Jamaica is not so different from America?

Whenever I travel to places like the USA or England, I’m often struck by how things that are done in Jamaica are also replicated in these so-called ‘developed’ economies.

I’m staying with some economist friends, and spent the afternoon with another retired economist friend. As we walked around some stores in a mall, I couldn’t help but notice something that often strikes me: most of the people working in those places barely know what they are doing. You doubt me? Let me give some instances.

I was in JC Penney, and the store assistant was a lovely older woman from central America. My friend is Spanish, so we got into a nice bilingual conversation. It also turned out that the lady knew some Russian, as do I, and we added that to the mix. But, she did not operate well the computerized cash register. She needed to key in my personal details to sign me up for a credit card. I was surprised when she said “You come and do it, I have trouble with keyboards.” So, there I was, on the other side of the counter, typing in my information. Would I get a discount for that, I wondered. We got it completed, while another customer came along, and looked a little puzzled. All done, I was good to go and got my extra 20 percent discount. Happy.

We then went to look for other items in the store, found them quickly and then moved onto Macy’s.

I was checking some shoes. No assistant was working in that area. Another pair of assistants nearby called for a colleague to come to help me; she had been ‘talking to a compatriot friend’ it seemed. Sounds familiar? Anyway, we went to the counter and she asked me what I needed. I’d checked out Sketcher walking shoes online and see what I wanted and that this store was supposed to have it in stock. I mentioned the brand; she asked me to repeat; I did. She then went to her register/computer, and pulled up images of women’s shoes. Now, I do not look as handsome as Idris Alba, but I also do not look like Rihanna. Did she not notice that I was a man, or was she just thinking that any old shoes would do? I pointed out her problem. She moved to find the section with images of mens’ shoes. We scoured the styles and found what I wanted. No joy, not in stock at this store. So much for the online check and integrated inventories.

My friend and I discussed this, while we were in the car headed to Costco. We decided that what was happening was that wages were too low. Employers wanted staff to do certain functions that were not that complex, but required some intelligence and some personal interaction. But, they did not want to pay much for this, especially for activities where the flow of sales was not really that high. They wanted glorified ‘stall minders’. So, they get a bunch of literate but not very competent people, who are happy to take the lower wages and do a modicum of what is needed for it. They sell, if they can, and go home.

Costco works differently, not least at the ‘business end’, the cash register. Our cashier was proud of the fact that she could ring up charges and pass her line of customers through quickly. The wholesale nature of its selling means that volumes are higher and sales larger than at places like department stores, and people are there shopping for ‘bargains’. They want to snag their wares and get out fast. The store layouts are broadly the same and only a few staff are there to help with queries: most are stocking and restocking shelves, taking sales, and dealing with membership queries and merchandise returns. None of that is supposed to take long and turn people off from coming back. It works. It went in looking for a pack of razors, and came out with a pair of shoes, a bag of trail mix, two pairs of jeans and a shirt. All needed, and all available at great prices. My friend got excited because he lives in Maryland, where you cannot buy liquor in grocery stores, and Costco have a huge selection–a dozen bottles for ‘everyday drinking’, he told me.

Then, there is the US entrepreneurship. There was a snow storm last night. A man rings my friend’s doorbell @ 6am. I don’t answer but look to see who it is. I see a guy in a hoodie and a heavy jacket; he’s Caucasian; he stands there. He goes away. Minutes later, he’s back, and rings again. This time my friend goes to the door and I hear discussions about “How much? Too Much. I’ll pay $xxx. It’ll take 4 hours. OK.” The man was offering to clear snow.

Have shovel, will clear snow

Talk about supply and demand.

But, Jamaica is not much different, and yet we are a struggling barely functioning economy. We’ve our men with weed whackers, looking for grass to cut. We have our sales ‘assistants’, happily engaging is side conversations, not knowing the merchandise, and paying little attention to customers. We have our barely functioning sales staff, who seem to be unable to manage the not-too-difficult new technology. We have Mega Mart and PriceSmart, who are clones of Costco, and operate with similar style.

What else is going on? Why have we lagged and the US flourished?

West Kingston Commission of Enquiry: How it shows Jamaica’s management and productivity problems to be endemic

I know that I’m not the first, and I hope I wont be the last to think that some of the goings on in the Tivoli Enquiry are ridculous. I really thought that the session before Christmas had the potential for most mirth, when the worlds of lawyers collided with that of regular citizens; when the world of standard English clashed with that of Kingstonian Patois. I really didn’t think that I would get a sense of mirth from listening to government officials deal with their inner feelings about what they did and thought at the time of the operations to ‘catch’ Christopher ‘Dudus’ Coke.

But, part of that sense that nothing funny would unfold was a belief that politicians and government officials were doing their jobs. What I have since discovered is that this is barely the case.

I have heard a string of “I cannot recall”, “I was (or ‘am’) unaware”, “I was not informed”, and other comments from the former PM and one of his other Cabinet ministers, that I wonder who really was running Jamaica. Clearly, in a simple sense, Bruce Golding was not commading the security forces: that is neither his role under the Constitution, nor, it seems, in his nature. He trusted those in charge of the JCF and JDF to do what he thought was right and was assured by their telling him that they did so. That’s as hands-off as it gets.

His security minister, Dwight Nelson, also had this posture. Mr. Nelson added a twist, though. He now seems to realise that the sea of ignorance in which he bathed might have covered many things that he ought not to have accepted. He has used a turn of phrase (for which I cannot find a term), which goes as follows: “I was not told that [fill in the blank], but that does not mean that it did not happen….” The thing that he did not know about was usually something horrible, like how security force personnel were brutalizing citizens of Tivoli. That stance is not very far from the three-monkeys posture, but it suggests that he had, or now has, an inkling that evil was occurring. It is not at all edifying. It’s not as blatant as the position taken by Pontius Pilate. But, history knows a hand washing when it sees one.

Basically, Messrs. Golding and Nelson sat on their hands, and let others do (‘dirty’) work without much, if any supervision. They were managers who were kept out of the loop, and it seems sought not to inform themselves by asking difficult questions of those over whom they had some degree of control. We also get the clear impression that subordinates and other functionaries filled gaps in leadership and decision-making by doing what they understood was needed in the circumstances. The politicians really thought the JCF and JDF would go hunting for a wanted criminal ‘don’:with a mood of kumbayah and sweeter? KMT!

A clear impression that I gained is that it is not in the ambit of a Jamaican manager to seek to know, to question, to press, to guide, or to lead. I have seen a few who do this. But, more often I see the cajoling and forcing of people to follow ‘orders’, but if they do not, to remain passive and withdraw, to let whomever get on with whatever they feel they want to do.

Former Justice Minister and Attorney General, Dorothy Lightbourne, has started her testimony in similar vein, citing that she was unaware of matters to do with compensation of victims, even though such things should normally go through the AG’s office, and that her opinion was not sought.

One really has to wonder what a Cabinet meeting must have looked like at that time, with no competent minister having a clue about what was going on and so having nothing to share with his or her colleagues.

That is at the heart of what many people in Jamaica see as our inability to obey rules: we do not have a group of people in charge who press others to do what they should. So, as is quite rational, the people ‘being led’ do what they should when no reins are being tugged. The ‘riders’ then put up their hands in horror as all manner of chaos ensues. You don’t believe me? Just take a look around.

What we call unruly taxi drivers and minibus drivers are merely people operating in a space where they are not managed, either by their employers (if they are not truly self-employed), or by the ‘administrators’ of the system (be that government departments, the police, or the travelling public–yes, you passengers contribute to the anarchy by your willingness to tolerate and encourage misbehaviour, for instance, by riding in unlicensed vehicles).

Just this weekend, we read reports about a phony insurance scam. How does that happen? Because we all collectively turn a blind eye to things that people do for expediency sake, and from which we benefit by having things offered to us more cheaply. We trade safety for a small financial gain, not realizing that the true cost is much higher as it involves our lives or the ability to be compensated for injuries or loss of life.

Sadly, people in Tivoli paid the price, and it was unacceptably high.

In that sense, The Enquiry has shed yet more unpleasant light on to where we as a nation have fallen. They call England ‘Blighty’, but they could easily call Jamaica ‘The Land of The Bligh’.