What shambles?

I don’t want to be an apologist for poor government decision-making, especially economic policy management, but I will scream the next time I hear someone say that “Jamaica is in shambles”. It’s not true. It has been in political chaos, most notably in the mid-late 1970s; the tribalism that was evident then, is still there now, but Jamaicans always accept the party that has won the elections as being that which will form the next government. That is not shambolic; that’s democracy at work. The USA is not my favourite benchmark, but by comparison, political expression and participation by the population works better in Jamaica than it does in much of the USA.

We have seen economic shambles. Michael Manley‘s socialist ‘experiment’ was a downright disaster–the man admitted as much years later. Those who were around, permanently or as visitors, can remember the times in the 1970s/80s when many shop shelves were bare because of the low-level of foreign reserves, after the shock of the ‘first oil crisis’. Jamaica was spiralling down the proverbial toilet bowl. But, that is not modern Jamaica. This is not a country of ‘nothing to buy’. Admittedly, life looks better from uptown Kingston than it does in Tivoli Gardens. But things also look better in St. Elizabeth, reeling from the decline in the fortunes of the bauxite industry, than they do in Guinea (another major bauxite producer), which has natural resources to die for but cannot seem to figure out how to feed, educate, water or light most of its population. Jamaica is not dirt poor, by international standards; it’s classed as ‘middle-income’. That does not make us rich by any stretch of the imagination, but we are a much better position that many countries.

I can walk around, or better drive around, and find dozens of examples of things done badly in Jamaica. But, guess what? I can do the same in the very well-endowed part of the USA from where I have recently arrived: Maryland and Northern Virginia have counties with some of the highest per capita income and educational standards in the USA. Yet, I could find myself struggling to get through my daily life without meeting some form of economic or social dysfunction. When it rains heavily, roads flood in many neighbourhoods. When there are high winds and thunderstorms, power lines go down and may cut off electricity to large chunks of the area for days, not just hours. This is a common and recurring problem. Would you say “Maryland is in shambles”?

When I drive around, I find very few instances of traffic lights not working and chaos at many road junctions. I may see lots of beggars or men wanting to wash my windscreen as a way of making a few dollars. I don’t see many signs of road anarchy, which I have seen in countries not regarded as in a shambles. Admittedly, when I spent a summer in Italy and Greece in the 1970s and 1980s, I was awakened to crazy Mediterranean driving patterns, and that should have been a warning of what may happen to a country’s economy. Let people drive around madly on the roads and you will get into an economic mess. Jamaican driving is fast but not utterly brainless, so perhaps a problem looms.

True, in the USA or the UK, I had many more ways of doing most things. For example, I can now perform many economic transactions online, from the comfort of my lounge chair using my computer or my smartphone; I cannot do that in Jamaica. I still have to go physically to places of business or sometimes to a ‘bill pay’ location to do those similar things. Yes, that’s frustrating, but it’s not an indication of shambles. Jamaica is still largely rural, and even with very good educational standards, the spread of technology has not been as broad as in many industrial countries; in that sense, the country reflects its level of development. I turn on my TV in the US and I get a zillion channels to surf; but I get just under a zillion from Flow in Jamaica. But, in the US, many of them are now in HD. True. Flow, pull yourself up! I can go to the movies in the US and get my fill of new films every week. The films are preceded by an array of trailers and some really bad adverts, plus reminders to turn off cell phones. The theatres are poky and people jump up and leave as soon as the film ends, racing to get their cars from the parking lot to avoid the jam that they fear. In Jamaica, we still have films preceded by the national anthem; we get an intermission–true, its timing seems random–but, it’s a nice time to socialize and talk a little about what you are seeing and looking forward to seeing; patrons usually don’t feel to need to stampede to get to their cars. That’s a shambles? Bring me more popcorn, Beverly, and another bag of mints!

I can pick up the telephone in the US and call anywhere in the world. Jamaica offers me the same geographical options. I don’t have just one company to choose from for my landline or mobile service, either. The cell companies have figured out that Jamaicans love to talk and text and are falling over themselves to offer new ways to do the same, and often for less. Shambles? What’re you smoking, Winston? When I try to change my address online in the US, my options are often limited to another state or some US military post. What arrogance! At least, in Jamaica, we are so small as to see it’s ridiculous to think that people only move from parish to parish. Bring on the shambles.

When I want to head out in my car, I do not have a problem filling it with gasolene: I may need a second mortgage to afford to do that. It’s no use lamenting how little I used to pay in the US because I cannot convince the US government to stop subsidizing gas prices; after all, the country is a major oil producer. Jamaicans face high taxes on gasolene, as do many Europeans; Americans, do not. Relative to many of our English-speaking neighbours, Jamaica is a slouch when it comes to car ownership, a mere 188 per 1000, compared to 469 for Barbados and 353 for Trinidad, but surprisingly way ahead of The Bahamas (81). You’d never believe that, if you try to negotiate Nassau in a car. But, that is more a reflection of income levels. Despite the costs and tribulations that may be involved in importing, insuring, licensing and taxing a car, Jamaicans can get them relatively easily–and the governments have tried to do something about the quality by limits on the age of imports.

When I’m looking for something I need (or want, if I am wholly honest), can I find it in Jamaica at a reasonable price? Most of the time, I can. Now, I may want to say that the quality is not as high as I have seen elsewhere, but I think the choices are very good. I lived for three years in Barbados, and I would argue that the choices available there are fewer. That’s not meant to rubbish that small island neighbour, but just to use it as a reference given its place often noted as ‘better’ than Jamaica in terms of economic management. Whether it’s the big merchants or the higglers bringing in wares that keep my choices up, I’m not arguing; whether the labels are ‘Gucci’ or ‘Gucki’, I’m not too bothered if it seems that there’s real value for money. It seems to be much the same as whether I go to a mall in the US or take my chances with a street vendor in Washington DC. Is that a real Kate Spade bag for US$10. Do Movados really retail at US$5?

I need cash–I really do, as I write. I head out to a shopping plaza two minutes from my house. I put my card into a money machine and out comes what dribbling of cash I still have in my current account, after my wife has done shopping at the weekend 🙂 There’s a banking system that works. It may be a brute of a thing in terms of how it may operate on a daily basis. But, are the long lines that are common a reflection of how the banks force us to operate or a sign of our preferences for ‘touchy feely’ banking? It may be the latter, as I see the same in so-called financial centres like The Bahamas and Barbados.

Alright, the international value of the currency may make me hide my head in shame, but being an economist, I have no problem living with the exchange rate at 100 to the US dollar. I like that for computational purposes. I know that the government could decide to redenominate the currency and, with the strokes of a few pens, put the ‘new’ Jamaican dollar (or we rename it, too, to ‘The Marley’ or ‘The Reggae’) at, say, parity, with the US. But, I also know that some of our Caribbean neighbours have been living a lie with their fixed exchange rates. With all due respect to my wife, there is no way that The Bahamas has kept economic pace with the US since the former’s exchange rate was pegged at parity.  Likewise, with Barbados and its fixed rate. I have to smile at all the squirming and stomach clenching that comes when people talk of moving from those fixed rates. But, let’s leave raking those leaves for another day.

Jamaica has economic woes aplenty. The country has lived beyond its means in a big way–we like to live large. We have a near-crippling external debt burden, with one of the world’s highest ratios of public debt to GDP. I want to say it’s the government’s fault, not least because it has more means to curb spending or try to raise revenues, as well as ways to change the behaviour of the population. But, I always say that politicians are craven, so hard choices do not make good bedfellows for most politicians. They’ve long mastered the art of the empty promise. Sadly, the public–not just in Jamaica–seems to love an empty promise, especially if it can come with some free tee shirts and a good jump up.

Unemployment is troublingly high and has been that way for a very long time, sitting (or lying down) at around 14%. It’s hard to find the right comparisons, but look at the UK or the USA where unemployment is hovering around 7-8 percent. The rate for the European Union is 11%. I wont try to get cute and figure out what the number looks like if you try to measure the so-called ‘underemployed’. Jamaica cannot grow very fast in a world that is growing slowly and it surely cannot when some of its major markets are also under the economic cosh. We do not have the means to absorb all those who want to and can work: whether in major private sector activities such as tourism, bauxite, agriculture, financial services or in government services. We’ve endured higher unemployment for much longer than many industrialised countries. Even with a lesser social welfare system, I suspect that the out-of-work in Jamaica are faring not much worse, if at all, compared with unemployed people in Lyons or Topeka.

Jamaica has not been able to grow fast enough (as far as official data show) to absorb its fast-growing population and provide for them, whether with jobs, schools, housing or other social services. That is a failure–not a shambles.

Inflation has been stuck in the 6-12% range for a couple of decades now. This, too, shows a failure of economic management. But, it’s not the shambles that comes from hyper-inflation.

True enough, really shambolic countries can manage to do good and great things. But, I don’t think that a shambolic Jamaica would be producing the artistic, sporting and literary talent that it has done for the past 50 years if it was truly a shambles. Shambolic countries have their artistes stuck in national airports with no planes flying out of the country and no means to get out by road either because of social chaos or because the road network is a disaster. It also would not be educating people who could consider the option of going abroad to study, not because they have money to do so, but because they have the intelligence or other skills to impress other countries to let them come and study.

Outside of the economy, Jamaicans are well aware of the country’s image for violent crime and the savagely intolerant attitudes towards homosexuality. The country also has a reputation for being very religious. Figuring out that conundrum, or seeming contradiction has been hard, but they do not make the place a shambles. The USA is also crime-ridden. Attitudes towards homosexuality are not universally liberal. Religious observance is a mixed bag: church and state are supposedly separated, but “In God we trust” is inscribed on the currency. You go figure that out.

Jamaica is not a basket case, by any stretch of the imagination. Rubbish it, if you must, but don’t call it a shambles. Get the perspective right.