Jamaica’s economy reflects several characteristics of Jamaican society very well. We’ve developed a freewheeling style to much of our lives and it carries over to many economic activities and how we like to do things. We are reputed to dislike following rules. That plays out in several ways. We like to do as we please. We also like to break rules or ignore regulations. However, political and business leaders are trying to move us to wider application, and acceptance, of rules and regulations. Part of this is to make us conform to international norms, part is to try to make the society more orderly. Following rules and regulations better should reduce costs for all of us by ‘leveling the playing field’20130914-163636.jpg

So, in that vein, one of the complications coming is an attempt by the local authorities in Kingston to stop a free for all with vending and license and move vendors from sidewalks to specified vending areas, and to license and regulate some handcart operators.

All over this island, we see and live from sidewalk or street vendors and people selling from handcarts or moving things around by handcarts. It’s a part of our national social and economic fabric. We don’t check that sellers are licensed or selling from designated spots: we take them where we find them, and they tend to set up where they feel they will sell better. It’s all rational behaviour, just not playing by rules.

The economy lacks certain infrastructure and selling is much easier with this atomized set up of stalls or goods available all over the place. Sure, order and tidiness may be good, but in striving for that, we shouldn’t ignore how life is really lived by many people, who have few means or opportunities to earn income. It’s hard to do other than they do. Moreover, it has been this way for decades and I suspect most of us could not imagine it being otherwise.20130910-185242.jpg

A man building a cart from pallet boards and used tyres and metal scraps has performed a minor feat of basic engineering. If we had a different economy, we might have a means of turning these simple engineers into a production line to perhaps supply carts that could be exported to places that have similar needs but don’t have the materials in abundant supply. They’d be rough and ready, as many people expect. But, they could be spruced up or customized if the market really wanted that. That may be the stuff of dreams, but you never know.

A story over the weekend focused on alleged nuisances created by unlicensed operators of jet skis in a north coast resort. The story focused quickly on how illegal operations allowed a substantial number of people to make a living. Significantly, no new licences have issued since 1997! So, licensed jet skis have been fixed at 36. Fifteen years of tourism growth and no need to change? Does that seem like a good way to attract and entertain foreign tourists? Mixed message?

When you have a limping economy and massive unemployment, bending and breaking rules is likely to be more common as people try to eke out a living. Of course, those breaking rules who could follow them and operate well helps them be more profitable than those who follow the rules.

Several days ago a story went viral about an old lady (aka “Granny”) who was apparently apprehended and arrested by police for selling ackees on a sidewalk, presumably illegal. A video of the incident quickly circulated on the Internet, and the storm hit the airwaves as complaints rained in about this apparent mistreatment.

An interview with the old lady on Irie FM later revealed that she had not been selling ackees, but was merely sitting by someone else’s box; she’d been selling pears, presumably, also illegal. She’s due to have a day in court soon. The police, though they looked quite restrained in the video, are seen as insensitive and focused on the wrong ‘criminals’, meaning gangsters, murderers, etc. As one radio DJ said, if she did not have to be out on the road selling to get by, would she really be doing the alleged crime? It seems unlikely. The message many get is that people may have to break rules to get by; we should understand that, and not tolerate efforts to stop it. So, wrong doing is often legitimized through apparent need.

One newspaper highlighted last week how certain kinds of extortion are becoming prevalent again in downtown Kingston, threatening prospects of reinvigorating the commercial district there. The article blared “Raging illegality, rampant indiscipline and flagrant criminality…” It cited “defiant street-side vendors”. The extortion is in the form of “parking fees”, even though the cars appeared to be parking illegally. One official acknowledged that “part of the problem is unemployment”. So, some people are finding ways to make money by facilitating illegal parking and taking a fee for it. The drivers are buying plenty of goods from Coronation Market and elsewhere, so keeping business alive. Should the local authorities allow parking and get the fees? Should the series of mutually supportive illegal activities be allowed? Take away the income source and then what?

That some people in Jamaica are living on the edge is no big observation. Songs are on the radio telling us about poor people with hungry bellies and getting by without food each day. Let’s accept that things are desperate for many people and that some of them have decided to survive however they can. They are meeting some clear needs, but find that the way they are doing this is frowned upon. I’ve not seen any offer of alternative activities when these undesirable acts are about to be stopped. So, I wonder how anyone believes that a solution has been found.