Jamaicans are getting excited by some routine disclosures about the use of government-provided cell phones. This may turn out to be a storm in a tea cup. However, the excitement comes from the fact that we get a glimpse into the lives of those whom we elected to govern and how they take care of our national resources. We get enraged when we see signs that they are ignoring who foots the bills–the taxpayers. We get really incensed if we feel that our money is being used frivolously. During times like these, when the nation is being urged to make economic sacrifices, we take it badly if our governors seem to making no sacrifices. Living off the people’s backs is never a strategy for staying elected in a democracy.

My thinking is always governed by my training as an economist. I often look at opportunities to exploit. Incentives are often to blame for this. One does not need to be a really bad person to exploit. It’s about what incentives govern your behaviour. If no one checks what you do, you tend to act to excess. Parents know this well regarding children. We urge them to curb their excesses. By the time they are adults, we hope they have learned the key lessons.

The cell phone saga, if it becomes that, has many simple explanations, and none of them need be corrupt. They may reflect a lot of carelessness and few checks and balances. We’ve often been surprised by huge phone bills when we travel abroad, and did not know or understand roaming charges. But, we only need that to happen once, and we are very careful next time. Or, we set up arrangements to avoid the worst effects. All of that applies when we are personally responsible. But, if we are not held to account, the sky may be the limit.

I suspect we will find a good amount of this. Senator Nicholson should not have to ‘confront’ his junior minister, Arnaldo Brown, over high phone bills. He should have been aware and had in place a system to monitor or curb any perceived excesses. Now, it’s time to close stable doors while his colt has bolted abroad again. Likewise, the junior minister need not be coy about explaining his usage, even while he’s abroad on government business: he should know how to justify it. Surely, he’s not surprised?

Maybe, that’s it. The government officials are getting tripped up by the obvious. Why? Because, no one made them care about how they used public resources.

A good editorial today in the Observer, pointed out several issues still to be resolved, including the context for the latest bills. We may be seeing the bills at a low point, after much higher costs. We may be seeing them at a time when ministers were engaged in conversations or activities that are all justified, but costly to be done by phone.

I’m not prejudging. I’ve had to explain high phone bills, especially during foreign travel, and fortunately was well aware of their possibility so armed myself with good justifications. I also was savvy enough to understand cheaper options and get them in place: I think I was one of the first users of Skype at my institution, back in the days when satellite phones were all that worked well from the former Soviet Union.

When the dust settles, will wages be garnished as a repayment plan is put into effect? If it’s found that significant amounts of usage were inappropriate, most of us would not expect resignations. That’s not in our political culture…yet. But, if one our corruption watchdogs starts barking about how this may be perceived as corrupt, tunes may change.

Maybe, integrity training needs to be part of the manual of lessons given to new ministers.integrity

The economics of corruption are not complicated, as an OECD study explained (my emphases): ‘For most economists, the root causes of corruption lie in the delegation of power. It is the discretionary use of that power and the often monopolistic position public agents enjoy when dealing with contracts which make corruption possible. The incentives and opportunities for corruption depend on the size of the rents, or the personal profit, which public agents can derive from allocating those contracts.’