Life gives your lemons? Make lemonade. But, will you squeeze them for me?

I was in one of my “don’t give me that rubbish” moods yesterday afternoon, and two people got the brunt of it. I was set off by a request from my high command to get photos of our daughter taken for a visa application, lickety-split, when they could have been done over the weekend by the high command (when I was away from town). I was firing. I went to collect my daughter midway through her play date at a friend’s house, and headed to Barbican. While the photos were being processed, I went to a LIME store to pay my monthly phone bill.

It turned out that my bill had been settled. But, I took the opportunity to check on some information I had been promised several weeks ago, relating to a previous month’s bill. My phone usage changes little: I don’t spend much time talking on it, but I am often using the data package, which has a high limit included in the tariff. So, my bill is really unchanged each month; I’m within my usage limits. But, a couple of months ago, my bill spiked, and went to double its normal amount. That alone made my non-existent hair stand up. It bristled more, when the next bill went back to normal levels. Alarm bells went off. I checked the accounts online, and saw that I had exceeded my data package usage limits. Well, nothing much had changed. I had travelled but had switched off data roaming–a killer, if I ever met one. So, I asked LIME to give me the details of data usage, which I cannot see online. A manager told me that she would ‘investigate’ and get back to me.

Well, in the land-of-no-follow-through, I was a monkey on a pole waiting. I had no phone number for her so had waited for a return visit to check. This was it. A ‘representative’ got my “please do this now, and stop joshing” mood and went to a computer screen to look at my account. He saw what I had seen. Abnormal use. But, he had seen something else. “Your overage caused the spike,” he said, “We’ve had this problem with some other accounts.” Well, that was music to my ears. My suspicions were getting some support. Glitch. He told me that I would get an ‘adjustment’ for the excess usage and a refund of J$4007, once it was approved by a “second party”. He gave me his name and phone number. My daughter and I thanked him and went back to get her photographs. We got that done, and I took her back to happy land. I then headed to the hospital to check on my father, who’d had another emergency on Sunday while I had been on the north coast.

I walked toward the ward where he was lying. I met his caregiver, who had been following up on her own medical problem, and was standing outside the ward. I thought of her, and suggested I get her a chair to sit on: one was just a few feet away. She was with another lady and a hospital maintenance man. We all noticed that the plastic chair had its seat split by a corner. “Watch out, when you sit. You don’t want to cut yourself,” Mr. Maintenance told us. I asked him why it had not been fixed. He said it was not for him to do. Who told him to say that? I asked him if he could fix chairs. In typical Jamaican fashion, he did not answer the question but went on about who he would have to send it to and what processes he would have to pass through. I asked him to give me a one word answer, yes or no. I knew when that came out of my mouth that I was simmering.

Not the actual broken chair, but a good enough image of one
Not the actual broken chair, but a good enough image of one

I asked him again. Another long ramble. I tried a third time–I said he was being like Peter. We still never got one word. I tried once again. “No,” he said. Thanks. I asked if he knew someone who could fix chairs. He told me yes. I suggested he take the chair to be fixed. “Ah nuh so it go, here,” he then said. He went on about how he would have to fill in (work) orders, and get papers signed, etc. That was not his job. Oh, sweet mother of mercy. I had him in my sights now. “Not your job?” I asked. I asked if he was happier with the person sitting on the chair, cutting themselves, then having to be admitted to the hospital. He went on about how the chair should not have been there, because it was broken, and someone must have brought it there to sit on. Well, I knew where to go for our next astrophysicist. I took a breath. He added that someone would want to be paid for doing the job. That seemed odd in an institution full of paid employees. I did not presume that he meant that a bribe was needed, but maybe I was wrong.

I asked him if he had leaking pipes at his home. He told me “a little”. I asked him what he proposed to do. He said he was fixing them. I asked why he could not do the same with the chair. More of ‘the system’, blah-blah. I asked him why he could not treat things that were wrong at his work the same as those at home. “The home is mine, sir,” came the reply. So, we explored more. “This country is yours, too,” I told him, “Care for it the same way.” He went back to ‘the system’. I told him that I would take the chair and get it fixed and bring it back. “You can’t take it off the premises,” he told me. I said that was a different problem and I would be ready to deal with that. (If this chair was in the trunk of my car, no one would see it and the hospital security do not do car checks on exit. Contrast that to the golf course I visited at the weekend, where I was put under good scrutiny: “We do it as routine, sir”, I had been told.) I gave my man a few more nuggets to consider.

In my eyes, the maintenance man tolerated the broken chair and refused to do anything because he was afraid to have that responsibility for taking action. He was adamant that he was afraid of nothing, but ‘the system’ was hard to break.

More forms than substance
More forms than substance

Alright, I can understand the crippling numbness of a bureaucracy that may have him fill out forms in triplicate and make a report of how and where the chair was broken before anyone would life a screwdriver to mend it. Normally, however, someone would just do the right thing and fix the blessed chair. The same way that the man at the UWI pool had jerry-rigged a pulley lever to make the water fountain work, for want of the right part. He was still waiting for that after months, but swimmers needed water and the machine would give it, if the pulley worked. Bravo, for him. Boo, for UWI. But, back to the chair.

My basic point was that this lack of willingness to act on small fixes was pervasive. It was not apathy but the kind of paralysis one used to see in the Soviet Union, whose bureaucracy was like kudzu (see a recent article in The Guardian that suggest little has changed in Russia). Nothing would happen because there was no personal incentive for things to happen; the common good under communism was no driver of actions. The plan was in place and it would be fulfilled, even if nothing happened. Numbers would be created that made it appear that things had happened. No one got more rewards for doing more. No one suffered losses for doing less. In Russian, the way to reply if asked how things were going, is “Normal”. Don’t stand out. Don’t do what you are not told to do. The soviet system produced people who knew how to do everything but then put a huge premium on information, so it was better to hoard that. You never got a full answer, only information for the specific question. “Do you have the time?” Yes, would be the reply; no more. “What time is it, then?” might have followed. A good reply would be “Then? You mean now?” The process of extracting the information in droplets was part of the merry dance that kept people busy doing very little. If it came to that, we could spend weeks trying to get the answer to something that was stated on a piece of paper in front of someone, but would not be given unless and until the right questions had been asked. At its ultimate absurdity, people would even pretend not to be there so that they would not have to deal with more questions. I recall waiting with a team to see the finance minister in Moscow. “He’s travelling,” his secretary told us. We saw him through a glass partition walking into and out of his office. I guess that was travelling. We told her that we had seen him in the office. She denied that he was there. We waited and waited for hours. Then went back to our hotel and came back the next day for the same treatment. We got to see him on the third day. Our time had been lost. His time had not been wasted.

Jamaica had a spell when some elements of socialism was getting a foothold in the country, but we were never fully under such a system. Something else has been going on. It’s pan-Caribbean. It may be that the whole ‘jobs for people’ move to keep slots filled in the public sector, irrespective of people being able and willing to do work has a lot to do with it. Dead-end jobs. No thanks for jobs well done. Shoddy working conditions. Crummy pay. All of that and more may be playing out. But, the bottom line is that we have ended up disabling ourselves and our society. People may do things if they get some extra money for doing what they should do.

I get heartily annoyed when I drive along a stretch of Washington Boulevard. There’s a man at his ‘station’ by the stop lights. As the cars stop, he eases himself off the kerbside and goes to the windows to beg for money. He taps on the windows and puts out his hand. He wants a gift, no doubt about it. He does not plead. He is one of several I see at various points; he’s a bit better dressed than some. This is not about the problems that put people into desperate situations, and it’s not about whether someone can really do something that would warrant pay. It’s just the assumption of an entitlement and a willingness to prey on the good nature of any and all. I may be out of time and touch with the idea that if you offer to do something instead of just putting out your hand that would be a bit more respectful of those whose earned money you want to share. In that sense, I will never criticise the windscreen washers. They want money and are prepared to earn it. Our social safety net is not great so many can and do fall through the cracks. But, the system is also badly cracked and we do not seem ready in large enough numbers to put our fingers in the dykes. Rather, we let the leaks continue and eventually the dam will break.

I did not realise it at the time but I had seen two opposites at work. My LIME experience was in the end about how ‘the system’ can work, but maybe only in parts of the private sector. Problem seen. Problem analysed. Solution proposed (subject to ‘second party’ approval). MyUWI hospital experience showed that another world, maybe just the public sector, had ‘the system’ that was bereft of push to find solutions.

When we come down to it, our inability to be productive has been and is crippling. Not just for what it does to make our society function worse than it should do, but also in the mindset that is needed for people to endure and perpetuate it.bureaucracy_blogtownhall_com I told the maintenance man that he lived with a system that did not fix things because he lived with a system that did not fix things. No amount of saying that things don’t work differently would change that. He was called away by a student nurse to perform some task. He eventually came back to me and shook my hand and said “You’re absolutely right.”

I don’t need to know I am right, but I would like this country to see what is so simply wrong and get off its collective tush.

When I got home from hospital visiting and picking up daughter, I pointed out to my little one that the handrest on the chair that is by a desktop computer had been fixed. I’d been annoyed that it had fallen off, and the two screws that held it in place were nowhere to be found. While hunting for something else that a person who likes to touch people’s things had moved, I found two screws: one in a plastic cup containing a range of other gubbings, the other in a draw. I put the screws back into the handrest, and check that it was tight and not wobbling. I didn’t have to fill any forms and I don’t even use the chair myself much at all. But, that’s not the point of my motivation to fix the blessed thing. Like my man, I want my home to be right. I just want him to step past his own door frame and realise that outside is all his home, too.

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

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