Fine words dress ill deeds

For those who had eyes to see it, Jamaica put on quite a display of its talents yesterday. The PM was making her budget speech. Champs, our national spectacle of young athletic talents, began.

When you can run like the wind, who cares that the country is poor?
When you can run like the wind, who cares that the country is poor?

It was my father’s 86th birthday.

But, in all of that glory, we saw why our country remained poor for decades while another small island became rich to the extent that their population is about 10 times as wealthy as ours in terms of income per head: our US$6,000 sits as a paltry sum compared to that of Singapore at about US$60,000. We were better off than Singapore in the early 1960s, and with their relative lack of natural resources, we should have managed to hold that advantage. They had a leader who saw the value of, amongst other things, really investing in people and their health and education, rather than opining about it, and the tangible financial and development rewards are now theirs, not ours. But, we can still sprint like the wind. Next!

We’re poor because we never understood that it was better to bake a much bigger pie and share that than to keep burning the cake and having to fight over the crumbs. We looked so hard and lustily at the short-term gains that come from corruption that we never saw the long-term benefits of a well-educated, well-ordered, law-abiding country being able to command high prices for its goods and services and being able to provide its population with all the basic elements of a healthy life. Lee Kwan Yew was no democrat, and he understood that if you let a small country of desperate people just have it their way the road would lead downward rather than up. That’s the broad picture. But, let’s look at what Jamaica put on display in the rogue’s gallery.

While the PM was talking big in her budget speech about new projects that would help ‘develop’ Jamaica, and that we did not need to magnify problems, we had supporters of the two main parties fighting over the right to stand on a dingy street corner.  

PM Simpson-Miller, dressed finely and speaking fine words, during her budget presentation

It was hard to fathom the fervour that the woman with faux orange hair displayed as she explained on TV how she and her friend merely ‘ran’ young representatives of the opposition, who had come to demonstrate their disapproval of the government by wearing dust masks, symbolising their reaction to the still-smouldering fire at the Riverton Dump. “There’s no fire here. Why they need dust masks?” She made clear that her group did not give the opponents a beating. Meanwhile, we saw one of her fellow supporters being disarmed by her father, while she clung on lovingly to some big rocks that she was ready to use to ‘run’ more opponents. It was like animals fighting over a carcass, except that the dead body was the stagnant economic life that they had grown into and grown up in.

Earlier in the day I had listened to residents of Riverton complaining that the dump was their life and that they had been born there and raised there and knew no other life than scavenging over other people’s waste. One lady felt no fear from the toxic air that was hers to breathe fully, claiming that people who live near the dump are immune to the toxins. Meanwhile, those who can read are checking what it means to have benzene and other carcinogens to injest. I want to say that this lady’s reaction is about as ignorant as people can be, but she may just be right. But, I will reject that. It suits those who crave power to have a population who think that living on the edge of a waste heap for years gives them super powers and are untouchable by things which the rest of the population now want to run from in utter fear.

I heard the same logic months ago, when people who lived in parts of Kingston that had been notable for the uncleared gullies and the constant infestation of mosquitoes, that they too were immune to the bites of the mosquitoes and Chikungunya would not affect them. The information about the spread of that virus, scrappy though it is, suggests that luck might have prevented some getting bitten, but that’s it.

On another scale of warped thinking and self-serving logic, we had presented to us a report by the Office of the Contractor General into the activities of the former Mayor of Lucea, Shernet Haughton. You ought to read the litany of nepotistic practices that went on, as family members and friends benefited from a string of contracts, and acts of corruption poured out like rain on a tin roof. The reprot mentions J$3.7 million out of a budget of $29.6 milllion, went to friends and family. Allegations were that $15 million had been awarded to such contacts, but the clear relationship was not easy to establish for that total amount. The lady had insisted that she had not been made aware of ethical issues related to her office. That defence tells you that notios of conflict of interest do not enter the head of some in political office. That one of her cronies thought it reasonable to state that he hired drunkards because they charged less tells you so much about the ‘eat a food’ mentality that seems to have eaten away all of some people’s brain cells.

I am not going to join all the dots, and note that the then-Mayor led a local authoritiy that is PNP-dominated. Squeeze an orange until its pips pop out? Move on!

I’m not sure if I should lump in with all this the trial of a juror in the murder trial of ‘Vybz Kartel’, who tried to bribe his fellow jurors into throwing out the charges. As my wife is wont to say, “Who does that?” Well, my dear, people who are so desperate that they know that money is more easily made by lying and stealing to get it. People who are bankrupt in their thinking and morals. That’s who does that.

I’m biased when I say that the PM did the right thing by pointing out that passing IMF ‘tests’ are important in getting Jamaica to a better place that it has been in for a long while. What’s sad, though, is that we created the need to go through the ‘pain’ of economic austerity after wasting funds that were thrown at us to use to better our lot. But, the tests wont get the economy growing fast, though they make it more likely that growth can occur. The rule of law and stable conditions are more conductive to growth than the thrust that comes from spending money as if there’s no tomorrow.

But, as I noted in the little cameos from yesterday, rule of law is alien to many who are there to apply it. Stability is hard to maintain when you live on the side of a waste heap.

The PM spoke and will leave a few notable words in people’s ears. They will applaud her calling for stiffer peanlties for those who kill women who are known to be pregnant. Let’s not worry about the fact the our police force can barely catch 1 in 10 criminals, or get them to court or get people to tetify. Let’s not worry about how we will establish that the killer ‘knew’ the victim was pregnant. Details, dear boy.

The health sector got a 17 percent increase in its budget allocation. Who-hoo! After a year of short supplies and searching high and low (or is it in Hi-Lo?) for one Panadol, we can look forward to…Pick a medical supply that is essential that was missing at your last visit to a public hospital. But, the PM said not to mangnify the difficulties, so just keep that finger on that bleeding wound just a few more hours, while I go check if there’s any guaze.

The PM had to talk about Riverton in her speech, as least to show a semblance of awareness that it was a major problem for the country. Even a politician who professes to not follow the local media would be hard pressed to be unware of the distress of many of the citizens in and around the capital, who sufferd from polluted air, had to stay home from school or work, and seek respirators, and the added anxiety that comes from not knowing if the all-important GSAT exams will be held and in what conditions. At the least, she would have been intrigued by the Darth Vader-like mask one of her ministers sported soon after his return from Japan. That’s what you got, though, nothing much else. You read the speech, for yourselves. the final line is a gem “The Ministers of Local Government and Health will provide more information on this issue.” Over and out!

The speech has some great sound bites about the need to end violence, and how the people of Jamaica are the real heroes and heroines, and it taking a village to raise a child. But, walk through the doors of Gordon House, and the heroines and heroes were ready to throw rocks and fight with sticks over the right to stand on a particular street corner. The PM talked about the ‘ownership society’ , but I wondered how many NHT contributors gagged when she said she wanted more Jamaicans to “own a ‘piece of the rock'”. I guess the lady with the orange hair had her piece already.

While the health sector looks forward to its bigger budget, it also showed us what ‘joined-up government means, as its permanent secretary let us know that his ministry will be taking the ministry of local government to court for failing to deal with the problem of Riverton Dump. I’m glad to say that I was one of the first to suggest using laws to bring public agencies back to what they are supposed to do over instances like Riverton. If the laws fail us, then let’s just all pack up and leave.

We’re due to get growth of about 1.6 percent this year, according to the badly named Growth Agenda Policy Paper (GAPP…really?). Do I see that being enough to stop the ‘eat a food’ mentality that is supposedly behind the recurrent fires at Riverton? No! Do I beleive that will stop local government politicians from trying to feather the nests of their familiers and friends? No! Do I think that will provide enough stimulus for unemployed people who can pick up rocks to defend street corners? No! So, what do I have? Fine words, my friend, more fine words.

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. :)