly, until, I had to come back to Jamaica to live a few years ago and had to gain status here. Now, the two-headed hydra of the two Denis/Dennis reared its dreaded head. I was no longer who I thought I was! 99.9 percent of my life, as proved by documents and transactions was at ‘Dennis’, but Jamaica would have none of it. I was officially ‘Denis’ here, and so it must be. Well, sort of. I got a bank account (based on my birth certificate), then my TRN and from that my driver’s licence, and accepted the new official ‘me’, for Jamaican purposes. But, I could still go around as the other me, because my British passport proved me to be me, with two Ns. Fast forward, again.

I had to resolve the problem. Why? My good wife (as opposed to?) was worried that one of me would run into a problem. So, I re-engaged RGD and went through the simple process of having my name changed by deed poll. I am now officially ‘Dennis Jones’ for all Jamaican purposes (and also known as ‘Denis Jones’, but never mind him). My TRN was updated and from that my driver’s licence, so I was good to go, for most purposes.

I still have a few Jamaican documents that have me as ‘Denis’ because Jamaica also wants me to prove that I have a certain address so to make the simple change I have to do what I cannot do, which is prove where I live. Why? I moved. Because I am a creature of the Internet and all my bills come to be online, that doesn’t matter to my transactions, which go on in ‘the Cloud’ and nothing physically or actually comes to be at my place of abode. Utility bills are in my wife’s name. So, for Jamaican purposes I seem like a homeless person. The fact that all of my overseas financial information are linked to my new address matters not in Jamaica, where ‘rules are rules’. So, my voter’s ID needs to be updated, but… My Digicel and Scotiabank accounts, too, but… I don’t let that hamper me, as I use my phone and play with the banking system to my heart’s content without changing address for them.

I know I’m real!

Back in the day, when manual systems were king, a NID was important; with technological advances, we now know that the storage of data electronically is what is important. You are your data, including your biometric information. However, that is also one of the things that scares many people.

As I started writing, I noted that one of the ‘poster boys’ of NIDs, Estonia, is going through a security scare with its system having experienced a security breach that has compromised maybe 750,000 NID holders. Being ‘vulnerable to identity theft’ is not what makes people feel comfortable. Note the focus of the Estonian PM, Jüri Ratas, in a statement:

“The functioning of an e-state is based on trust and the state cannot afford identity theft happening to the owner of an Estonian ID card. As far as we currently know, there has been no instances of e-identity theft, but the threat assessment of the Police and Border Guard Board and the Information System Authority indicates that this threat has become real. By blocking the certificates of the ID cards at risk, the state is ensuring the safety of the ID card.”

The fault laying with the manufacturer of the chip is not the sort of thing that will make citizens any more at ease. So, when the Jamaican government makes the following claim, people will remain to be assured, especially as we do not yet have in place Acts on data protection and data sharing.

But I want to think about some of the other claims.

Does that ONLY exist with a NID? It’s interesting to contemplate that your actual existence is somehow being denied because of the absence of a NID. Surely, that right flows from the day you are born and that fact is registered? Isn’t that when your identity comes into force?

I wont pretend that unique identifiers are not important.

I wont go much further into the things that I think can go wrong in a country that has strong record of finding ways around many seemingly robust systems. Jamaicans have shown an astonishing knack for making Goodhart’s Law (named after Prof. Charles Goodhart, who was criticising UK monetary policy) come true:  “When a measure becomes a target, it ceases to be a good measure.” Put differently, in the so-called Lucas critique, named for Robert Lucas’s work on macroeconomic policymaking, argues that it is naive to try to predict the effects of a change in economic policy entirely on the basis of relationships observed in historical data, especially highly aggregated historical data. More simply, don’t expect your expected outcome to materialise. People adapt and anticipate.

One reason why NIDs work well in some countries is simply due to trust in institutions and decision-makers. Jamaican institutions and decision-makers are low on that trust ‘index’. Many would feel more at ease if they had seen clearly that trust being built to a high level for a good while.

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Jamaica’s future? National reality TV set

For some time, my whimsical side has been dominating when thinking of ways to get out of the mire that is much of Jamaican daily life. In short, the economic and social Utopia that could and should have been ours, if we had had governments that did not ‘run with it’ but focused on building a vibrant and equitable society, could still be ours but by seeing something completely different for ourselves. Hold your breath. Jamaica is one big reality TV show, and if we embrace that, we could be shooting for the stars in no time. Now, I admit, it’s a wild idea that is going through my head but bear with me. Almost every day things happen on this island that seem too unreal to be true. But, in Jamaica, these seeming unrealities are real: they are our daily bread. What makes me laugh more is that we have people doing what they think are serious things but it’s just a scene in a farce. Let me give you a real and present example.

Yesterday evening, on our daily radio news and current affairs show, Beyond The Headlines, host Dionne Jackson-Miller was dealing with the latest in Jamaican crime horror: men dressed as police and driving a car with flashing blue lights had stopped and robbed a motorist on Sunday evening on East Kings House Road. Now, I’m not making light of the crime and the horror scenario that faces us if this becomes a trend. I am going to make light of how one of our ‘finest’, a police spokeswoman, saw the solution for the average motorist who may fall foul of this new scam. The officer suggested that, if the fake police signaled for a motorist to pull over, then various options should be tried, if one believes the police to be fake. Her preferred option was to somehow indicate to the cops that you were going to drive on to the nearest police station. Her assertion seemed to be that if these were real cops, they would understand and follow dutifully to then press the charges, and (I presume), if they were fake, they would hightail it instead of walking into a possible arrest. What could possibly go wrong? Well, it was clear that the lady did not have a clear idea of what she was really suggesting. Now, I will date myself by saying my mind rolled straight to a scene from the days of silent movies, from the Keystone Cops.

Dionne saw problems straight away and asked how the real police would know that the motorist had this plan and was not seeking to flee the scene. Wait for it! The police lady suggested signaling to any oncoming police car or other bystander that this was a ploy to go to a station. I presume the implication is that you carry a placard in your car that you can raise and wave out of the window reading ‘I’m heading to a police station. Don’t shoot!’ Well, that could be tricky to manage on a busy afternoon in Kingston, or if one were driving through Trelawny, where the likelihood of seeing another police officer or passing car is as rare as seeing an elephant knitting on the side of the road. Her other suggestion, when DJM queried the realism of the first offer, was to call 119 to alert police central command that you were ‘bringing in’ some police officers. Well, what I have heard of the responsiveness of that service is filed under ‘Don’t do this if your life depends on it’. The silent guffaws that could be heard on the radio set were deafening. But, the spokeswoman wasn’t done: she also suggested to use the StayAlert app. At that point, I had to pull false teeth out of the chicken foot soup that I was just drinking. Don’t worry about someone picking up the phone, just jump on the Internet superhighway. I’ve never used the app without data, but I hope it’s possible, because if not…

Now, I’ve presented these answers as if they came smoothly. They did not. They came after what seemed like a decade of reflection.

Did the officer really understand that if the fake cops were fake that this ruse would not work? Did she realise that real cops would be faced with the choice of apprehend more forcefully or apprehend much more forcefully. Maybe, what we need is a national roll-out of CB radios so that every motorist could speak over a dedicated channel to the police central command to report incidents.

Now, Jamaican police have earned a reputation for not being the most friendly and courteous and even been labeled in various ways for extrajudicial killings, so I presume that somehow the collective consciousness of society will be wiped clean of this when the suggested ruses are tried.

Somehow, I don’t see many motorists trying this. So, really what to do? I suspect that more suggestions will follow from both the JCF (after more reflection) or from the travelling public.

But, that was just a taster of what goes on for daily life. It’s the stuff that it’s hard to script, yet it gets trotted out every day. So, here’s my suggestion.

We need to revamp our tourism product and turn the whole country over to any and every television company that wants to come and film daily life in Jamaica, and the kicker (risky though it may be) will be to offer participation in these real-life events. So, we could have Minnie from Minnesota being taken on a drive so that she could be stopped and searched by Jamaican police. Or, we could have Orville from Orlando getting into an argument with a vendor in Coronation Market, and dealing with that on the fly. (We could have people prepped with audio so that they could get instant translations from Patois, for those tricky moments, that just don’t crop up in Peoria, such as ‘Let be beat some sense inna dis r*** c**** Hamerikan!’) We could offer attractive packages that had 3 days of sun and sand, followed by 3 days of ‘living the Jamaican life’, and one day of RR before heading back home (assuming nothing had gone wrong and a court date was added to the schedule.) These trips would have thrills and spills and authenticity aplenty.

Now, this may not be everyone’s idea of getting to know a country, but why not give it a try with some pilots in a few of our more interesting communities? We need to get buy-in from many agencies, but I’m sure that once they see the PR, job and income opportunities of being seen as part of rebuilding of Jamaica, they’d be falling over each other to sign up first. Taxi drivers (red plate or robots) with live audio and visual? ‘Small up yourself, sah! Road!’ The evening rush hour bus ride from Half Way Tree to Spanish Town? ‘Why you cock up you foot pon di seat an you see me a look siddung beside you?’ Riding at speed without a helmet (with or without flip-flops) from Montego Bay to Negril, with a stop at Rick’s Cafe? The options are almost limitless. Every community has something to offer. Instead of bucolic stuff like rafting on the Rio Grande, or the limited thrills of climbing Dunn’s River Falls or bobsleighing at Mystic Mountain, we could offer ‘being frisked in a ZOSO’. Can’t you see the excitement of people’s faces, knowing that this would be real, but only temporary?

Imagine: Selfies with squaddies. Wouldn’t that make friends want to fly to Jamaica in a heartbeat?

I’m not going to try to figure out how all of this would work and how it would be priced and all the insurance liability and diplomatic incidents to anticipate. But, our not-so-humdrum life would be a thrill-a-minute for anyone like Olaf from Oslo, coming from the deep midwinter of only four hours of daylight in Norway in December, to ‘let’s drive through potholes in St. Mary’, with warmth and the magic of roadside food along the way.

It’s a suggestion. If you think there’s a better way to get most of Jamaica wanting to be part of the solution let me suggest you come up with your own idea. I am going to draft a few letters to HBO and Netflix to use Jamaica as the setting for a series of reality series.

If you see me sipping gin and coconut water in Port Antonio sometime soon, remember, you had your chance to join me. 🙂

Not win-win, but win-loss: Some thoughts on St. Mary SE By-Election

JLP won and PNP lost support, in St. Mary SE, with the total vote increasing substantially, as many new voters were on the voting roll. The tiny margin for PNP from the 2016 general election turned into a near-1000 vote victory for JLP, meaning the approval gap between the parties widened massively in this seat.

JLP is no longer the party of Seaga, and is molding itself clearly in another image—maybe, it’s too early to say it’s the party of Holness, but he is developing a face that is markedly different. Part of that difference relates to how the leader and his party embrace communications, especially through social media, in a way that its main rival is still struggling to match. It’s a face that is in stark contrast to the (outdated and somewhat self-denying) stance taken by PNP—that party has badly abandoned its socialist roots–in terms of its being a voice of the people–a trend that was clearly evident by some of the arrogant disregard show for public opinion and governance of public money during several of its past tenures in government. (That’s beside the fact that the party presided well over an IMF program; it showed scant regard for good financial governance in many other areas.)

PNP often talked about ‘joined-up government’, yet displayed some of the most disorganized control of public affairs during the last administration. But, talk is cheap! Wasting money, isn’t. That’s maybe a highbrow observation, but more ‘low brow’ would be the fact that PNP didn’t really empathize that despite the macroeconomic success of the IMF program, there were many microeconomic disasters going on in people’s lives. The recently released 2015 poverty statistics make that clearer. There was much pain for the wider economic gain. That’s not uncommon, but little acknowledgement of it is really damaging, politically. It’s not enough for a political leader to say how she feels inflation, when most of life’s expenses are covered by the State. The referendum on PNP was clear from the 2016 general election, reinforced by recent local elections, and then stamped again in St. Mary. That is more significant, given the relatively high turnout (over 50%), in a seat where votes clearly mattered. (The ‘goings on’ in the garrison seats in St. Andrew tell us little about wider political sentiments, especially with the low voter turnout to ‘rubber stamp’ PNP candidates. One problem with just listening to the faithful is that you hear the song that you are playing yourself 🙂 )

JLP sensed this seething discontent (and it was not deeply-hidden) going into the 2016 election and fed on it with the promise of tax breaks. Despite its many arithmetic flaws, that promise of giveaways and easing of financial burdens resonated loudly.

PNP kept shooting itself in its own foot in St. Mary–most glaringly with its selection of a candidate whose credentials seemed to have been vetted by an adolescent intern, more intent on posting on Snapchat than checking for the potential damage that lay in the person’s resume. But, it also did its own bad pedicures with the way it handled candidate selections in the two St. Andrew by-election seats, the feud of one still simmering between Brown-Burke and Smith-Facey well into By-Election Day.

As an Opposition, the current PNP shows itself offering little of substance and with few resources to back any promises is in serious danger of making itself worse that irrelevant.

Put differently, a party with a one-seat majority in Parliament acted as if it had won a complete landslide. That’s because the Opposition has been toothless in words and deeds.

You wan’ breadfruit? Roas’ or fry?

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Among the many popular songs and dances in Jamaica is the ‘breadfruit’ song. Like many things in Jamaican life, it’s about a series of ‘this or that’ choices—we’re not big on the deep nuances—black or white covers most views. That goes too for politics, where the choice is green or orange, or in terms of voting symbols, head or bell. Now, I won’t pretend to having been brought up by nuns or having to live a cloistered life, so for me the choice between head or bell is really about more of the same just called differently. If you don’t know what I mean, I suggest you go into a men’s locker room and rummage around with the players and I think you will *see* what I’m talking about.

Let’s get something crystal clear: Jamaicans do not go to the polls weighed down by policy choices between candidates or even parties. It’s more about what’s on the menu: curry goat and rice (maybe, white or rice and peas); fried chicken and curry gravy, with rice and peas; maybe, some soup—mannish water or red peas. There! Voting issues resolved. Now, that is not a cynical glance at what is a known piece of corrupt practice, just *on the ground* observations of what’s left after political activists have passed ‘this way’.

Now, three by-elections are due to be held on October 30, but you may be forgiven for thinking only one is being held—in St. Mary SE. Let’s humour the Electoral Commission and just focus on that one seat, a moment.

All was going swimmingly with a little bit of political fighting about why and when a road improvement project needed to be approved and gotten underway. Pork! Food! Then, for reasons that could well be down to an excess of *white spirit*, a little administrative oversight got into the picture, as the PNP candidate was found to be a non-Jamaican and to boot a citizen of two other countries. Yes, yes, they’re both Commonwealth and that means they are not necessarily ‘foreign’ in the way that the British reconfigured The Empire, like the EU but without Maastricht Convention and certainly no visa-free entry between the countries. So, along came Shane, call me ‘Sugar’, Alexis, aka ‘the man who’s Canadian, Grenadian, but not Jamaican (I can’t take time to line up to do that), ready to serve you, faithfully’. Think about that and if you have doubts about the ‘faithfully’ part check out the Yello Pages for the PNP’s National Executive. If I did not know better, I’d think the candidacy paperwork had been entrusted to an intern, who scarperred at 4pm to go get a smoothie and head off to a yoga class, yelling ‘I’ll do it the morning!’

Now, all eyes are on citizenship issues, or the fact that a non-Jamaican could…just could…end up as the head of government in Jamaican. Oh, Canada! Without going too far down the road of possibilities, I just hope that if Seamus O’Alexagoran gets elected that Justintime Truethough doesn’t get an invite to Kingston and create an embarrassment of our PM singing ‘Oh, Canada’ with hand on heart and being silent when ‘Jamaica, Land We Love’ is played.

All eyes have turned to matters other than electoral issues in St. Mary to the how and why of this rather big faux pas (easy to understand if you are from Canada?). But, it’s a distraction, PNP diehards yell. Oh, yeah?

That paid ad by the man’s party tells you distractions are rife. 🤔 So distracting that the media needed to be informed that ‘citizenship soon come’ (see Gleaner report, Alexis submits citizenship application). C’mon, man!

Well, the election was never going to be about the head or the heart, but about the head and the bell. But, wait! It may now be about the head and the…foot. This latest piece of political theatre was…I don’t have the words…*ankling* for attention?…getting a firm *toehold* in the area…doing real *legwork*? I really don’t know.

But this kind of *foota hype* isn’t new, and barefoot (or feet in the water, to be exact) electioneering was already a thing. But, as some commentators noted, walking IN water is not as extraordinary as walking ON water.

My father is from SE St. Mary and I’ve an aunt who came back from England to resume her life there. I know from a long time ago how bad roads, access to electricity and water, have been and still are in that area. Dealing with it, as so many Jamaicans still do, is part of our national resilience. But, politicians love to promise and then fly away after elections–though some have been using helicopters to get into the area (how convenient!). Just, don’t forget about the people and the promises after October 30. Otherwise, it may be a big foot up the jacksy that will send bells ringing in more than a few heads. 😦img_1823

Woe is me! Shane and ‘scandal’ in the family

In a crude attempt at damage control, the PNP spin machine whirred so far yesterday that it made itself dizzy. Within 24 hours of Dr. Alexis indicating on RJR that he had no immediate plans to address his Jamaican citizenship issue, his party issued a statement:

“Dr Alexis was born in Canada and has been residing in Jamaica since age two. Having been granted permanent residency since 1987, he is married to a Jamaican and lives here with his family and will formalise his Jamaican citizenship immediately,”

Now, I won’t get into how you can formalise something that doesn’t exist even informally.

But, the spin masters were taking things from 33 1/3 rpm to 78 in a quick turn when they posted on Twitter:

I’ve used screenshots because I had a feeling the post would disappear.

As you can see, these hasty efforts to ‘wash’ image looked scruffy and mismanaged. You only have to ask where is ‘St. Marry’? to get to an important question. Who, with any sense, is overseeing this set of manouevres?

That question goes deeper.

How can a well-educated and seemingly bright and intelligent person as Dr. Alexis get snared in a web of such seeming incompetence?

You have to answer that to understand how and why the obvious embarrassment of a candidate who was not a Jamaican citizen was not seen and addressed (at least by starting the process of ‘formalisation’) from before he was rolled out in August?

Moreover, with PNP having stressed that the candidate was duly nominated and faced no legal problem standing as a Commonwealth, why the rush now to get citizenship?

Guess when you buck your toe on one rock, bucking it on another seems less painful 🤔😩🙄

To be, or not to be, that is the question: Citizenship raises its head

Dr. Shane Alexis, PNP candidate for the upcoming by-election in St. Mary SE, has found himself in a firestorm over his citizenship. It’s on public record that he was born in Canada, and is a citizen of that country. According to his testimonies, yesterday, on RJR, he was born there while his Jamaican mother was there as a doctor. He came to Jamaica as a child and did much the same as many children in Jamaica, in terms of schooling. He gained his undergraduate degree from UWI, then went on a scholarship to study medicine in Cuba, and has since worked long and hard in Jamaica’s health sector. On that basis, few would think that there are issues about his commitment to Jamaica. However, his actions opened questions about that by the seemingly simple fact that he has chosen to not become a Jamaican citizen. In his answers on why he had not done that, he suggested that it was mainly a matter of time—he said he did not have opportunities to take a day off and stand in line to go through the processes. Sadly, that argument seems a little weak given the amount of ‘days off’ he has taken to be able to campaign, since his selection by the PNP. So, for many people the questions are not complicated:

  • Does Dr. Alexis want to be a Jamaican citizen?
  • If he wants to be a Jamaican citizen, why has he done nothing to get that process started?
  • If PNP officials did not think Dr. Alexis’ citizenship was an issue, why did they think that?
  • If PNP officials thought lack of Jamaican citizenship was an issue, why was the potential candidate not urged to start the process of applying for citizenship as soon as he was selected? (Depending on the countries involved, the process of obtaining another country’s citizenship may or may not be simple, but usually does take time, in the simplest of circumstances, including the need to obtain or confirm documentation from the country of current citizenship.)

But, Dr. Alexis might have compounded his inaction on Jamaican citizenship, because it’s reported that he has a Grenadian passport. So, he stands for election not as a Jamaican citizen, but as a citizen of two other countries, both in The British Commonwealth.

But, let’s be clear. Our Constitution allows Commonwealth citizens to both vote in elections in Jamaica and stand for elected offices in Jamaica. So, Dr. Alexis’ eligibility is not at issue.

But, his situation—being classed as a foreign citizen (even from a friendly, likable and liked Commonwealth partner like Canada), standing for office, and never having sought Jamaican citizenship—opens up potential issues in the eyes of many Jamaicans.

That he does not have Jamaican citizenship was seized upon by the JLP—ironically, by Daryl Vaz, who himself had issues previously about his citizenship and eligibility for a seat in parliament because he was a dual Jamaican-US citizen.

Mr. Vaz did what was not surprising in seizing the moment to seek to weaken the credentials of a political opponent. He pointed to the series of inactions that led to this situation, including not seeking to become a naturalized citizen, with Jamaican mother and Jamaican wife on his side. Vaz says he sees this as a ‘moral’ not a ‘legal’ issue, claiming PNP is being ‘hypocritical’.

Some commented yesterday that this was only brought up after nomination day on October 9. Well, that’s no surprise: it only becomes a matter to throw out there once nominations are in. There would have been little political mileage to gain from raising this while campaigning was going on but Dr. Alexis was not duly nominated. Whether one is a good card player or not, it makes little sense to expose the cards in one’s hand before they need to be played.

PNP officials suggested that they knew about the citizenship situation at the time of Dr. Alexis’ selection but did not see that it was a problem.

The episode raises many more questions than there are answers, at this stage—something not so unfamiliar in Jamaica.

It would be naive to think that some would not see opportunities for mischief-making in this situation, or to beg questions about how past actions can be re-interpreted, in light of certain facts. For instance, Dr. Alexis’ choice of red, instead of orange, can look odd, given that the national flag of the country whose citizenship he carries is also red. That red is also a colour of choice for PNP may or may not seem relevant to some.

Personally, I think it was mightily ironic that Jamaica’s by-election nomination day, October 9, was also Canada’s Thanksgiving Day.

That nobody thought that would make a few people look like turkeys tells me that I am doing well to stay far from politics, if the lights of oncoming trains are thought to be those on Santa’s sleigh bringing presents. 🙂

All of this may be nothing more than a storm in a teacup—and the puns that may follow because PNP decide to dub its candidate ‘Sugar’ are too many to resist. Those who want to sir things up can go ahead, at least for the customary nine-days of wonderment.

Some, like me, will wonder whether those running political campaigns have their eyes on the right moving pieces.

Of course, Dr. Alexis could announce today that he has started the process of becoming a Jamaican citizen. Then, he could be made to look like a political opportunist, who’s only taking such a step to try to bolster a weakening position. Rock and a hard place?

It’s all well and good for Dr. Alexis to argue for a change of Jamaican politics:

But, we’re not there, yet. In light of that, forewarned is forearmed. Take care of business! Don’t be surprised by the obvious, eh.

Some people have started to criticize parliamentarians for not having resolved various citizenship issues that have arisen over who can or cannot stand for political office. As I wrote last week, when talking about revealed preferences, this has clearly not been a priority for the government of the day. One can speculate about why. Reasons that seem obvious to me include the not trivial concern about what ‘resolving’ certain citizenship issues may mean for possible ideas for expanding the role of the diaspora. Seen with that is mind, certain issues become more complicated as we considered who may be seen as a Jamaican, including how many generations removed may be acceptable to those Jamaicans living on the island and those Jamaicans and their offspring living overseas.

Elections coming, in the sweet by and by…

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October 9, 2017, was ‘nomination day’ for three by-elections in Jamaica, which will each be contested on October 30. As is often the way with Jamaican politics, issues are a mere small part of the contest, and much more is about political positioning, name calling, and in-fighting. So, let’s have a look at that, with a little bit of whimsy.

First, political positioning and in-fighting. I’ll be brief. The major seat at issue is St. Mary SE, whose sitting MP Dr Winston Green, died suddenly. The two candidates for the two major parties are both doctors—Norman Dunn (JLP) and Shane Alexis (PNP). Dunn has the #namefortheframe, and if the result isn’t already a *done* deal then it soon will be done, the JLP hope. Alexis is trying to find a name, and his party has dubbed him ‘Sugar’. Well, the JLP wags jumped on that and happily talk about how he will get a *caning* and that his defeat will be *sweet*. Well, we know the medical profession think too much sugar is bad for your health, so whoever thought of that nickname had better go back to writing premature death notices. The seat was won by 5 votes in 2016 and the result was working through court petitions. Will it be close? Well, that old adage of ‘vote early and vote often’ seems to already have its head in the air, judging by a piece in today’s Observer about ‘pre-inked fingers rife’.

In the other two seats, St. Andrew SW, formerly held by former-PNP president and former-PM, Portia Simpson-Miller, will be contested by Angela Brown-Burke (PNP) and Victor Hyde (JLP). This is a PNP stronghold at the moment, or what Jamaicans would call a ‘garrison’, not least because many of the JLP supporters, who used to have a good showing, have ‘run out of town’. JLP won the seat four times, and PNP 9 times, since 1959. But, it’s been PNP/Portia territory since 1976 (though PNP boycotted elections in 1983), with Simpson-Miller getting well over 90% of votes every election since 1989. Hyde will hope he is not in for a *hiding* in such an unfriendly place. Hyde ran before and lost and is out of hiding again to hopefully inflict a major defeat on Brown-Burke. The JLP have started making noise that they see an upset in the making. Funnily, the seat already had an upset with the selection of Brown-Burke, who got in through some backdoor chicanery by the PNP to deny Audrey Smith Facey the selection for which she thought she had been groomed. Brown-Burke won the selection by 595-502 votes in late July. The process had been criticized by Peter Bunting, MP, a former PNP general secretary, who thought the process was not impartial. Bunting, funnily, has his finger in the pie in the other St. Andrew by-election.

The third by-election will be in St. Andrew Southern, formerly held by Omar Davies, who decided he had ‘run with it’ enough in representational politics. There, the PNP will be represented by Mark Golding, currently a senator, and former justice minister. His JLP opponent will be Dane Dennis. Both played the ‘political money’ game, with Golding paying his $3000 nomination fee with $1000 bills, which have PNP icon Michael Manley on one side, while Dennis paid with $100 bills, which carry the image of JLP stalwart Donald Sangster. They say ‘money can’t by you love’, but it does make the world go around. Golding, recently given the shadow cabinet portfolio on finance, has gotten his teeth into that and the finance minister, Audley Shaw, quickly. He’s no newcomer to that topic, and with his close ally, Bunting, has been one of the leading lights in previous successful financial ventures. While Omar, a Clarendon man, seemed to revel in getting into the mud of representative politics, rather than the erudite style of education, I’m not yet sure if Golding can pull that ‘getting down and dirty’ act off. Being educated at Oxford University has a funny way of rubbing off rough edges, if there were any 🙂 But, then again, having dealt with *dons* at… he should have an idea of how to deal with *dons* at home. Mark said he’s ‘no soft, uptown boy’, and seemed to know how to ring the chimes to get rid of his PNP opposition Colin Campbell.

The name-calling hasn’t gotten off the ground much yet, except in St. Mary, and interestingly much of the attempt to generate that has come from someone who has little to do with that by-election, Damion Crawford (PNP), who was de-selected from his seat in the last general election, which then went to the JLP. He’s since focused on his metier as a maths lecturer and ventured into the *shell* game through a liquid eggs business.

The other aspect is what government has been doing to influence the by-election. I’m sorry! It’s a piece of utter naivety for the PM to argue that the rolling out of a major road improvement project for St. Mary isn’t politically inspired. It looks like a duck. It walks like a duck. It’s a duck. It’s not the worst piece of pork-barreling we will see (excuse the mixed metaphor), but call it what it is. Moreover, the more the PM tries to say ‘it’s not a duck’, the more the web-footed waddler looks like Walt Disney’s ‘Donald’.

Well, we’ll let the Office of the Contractor General do its job monitoring the project.

Sure, the Junction road needs a major improvement, but some of the roads in Kingston/St. Andrew are also amongst the most shocking. Sadly, nothing can offer the ‘swing’ potential of the Junction road works. It’ll be interesting to see if some of the PM’s words leading up to the last election about crime and security, such as who should be elected if citizens wanted to be able to “sleep with [their] doors open” come back to haunt him. Crime is an issue that shoudn’t be politicized, but having ‘gone there’ in an effort to win a a general election, it would seem to be ‘fair game’ for a by-election. Let’s see how clean the fighting becomes in coming days.

Would I ever let my daughter marry an economist?

Two things that I’ve found to be a universal truths are that,

  • given the chance to blame someone else for a seeming failure, many politicians rarely look at themselves;
  • given the chance to take credit for something, politicians rarely give that honour to someone else.

Economic statistics are a great area to see this in action. So, while Jamaica’s economy is doing better in many ways than it has for a long time, there are plenty of signs of some ragged edges. So, what follows is not about one set of numbers but worth thinking about as the gloss goes off the budding economic ‘miracle’ that was taking shape.

One of my good, good Jamaican business friends with a keen eye on what goes on here often suggests to me to write about my time working at the IMF; I keep refusing. I’m not ashamed or hiding any thing really terrible, but I find it more interesting, for the moment to let memories find their way out through some reconnections with current events. Maybe, one day when nothing much is going on in Jamaica, I’ll find the need to fill my days with a set of such reminiscences.

I was sparring this morning on Twitter with attorney-turned-mild-mannered curmudgeon, Gordon Robinson, about some economics data. I don’t need to defend those who compile economic statistics in Jamaica. I think they do they best they can to produce timely and accurate numbers, that meet a number of criteria, including international comparability. Many organizations have their hands in the economics data pie, and many countries are followers not leaders. especially in the area of so-called ‘best practices’.

One thing about a country and its economy is that even when you think that things look much the same as in another country the details can defy all comparison. But, many economics data compilers try to work with a framework to overcome those detailed differences, and produce aggregates that broadly mean the same thing. Just a simple example. Money is something that many people will think they know and understand, but sadly it’s not just a one-size-fits-all concept and can become a different matter when one thinks about how a country actually functions. We can all agree on cash (notes and coins) and often that will be the preferred measure because of its clarity and simplicity. But, once you have any kind of banking system, even one that may be highly dysfunctional, then other things that can act like cash start to matter. The simplest of these would be deposits, which can be used or drawn upon to pay. Already, you get into complications because while cash is cash, all deposits are not alike: some are immediately availabe, some may need notice, some come with chequeing facilities, some may be local currency, some may be in foreign currencies. Some may be in banks, some may be in other financial institutions. But, I wont bore you with the ramifications of those different configurations. I merely wanted to touch on how things can get complicated quickly.

The ‘argument’ centred around inflation statistics. Now, how prices are changing in an economy is hard to measure at the best of times, because they can move in a number of different ways and over different time periods. There are also so many of them that do not behave in linear ways, depending on quantities. Some are explicit, while others are implicit. But, bravely, statistical agencies go through a range of exercises to try to measure price changes. Most often, they design a so-called ‘representative basket’ of goods, and check on their prices in different outlets on a regular basis–daily, weekly, quarterly etc. Economists know this is not perfect not least because the basket, while good in general, can need refining faster than systems allow, so get out-of-date. Goods change in quality, sometimes in ways that are hard to perceive. But, until we arrive at a world where we can monitor all transactions in real-time and get that to feed automatically into some databank, these price ‘surveys’ and their ilk are about the best that can be done.

Of course, with things like prices, each person could tell you how close or far he/she is from the representative basket and also how he/she adjusts, if possible, and if desired to changing prices. (One odd socioeconomic phenomenon is how and why people do not automatically tend towards cheaper goods and services or goods and services whose prices are falling relative to those whose prices are rising. Many factors come into play in purchasing decisions, including ease of access, brand loyalty, access to information, and source of funding. So, one can often find situations where people complain about prices rising yet do little or nothing to mitigate that. Some of the relative inaction relates to budget constraints and how close people are to those limits. We also have situations which run counter to general concerns, such as people complaining about prices falling. Attitudes to price changes depend much on whether you are a supplier or consumer of the good or service.) So, the aggregate always has to contend with the stream of anecdotes that are readily available.

This tells us what?

No one should trust any data set without reservation. Those who produce them should never hesitate to highlight their general shortcomings and any particular problems with the latest set or with any past set, including if they needed to be revised, for whatever reason.

If you feel the data are misrepresenting realities, then you’d better come up with a viable and reliable way of countering those. Sometimes, various pressure groups do their own work to focus on their own group, and that may usually highlight differences of composition of goods, services, timing and other things. But, it’s no easy task to supplant national statistics and to also prove that at the outset and during the time when these alternatives are going to be in play that they have been constructed and collected in what all would agree are unbiased ways.

With a slight knee-bend to other professions, economics rarely has the luxury of anything called ‘incontrovertible evidence’. Even then, so-called open and shut cases sometimes end up inconclusive, at best, or upside down, at worst. That’s not to say that economics data are useless. Far from it.

Tomorrow is National Tree-Planting Day: Let’s Start Greening

I will be continuing my planting and nurturing of plants… 🙂

Petchary's Blog

I should have given you more warning: Tomorrow is National Tree-Planting Day.Unless the rain washes us all away (which, the way the weather is going, is more than possible) I hope there will be some efforts made to try and redress the balance.

Another little tree goes into the ground at Mt. James Basic School. (Photo: Forestry Department)

Balance? You may ask. Well, yes. You see, although Jamaica’s forests have gained a tiny bit (0.4 per cent) between 1998 and 2013, this is largely due to an increase in secondary forest (that is, less valuable forest that has already been disturbed). According to the Forestry Department of Jamaica’s National Forest Management and Conservation Plan(revised just last month), we lost 95 per cent of our wetlands (mangrove and swamp forest) during this period, and there was also an 88 per cent reduction in tropical dry forest. St Ann, Hanover…

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Where can growth come from? Jamaica shouldn’t be surprised to see expected policy outcomes

All one can do as an analyst is to apply your understanding to policies and actions, make your assessments, then see if they’re borne out by later events or data.

I’ve said repeatedly that Jamaica’s government is running a fiscal policy that is not conducive to growth. Now, the pieces are beginning to show that to be the case.

Yesterday, the acting financial secretary in the ministry of finance reported to parliament that growth in the first fiscal quarter was negative: see Gleaner report.

In recent days we also learned that PAYE revenues are down in the first four months of the fiscal year, to July. That should have been no surprise, after relieving people of tax obligations by raising the threshold and making it punitive for those who exceeded the thresholds. So, smart and rational people who look set to earn more wound want remuneration in ways that didn’t put them into higher tax brackets. It’s not complicated. It’ll take some more thinking to understand why this is happening while employment has increased. One obvious answer is that people are getting jobs that pay below the PAYE threshold. That would make sense on several levels, not least the type of jobs supposedly growing.

The other nugget on negative growth was that the primary budget surplus was larger than envisaged under the IMF program.

Personally, I can’t wait to read the next IMF staff report to see how it stitches together this quilt that looks tattered. 🤔