Eyes wide shut

I had an interesting experience last Friday. My daughter was swimming in a national schools meet at the stadium. I’d planned to just watch from the stands; I usually keep time at club meets because it offers the best view of events. However, the school coach volunteered me and another swim parent to volunteer to keep time. We ended up covering the same lane; we were joined by a neighbour of mine. We enjoyed working together.

It was an arduous morning session. The meet had been due to start at 8am. As a good swim parent, my child and I had arrived at 7, for warm up. Delays are common at swim meets. However, this one went overboard. It started with the stalled attempt to get children assembled according to their schools for a procession. Now, Jamaica is a hot country, and at 8 the sun is searing. Nevertheless, the announcer announced and the children slowly understood that they needed to be on the poolside. About 25-30 schools were present. By the time all had assembled and walked the lap of the pool deck, it was approaching 9. The guest speaker spoke; she was not really long-winded but it added time. The children were still in the sun. They were allowed back in the stands after the speech. Soon after 9, the meet began.

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National Aquatic Centre, Kingston: water falling on water during Burger King swim meet

The timekeepers timed and the races went well. After about two hours, someone brought us cups of water. Then, soon after, corned beef sandwiches and a fruity drink. Rain started near noon and the meet ran on despite that. Lunchtime was approaching, and I was trying to arrange my movements: i needed to make a short dash to meet someone who’d just done some business for me. I figured that I would have plenty of time because the organizers had given me and other volunteers a voucher for a Burger King lunch–the sponsors usually help with refreshments in some way.

But, when I mentioned this to my two timekeeping partners, they both said “What lunch?” They hadn’t received vouchers. I decided to try to see what had happened and approached the table where I had signed up and been given my bright yellow “Official” tee-shirt and the voucher before the start of the meet. My fellow school parent had been just behind me when I signed in. She had received her tee-shirt, but nada mas.

I mentioned what had happened to a lady sitting clutching a microphone, next to the representative from Burger King (who had been on a constant promotion of the products once he’d been brought into the show since mid-morning). “We had more volunteers than vouchers,” the lady told me. I had an “And?” moment. No lunches were being offered to those who didn’t have vouchers. This pricked my sense of fairness–a sad legacy of growing up in England, I guess. I told the lady that this was not fair: we had all been on the deck for the best part of six hours in the sun and rain, and deserved to be treated equally. She was not having any of that, and decided to give me the good old cut-eye. I have never been good at letting that pass, and felt a howitzer moment brewing. I told her that if she couldn’t run a meet properly, then it would be better if she left it those who can. I don’t know if she was a YMCA employee, given that they were the meet organizers. I also told her that she’d be quite helpless if the volunteers weren’t willing to stand and fill the jobs that needed to be done; some YMCA youths were also in our body. She remained silent and indifferent. I gave her a last point about her attitude, which I wasn’t going to tolerate.

The meet director asked me to step to one side. He tried to explain to me how things “usually” worked, and that schools “usually” provided lunches. I pointed out that ‘usually’ did not apply because an exception had been made at this meet. We agreed to disagree, and I said that I would not be volunteering during the afternoon. (I had personal reasons: I needed my legs for a weekend tournament.) I related the events to my fellow timekeepers. They were resigned to the situation.

Well after 1pm, the ‘morning’ session ended; we would resume at 2.30. I went in the pouring rain to line up for my BK meal; my fellow timers went off to find lunch elsewhere. I went on my errand and took lunch with me. When I returned, I spent the afternoon mainly in the stands–more important, I was off my feet. The meet went on during the afternoon, and I took my daughter home after it finished, sometime around 6pm. She had missed her 5pm piano lesson, and I called her teacher on the way home to apologize. When we got home, both very tired, we did not waste much time after our baths and a quick dinner and headed to bed. I needed to get a bus at 5am to head to Montego Bay for a golf tournament. My legs were aching badly as I went to bed and I had to use some antiinflammatory ointment.

Over the weekend, my legs worsened. During Saturday’s practice, I needed to use more ointment, and on Saturday evening, my host, a doctor, had given me some other antiinflammatory ointment. I spent the afternoon applying RICE (rest, ice, compression, elevation) to my knee. I went to bed in a knee brace. By Sunday my knee was swollen and I could barely walk; my knee brace was on all day. I spent the day in a golf cart, limping occasionally to get a better view and being admonished by one of my lady teammates to “Get off your feet, and stay sitting down!” I obeyed, for the most part. Rain washed out the end of morning play, delayed the start of afternoon play, then washed out the whole match. I got a ride home to Kingston, earlier than expected, with another doctor.

By Monday, I had a knee that looked like a water melon. I did without the brace, but was in severe pain whenever I tried to walk. I was due to coach soccer to kindergartners in the afternoon; they run like ferrets and did not need me to be more than patient and funny. I managed to do my half-hour session with them without too much pain. I then collected my daughter from school and waited on her while she had her usual double training session with her swim club. I sat down for most of the 2 1/2 hours she was in the water. By Monday night, the pain was down greatly, and I was able to bend the knee about halfway. By Tuesday morning, the pain was negligible; the knee had more flexibility; and I could walk with only a very slight limp. I needed to practice and planned to just chip and put balls. I surprised myself by walking without pain, and played 9 holes, though a little slower than usual. A Jamaican friend, visiting from the USA, was with me, and she inspired some great shots. I coached soccer with elementary kids at my daughter’s school during the afternoon, not running a lick. They looked at my knee, which was now more like an ogen melon, and compared my swollen knee to the normal one: “Wow! That’s big!” said one of the girls.

The story has several morals. But, I will flag two.

One is a tendency in Jamaica to make children suffer while adults go about their business, blithely ignoring the imposition they are putting on frail young bodies. The announcer gleefully told the spectators that one of the children “was only three” (she might have been five, in fact). It as a meet for preparatory and primary schools, and one of the categories was ‘under 6’. But, here we were having them bleach in the sun for nearly an hour before they were expected to perform athletic events. Duh! The organizers could have just had each school group stand and be recognised where they were installed, and that might have taken at most 10-15 minutes; the speech shortened to 5 minutes, and we save nearly three-quarters of an hour in the baking sun. I spoke to my child’s club coach during the meet and there was a lot of eye-rolling and head-shaking. I don’t want to be insensitive and make a parallel with a tragedy that happened in Montego Bay over the weekend, when twin boys were washed away in a gully and found washed up on a beach yesterday. But, in that tragedy are all the elements of child neglect. The trouble is that Jamaicans are not very honest about this aspect of our society, preferring to see ourselves as loving and caring for children, even though much evidence points the other way. I heard the exasperation in Dionne Jackson-Miller’s voice last evening, during ‘Beyond the headlines’, after listening to an extract of the Minister of Youth and Culture’s contribution to the Budget sectoral debate, which covered the matter of disappearing children. Our focus is on those who return. But, what of those who don’t? She said “We are not serious” about the issues of child abuse and neglect. I, for one, agree, whole heartedly. (There were two distasteful examples of that during the same swim meet, which I have shared with some child care professionals.) We love masquerade.This_Masquerade_by_perfect12386

Another, is an unwillingness to own mistakes and correct them. Instead, we love bluster. I will be aggressive, but I want a result. I don’t do indifference well. Telling me that water is coming through the window and leaving it open because the floor is already wet is another example of the ‘cyan bodda’ (can’t bother) mentality. You have more volunteers than vouchers? Then fix that, and do it openly, or apologize openly to those who are volunteering, even making an offer to sweeten the pill. Instead, we have the ‘just keep your head down’ or ‘don’t move, the wind will stop’ approaches. I see this in many places as an excuse for customer service, so it’s a part of our culture in dealing with problems.

My knee is as old as me, and has been abused by too much sport. Its chronic state is something to manage.

The dogs are howling? The Jamaican dollar exchange rate

It’s perhaps significant that, late yesterday, I told friends that I was in a pitbull mood. My teeth were going to sink into something hard; it could also be someone’s body part. I let the seething mood subside and found myself quoting Ephesians 4:26, which encouraged me to not go to bed angry. I closed the night by posting an image of a dog with a megaphone.

I was snarling yesterday
I was snarling yesterday

What had gotten my ire was two things. First, was the golf business about which I had written yesterday; my blog had gotten more airplay and I got some supportive comments from various people. Second, was a more mundane matter: the garbage men had collected bins from my yard, emptied them, then left them strewn in the street, with my gate wide open. This seemed to be just disrespectful. I do not keep my garbage out in the street, and I have the gate closed, not least because my daughter has a puppy, who is sometimes attacked by a neighbour’s dog. I wanted to exact revenge, or at least make my point clear. I asked on social media how I should react. I got no reply. (There’s a message there, and maybe I will step away from that arena. But, that’s a separate topic). I wanted to disable their truck the next time I saw them. Someone told me that it’s part of establishing ‘new relations’ with residents; once I’m better known then my bins will be given their due respect. Well, judging by the way my long-established neighbours’ bins were also in the street, I think this relationship-building is a long-term project. Which brings me to another point: the exchange rate.

As I woke early this morning, wanting to use the bathroom, another friend, currently working in northern Europe, noticed I was online and asked if I suffered from insomnia. I replied that I went to bed early, just after putting my 10 year-old to bed, at 9pm. I also used to trade foreign exchange, so am in the habit, sometimes, of waking for the European market opening (around 2am EST), catching up on news when I wake, and now thinking about topics for writing. Well, I heard a pack of dogs baying in the distance, and my topic was set.

Foreign exchange traders know that markets get fixated by things that do not matter much, but are eye-catching.

When theJ$ passed 90 to the US$, people were shocked...
When theJ$ passed 90 to the US$, people were shocked…(Courtesy of The Jamaica Observer)

These include round numbers, such as 100, and then steps in round numbers, such as 105…110. Action can be frenetic as these numbers are approached, and traders may be trying to defend or break the level for good reasons, for instance, if options are due to be triggered by crossing the barrier. Well, as far as I know, option contracts in the Jamaican dollar are not what caused interest in its approach to 100 to the US dollar, or its passing that for 105, and recently 110.

The J$ sprinted past 100 to the US$. Records are to be broken... (Courtesy of The Jamaica Observer)
The J$ sprinted past 100 to the US$. Records are to be broken…

I had a brief exchange last night on Twitter with a current government minister, Julian Robinson (@julianjay) and a senator (and former minister) of the Opposition, Jamaica Labour Party, Marlene Malahoo-Forte (@oohalam). It was about the nature of the exchange rate depreciation. The senator has mentioned exchange rate ‘strategy’. The minister said it was not ‘strategy’, but an ‘outcome’ and market-determined; I said it was not market-determined, but reflected intervention, so a strategy was at work. The minister then said all central banks intervene; I replied that not all do, eg, the US authorities. I cited the IMF’s annual Exchange Rate Arrangement study for 2013, which has Jamaica classified as having a ‘crawling-type’ regime (sounds like a nasty disease?). That seemed to close that aspect of the discussion online.

Classification aside, the minister made his very valid point that the exchange rate outcomes depended on fundamental factors; Jamaican needed to address the weaknesses there to give the exchange rate a chance to stabilise. This dealing with fundamentals should always be the case. Traders and central bankers know that fundamentals are just one factor, though, in the actual outcome, and they may not affect the rate quickly or consistently, not least because some of the pressure for the rate to move comes from sentiment. That can drive the exchange rate in any direction faster and farther than warranted by fundamentals. Tell me! Markets also are supposed to anticipate, and so may have already factored in the fundamental features, so react more to sentiment and news, or just a bit of whimsy and who has the most to play with in the market. Big boys, with big bucks, pushing little boys around. The central bank may want to smooth the exchange rate movement, but may also have a hard time doing so, depending on their available foreign exchange reserves and the market’s willingness to let them have their way. Generally, however, central banks cannot sail against the wind for very long.

The senator, whose basic feeling is that the exchange rate has moved too far and too fast, later posted a reference to a Bank of Jamaica paper entitled “Exploring Contribution of Temporary & Permanent Shocks to Real Effective Exchange Rate“, which she wrote indicated that there was ‘negligible benefit from depreciation’. Well, trying to be thorough, I searched for this paper. Thank goodness for the Internet, because at 3am in the morning, I did not have to knock on the door of a university library, or go to the Governor’s house, to find a copy. In the spirit of true collaboration, I’ve included a link to the paper: no need for us all to be walking around in our PJs trying to find copies in people’s garbage (I made a connection).

I am not going to read the paper at this hour, and am skipping the scary maths that I see. Its conclusions are notable, and I will give a bit more than the senator:

  • Despite the considerable depreciation, a major correction of the current account imbalance has not been observed, which indicates the need for structural changes in the economy.
  • Temporary shocks played a larger role in explaining the variation in the real effective exchange rate (REER), while the current account was largely driven by permanent shocks.
  • Over the past decade, the real sector in the Jamaican economy has not been able to facilitate the necessary adjustment that
    should take place from the REER to the current account.
  • We therefore conclude that this adjustment in the current account imbalance may not be entirely achieved through the manipulation of monetary variables such as interest rates but rather through enhancing the macroeconomic environment to increase productivity.
  • Policy should be more geared towards creating a macro-economic environment that can facilitate the increase in exports
    resulting in a boost in external competitiveness which would then cause a correction in the current account imbalance.

Now, that paper, based on empirical analysis, was written in 2010. Jamaica has not changed much in four years to invalidate the basic facts. So, we have a learned view from central bank economists that Jamaica’s current account problem was not much related to the exchange rate, and that its depreciation wont do much to improve Jamaica’s competitiveness; the key is our productivity. I’ve pointed to the need for the latter, even a few days ago; many others have, too. I have never had much belief in depreciation working to help Jamaica’s competitiveness–even putting me at odds with one of my employers in the past.

So, why has the exchange rate been allowed to slide as much as it has over the past 20 months? Now that I have reached that question, I need to pause for more than some tea. If our learned economists have concluded–caveats about personal views noted–why are we pursuing something that we have shown does not work? I don’t want to rush to any conclusions, so will ponder that for a while.

The IMF has stated that Jamaica’s real effective exchange rate was overvalued; the nominal deprecation during the current programme has done much to reduce that overvaluation. The Fund indicated that the latest situation was due for a full review during the next Article IV Consultation, which has just concluded, with the team flying off to Washington last weekend. So, we may get a better idea of what the state of the real exchange is. The internal logic of the IMF programming means that it would be a hard sell to Management and the Executive Board, for a country with a severe balance of payments problem, wanting to use IMF resources, was allowed to do that with a real exchange rate that is highly overvalued and not programmed to see that eroded. But, if its being brought down doesn’t matter much in changing the real economy–and, in some sense, is a cosmetic numerical shift–then, the pain it has exacted on the population by eating away at peoples’ J$ wealth (by some 20 percent) needs a good explanation. That may be round two of exchanges, but should really be a broader discussion. I go back to the PM’s budget speech about ‘balancing people’s lives, while balancing the books’. Maybe, it wasn’t dogs that I heard howling.

Incentives, incentives…Sport development disconnection

I spent the weekend in Montego Bay with a bunch of golfers, playing in the LIME Cup team competition. My preparation on Saturday was good: I played a round with a man from my club in Kingston, but who’s on another team, and we were team mates last year. We had a close match and enjoyed the way the course tested out meagre abilities–we’re about 21 handicappers. We played some really good shots (mine was a mammoth drive on a par 5), got our share of members’ bounces (mine was off a road, down a track and roll in the middle of the fairway), had our bad breaks (landing in water-filled bunkers), and had the putts that wouldn’t drop. We laughed a lot, and were good hosts for the two American tourists who’d been paired with us. They had arrived the day before and were in Jamaica for a friend’s wedding.

We got down to playing the team matches on Sunday morning. Breakfast was on offer–Jamaican-standard fare of ackee and salt fish. Players warmed up and teams got pairs ready. I was due to drive around with our team captain; I had a very sore knee after standing on pool deck so long on Friday, and aggravated by playing golf on Saturday. I was fine. We watched mainly our ladies team, who were in a tight match–they lost, but not for want of support.

LIME Cup day 2. Cinnamon Hill: ladies match; CEEN Legends versus Buccaneers. All happy, even as rivals
LIME Cup day 2. Cinnamon Hill: ladies match; CEEN Legends versus Buccaneers. All happy, even as rivals

We had a slow day, because the start had been backed up, and the loss of rhythm never helps. But, we got to noon and the break for lunch, just as rain was coming down hard. Everyone took a good long rest, ahead of the second round in the afternoon. The rain lashed down.

Play resumed late, and was over within half an hour and rain came teeming down again. The sponsors took advantage of the players and Appleton let the rum flow, while players started or continued stories of golf games maybe played in reality, but perhaps only in the mind. The noise was high. Many saw that the rain would not let up and started to make tracks to head home; Kingston was the main destination. I managed to hitch a ride with a doctor, who’s also a member of the club where I play.

We got into a set of conversations. First, we talked about the Hilton Hotel and Cinnamon Hill golf course, which do not seem to work together. I understand that the hotel does not own the golf course, but abuts its land. Tourists are always walking around the course, or watching play from hotel windows or perched on one of the mounds by the signature hole, number 5, that runs down to the sea. But, my experience had been that the hotel seemed to know or care little about the golf. Why? This is a perfect tourism marriage. At least, the foreigners should be tapped to throw their money into our economy.

We talked about how golf was not being sold well in Jamaica. At the least the seasoned players could be catered for better. But, the new waves of young people was there, who could benefit from exposure to the sport. True, we do not have the luxury of municipal courses (and our national economic problems would not make this a priority), as in many other countries, but options were there.

Golf carts are among the heavy investment needed in the sport, and needs paying customers
Golf carts are among the heavy investment needed in the sport, and needs paying customers

But, we are letting youth development opportunities slip away–not for the first time. We seemed to not want to build on what ought to be good pairings, of courses and hotels or resorts, especially in the main tourism areas, but also in the Kingston area, where this could be an adjunct to business travel.

Was it a hangover from a socialist-thinking administration? Was it just not seeing that every asset should be made to work for the national good? As we drove along, we talked about the good features of golf and saw some of its sad parts.

  • Braco Resort, in Rio Bueno, had a lovely 9-hole course, that is now overgrown, even though the resort is still up and running. It looked like nicely tended pasture. What would it take to revive that course?
  • The stretch between Ocho Rios and Montego Bay has more golf course on a continuous highway than I imagine anywhere in the world–6 courses: Sandals/Upton, Runaway Bay, Cinnamon Hill, Half Moon, Ironshore, and Tryall. Surely, a package could be put together to exploit that geographic blessing. They are all different, as is the way with golf course, and picturesque in their own ways. Ironshore stands out as being the only one that has no hotel associated with it.

We rolled our thoughts towards the courses elsewhere in the island. I mentioned that I had been struck by the lack of development of golf in Jamaica, and had drafted some thoughts and ideas about how to deal with that. We discussed where  I could perhaps send the paper.

Golf is a sport that needs a lot of money to support it, but we believed that it was there, if it were sought properly.

Our minds went back to the unfinished golf tournament. How would that be resolved? No matches had managed 9 holes, and the competition rules provided for that, if caused by ‘act of nature’, by awarding each team a half in each match. That would be fair and clear. However, it seemed that the great minds that are the captains of the team had met and decided that this rule would not apply. (I may be wrong about this, but let’s go with it as if it’s correct.) They decided to try to play the unfinished matches. The schedule was for the last set of round-robin matches to be played on June 1, in the morning, and the deciding matches for first to sixth place would be played in the afternoon. Now, the plan was to replay the matches washed out today, on May 31, and then go into the final day as scheduled on June 1. However, the newly arranged Satruday matches would be played at a course in Kingston, and players would head to Ocho Rios, as scheduled for the Sunday.

We thought that was not a very good solution. First, the rules took away the need to replay the washed-out matches. However, the sharing of points does not help everybody. Here comes human nature. Funnily, the teams who had been sitting in 1st and 2nd place at the start of Sunday, had been playing each other when the rain came again. A halving of that match would suit them both: the 1st place team, would almost guaranteed a place in the final, and the 2nd place team probably could not have done better than halve the match; so they would get more points than might have been the case. Two of the other four teams, however, stood to gain a lot if they could win their matches, so replaying would be in their interest. For two, it would raise their chances of finishing second; for two, it would perhaps boost them from the basement. Guess what? The voting for the ‘rule change’ reflected that set of calculations: the 1-2 teams voted to stick with the rule; the others voted to replay. Deal done.

My doctor driver was flabbergasted as he talked to another golfer as we drove. I said that the outcome was exactly what we should have expected, once the rule was not being applied. He held his head. We had been talking about how politicians can manipulate, and here we were watching people act like politicians. It would even have been better in our minds, if the round-robin matches were finished on the Saturday, and leave the Sunday for the finals, and more time for socialising, but also an earlier finish, which would suit many, but also allow for another weather delay. But, we had not been at the meeting.

It’s a sad truth, that once you have humans involved, you need to never lose sight of what motivation will do to their decision-making. Economics tells us about ‘rational man’ (who is often self-centred), and how he will try to maximise his benefits. Voila! It’s not just in the political arena that people are prepared to tear up things put in place by ‘our forefathers’ for good reasons, to protect the interests of many, and try to look after the interests of a few.

We reached the Spanish Town bypass, and turned our thoughts to how a new north-south highway would speed up journeys to the north coast. We looked over to the Grace Kennedy factory, with its massive tin of baked beans promoting the wares. We could see the observations tower of Tamarind Farm prison. A driver cut us off the road, as he and his passengers, without seat belts, careened along the highway. Connections. Disconnections.

The good, the bad, and the ugly (May 18, 2014): electricity theft edition

JPS shocked Jamaican politicians out of their complacent acceptance and encouragement of people stealing electricity by cutting off some Kingston communities that had over 70 percent of users who did not pay. Notably, these were in clearly identified ‘garrison’ communities.

The payers howled. The nonpayers whistled along. The Office of Utilities Regulation told JPS to lighten up and give the people back the full current. A new government-led committee will look at ways to combat electricity theft. Everyone can chip in with ideas. I will offer one.

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JPS has shown it's serious. How about the politicians? (Courtesy of The Gleaner.)

The desire is to do two things. First, to let everyone have access to a basic service of electric light; that’s a social minimum in current times. Second, to encourage a reasonable payment for services used and continued regular payment. So, identify each nonpayer and give that customer one week to do two things: make a minimum payment, and remove all electrical appliances. The first action helps JPS’s accounts; the second reduces the demands on the system. JPS said nonpayers use three times as much power as payers. That is a clear sign of the incentive from ‘freeness’.

After one week, if no payment has been received, JPS should disconnect the customer, and get the police to serve an arrest warrant. They should also be given emergency power to confiscate appliances, which could be auctioned or sold to help cover outstanding payment obligations.

The OUR should point out if any of this runs counter to JPS’s licence and suggest changes that keep the essential purposes but sit correctly.

I suspect this set of actions will lead to a large outcry. However, politicians should help by explaining to constituents what will happen and why. They should also explain that all of this is legal and necessary. If necessary, the MP for the areas should accompany JPS staff when identifying nonpayers and be on hand to offer to discuss any real financial problems.

The politicians can help those who claim they cannot pay by pointing to legal financial options, or facilitating access to government support.

I forsee some social turmoil. How much, will depend on political will.

If politicians are serious in their support of customers being honest and showing good civic behaviour, they will move fast to get this programme rolling. Any person who believes he or she CANNOT pay, must show that their use is an absolute minimum. They must also show they have no means to pay.

We need to end some serious hypocrisy. ‘Can’t pay’ must be made clear from ‘won’t pay’. People with appliances can pay, but have chosen to spend on other things. If there are genuine cases of need, identify them and deal with them accordingly. Theft cannot be the accepted solution. Otherwise, we cannot condemn that crime anywhere.

Nonpaying customers should all be treated the same: the threat of disconnection has to be real and applied. Those who do not pay cannot have privilege over payers; that’s nonsense. Anyone who is not conservative with usage cannot claim poverty.

This is the tip of a socio-economic iceberg of ‘excessive negligence’. If politicians want to help people socially, then do so by legislation or out of their own pockets. Enacting it through theft and misappropriation has to stop. Stop picking citizens’ pockets! Everyone knows what’s been going on so no need to keep up pretences.

Sit back. Relax. Enjoy the ride.

Today, I ventured into new Jamaican territory: I rode an inter-city bus from Kingston to Montego Bay. Overall impression: it’s the way to go for single travellers or even a couple. The bus fleet comes from China. It has comfortable seats. The operating company, Knutsford Express, have recruited and trained staff well: drivers don’t take silly risks; ticketing staff are courteous and clear-speaking. They don’t seem interested in bending rules. The bus was due to drive past my destination, but no way would the driver stop there. So, I rode to the airport, then took a taxi back to the desired stop–it cost about the same for that as the trip from Kingston.

More important for me was my condition on arrival: I was fresh and not stiff. Last weekend, I’d driven from Kingston to MoBay on Saturday morning and felt like I’d done 15 rounds with Mike Tyson. After the drive back on Sunday afternoon, I was just readu to collapse into a chair and have dinner. Not so, today.

Another plus for me was the lack of stress and ability to take in the surroundings. We left town at 5am, and mist was all over the countryside. As we moved inland and higher, I could enjoy the full sunrise and clouds. I kept my eyes and phone camera busy. You can enjoy some of what I saw.

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A final word to my fellow blogger, Emma Lewis, who made a similar venture to Negril some months ago. She warned me about the stream of Tyler Perry movies shown during her ride. I’d shuddered at that prospect. But, my ride had a blend of soft r&b, with R Kelly prominent. Then, after a stop at Ocho Rios, down came the movie screen. The opening credits. The opening scenes. I saw no stock Tyler Perry character. The movie was ‘Jump the broom’. What a relief!

Oh, Kelly, Kelly!

I began this week determined to write about the Jamaican dollar. Instead, I was shocked and jolted out of my concern for the exchange rate by news that Jamaicans were being thrust into the dark ages by an American lady with striking blond hair.

Kelly Tomblin, CEO of JPS; alongside Spain's Ambassador to Jamaica.
Kelly Tomblin, CEO of JPS; alongside Spain’s Ambassador to Jamaica.

JPS did not throw in the towel in its fight to deal with electricity theft, instead it threw out the baby with the bath water, soaking everyone when it pulled the plug on a well-known and too-much tolerated practice. “Mummy!” cried a lot of paying customers. In came the caring parent to see what was wrong, and she calmed the crying child, and tried to shoo away the boogie (wo)man: “Oh, Kelly!” West Beverly’s lyrics seem so apt:

A little bit wrong means mostly right 
I didn’t mean to p*** you off 
I’ve found that you can be too honest
Bright-eyed butterfly just took off

Clearly, Beverly was talking about Jamaica, because the song has other apt references:

I know I cut us short, but that’s 
Just because I knew that I wasn’t fair 

I’ve found that you can be too diligent
I’m sorry and thanks a lot 

I can’t believe you stood me for so long 

You helped me find some balance in this world 

I know I pulled the plug

That’s eerie. So, thanks Kelly for diverting my attention from the sliding dollar.

But, like all real problems that go unsolved, the dollar’s slide is still there. Over the weekend, one of the Sunday columnists, businessman Claude Clarke, went to look at the ailing patient and wrote about many of the points that I had in my head, in his piece entitled ‘The devaluation dilemma‘. He made two telling points:

  1. The question is not whether we should have a fixed or floating exchange rate. The real question is whether there are policies to maintain competitiveness once it is achieved. And because competitiveness cannot be achieved without reducing domestic costs, devaluation is a legitimate strategy to achieve it.
  2. The question our leaders must address is whether they are prepared to leave the country trapped in its pattern of pointless devaluations, delivering pain without competitive gain. And if they aren’t, will they be bold enough to devalue sufficiently and swiftly and combine the devaluation with effective cost-containing policies that will make the benefits stick.

Now, I appreciate what Kelly did. She focused our eyes on a part of the problem with the exchange rate. Jamaica is a highly uncompetitive economy. JPS shows that clearly by charging US$0.42 per kWh for electricity. That is an industry-killer in the modern world. If that were halved, we’d be where many industrial countries are. We link the exchange rate back to the story of the preceding week–Energy World International and its licence–and the prospect of life-giving electricity at just over US$0.12 per kWh. High costs are part of the uncompetitiveness equation; its other main part is low productivity.

The exchange rate has been trying to bridge the gap between us and the rest of the world in terms of lack of competitiveness. But, as Mr. Clarke pointed out, the numerical value of the exchange rate cannot do it alone. Its fall should make the cost of what we offer the rest of the world less. It should also encourage us to consume less from abroad, because imported goods and services become more expensive. This is the standard economics argument. But, Jamaica has once again messed up the thinking. We seem to not respond in that standard way, or at least not as fast as expected or needed. So, we live with higher costs but seem reluctant to change behaviour fast or long enough for the exchange rate to be able to take a breather and stabilise.

Kelly also focused our eyes on the productivity part of the problem. It’s an open secret that a significant part of Jamaica’s population have been given a diet of welfare which we cannot afford. They have been led to believe that they are entitled to a range of services free-of-charge. The cost of that was borne by the rest of the country through the government’s budget deficit, and on the balance sheets of public utilities–both electricity and water providers are close to insolvency. That entitlement culture was created and sustained by politicians. We have all been made poorer by it. So, the scrabbling around for foreign loans is the backwash that comes from that sort of ‘living beyond your means’.

I get sick and tired of people wanting to blame the IMF for something that Jamaican governments and politicians did wilfully over decades. It’s a crock. Own your problem! Then, you can address it. The IMF never took loans and grants and put that money to bad use. The IMF did not offer people freeness for which it could not pay. The IMF did not hamstring enterprises from collecting on obligations. That was the work of Jamaican public officials.

Malfeasance is a word whose sound I really like. But, it has some wonderful synonyms. Here’s just a selection of common-or-garden words that get to the same point (I highlight some of my favourites). Crimemalefactionmisdeedmisdemeanor; sintransgressiontrespasswrongmalpracticegoings-onhanky-pankyfamiliaritygaffeimproprietyindiscretion;blundererrorfaultflubfumblegooflapsemiscuemisstepmistakeslipslipupstumble. Pick the ones you like.

A sad reality about economics as we understand it, is that it all has to add up. If there is a gap somewhere, it has to be filled. The system has to balance and the whole set of numbers closed. Put simply, if all the economic agents in a country are in deficit, the rest of the world has to provide some surplus to help us get in balance. Often, we find that within a country, some part (e.g., government) is in deficit and other parts (private enterprises or private persons) have surpluses that can help get the country in balance. That’s what all the fancy talk of ‘budget deficit financing’ and ‘balance of payments deficit and financing’ is really talking about.

It’s also sad that few things are really free (besides the air we breathe, usually): a price is there, somewhere, and the questions are who will bear it and when. Cynics say that governments love to pay late(r). So, we often see that government is pushing costs off into the future. At best, they can be dealt with by successor governments; at worst, the same government will pass on the costs into the future again. But, the bills have to be faced sometimes. That’s what Jamaica is now having to do in a punishing way: the debt burden at around 140 percent of GDP (in other words, our debt is way above what we earn) needs to come down sharply, and that can only happen if we create budget surpluses to help pay it down. But, we are in a trap. The exchange rate needs to decline to help us be more competitive, as part of the move to be able to earn more to pay down the debt. But, much of the debt is denominated in foreign currency, so the falling exchange rate means the debt in J$ terms keeps rising. We are a like Sisyphus: ‘punished for chronic deceitfulness by being compelled to roll an immense boulder up a hill, only to watch it roll back down, and to repeat this action forever‘.

What chronic deceitfulness gets you: a life time of rock-rolling uphill
What chronic deceitfulness gets you: a life time of rock-rolling uphill

Much of this is not easy to explain to people, which is a great pity, because they need to understand.

Many social problems persist because the people mired in them do not have a good understanding of how they contribute to the problems. I understand what poverty means and how hard it is to get by with no income. It is a panic-inducing state to have to pay for things with money you do not have. You want to hang on as long as possible without paying, if you understand that you are supposed to do that. Some people do not understand that–it’s learned behaviour, not burned into our DNA. So, using guilt or moral suasion is not the way to go. People need to be sat down, and walked through what their actions mean. Then, comes the harder part, getting them to act the way we want. Encouraging non-payers to pay is the way to go. Getting them to pay consistently is what we want to achieve–without their falling into debt or their lives going into a shambles because they cannot budget and pay bills but do not cut down on other spending.

That’s where people start to shed tears. Poverty is a hard state to be in. Having gotten out of it, even with unreal freeness, people dread its return. How to convince people to do without is going to be a big challenge. We can be all-intellectual and talk about the need to get rid of big freezers, flat-screen TVs, and other appliances that are not essentials, but people have seen these as part of normal life and depend on them. Yes, they should be hauled away, but at what price? I cannot believe that relative social calm has existed in Jamaica through so many years of economic stagnation except through the sugar-coating of it through this ‘welfare’. Take it away, and those standing ‘naked and afraid’ are likely to make the rumbling noise of a volcano that is about to erupt. That’s a frightening sound. But, the damage the eruption leaves behind is worse–much worse.

Moral compass reset needed

I keep saying in different ways that the things that Jamaica has done wrongly are not necessarily major, but they have gone uncorrected for so long that people don’t know how to put them right.

People make much of the fact that Jamaica has the highest number of churches per square mile or per head of population, as if the presence of those wonderful buildings is enough to guide the souls, hearts and minds of all the people. Clearly, it is not: we know the murder statistics. I wrote yesterday about the Jamaican interpretation of the ‘entitlement society’: people take what they want, sometimes facilitated by politicians, and they get confused about what are their rights.

People have talked about a dearth of political leadership in Jamaica. I have no idea what it’s like to lead a country, let alone one that is full of seemingly headstrong individuals. But, I do know about trying to lead people who are difficult to control, namely, young children. I’ve coached youth soccer for well over 20 years, pretending to work as an economist at the same time. One of the things that’s clear about dealing with children is that they like structure, despite what they say and what some believe when ‘letting them run wild’ seems in vogue. They can be very creative within boundaries set by adults, mainly. But, also watch and listen to children when they are without adults steering them. They are a bunch of little rules setters. “It’s my turn!” is a cry that is about order and fairness, even if the person saying it has just had a turn. When the child holds the ball tightly to his or her chest, it’s an attempt to ensure that order prevails. Kids set up their rules and stick to them. They can often play without supervision so long as the group observes the rules. “Dad! Sara isn’t sharing…” tells me that someone has broken a rules about what is fair. I usually intervene rarely, but say, “Start the sentence with ‘I did…’, then tell me the rest of the story.” That way we get an idea of what is cause and what is effect. (I’m an economist, for pity sake.) Order is usually restored quickly.

I have met, but do not know well Jamaica’s prime minister. I know people who work closely with her, and they tell me she is a wonderful person, who works really hard behind the scenes to help people. I won’t doubt that. But, her role of national leader is not about working, working, working, hard behind the scenes. Like the football coach doing the same on the training ground, the need arises for him or her to stand up and make a stink because the team is playing rubbish football. Or the opposition are kicking lumps out of us and we are either not protecting ourselves well, or the officials are not protecting us. Or, when the officials have lost the plot and make decisions that are hard to understand and/or inconsistent. Then, you get out of your technical area and pull out your folder marked ‘Colourful phrases to hurl in public’. You are well-organised and start with the ‘A’s’: “Listen, A***hole!…” Having gotten the listener’s attention, you turn to the ‘B’s’: “A b*****d’ like you didn’t deserve a mother!” Attention now fully locked in (and remember the Zidane-Materazzi moment), you flip a few pages and look up the ‘F’s’.

Because you are a quick thinker and fast reader, all of this took about 8 seconds. If the referee was the object of your hurling, he is now on his way towards you for what is called in refereeing school (I’m a qualified ref) ‘a quiet word’. He has his back to the rest of the field and his mouth is close to your face. “What did you just say?” You reply, “Nothing,” remembering what you did as a boy. Like you dad, back in the day, though, the ref is not having it. “Nothing, you say? You sure? I heard something.” You try to step back, but his face seems glued to your nose. “Well, I was a bit upset with…” The ref puts his hand into one of his shirt pockets and pulls out a pad, which contains his dreaded yellow and red cards. He pulls out the yellow one and starts to jot down a few words. He then pulls out the red one, and makes a few more jottings. He calls his assistant to his side and they talk for a few seconds. The crowd has been whistling all this time and some are singing a rude song, popular in England: “The referee’s a w***er…” He shows you the yellow card, and then the red card, and asks if you read what he’d written. You nod, and walk back to your technical area and sit down with you arms folded. He walks back and restarts the game.

Shaggy dog story, aside, the point is that you have to lead from in front. The coach stood up for the team and showed everyone that he was in charge of his team and was there to deal with all issues. The referee has control of everything within the lines, so he too had to show his leadership skills. They had different styles. The coach got the ref’s ear and attention. The ref showed the coach who had authority in a certain area. They exercised their rights. But, no one was left in doubt that leadership was on display.

The cry for leadership is not something that should keep going unheard, and it’s not something that gets answered by sending surrogates to talk to the people. Like the crowds at the Roman Colosseum, or at a major boxing match, or at a music concert, they want to see and hear the main billing. “PSM! PSM! PSM!” they are saying, and when she walks up to a podium (and it’s a pity we do not have somewhere like Buckingham Palace, with a grand balcony), and waves, wearing one of her signature yellow dresses, the crowd goes wild. When she utters “My people…” The crowd shout back “Yea!” Alright, that’s all a bit romantic, but I’m making a point.

Where current leadership seems to be lacking in the most evident ways is what is happening when the ‘team’ are not playing well. The coach should yank the player and send on a sub. Or, at least, take a moment to call the player over so that everyone can see, say a few words and let him or her continue for a while, but show that the weakness has been noted. The crowd then knows that the warning has been issued. I do not need to name names, but the country knows who has not been playing well and wonder, with good reason, why they are still on the field, miskicking every ball that come their way. Some have cost us matches with own goals so bad that they have a top 10 of their own on YouTube. The problem with that tolerance is that the rest of the team does not feel they have to play for their places. They do not appear threatened by young stars playing in the reserves; they have the manager’s eye and ear. I’m for benching some of those players, and if possible, sending them to the reserves, or selling them to another club, so that they can wreak havoc there.

I say to my charges: “You can’t keep asking for second chances; that’s not how life is”. Whaddya mean coach? But, Jamaica’s PM is all about second, third, fourth, n-th chances. What has happened is that leaders, of which she is the latest, have set up a country where accountability has not meant anything serious in the eyes of the people. Mess up; stay in post. Do wrong; stay in post. Lie and connive; stay in post.  Why so much faith with people who seem incapable of doing the right thing? Well, they don’t know the right thing to do, and it’s not been reinforced on them what the right things are to do. Their moral compasses have been set pointing towards wrong, not right. They keep following the pointer and head off to the land of wrongness with full confidence that they are headed in the right direction. When they get to complete wrongness, they don’t seem to suffer any major consequences: a parent has sent a car for them to take them back home, driving in comfort and having lemonade and cakes to eat on the drive; maybe, even a change of clothes.

I had a vidid example of how that moral compass has been misdirected last night, when a current cabinet minister was introduced to me by my wife. He asked if I played tennis. My wife told him I played golf. On our first meeting, he chose to allude to the fact that the balls men play with get smaller as they get older: footballs, as a boy; then onto little golf balls, as we age. Was I mistaken that this was a double entendre? My face didn’t crack a smile–it wasn’t funny, and my tee-hee button wasn’t pressed. I raised my eyebrows, but it was semi-dark, so that might not have been seen. My wife didn’t say anything. We let the ‘joke’ pass and continued on our way out of the reception.

Generally, the way you greet people on a first meeting is indicative of how you act usually, but with a little more circumspection. I shuddered at that thought. “What was he thinking?” I asked myself. Clearly, someone for whom he should have regard, his female PM, had not impressed on him well enough that he needed to act with a certain decorum and bearing–not silk stocking and ermine, but some common decency. Let the matter rest there, for the moment. But, as I often say, “You are what you tolerate”.

I want to see the PM grab the national moral compass and give it a hard reset. If she doesn’t then the ship is already on a course towards some nasty rocks, and I haven’t found my life jacket yet.

Riddle me this: Who put the swag in Jamaicans’ swagger?

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.

Stop! Thief! JPS on the horns of a dilemma

It’s more than a weak pun to say the JPS (Jamaica Public Service) is a lightning rod for unpopular opinion. The national electricity company is in a complicated position. It is the national power agency, which seems powerless to get its customers to pay for the service they use. Jamaicans know that many people steal electricity. The problem is well-known in the Kingston-St Andrew area, but exists on a broad scale in St. Catherine and St. James. The figures for losses are enormous–US$125 million was one I read yesterday. Thefts are the main reason for JPS’s financial losses.

The company says it wants non-payers to ‘get on the grid’ and start to pay, like decent, honest citizens. It has plans to let these potential new customers ease their way into paying, including flat rate, prepaid meters, and staged payments. It has tried to deter theft by taking down illegal connections (‘throw ups’), arrests, and disconnections. None work in a large-scale way. So, JPS is trying the equivalent of the battering ram: it is disconnecting whole communities, where theft exists on a widescale, depriving even regular paying customers of the service for which they have paid. In a statement issued yesterday, it explains that JPS is cutting the number of hours that power is provided to communities where more than 70% of the electricity is stolen’. JPS added ‘in recognition of its obligation to serve paying customers in the affected communities, it will make an effort to provide electricity for not less than 12 hours per day, and will remain sensitive to the safety concerns of the residents. JPS is also making every effort to minimize the impact on the businesses, hospitals, and schools in these communities’.

Result? In the immediate days after this began, a firestorm of criticism and complaints. One lawyer has suggested that this is illegal and that paying customers should sue. I think that is a good idea, at least to establish in law what is correct and avoid setting a precedent that should not be there.

Other options exist, but won’t work near-term, such as tamper-proof lines, underground wiring, diversifying energy supply to make the value of theft lower.

The regulatory body, the Office of Utilities Regulation (OUR) is treating JPS’s action with the ‘highest priority’ and has requested a meeting with JPS today. OUR asked JPS to provide information such as the number of paying residential and commercial customers in the affected areas, and on the level of damage done to JPS equipment as a result of electricity theft in these communities.

JPS says it has tried ‘everything’: ‘The Company also has more than 200 employees working to reduce lossesIn 2013, JPS removed over 197,000 illegal lines, carried out more than 113,000 account audits and meter investigations, and facilitated the arrest of more than 1200 persons for theft of electricity. The company also installed over 7,600 Residential Automated Metering Infrastructure (RAMI) meters, but most of the potential customers targeted have not signed up for legal service.

To say that JPS is caught in the horns of a dilemma is an understatement. Workable solutions are few, if the non-payers do not want to pay. It’s a matter of civics. Can’t pay, won’t pay, is the situation for many. But, we know that many who can pay don’t pay, including businesses. As one commentator said on the radio last evening, which company can afford to have light burning all night and air conditioning running all day with doors open? Duh! At least have a thorough check of such establishments. But, the problem is that this needs a fine-tooth comb approach to almost every household.

Dare I say it again, people are responding to the risk:reward and the incentives: it is easier to steal and get away with it, and it’s also very cost-effective for the thieves. The payers suffer by having to bear higher costs than needed, and now have the double ignominy of losing service for which they pay. Maybe, payers need to apply the reverse logic and put themselves on the same footing as the thieves and stop paying, at least until they are forced to, and then only on the nicest of terms. It’s really foolish to keep acting in the right manner and getting the worst outcomes. That’s a potential problem for JPS. 

Another option is the naming and shaming. JPS says it knows the communities that are most problematic. Is it a big step to then name the households? One reaction may be that the people concerned don’t care about public criticism, otherwise they would change. I’m not sure about that. A backlash may occur, and the areas rise in protest. But, how long would protests last by people whom the society know are doing wrong and costing most of us? It’s a thought. Perhaps, the way to go is to work on clearly identifying those who are stealing and putting direct pressure on them at least to register to pay. Thinking quickly, once identified, the household should not be able to benefit from other public services until they are at least registered to pay for electricity. (They may also be stealing those, but let’s be generous in thought, at least initially.) In our failed economy, the losses of public service (including things like education) may not seem significant. I can’t judge in abstract. But, in the end, life has to be made more uncomfortable for those who steal at least until they stop.

JPS is clearly at its wits end. Electricity theft is not a new problem and not one that affects Jamaica alone. Many developing countries live with the same problem, created in part by poverty, but also by a world that has made access to electricity almost a necessity. In India, network losses run to about 30 percent.

I would hope that Kelly Tomblin, JPS’s CEO, and her staff have used all the expertise available at institutions such as the World Bank to come up with solutions. The real solution is changes in personal behaviour and attitudes. That needs to happen fast, but seems unlikely unless those who steal receive a jolt. That’s another crude solution–pushing through too much current so that many appliances are damaged; but again, the payers suffer, too. Unless JPS can remove the ‘shield’ provided by paying customers surrounding the thieves, it seems they are lost. Until people accept their obligations to pay, JPS is doubly lost.

 

Age is more than a number–Redux: crime and can’t bother-ism

I wrote a few days ago on the topic of youth and their role as leaders, and stated ‘The young are often impatient, and don’t want to wait for their turn, rightly so, in some cases.’ But, I will admit gladly that I am not holding out hopes for youth to lead as some would wish. Why? I responded to a comment on the previous post that ‘It’s also more than a bit disturbing that youth are so much a part of the crime problem, and it’s costing us dearly, see Gleaner article. You may see that as a consequence of ‘impatience’; I don’t.’ I feel this is one of the telling weaknesses about current Jamaica and whether it will get youth to be its engine. So, let me look a little and briefly at that impatience, as demonstrated by things I read over the weekend.

The crutch of crime:

‘Scammers defiant! Five young involved in illegal activity say they will not stop’This headline greeted me in the Sunday Observer. Why wont they stop? Because it pays the youths (age 17-27) better than anything else and has allowed them to acquire immense wealth. To sample from the article, scamming finances a great lifestyle, with high-end cars, new and fancy homes, improved opportunities to finance own- and relatives’ education. With high youth unemployment, people are again acting rationally and taking the best risk-reward options. These people are not yet ready to lead others, except into a world of more crime.

I can’t be bothered-ism:

I will say that frankly I was shocked by the attitude of a young businessman, touted as one of Jamaica’s young luminaries. Over the weekend, I read some of his tweets. He has a high public profile, so none of this should seem like ‘telling tales out of school’. In 2006, he wrote on his website ‘I don’t usually find racism funny…’ (he then attached a YouTube video, which was racist, but made him laugh). On May 11, he wrote:

I had to deal with a racist air hostess flying to London last year. Interesting experience. 9:16 PM – 10 May 2014

I then asked if he’d reported it. I reproduce the rest of the conversation.