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Jamaica is a series of puzzles. But, I think I have figured out one that was sticking in my head. Why has the country not imploded after decades of economic stagnation? Because people have been allowed enormous leeway to do wrong.

The country has lived beyond its means: we see that clearly in the national budget deficits (and the resulting increased debt burden that hangs around the national neck), and in the balance of payments deficits (which has given the country a range of goods that it could do without, as well as some that it produces well itself, the resulting loss of foreign exchange reserves and the inevitable pressure to decline on the exchange rate). But, that public sector excess spending which could not be afforded was accompanied by excess consumption by the private sector that it could not afford, either. That private sector behaviour was a common phenomenon in the USA and the UK, before the recent financial crisis and long recession. There, it was financed by excess credit (borrowing).

However, in Jamaica, excess consumption has been facilitated by misappropriation and theft. People have stolen or captured land, by squatting. People have stolen agricultural products–our famed praedial larceny. People have stolen piped water. People have stolen electricity. People have stolen from each other on a massive scale through Ponzi schemes and lotto scams. People steal sand from local beaches and rocks from quarries. So, society has preyed on itself. Crime pays, in Jamaica 

Picking our own pockets and thinking we are getting rich

Picking our own pockets and thinking we are getting rich

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The country also preyed on nationals and foreigners through piracy, notably of US cable and satellite signals. Jamaican (and other Caribbean countries) broadcasted illegally transmission from US satellites from the 1980s, to the detriment of local cinema, who lost half of their revenue. Citizens also obtained satellite decoders to enable them to watch US and other satellite broadcasts.

Jamaican creativity has thwarted most solutions tried elsewhere, to combat these practices, often unable to last more than few months in Jamaica.

We now have a citizenry grown up on obtaining things without paying for them, or paying considerably less because they were misappropriated. Many of these citizens were also encouraged in this behaviour by politicians, even by government ministers. The encouragement was indirect in many areas, through less-than-full commitment to combat theft. We have anecdotal evidence of police being complicit in some activities.

We also had direct encouragement by people being given services for free for which they knew people should pay. People were allowed to move into communities and create access to electricity without proper installation and metering by the power company. This theft of electricity has crippled the power company financially (US$125 million in losses over the past five years), damaged its equipment physically, and damaged the appliances of customers (paying and non-paying).

The past few days have seen an interesting battle. The power company tried to strike back, using a crude and extreme measure of cutting off power to communities in and around Kingston where more than 70 percent of customers were stealing electricity. It did this for a good part of the daytime. It was crude because even paying customers suffered. The cut-off also affected essential services. Result? A loud hue and cry to stop it. Paying residential customers complained loudly to the company in person, and complained through their elected representatives and the written, audio, and visual media. (I did not hear any complaints from companies, which may support the view that many of them in the target communities are also culprits.)

Yesterday, the drama reached fever pitch. A junior government minister in the ministry of energy, on behalf of the PM, asked the power company (Jamaica Public Service) to stop the cut-offs. They told him to take a hike. He went home crying. The Office of Utilities Regulation had arranged a meeting with the power company, and late in the day issued a notice that they ‘cease and desist’ the cut-offs, citing that such action was against the company’s licence and made it liable to prosecution (under Section 9 of the Office of Utilities Regulation Act). The company agreed to comply, adding that it “will continue discussions with all stakeholders to arrive at long-term solutions to the widespread problem of electricity theft, which has reached crisis proportions.” Their CEO, Kelly Tomblin, is not a dunderhead. Several lawyers had already suggested that paying customers take Jamaica Public Service to court over their action, so legal battles were close to being started. The airwaves and social media lit up. Power to the people…even if they had no power.

Ironically, before the cease and desist order had been issued, Parliament was affected by the cut-offs, and the politicians were in the dark–many say that’s where they are normally. 🙂

So, the Jamaica Public Service did something out of desperation, and took down the good with the bad. They do not have the means to separate customers in a very fine way. But, why were they in that position? Well, politicians never helped them rein in their non-paying customers. If being a public representative means something in a democracy, I think it means getting citizens to understand what being a good citizen means, including not killing your neighbours and not stealing from them and the general community. The Jamaica Public Service had been calling for years for help to deal with electricity thefts, and had tried to use the police to arrest people, pulled down ‘throw-ups’, and more recently encourage people to pay, but with very poor success. West Kingston MP, Desmond McKenzie, said in an interview on ‘Beyond the Headlines’ yesterday, that he had asked the power company for a list of the non-payers in his constituency: he wanted to be able to know to whom he should speak to get them to pony up, like good citizens. That seemed a bit far-reaching to me and many others. He shouldn’t have a right to see this detail of a contractual arrangement. If he’s that concerned, he can talk to all his constituency and urge the thieves to look their neighbours in the eyes and continue their practices. Or, he could help point out cases to the police, so that they could start legal action against the thieves. Why do I feel that this is not what he will do? Someone pinch me.

I advocate ‘naming and shaming’, at least as one measure to get people to know who is doing us all harm, and not let them sit comfortably in their homes that allegedly have appliances that use three times the amount of electricity as those of paying customers. That level of abuse is obscene.

But, if a crisis helps focus minds, then Jamaica has faced a few mini-ones in the past few weeks.

I often say, “You are what you tolerate”. Jamaica’s political leaders have not been proactive in dissuading people from the thieving habit. Why? It was a very convenient way to ensure that more people were able to consume things that their level of incomes could not permit. It was bribery. What was the reward for the politicians? Votes. Here, nice little ballot paper. Green or Orange were not that different in wooing the would-be criminals.

So, what may happen if the politicians start to side with those who want to get their finances in order by stopping the thefts? They lose votes? That’s right, Johnny! Demond McKenzie said, unbelievably, last night “It’s not about votes”. The radio host, Dionne Jackson-Miller could be heard tumbling to the floor and then rolling around laughing raucously. When she recovered her breath and composure, she challenged the MP. He said again what he’d said, and added that he had gone against his constituents often. Well, I want a ticket to when he goes either to a public rally to tell the thieves to stop, or when he goes door to door and starts telling the people to get regularised and get rid of the flat-screen TVs, freezers and other appliances that are commonplace.

None of this is really a surprise. We have a country that is poorer than it should be because politicians frittered away money they collected in taxes and borrowed from nationals and foreigners. Like children who have not done what they should, they scrambled for excuses and tried to mop up the mess on the carpet. It was a pretty nasty stain. But, the pursuit of power is a powerful drug. How better to get and keep it than to make life easier for a group of people who really have little to show for progress. Rank bad housing, much of it jerry-rigged on land that they did not own. No or few jobs. Stinking environment, with refuse and sanitary conditions that would appal most. Yes, they showed many classic signs of poverty. But, when Jamaicans were poor in the past, the belief was that either you made do, or you tried as many legal ways as you could to do better. Well, we are not in the ‘making do’ era anymore, because communications have become so easy that most people can see what the ‘good life’ looks like and it includes electronics and lots of expensive items. To have those and enjoy them, you need…electricity and money. But, they cannot pay for electricity and have little or no money, therefore, it has to be stolen. Simple. Yes, but wrong.

The trouble is the politicians have nothing to offer, besides a few handouts in their power, or some contracts that fall into the hands of a few favoured constituents, or jobs at certain times that the people can do, with little skill needed and not too much supervision.

If we fast-forward a decade and the Jamaican economy has become the darling of the world and has the machinery of rapid economic growth humming, jobs will be there for many more. But, that’s really unlikely, if we are realistic. Many of those who are suffering in poverty are not equipped to take on the jobs that are going to be created and which we see as ‘quality’. So, we have to go back a few steps, and working on getting up the levels of educational attainment. That, in a world of impatience, means half a generation of delay before the seeds of new success start to have a chance to grow. That’s a long time to keep people hopeful. But, it has to happen, otherwise, the cycle that we have been on will keep rolling along.

The electricity theft problem has to be fixed, but it’s a manifestation of a bigger problem. I don’t know if we have the politicians capable of fessing up and cutting out the nonsense that facilitated what we now see as rampant stealing. Seventy percent of customers in an area using electricity for free? The minority have less incentive to keep with being good citizens, because they are burdened and unaided in their efforts to be upstanding.

Some people say they do not know what it would be like to live through a civil war. I suggest they look around them in Jamaica, and if they are good citizens need to understand that those who are stealing and committing malfeasance are waging war on them. You are what you tolerate.

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