Tipping Points. Is Jamaica ready to change?

One of my favourite people of Jamaican heritage is Malcolm Gladwell, whose mother was born in Jamaica, but who’s classed as British-Canadian. He’s written some bestselling books, which would really fall gladly into the term ‘nerdy’. One of those books is The Tipping Point, tipping-ptwhich explores how ideas spread. If one could identify tipping points before they are reached, then betting would be a great sport. The important elements of Gladwell’s arguments centre on the importance of a ‘few’ people, how an idea becomes memorable, and the context or social conditions. Put simply, you need the right people to spread a message; it has to have something special to help it take hold; the time must be right (or ripe). I have a feeling that Jamaica is nearing some important tipping points.

Can Jamaican get out of its economic malaise? On a good day, if you ask me what I am, I’ll say “An economist.” If you ask me where do I work, I’ll say “I’m retired. I used to work for the International Monetary Fund.” In Jamaica, that last statement could be the excuse used for people to hail a handful of rocks at a person. So far, it hasn’t happened to me. I do not believe that Jamaica has made a dramatic change of heart and fallen in love with the IMF, but I think people have begun to better understand that the IMF tends to get blamed for things governments need to do but find difficult–the blame is often put on the messenger. Ultimately, the IMF does nothing but dispense advice and dole out some money for what it feels is the right things being done. Governments have to act, and citizens need to get used to taking governments and politicians to task for policy failures.

In coming weeks, the IMF will have a team of economists assess formally how the government has performed under the current arrangement with the IMF (stiffly termed the ‘quarterly test under the Extended Fund Facility (EFF) Agreement’). I have not seen any figures or internal reports of policy actions, but clearly the government is very confident. Within days of the test date (June 30), officials went official saying they were confident the tests would be passed. That message has been repeated at very high levels for a good month. Now, you generally don’t blast out such impressions unless you’re locked into them being true: the cost of failure is high, but the cost of false promise is worse.

One of my bosses at the IMF once told me that one of his bosses only ever needed to see three numbers to know how an economy was doing, so he did not relish sitting in meetings with his team members poring over reams of data. In the same way, some people (me, for instance) believe that you can sense when people are going about things differently. That may not show up in figures we like to consider, not least because the changes are subtle and widespread and are represented in attitudes and behaviour, which don’t lend themselves to clear measurement.

People often lament that certain things didn’t happen when they should have. They then rail that things would be better if action had been taken earlier. I wont disagree with that sentiment. I just say that sometimes the time is not quite right and things have a habit of happening when conditions are right. That’s Gladwellian, but I thought that way long before reading Gladwell’s book.

Jamaica is on the cusp of pulling itself out of its economic malaise. I will look at the three numbers but have nothing else that can prove that. I feel it in my bones.dog_with_a_seriously_large_bone I wont be proved right within the next weeks, nor will I be proved wrong by year-end. This process takes time, but I sense the process is working. Like Usain Bolt, putting his finger to his lips when winning the 200 metres final in last year’s Olympics as a way of silencing the critics, I have an inkling that Jamaican officials feel they can walk the walk. About time!

Is Jamaica ready to get up and stand up for (their) rights? I believe that there is a limit to the degree of self-delusion. No doubt, the light bulb may not go off for a long while, but it usually does. Jamaicans readily cry and wail when their fellow citizens fall foul of some heinous deed by another citizens. Look at the regular outpouring of grief as innocent people lose their lives when gangs or criminals of another stripe have a shoot-out and a stray bullet takes a life, especially that of a child. We are living that now as Denham Town in west Kingston mourns an 11 year-old girl who was shot and killed as a hail of bullets sought some other target. The local MP, Desmond Mackenzie, came out publicly against this latest tragedy and his constituency office has offered a J$300,000 reward for information leading to the arrest of the shooters. (He’s also paying the funeral expenses.) Local residents are crying “Enough!” Will this be the straw that breaks the back of the camel of gang violence? Which will be stronger, the disgust that people feel that some come into their midst and have no respect for life and limb or the sentiment that “Infomer fi dead!” You can’t have it both way.

Don’t even think that the homophobia that is part of Jamaica’s image is going to disappear. Things like that are so deeply ingrained into the fabric of this country that it has to take generations to move to another state. But, I sense that the public comments condemning the recent brutal killing by party goers of a young man who was dressed in women’s clothes at a dance. Reason is not going to affect immediately those who were involved in the beating, chopping and dumping of the body. The person who exposed the cross-dresser has to live with their role–proudly, of course. Reason is not what matters in such cases. It’s passion, as in rage. You cannot reason with a crazy person, and for sure, not with crazed people. While you may leave a two-year old, who gets into a tantrum over custard spilled onto a favourite toy, to cry itself to sleep, when you’re dealing with much older people, you have to take some clear actions to make them understand that ‘this foolishness’ has to stop. Religious organizations have a sorry role to play in the lack of understanding of the rights of homosexuals, and no amount of twisting and scripture-turning can excuse the abuses of logic that come from accepting one kind of ‘sin‘ and condemning what are deemed to be others. For sure, we do not have the means to bring back a life taken, but we have the means to use that loss in positive ways. The Justice Minister openly condemned the killing. Other ‘opinion makers’ are joining their voices. Are they the important ‘few’? But, so-called ordinary people need to lift their voices and their heads to say whether they condone or condemn–they need to make the message stick. No more sitting comfortably on the fence and merely tut-tutting. Some have called for a show of public disobedience on this issue. Is the social environment better positioned? The time may well be right.

Author: Dennis G Jones (aka 'The Grasshopper')

Retired International Monetary Fund economist. My blog is for organizing my ideas and thoughts about a range of topics. I was born in Jamaica, but spent 30 years being educated, living, and working in the UK. I lived in the USA for two decades, and worked and travelled abroad, extensively, throughout my careers and for pleasure. My views have a wide international perspective. Father of 3 girls. Also, married to an economist. :)