It’s a great house, but it needs some work

Many literary works are best remembered for their opening lines. For that reason, amongst many, I have always loved Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, which opens:

‘It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife.’

Likewise, I have to love the most recent IMF report on Jamaica, which opens:

During most of the past three decades, Jamaica has suffered from very low growth, high public debt, and serious social challenges.’

That may deserve a ‘Wow!’ Put differently, the IMF said that Jamaica had pretty much wasted the second of its two generations of independence. That wastage has shown up with an economy that has done little to produce higher real incomes and jobs, a system of government that was based on spending and borrowing much more than its revenue, and a fractured society. Let’s hear another ‘Wow!’

The Encyclopaedia Britannica defines political economy as a ‘branch of social science that studies the relationships between individuals and society and between markets and the state, using a diverse set of tools and methods drawn largely from economics, political science, and sociology. The term political economy is derived from the Greek polis, meaning “city” or “state,” and oikonomos, meaning “one who manages a household or estate.” Political economy thus can be understood as the study of how a country—the public’s household—is managed or governed, taking into account both political and economic factors.’

I’m going to take the liberty of making a tour of Jamaica’s political economy along various paths, with no precise end-point in mind other than an attempt to look at, and think hard about, many things Jamaican, economic and political, trying to remember the stark assessment given by one of the world’s leading institutions of economic analysis and policy formulation.

I try to point out to people that when they have conversations with Jamaicans they need to keep good eye contact: many messages are sent non-verbally and if you let your eyes stray you may miss some very important cues given by the body. For the same reason, you need to maintain bodily control in case you give cues mistakenly by the careless movement of some body part. Examples? Watch what Jamaicans do with their mouths and eyes: they can quickly give approval or disapproval without a break in speech, or without any need for speech at all. The rolled eyes. The pushed out mouth. The headed shaken side to side. The hands on hips.

I was waiting in my car yesterday afternoon in Mandeville town centre. I’d double parked and was getting tooted by a few taxi drivers and yelled at by a few people, “Muv de cyar outta di rode nuh, Dadda!” Then, my eyes caught two things: a bill poster and some vendors on the roadside. I wanted to take a quick picture of the vendors while they sold gineps and newspapers. One female vendor noticed my roving eye and said “Me cyan ‘elp yuh?” I quickly adjusted my glasses onto my head and replied, “No, I’m just trying to read the poster behind you.” Her eyes opened a little wider and she smiled, cocking her head a little to the side. Oh dear, I thought, she thinks I was making a proposition and now I need to make sure that she understands that I am not interested in anything she may be selling. The verbal exchange might have seemed clear, but the ocular exchange was fraught with danger. I was saved as the person on whom I was waiting came out of the Top Loaf bakery, bullas in hand, and jumped into the car. I pulled off hastily.

I don’t know how many Jamaicans have bothered to read the IMF’s report, or even looked at its table of contents (noting that the country has above average literacy rates). Let’s assume that at best it’s no more than half of the population within the island. The majority of the population, therefore, is not really focusing on what the IMF has to say. It is more likely–as good Jamaicans would–to be taking good note of what it can perceive of the IMF’s body language and what the IMF appears to be doing: Is it nodding, shaking its head, smiling, tapping its fingers, drumming its foot, kissing its teeth? Those ‘non-verbal’ signals come and will come in the form of how the IMF reacts and the money it’s prepared to dole out. Talk is cheap; money buys land. The IMF’s no charity, mind, and it has said basically that the country is in a major bind: ‘Repeated efforts to overcome these economic problems, often with Fund support, have failed to result in an enduring recovery.’

Mandeville is far from Hell in anyone’s eyes, and it’s no Paradise, either. It’s a lovely spot, sitting on lush hills and benefitting from cooling breezes. It’s local economy and society has many features which mimic Jamaica as a whole: it has a strong base in the bauxite industry; it has excellent educational institutions at all levels; small-scale agriculture is still an important part of its life; small businesses abound; it has a strong religious base; remittances from abroad have helped many people sustain a decent life style. It is in a Parish that has produced many brilliant politicians and thinkers. It has many hard-working people. Its economic fortunes have gone down in recent years, with the demise of activity by the bauxite industry. People have seen income-generating opportunities dwindle, and that manifests itself in many ways, including in house-building projects that remain stalled and homes that cannot be rented. However, it does not have the swathes of shanty dwellings common in parts of Kingston. Poor people are plentiful, for sure, but with the land and families as their support, most people appear to be doing better than getting by. It has begun to see an upsurge in certain kinds of violent crime, but that is still on a relatively lower scale. It does not reflect a wasted generation of opportunities. Despite the evidence that economic fortunes have faltered, much of Mandeville seems to bustle now as it did years ago. I get that same impression about much of Jamaica. I note this to say that the ‘truth universally acknowledged’ about Jamaica needs to be stripped down. I’m not implying that the IMF assessment is wrong, but suggest that it begs one to dig much deeper than the words and numbers. So, along my path, I’m going to try to scratch a little to see what I can find under the surface.

A friend asked for my opinion about what to do with a family homestead in Mandeville. I visited it with my in-laws yesterday, and we all agreed that it has a wonderful location, with stunning views to all sides. The house shows its age, but within that aged body are some strong bones: the old iron stove in the kitchen looked as good as new and we could imagine the smells of what had been cooked in it over the years. However, the house needs a lot of renovation. Whether it is sold or rented, it will remain a great place. It would be a wonderful permanent home. It would be a great guest house. It would be fabulous for functions. It needs energy and some money spent on it to bring it up to date. I took my in-laws from that house to Bloomfield Great House, bloomfield_great_houseand looked at it and its views over Mandeville. “You see the potential that has been realised, at least in part, here? The homestead has the same opportunities,” I said to my in-laws. They nodded. Sounds familiar?