Soon come? Will I die first? Jamaica’s inability to deliver

I see the problem clearly. The solutions are also there to see. But, the problem persists. The media get excited about an issue, and it hits newspaper pages, radio and television feature it on news and current affairs. We may even get a quick ‘investigation’. Then, like a lead balloon, the interest wanes, sometimes suddenly, sometimes like a slow drip from the tap.

You can look at any week. We see ‘big news’ and big concerns. Admittedly, our media focus tends to be on government and how it delivers on promises. Issues are raised. Ministers or top officials speak. Action may be promised. Interest wanes. Officials go back to ‘business as usual’, we assume, because little more is heard.

The media, at least, should be following. But, as someone said to me a few weeks ago, we have reporters, not journalists, by which was meant we do not have people who will investigate and pursue, and press, and stay on the case to a clear resolution.

The situation rarely changes because those who are due to perform know that there is little real consequence to not performing. I will cite a few examples, including some based on personal experience.

This week, I was annoyed by the seeming lack of advocacy on citizens’ behalf by organisations charged with consumer protection. I wrote a letter on Sunday to both major newspapers. I also sent a message on Monday morning (using Facebook) to the Consumer Affairs Commission (CAC). Both papers published my letter, not on the same day. I got a query from the CAC on Monday afternoon asking (and I quote) “Please name the industry and or organization and I will be happy to inform you of the work being done on your behalf”. I have since heard nothing from the CAC. While I am writing now, I sent them a little nudge, noting that I had heard nothing since. I will keep at them, until they live up to their promise.

We had, several weeks ago, a familiar situation, where a major public event left ticket holders unhappy at the seeming lack of value for money. In this case, it was the final day of Champs. That will go down, not just as a day of records and another win for Calabar and Edwin Allen high schools, but also as the day when some ticket holders were denied entry to the stadium because it was deemed ‘full’. The organizers were quickly criticised for overselling the event. They quickly came to their defence on radio (Beyond the headlines), and opened the possibility of refunds. Since, that little teaser trail has gone as cold as ice. Letters were written and published in the papers, and the Gleaner ran a strong editorial on April 3, dealing with the thorny topics of ticket sales and allocations and then the matter of entrance denied to ticket holders–‘ticketing ‘issues’ at the entrance on the games’ closing day because of security measures imposed by the police to deal with potential problems’. The Gleaner went on to ask ‘ISSA should say how many tickets were printed for each day, how they were either distributed or sold, and how many were redeemed at the gates and how the problems of the past will finally be fixed.’ To date (and I am using information found online), I have not seen a reply that the Gleaner has published. If they have had one, let’s see it, please. I’ve sent a message to the Gleaner, as I write, asking if ISSA has responded.

We have, sadly, become accustomed to this seeming indifference to follow-up on requests or promises made. As an economist, it’s simple to understand: there are few, if any, consequences for non-performance. Therefore, non-performance won’t diminish. Ministers are not seen to press their staff or themselves to deliver. We saw in Parliament just last week the tardiness in dealing with requests under Freedom of Information. At the end of last year, the Speaker of the House of Representatives ruled that Parliament has the right to all of the documents related to the Outameni purchase. To date, has that right been fulfilled?

I am not even going to touch now on what some may see as bigger issues in the nation.  But, as some would say, you need to take out all the little weeds for any garden to grow well.

My daughter has the habit of saying “I’m coming” and then not moving. I could blame it on some gene she has picked up from her Jamaican parent. But, if I have it, I have had it modified, by being in environments that held me to account for either non-delivery or late delivery.

Of course, we also know that bluster and huff and puff are part of the dance of actually not doing much. I’ve heard enough of that to know that hot air is all that is being offered. But, the counterpart is that hot air is all that is expected.

Jamaica loves “Soon come”, and for people here the idea that time is elastic is legendary, but we also are too accustomed to “Never reach”. As J.M. Keynes wrote, ‘In the long run, we are all dead’. For some, that is what they hope will ‘deal’ with the annoying habit of expecting things to be done.

Patience just running thin: Time for public servants to get up and perform

Frankly, I have a feeling that many public agencies in Jamaica are just marking time. We are not short of laws, or rules, or regulations. But, we are short of people who feel that they must be pushing forward to get things done all the time, to the best of their abilities. In other words, excellence is not the watch word. Something bordering on mediocrity is, though. I’m sorry if that hurts the feelings of any public servant, but until you show the country that your output is the result of maximum and unstinting effort, I am not going to take a different view.
Someone asked today, after Pres. Obama’s visit, what next? I was driving along another potholed road. I thought: have all the potholes filled, then move on to another project that has been languishing as an obvious need. Keep fixing each one till there’s nothing left to fix. Then start again.
My sense of being surrounding by non- or -underperformers hit a wall at the weekend and I penned a letter to the papers. It got the matter off my chest. In trying to hear whether I was wrong in my views, I posed the points to the Consumer Affairs Commission. They asked me for sectors I had in mind, and I pointed them to those I mentioned in my letter. I have not yet heard again from them. The Gleaner published the letter today, with another catchy byline. I’ve reproduced it below, and it’s linked in the byline. Happy reading:
*****

THE EDITOR, Sir:

Jamaica suffers from many things, one of which is a seeming inability to do things for which we have rules and legislative powers to act. I wrote on my blog over the weekend that our comparative advantage is in scamming. It’s a harsh truth, but by owning it, we may set ourselves free.

However, our constant national striving to find ways to wheedle money out of people is aided and abetted by laxity.

I’ve just noted, over past weeks, the almost daily reports in the media of abuses of the consumer. The latest, on Monday, is about gas stations adding hidden charges to the cost of petrol.

Last week, we learned that some 49 cable companies in Jamaica (I never knew we had so many) had been airing content illegally, and now would have to remove it. In the process, consumers have been unwitting accessories to theft. We have to ask what the Broadcasting Commission was doing over the years. But, now what are the rights of ordinary cable subscribers?

We have a possible mammoth fraud involving $160 million from the sale of used cars.

We had, a few weeks ago, the debacle of ticket holders unable to enter the National Stadium on the final day of Champs. After much public uproar, ISSA spoke quickly about considering refunds, but weeks after, we’ve heard not another word on that.

If we go back over the past year alone, we will find many more such stories of small and large enterprises taking a chunk out of the money that is already very tight for most Jamaicans. It’s unconscionable. But, where are our advocates?

We have a Consumer Affairs Commission, which, as far as I can tell, has said not one word about any of these abuses, either with an ‘immediate reaction’ or ‘after some reflection’. Why?

DENNIS JONES

Economist

dennisgjones@gmail.com

We’re scamming, I want to scam with you

This is Jamaica, so if I say that I’ve been thinking about Adam for days that may get a few eyebrows rising and lips twitching. But, I’m just thinking about Adam Smith, and what he’s done to mess up our lives. What’s been bugging me is what economists call ‘comparative advantage’. As Smith wrote in The Wealth of Nations:

“If a foreign country can supply us with a commodity cheaper than we ourselves can make it, better buy it of them with some part of the produce of our own industry, employed in a way in which we have some advantage.” (Book IV, Section ii, 12)

Simply put, it means that countries shouldn’t go around trying to produce themselves all they need, but figure out what we produce at lower cost than others (in money terms or in terms of what we may have to give up to do it).

I’ve thought about it a lot because I see Jamaica’s stuck doing things that sound great, as embodied by ideas like “Buy Jamaican”. As I mentioned on Twitter a few weeks ago, that’s actually a policy to make the country poorer. We love certain goods, for instance, and think that because we can grow them or used to grow them hugs continuing to grow them is good for us. Well, we do a lot of growing at much higher costs per unit than other countries, in part because we need imported inputs that keep costing more as our exchange rate weakens. Also, we’ve some outdated ways of doing things that keep costs high.  

 We throw our hands up in horror as we see the amount of red peas we import, but others produce them more cheaply than we do. So, we have to drop the romantic notion that helping our farmers, for example, will do us good.

What’s really bothered me, though, is where we seem to have comparative advantage. Many people have heard that practice makes perfect, and perfect practice makes perfect. 

Among the areas where we seem to excel are the ‘dark arts’. For instance, we are putting ourselves up there as the kings of scamming. Just read today’s papers. 

  • Carmax placed into receivership‘, as two directors are sought to deal with alleged fraud of over $100 million. Jamaican cable television companies have to cease airing 19 channels next month because they never had the rights. The Broadcast Commission seemed to have been caught with its feet up eating popcorn. This was a great wheeze, facilitated by the government at many levels over several years. It allowed the cable firms to subsidize their services with this cool cost saving. Talk of refunds for cable customers is just pipe dream stuff. “Where’s my two ounces?”

Prof. Hopeton Dunn (all hope gone?), Commission chairman, talked about protecting image and guarding against international perception of Jamaica as a rogue country. “Whoa! Stop that horse! Bolt the stable!”

I asked if this illegal activity was going on with the full knowledge of the regulator. “Hello, is that my wake up call?”

  • The country’s top public prosecutor can’t make a case to prosecute a local government councillor despite reams of evidence of nepotism after contracts were given to family and connected people. The best that can be done is slap a $1000 fine (US$10). “Pick yourself up off the floor and stop your laughing!”. In tennis, they penalise you for ‘not making an effort’.

Looks fine to me (courtesy of The Jamaica Gleaner)

As any dummy would see, if you can fleece millions in funds and pay pennies in fines, then pull up the gangway and let’s sail to Jamaica.

It makes you wonder about the smarts of criminals who rob and maim, when they could have raked in the dosh in exchange for a few handshakes, kissed babies, and the odd wearing of ceremonial robes. But, you can understand why even my puppy wants to get into politics.

Our new education system better gear up. Enough already of doctors and engineers. Let’s get courses up and running in ‘How to be a spiv’. The U.S. was proud to call you to come with other tired and hungry masses. What will be our clarion call? Let’s set up a conference call with Prof. Carlos Hill and Dr. David Smith of the OLINT School of Business.

Fine wine in old casks: Jamaica’s aging population

First, let me declare my biases.

I’ve just turned 60. I’m retired; I decided to take that opportunity early. It runs in the family, though, as both of my parents did the same (albeit on medical grounds). I was recently appointed as a Director of the Board of CCRP (Caribbean Community of Retired Persons). I’m a Jamaican. I am also an economist.

Now, with those weights off my shoulder, let me go on.

Yesterday, CCRP held its 5th anniversary AGM. It also celebrated those who have grown older gracefully and done so while still making significant contributions to Jamaica and further afield. It gave its ‘Living Legacy Awards’. The recipients were:

  • Mrs. Merel Hanson: for services to nursing and senior citizens
  • Mrs. Beverly Hall-Taylor: for  community and social services
  • Ambassador K.G. Anthony Hill: for local international service and support for environmental issues
  • Ken Jones: for literary services
  • Dr. Badih Shoucair: for services to medicine, especially supporting the poor and less advantaged

I wont try to recapture all of the event, but just some essential parts that struck me and made me think about roles we can play.

Founder-CEO, Jean Lowrie-Chin, led proceedings at the AGM and her organization, PROComm, continues to be the main supporter of CCRP. Without her generosity and foresight, CCRP would be an idea and little else. Her energy and willingness to make others use their energies explain much of the success of both organizations. So, she is inspiration enough, in a sense.  

Founder-CEO of CCRP, Mrs. Jean Lowrie-Chin

 But, the awardees added greatly to that. Let me summarise.

Mrs. Hanson had a hand in training many of Jamaica’s nurses, since her involvement in the 1950s. I did not get a chance to ask her if she might have helped my mother in her early training, but I will fill in the gap in my mind, and ask my father, who was a male nurse.

Mrs. Hall-Taylor was full of energy and was looking ready to lead us in a bout of exercise, I thought, once she got to the podium.

Ambassador Hill, also known to many as a footballer, gave us food for thought about ‘transitions and intersections’.  He highlighted what I often say, that there are no coincidences: we meet people for a reason. He mentioned his father and grandfather and how they shaped his life. He pointed to his links to Mrs. Lowrie-Chin, that started years ago through their schools, downtown, and continue today in many ways. He argued that the two issues of aging population and climate change pose Jamaica’s biggest challenge. He wondered if it was time to consider a National Retirement Service, so that those whose age meant that formal work may have to stop, would still hae ample opportunities to give of their experience and energies. Many heads nodded. No surprise. Many senior and retired people do this already, albeit as volunteers.

Ken Jones, showed that transitions and intersections abounded, as he related how Ambassador Hill’s father was one of his mentors. How the two awardees were one as the same feet of learning, and now sat next to each other as ‘aged people’. He offered two good aphorisms:

  • Yesterday is history. Tomorrow is mystery. Today is a gift; that’s why it’s the present
  • Try to do something for the present

Dr. Shoucair demonstrated what we all hope, I think: that age may seem no more than a number. Though in his 90s, he’s still working as a doctor. He looks frail, but sprang out of his chair and stepped up to the podium like a little pony. He pointed out that in your 70s you get criticised for mistakes, but in your 90s, people give you a bit more latitude. No kidding! He’s a living example of what he says: he was sent to this world to help others. He would live his life over in exactly the same way, if he had the chance–no regrets. If a family needed inspiration, then his is not short of it. The family was there in numbers and generations and were rightly proud. Medicine is all he ever wanted to do, and he continues to do so.

Ernie Smith may not be known to all who are now young, but most Jamaicans will know of him and his many songs. We all have our favourites and his selection would have satisfied most. One Board director yelled “Ram goat liver…” but that was as much of that song as we got. Mr. Smith sang, locks flowing, and rocked, knees bending. The audience gladly finished many verses. His wife got into the act and urged many to get up and ‘shake a leg’. It was typical seniors’ behaviour: afternoons are when we are lively.

image
Ernie Smith, with Financial Secretary, Devon Rowe

After I got home, and was reflecting on the afternoon’s events. I read that Ernie Smith has just done a project with the Ministry of Finance, writing and singing a song about the Economic Reform Programme, dubbed ‘A fi wi bizniz.

I liked the notion, but could see that some would have the immediate reaction of ‘give youth a chance’.

Ambassador Hill saw the ageing-climate change nexus as our major challenge. It may loom large, but I see a bigger challenge before that one. While the world is aging, it is also seeing its youth numbers rise rapidly. However, we have moved in most countries to a position where economies are not growing very fast and now allowing for ‘natural’ replacement of older workers by those who are younger. The contest between older and younger workers is a major issue, and one being addressed by the International Labor Organization. Their analysis in 2012 noted an important constraint:

  • Lowering the retirement age so that young people replace older workers while the latter move into a well-deserved rest misses a very important point: Younger workers cannot easily substitute older workers. The evidence suggests that early retirement policies have not generated jobs for younger age groups.
  • One of the main reasons is that there is no fixed number of jobs. This constantly changes depending on the state of the job market. So when an older worker quits his or her job early, he or she is not automatically replaced by a younger worker.
  • A young worker cannot necessarily do the same job as an older worker who has acquired skills throughout a career.

We have had for decades the conundrum faced by new entrants to the work force: we like your resumé, but we need experience; go and get some more, then come back to us. When economies were growing fast, that did not seem such a problem. A starter position was easier to get. Now, it’s very hard to secure. Those with little or no skills, have few good options. Those with average skills may get a foot in at the bottom, but now also have to compete with those who have excellent skills but are prepared to take any position just to get a ‘foot in the door’. Being young and overqualified for a job is now a better option that having no job. Jamaica faces that problem in a stark way.

The extened recession poses an enormous challenge to social cohesion. Much though our society and many others give due respect to older workers, there is a presumption that they will ‘move over’ to let young and new workers ‘get a foot on the ladder’. But, people living longer with good health poses a very clear problem to this process. Large numbers of young people without work has never been a basis for good social development. How tolerant will the high proportion of the youth unemployed be?

In the UK and USA, for example, one can see that many firms prefer to keep or hire older workers, with lots of work experience rather than hire younger staff. Reasons for that may be related to costs, such as wages plus social benefits, and that series of older workers may be cheaper obligations that locking into younger workers. We see that trend in many service areas that do not require high skill levels, such as supermarkets and retail stores. We also see it with airlines. The young still feature in many areas such as cafes, bars, restaurants. We know that in finance, the stresses and strains that used to be taken for granted and thought to favour younger workers, do not seem to deter older workers as much anymore. Again, maybe experience trumps youth.

I may be wrong in seeing the risk that a healthy ageing population pose for social cohesion as bigger than the risks of climate change and that ageing population.

CCRP has the great advantage of one of the world’s experts on ageing, Prof. Denise Eldemire-Shearer, as its Chairperson. I’m sure she will be thinking about the relative risks of many issues Jamaica’s ageing population pose. But, it’s something for us all to consider.

West Kingston Commission of Enquiry: Two little boys with two little toys…

All those Jamaican fans of American TV soap operas and dramas are missing out on some decent drama unfolding, with mainly local characters and made locally. Better still, it’s live, so one is never sure what will happen. Where should I start? The past few days have pitted, the strong-jawwed former Commissioner of Police (Owen ‘I rarely smile’ Ellington) against an attorney for INDECOM (Terrence ‘My smile comes from Walmart’ Williams). The two have what seems like a toxic dislike for each other, that is barely hidden whenever they interact in the room presided over by Sir David (‘I is a Bajan’) Simmons. Ellington is won’t to show what seems like boredom by fiddling with his pen, and then putting his hands together, as in prayer, just in front of his mouth.owenellingtona20150219ng_1 Williams, head cocked to one side, and chin resting on hand, with a little glinting eye, above a somewhat rogueish goatee, often sits like a man about to tell a long-shaggy dog-story, as he begins his questioning, which is often long and shaggy.Screen Shot 2015-04-23 at 6.46.26 AM

The substance of their interactions this time is the police role in the May 2010 attempts to arrest a man known by his Brazilain-style one-name, ‘Dudus’. But, really, that is cover for a series of darts flung laboriously by Williams and parried stoically by Ellington, with a few bowls of boiling oil hurled by the former policeman back across the room. Yesterday, was a doozy. I will only give a taste.

I forget what Williams asked, precisely, but Ellington shot back “Nonsense!” Well, who tell him fi say dat? Mr. Williams, suddenly struck by a bout of thin-skinnnedness, turned to the Commssion Chairman and asked that he direct the witness to treat him with the courtesy that he had extended to the witness. For those who had been watching, they would know that the courtesy occurred before live transmission began, so most missed it. The questioning continued, and after the next reply by Ellington, we could all hear, for it was said out loud by Williams, “So you say.” Well, hold on! Oh, it’s OK. Another attornery, for the JCF, Ms. Debra Martin, jumped up, handbag flailing, and asked the Commission Chairman if this was not also a disrespectful remark. “So you say?” she repeated, adding that this made it sound as if the witness were lying. There was a little silence, and we could then hear the dulcet voice of Mr. Ellington say “He’s reciprocating.”

Well, I watched goggle-eyed, to see if the two men would stand up and hug in open session. But, this is Jamaica, and that kind of bro-mance, especially during daytime TV, is frowned upon.

Sir David, who had told those listening the previous day that all they had to do was “Watch my pen” to see if what they were say was deemed relevant by him, had his pen in a state of staticness. Not a move, not even a shiver. (I’m sure he muttered “How West Indies doing?”)

I can understand that relations between INDECOM and JCF are at best frosty and at worst down-right hostile, but boys, come on. We’re all grown up, and children are watching. Is this playground behavour really needed?

Well, it is! It’s part of courtroom theatre and it’s what attorneys love. After years of being raised on court-room dramas, like ‘Perry Mason’ and ‘Ironside’, I know that the knock-down style is how lawyers see they have to operate. That it’s really boring and not impressive to the rest of us is not that important. Look at the wallet, dude! Cha-ching! “Valet, bring me the Benz. No, pull out the Caddy.”

Oh, what facts did I learn from the exchanges so far? Oh, hang on, let me look at my notes, like Sir David. Oh, I see a doodle, and a list of things to work on with my golf teacher. On the other side of the paper? Hmm. Oh, that’s embarrassing. It’s blank. Oh, well. Another day wasted.

West Kingston Commission of Enquiry: One Irrefutable Fact–Someone Is Lying

I know none of the people participating in the West Kingston Commission of Enquiry at a personal level. So, this is by no means a personal attack. But, I think I know something important about the proceedings. Someone was lying, has lied, and continues to lie about what went on in the events of May 2010 in Tivoli Gardens. That is the easy conclusion. The hard question is ‘Who?’ and the harder question is ‘Why?’ Everyone is swearing an oath at the commission, so to deviate from the truth should be costly. I say ‘should’, not ‘will’.

We heard testimony and cross-examination, early in the proceedings, from residents of Tivoli.

Tivoli resident taking oath before testifying
Tivoli resident taking oath before testifying

The attorneys found discrepancies in their accounts now, compared to accounts given in earlier statements and submissions. These were not reconciled. You cannot have a person believing two versions of facts about the same events. (That’s not the same as two people not having the same recall of the same events; perspective and role are important.)

We later heard testimony from some government officials: a former minister of national security and former attorney general.

Former minister of national security
Former minister of national security

lightobourne
Former attorney general

Both had astonishing lapses of memory or seemed unaware of activities and events which it would be normal to expect the ‘chief executive’ of an agency to know. But, let’s put that down to loose management style.

After that, we went higher up the ladder, and heard testimony from the former prime minister at the time. He too was afflicted by poor powers of recall and lack of awareness. Those words feature much in the testimony I heard.

Former prime minister
Former prime minister

Most recently, we heard Commissioner Ellington also say that he did not recall. But, he also went further that not recalling. He stated that he recalled somethings quite differently than others. He said on at least two occasions that I heard live that statements from other people about his actions were “not true”.

Former commissioner of police
Former commissioner of police

The Tivoli Enquiry is not a truth (and reconciliation) commission. However, a column a few months ago went into many issues about seeking truth from the proceedings. The article closed with some chilling words (my emphasis): ‘The cautionary intrusion is this, that truth-telling has consequences, it is a risky business. However, the benefits to our society far outweigh the risks.’

When asked, a few months ago, ordinary citizens made clear that truth coming out from the proceedings was important, but many doubted if that would occur. It’s a reflection of the society in which they live. Truth is information. Information is not to be given lightly or freely (aka ‘Informa fi dead’).

I was more concerned by the testimony of Messrs Golding and Ellington (which is continuing). I do not absolve the other senior officials, but as the minister of national security told us, he took no files with him when he left office. Ms. Lightbourne also seemed happy to leave without information to trace, and added that she stayed away from sources of local news. (I laughed at the time, but now think she was much smarter than many realised by taking that position.)

As head of government, it’s clear that the PM sets a certain tone in how business should be conducted. That person may always be thwarted in efforts to keep that tone going consistently, but there should be elements in place to try to keep it. These seemed to be missing. Most worrying, was the lack of linkage between key ministries so that those who should know, knew. We’ve heard a lot about ‘silo government’, and this is an example. (The current PM talks a lot about ‘joined-up government’ and that reflects a clear sense in her mind, at least, that this was a missing feature of previous administrations. That it doesn’t really exist now, either, tells me a lot more about how we roll.)

I’m resisting something very tempting in the proceedings. Many seem taken by the ‘poise’ of certain officials. Form over substance has long been a way of getting people to ignore obvious failings. Ask anyone who has been conned about the con artist, and how slick and elegant he or she seemed.snake-oil-salesman-big Snake oil is always snake oil.

I asked myself many times now, why the heads of organisations whom we have seen and heard did so little to keep tract of information that was flowing their way. In the latest testimony, we heard a lot about meetings and conversations that were not recorded or shared, let alone noted. That’s worrying, in principle, but seriously troubling in organisations whose business is supposed to include investigation and know the importance of evidence.

When I worked in organisations that had a reputation for integrity I was in the habit of taking notes of meetings that I attended alone. They were placed as ‘notes for record’ and went into the official files. Anyone could argue with my recall, but I put it there for future reference. If needed, my version could be used against other versions coming from those who were also present. My memory is good, but not infallible. I was particularly keen to record quickly notes of meetings which has been preceeded with remarks like “No note taking, please.” (We’re encouraged to do similar things when involved in accidents, or crimes, where claims may be made later.)

Those meetings which I attended with others had notes recorded, too, and the participants would agree on the summaries. In either case, there was a formal record-keeping system. That was over and above any personal files I felt were necessary, some of which was just reams of data and documents, but they were often kept as source material because they had been referred to in some record. I did not pull them out like rabbits from a hat, but they were there to give me comfort, if needed.

I just wonder why these small grains of comfort do not exist amongst those who are now testifying. We know memories fail, anyway. We know that memories are constructed, too. So, why not help yourself build memories that can withstand the test of time? It’s also amazing what seems easy to recall and things that make people seem to stumble over their memory lapses.

Social Media More Than Idle Chatter: Gleaner Guest Column

I read an excellent article in the Sunday Gleaner, by Prof. Paul Golding, about Jamaica And The Internet: Where Are We Now? I had several reactions to it, and sent a long set of comments to the Gleaner and the author. The Gleaner decided to take these comments and publish them as a guest column, today, with the snappy title Social Media More Than Idle Chatter. My general point is that social media, far from being ‘unsophisticated’ use of the Internet, is in fact powerful and many-layered. I think that politicians in many countries. Some have embraced it, while others have sought to limit its use and spread. We will have to see how forces of democracy and oppression face off, and which prevails in the near future.

I produce the column below, in part for easier reading, but also to correct some links that were broken in the Gleaner’s electronic version (which I have asked them to fix :-)).

*****

Dr Paul Golding’s article ‘Jamaica and the Internet: where are we now?’, (Sunday Gleaner, April 19, 2015) points out some important issues about development of the Internet and Jamaican society and its economy.

Many of us know the world is being transformed rapidly by access to and use of Internet facilities. It has allowed countries and communities to jump over developmental hurdles like never before. I saw it first-hand years ago when gold and diamond miners in remote African villages were transacting with financiers in Europe on mobile phones.

But, it’s important that we understand and characterise developments well.

I was struck by a seemingly glib reference to social media use as low sophistication, while more sophisticated uses were seen as Internet banking, purchasing goods and e-government. This seems like an awful misunderstanding.

What is sophisticated about getting access to my money and making routine transactions without having to go to a financial institution or using paper means? Sure, I can buy US stocks from my beach villa in Portland. What is sophisticated about looking at pictures of items I want to buy and arranging those purchases with the click of a button? I can get the latest gear from New York City and have it delivered to me in Kingston and never get on a plane.

What is sophisticated about paying my taxes by mobile phone or with a tablet? Tax Administration Jamaica can get my money faster, but many ministers do not know how to use email.

Conversely, what is unsophisticated about starting an online petition on Twitter or Facebook and getting one million people to support an idea without our ever meeting face-to-face?

Power Of Pithy Messages

I put it that way for a reason. Many equate social media with exchanging images and sending pithy messages to friends. However, we know, much to our disgust, that those pithy messages are often powerful. Ask Mario Balotelli, or others who have been subjected to online abuse of astonishing proportions (as revealed in a recent study by ‘Kick It Out’, http://www.ibtimes.co.uk/liverpool-mario-balotelli-most-abused-premier-l). We also know that by being able to share images and stories from places hundreds and thousands of miles away, in an instant, we can affect outcomes. Look at the world’s reactions to the bombing of Charlie Hebdo’s offices.

Why go overseas for examples? Ask our budding reggae superstar, Chronixx, how his use of unsophisticated Instagram and Twitter to express his views recently on Marcus Garvey and the United States president landed him in more hot water than he’s ever faced on stage or because of a song.

Ask those in the Middle East who went through the Arab Spring about how unsophisticated was the use of social media in creating revolutions and changing regimes (see http://journalistsresource.org/studies/society/internet/research-arab-spring-internet-key-studies).

Yes, moving money and goods and services with the click of a few buttons is a step forward, but such opportunities are only as good as the underlying businesses. I cannot transfer money easily between banks in Jamaica or with other entities overseas, no matter how good my Internet service is. However, I can affect many people’s lives even with a poor dial-up Internet service, but with the right message.

That’s why the use of the Internet by groups focused on terrorism is of such concern. It’s not that they can buy cool gear, but because the Internet spreads their voice far wider and faster than anything ever seen before.

– Dennis Jones is an economist. Email feedback to columns@gleanerjm.com and dennisgjones@gmail.com.

If Jamaica’s future is its children, our days may be numbered

Children! I love to be optimistic where they are concerned. But, I wonder if that optimism is misplaced.

Yesterday afternoon, I was seething with anger. Why? I had gone to the gas station to give my car more than another 20km of travel. A young boy, looking about 12 years old, came to the attendant and waited. Some words were exchanged, softly. The attendant gave the boy $100 and asked if a funeral “a keep” up the road; the boy said no. He went away. The attendant filled the car, and I went to pay. When I came back the boy was headed back to the gas station. I asked the attendant why the boy was just wandering around. “Bway, me nuh no,” he replied. I asked if the boy went to school and got a yes. When the boy arrived, I asked him what grade he was in, “Eight two,” he said twice. I asked him to add 20+42. He looked puzzled. He repeated the sum, and looked more puzzled. While he pondered, another boy, taller but looking maybe 13, came along. The attendant said he was always very chatty, so I should ask him the same question. So, I did. “20+42, sir?” I told him yes. They were both scratching their heads. At last, the first boy offered an answer: “70.” I shook my head. I told them that they couldn’t even rob a bank because they’d have no idea how much money they were stealing. I looked across the street at the broken-down footbridge and saw my metaphor for what they reflected of Jamaica: a bridge to nowhere.

I know, from these two random meetings, that some children are not being well-educated. We can wonder how far that goes. I don’t know why they are failing. I have a child their age, and know what opportunities and support she gets to keep her learning at a high level. She’s privileged, in that regard. Is the norm really so bad, though?

We were filled with hope and the glow of youthful prowess a few weeks ago, when high school athletes showed the world their talents. Our children can run. No doubt. However, I noted, when winners were being interviewed, many of them who did not seem comfortable with the simple questions. Many gave stock sportspeople answers, all clichés: “I gave 100 percent…I owe it to God…I must thank my mother…I just did what coach told me…” etc. I put some of that down to the situation that was unfamiliar and probably nerve-wracking, of being interviewed live for television. But, I wondered if they were also just unable to form good sentences. I’d noted it last year, too. Running can take you far, literally and educationally and maybe financially. But, it’s always good to have a solid education to fall back on. Did they have it, now, or will they have it by the time they graduate? We know that many of the high school athletic stars are struggling, academically. It’s an open secret, but not one that is set to be resolved by all the institutions concerned.

Available data show our young children are behind in their learning. (I’m not getting into the challenging gender differences in that process.) Many of the educational problems start when children are very young, and it’s understandable that agencies want to focus on early childhood development. It’s worth noting one passage from a UNICEF report:

‘There is almost universal enrolment of children in pre-primary schools (ages 3-5 years) – 96.8 per cent in 2004 (Jamaica Survey of Living Conditions, JSLC, 2006), with an attendance rate of approximately 71.3 per cent. While enrolment of children in pre-schools remains high, the quality of services is often poor. According to official estimates, fewer than one out of three children entering grade one were ready for primary level, and some 30 per cent of primary school dropouts were illiterate.’

If my arithmetic is correct, that means only about half of the children of primary level age are ready for that level of schooling.

There, you have the seeds of the problem. We have started behind, almost before the race has begun. If we add to this the fact that low attainment and low motivation go together and then meet their evil cousin, poor teaching, and we have a mixture that is spinning in such a downward direction that it’s hard to see a way upward.

However, it’s clear that many early childhood problems persist into the teenage years and stay uncorrected for the rest of adult life.

Look around Jamaica. We have the image of being a quaint place, but that’s another way of saying that our backwardness is all we have to offer. On balance, we have very few skills to offer ourselves or the world. I passed a container being used for business and saw its sign telling all “I am not *behined* the times…”. I drive daily past a lovely yellow and purple wall that has just been painted with the place’s address and offerings in large script: ‘333 anywhere LANE’? Would it matter to either ‘entrepreneur’ or their business much if I told them about their errors? Who would care? Would I need to proof read everything they wrote? The top skills are not really telling in a setting where the very basic is all that in question.

The consequences of educational failure are many, and I could go on a socioeconomic rant about causes and effects. No jobs. No good living conditions. Exploitation. Political bandoolism. Why do people have children? Do people have too many children? What can and do they do to help their children? What resources do parents have to support children? What is the State expected to do to help parents and children? What problems do schools have and what are they doing to overcome them? These are just a mere sampling of issues and questions that may come to mind.

The reasons for educational failure are many and complex, but the results are clear. Jamaica has been producing a nation of illiterate and innumerate people for decades. That’s easy to see. Several months ago, we were treated to the sign below, displayed so proudly, and saying so loudly what was too awful to acknowledge. Jamaicans are struggling with basic language.

A picture saying a thousand words
A picture saying a thousand words

I laughed, as did many, at the many mistakes in so few words. But, I knew the mistakes. Those who created the banner, did not know, or did not care.

If one looks around at the people doing work hustling on the streets or in markets or around tourist resorts, what do they tell us? This is no small portion of the population. All many people are able to do to earn a living is sell, mainly fruit, vegetables, drinks, and cooked food. Vending options have expanded, so we have newspapers sellers, windscreen washers, steering wheel sellers, sellers of phone chargers, etc. Admittedly, many market vendors know how to add and subtract and can even keep ledgers, so don’t get me wrong. Now, we also have the new ‘careers’ of security guards (uniform provided). We also have people willing to sell themselves and their children in many ways, and for small amounts. When you have no skills to trade, you can only trade yourself!

Complain all we want about slavery, but look how we also put ourselves in bondage.

The ‘production line’ keeps churning out models that cannot hold their place in a job market that requires being articulate with words and figures. There is no likely entry for them onto the ‘information superhighway’. They will be bystanders.

We have a society that cannot process literate and numerical messages well, so need clear visual and sound clues. Sure, we have newspapers with interesting and provocative arguments. But, most people get information from radio, television, and associates. So, when the information is wrong, it’s passed along fast. People tend to believe what they see and hear.

If we cannot process information well, we cannot reason well. People talk about finding other ways to resolve conflict than violence. Those other ways require reasoning skills. We cannot expect people to assess the risks to themselves of various actions because they cannot think through those actions.

When I’ve spent a morning at a basic school and see how all the children fight over the one deflated football that I brought, I see the elements of many families’ problems. It’s not even about the quality of what’s in demand, it’s just about access to it. Like hungry animals over a small scrap, these children tore at each other to get the ball, and have it for a few seconds. If I have to break up a fight every two minutes, is the regular teacher in a much better position when dealing with school resources that are in scarce supply in a room that is too small for the class?

If you look at the traffic accident statistics, it’s clear that many of them come from bad decision-making. We see it with drivers belted but passengers not wearing belts. We see it with motorbike riders with or without helmets and pillion riders rarely with helmets. It’s not just about having means.

I saw it this morning, with a driver coming downhill past the line of traffic in her direction, that was not moving, driving in my lane, expecting to find a gap back into her line before we met. It didn’t happen. I saw the problem approaching and stopped; she had continued, assuming and hoping for the gap. We met, about one yard apart. We were moving relatively slowly, but this is the essence of many collisions. People step into moving traffic hoping cars will stop, waving their arms as if they were magic wands.

We cannot look forward to better quality jobs that pay higher wages because we do not have a labour force that merits that sort of employment. Yes, we have good people, but they are at the margins. The vast majority of the best leave. That means we have the dregs and a little bit of cream on top. The bulk of the society isn’t up to scratch. We have not produced overqualified people in droves; the contrary–we’re stuffed with un- and under-qualified workers. Ask for ‘general labourers’ and look at the lines form. Put up signs that show demands for high-level technical skills and note how the lines are very short. People are right to be worried that foreign-owned hotel companies, for instance, are not looking to use Jamaican workers for their projects. In part it’s national preferences at play, but it’s also that our supply is not that good.

Even in the setting where my angst began–the gas station–the cashier did not know how to key in the digits for the sale, as the numbers were appearing on the screen in ascending value order, past the decimal point. I had to key in the figures for her! Incapable? Untrained? I wasn’t on the road to fix either, yesterday.

In a few weeks, we’ll go through another of those annual rituals that is all about delusion. The results from the GSAT exams will be announced and children will hear if they have their choices for high schools. Again, we know that some of these schools are successful at producing well-educated children, and many are not. But, the deck is loaded because the best get the best, and the others get the rest. It’s like top-level football, where teams with the deep pockets buy up the best talent, and manage to keep winning the main trophies. We note that the poorer clubs cannot attract enough top talent to compete well for long, even if they come up with the occasional surprise ‘giant killing’. In physics, like and unlike may attract, but not usually in social and economic spheres.

What that means, in other terms, is that society will have to carry upward those whom education leaves behind, because they are almost cast apart and must float away, even if the country progresses only slowly. But, the society cannot realistically do that because its head is barely above the water. With that deadweight of under-education pulling us down, how can we avoid drowning?

What the president presented to Jamaica and how it was just a nice trip

It’s not possible to confuse Jamaica with the USA. For one, the USA is a huge land mass that spans three time zones; Jamaica is an island you can cross in an hour north-south. The USA has 300 million people, we have 3 million. IMF data ranks the USA 9th in terms of GDP per head, at US$55,000; Jamaica rolls in 97th, with US$5,000. They are a boulder and we are a grain of sand.

Part of their history is like ours, linked with trans-Atlantic slavery, and its legacy of white oppression. However, unlike us, they were left with a legacy of black people as a minority. Many US laws sought to keep black people in lower social and economic and political positions. Although we were ruled by European colonisers for centuries, Independence was granted to us in the early-1960s. We have been led by ‘black people’ ever since (and I’m not going to get into nuanced discussion about which of our leaders was ‘truly’ black, given that they were all shades of brown, anyway :-)). So, to see a black man leading their country was an amazing novelty for Americans, while it has been a reality for us for the past half century.

The American economy has been amongst the strongest in the world for decades, and with that economic strength has come a lot of political clout. The USA also boasts a mighty army. With that force has come even more political clout. When the USA votes in the IMF or World Bank measures go through or fail. When Jamaica votes, the needle doesn’t move. They are Goliath and we seem like David. But, our slingshot fires grape nut.

Jamaica is renowned for having a weak economy, and no military might to speak of. Oddly, though, we have a good amount of political clout for our size and given our other weakness, and that has been built on our willingness to stand against bigger powers on matters of racial, political, and economic principles.

However, despite, or because of, the evident differences between the two countries, many Jamaicans use what Americans and America do as a yardstick. The USA has long represented a place where many hopes and dreams went to become reality. “Bring me your tired and hungry masses…” Migrants rushed there from Jamaica, and our students rushed there and many stayed. People living there with Jamaican roots became part of the Jamaican lifeline, offering money and goods sent in barrels, and sending stories of success to those who were still living on the Rock. The desire of many to flee to join others already in the USA is best seen by the ever-present lines outside the US Embassy searching for visas to travel to the USA.

When President Obama visited Jamaica last week, it gave many living here the chance to compare things between the two countries. First, US economic and military prowess were shown off a little: ‘The Beast’ and Air Force One are the big and brash statements many associate with America. All you could need seemed to be included in these two custom-built vehicles. They oozed influence and power.

Already smitten by the fact that Americans has not only voted for a minority as their president, but a black man (something many Americans openly fear), most Jamaicans possible saw President Obama as close to some sort of messianic figure. That’s not my view and I don’t need to be told “He’s not Jesus!” But, many think that a special light shines from Barack Obama. It must do. Look at what he’s done.

He has grabbed attention for many things: his intellect, his ability to appear calm, has taking firm positions, his withstanding of abuse, his willingness to smile, and his ability to seem like a regular guy when set in groups of people; his having a Muslim name in a country in wars against Islamic states. Without any hint of disrespect, those are features that are not common on the Jamaican landscape. Our political leaders have and have had brains, but few could be thought of as stellar thinkers and writers and speakers. His other attributes would make him as odd as a blond, blue-eyed transvestite taking the oath of office at Kings House.

When the US president engaged Jamaicans, either politicians, or the students in a town hall forum, he showed, for example, how a politician can engage an audience with a seeming openness. In front of the students, he showed little discomfort when faced with awkward questions, and was quick to diffuse things with a smile and a joke. He was not heckled. But even if he had been, he’d shown many times in the past that he’s not wont to ‘throw his frock up in the air’ and stamp his feet.

He seemed completely convincing in his arguments. He has that quality. But, it’s not a feature that comes from nowhere. Although, his country has its share of political shenanigans and corruption, it also has well-established checks and balances against the abuse of political power, which tend to kick in, and these processes are often open to the public. The presidential system means the need to find compromise often. Our winner-take-all system allows government to bludgeon things through. American courts see politicians having to defend themselves against charges of corruption. Our courts….

This open engagement and checking and balancing are things that are unfamiliar to many Jamaican residents. No wonder that trust in ‘the system’ is low. It’s not something lacking just in Jamaica. My experience of English Caribbean countries tells me that politicians in our region are more comfortable being closed than open, and we do not have checks and balances that hold politicians to account very well. Blame the British? They ruled the Americans, too, once. How’d we get so different? Blame it on ethnicity and race? I don’t know.

One thing apparent about President Obama is his comfort with informality. He quickly reverts to being a community worker and university teacher he one was: he drops his jacket and tie and walks around a room. He is cool in a way that is island-style.  While he seems at ease that way, it’s also something that he cultivates because it’s effective. We saw it at the Bob Marley Museum and at UWI. We’ve seen it many times before.

He finds ways to break the ice. Seeing pictures of him with his feet up on his Oval Office desk don’t seem odd. Seeing him with his feet up on his desk in the Oval Office does not seem odd. That’s him working.

Ironically, our PM, for all that she is a girl of the islands, often seems more at ease with the trappings of formality. We’ve seen her get loose, but that’s often not in front of audiences, but when she’s ‘outdoors’ and really on a photo-shoot. I may be mistaken, but that’s what I see. Maybe, she feels that being a female politician forces her to observe certain protocols. ‘Letting down her guard’ is not how she rolls, most times. But, different strokes, for different folks. I don’t think the PM would let a photographer take her picture with her feet up on her desk, even if she is “working, working, working”. 

PM Simpson-Miller ‘loosening up’?

While President Obama often seems cool under fire, Jamaica’s PM seems ready to fire back at the sight or sound of opposing views. If the military talks about tracer bullets, then our PM has her own form of tracing. Our image as “Everyt’ing Irie. No problem, man…” often goes out of the window if our leader is in front of those who are not with her.

That tendency to react aggressively to opposition may come, in part, from the tribalist nature of our politics. But, it can only be a weak explanation: we see such tribalism in many countries, but it brings forward other responses. It may be to do with the combative nature of Jamaicans: “Dis woman come here with the blood of Nanny of the Maroons…and this woman not afraid of no man, anywhere…” was how the PM put it stridently, recently, when faced with a group of gay activists. As one would expect, the Parliamentary Opposition, have tried to use this kind of firebrand side of the PM to their advantage.

But, judging by the landslide victory that the PNP gained at the last election, Jamaicans like this style.

So, while it may appear to some that if Barack Obama were to get Jamaican citizenship and enter politics, he would be a shoe-in as a leader, history suggests that it wouldn’t happen.

His smoothness fits the USA, and looks good on the road when speaking to audiences abroad. But, Jamaica seems to want a ‘hard’ figure.

He often shows clearly that he ‘owns’ his political agenda and policies, by speaking to the issues often without notes. Our PM is often faltering if called on to express views and details on a range of government positions. That may raise questions about whether heart and mind are truly with the causes.

He may talk about working against corruption and seeking more transparency, but so too has our PM. He would argue that he’s done much to honour that. Could the same be said on this island?

President Obama offered Jamaica both food for thought and contrasts in style. He’s not alone in many of his ways. The current JLP leader shows some similar tendencies, like his shirt sleeves over jacket and tie. Often liking to walk a room with a mike. Often appearing to speak off-the-cuff with ease. But, he’s also a Jamaica firebrand man. Maybe, its part of the youth movement, that makes him and the US president seem alike. On substance, they are far apart, however. Barack Obama was a professor in constitutional law. It’s hard to see him making the kind of constitutional mistakes that Mr. Holness made, recently.

Maybe, we just have to accept that the water and air in Jamaica produce different kinds of politicians. No point hankering for something different. And yet…

Jamaican investment: wrong times and wrong places

Investment is a word that I’ve seen mentioned a lot today. It’s always good to think about what is being done to ‘build’ for the future.

Many people understand investment as projects–bridges, roads, buildings, etc. Some also understand investment as buying financial assets. Economists have a definition of investment (as opposed to consumption), which focuses on purchasing a good that creates wealth, or provides income in the future, or will increase in value and can be sold for a higher price.  

Grow! I tell you.

Those are good investments; if the purchase doesn’t create wealth, or declines in value, then it’s a bad investment. This is always relevant when considering how to improve economic conditions, and has been at the heart of much of Jamaica’s problems. Simply put, we have made too many bad investments.

In a nutshell, our horrible debt ratios summarize a series of bad investments. We are not creating enough wealth out of the use of the money to pay back the loans taken. We have not been able to use the money to create enough income to boost the economy so that many more people can have jobs that pay well and help employ more people or buy more goods and services. That’s the cross we now bear. Debt relief would take away the burden of having to settle our account and fulfill our obligations. But, what would we learn about how to make good investment decisions in the future?

If we look around Kingston, we see some recent investment–in roads and beautification to try to impress President Obama. I have a hard time seeing those as good investments, just because they happen to have put smooth new surfaces on roads. Roads for whom, to go where, and do what? That’s the sort of question to ask before I can say it’s a good investment. Just because it’s shiny and new does not make it either useful or effective.

I took a drive through part of our parish that is known as Jamaica’s bread basket, St. Elizabeth. The road to Alligator Pond is not bad. Part of that reflects the interest that the bauxite companies have in keeping the road in good conditions for their trucks. Beyond the areas where they run regularly, the road is pot-holed and uneven. Just because POTUS was not due to go there should not mean that the road is ignored. Priorities didn’t seem set or well thought out.

Choosing where to spend money is one part. We have to also decide how we deal with people’s ability to use the new assets. Technology is not necessarily what holds us back; education is often lacking. In a country like Jamaica, where many people have not been well-educated, that costs us dearly. It makes it harder to get people to understand that new things often mean new behaviour. It’s about a good appreciation of how the environment changes. Here’s a simple example.

We built new highways, taking traffic east-west, and now north-south. The roads cut communities in two. People still had connections on both sides. They used to simply move from one area to another in a straight line, on foot, without a highway in between. Now, the highway is there. Officials think they can help with the need to connect by placing some crossing bridges at certain points along the highway. But, that doesn’t help most people, and is a new-fangled thing. So, they just clamber over a concrete wall and try to cross the highway. Shock, horror. Whether they know they shouldn’t try this isn’t the point. They see their solution in simple terms: the shortest distance between two points is a straight line. Sometimes, the inevitable tragedy occurs. 

Pedestrians and highways don’t mix

But, how much money and time are we prepared to put into making sure people both understand and apply what they need to know?

We were told, in a totally unconvincing manner, that crab vendors were removed from Heroes Circle because unsanitary conditions were among the authorities’ concerns. We were told that they would, however, be able to resume selling the day after the president’s visit. What happened? Were the vendors sent on health and hygiene courses while their stalls were in tatters? Did the municipality build toilets or have portable toilets and washing facilities ready for the vendors’ return? Do I hear a resounding ‘No!’? 

So, we have double trouble. The road was repaired, but not used for the motorcade. Looks nice, but that seems less than useful. The opportunities to help people do things better than before was put out of the window and officials resumed whistling till it was time to go home, again.

If you drive along the old road from Kingston to Mandeville, via Old Harbour, you see a wonderful piece of how investments have gone in the past: we have our own little ‘roads to nowhere’. We see stretches of roads curving off, left and right, but not connecting to anything. That takes a certain genius. How, the project was stopped that way we can discover, but we have the wonderful sight for our eyes. As examples go, though, funny though ours are, they are far from the worst.

How much like progressive countries do we want to be?
How much like progressive countries do we want to be?

In a nutshell, that too is what Jamaican investment has been about. Wrong place, wrong times, no attention to detail, no investment in people’s ability to function with new stuff.

Dams not replaced, now leaking:  Annual water crises. Equipment not replaced and services lacking: Did I hear you say solid waste management? Fire boat not repaired, Ocho Rios blazes. Look around, the place is full of examples. Our lives suffer. Our economy falters. People wonder why foreigners are wary of placing money here? Yes, crime and corruption don’t help, but nor do signs of incompetence.

Blazing boat in Ocho Rios last month
Blazing boat in Ocho Rios last month

Why worry about whether we have a logistics hub, when cannot display the ability to do anything logical or manage simple logistics?

One world-class sprinter does not turn us into a nation of gazelles. But, Usain Bolt and Shelly Anne Fraser-Pryce, and our long line of world-class sprinters, show what happens when you place resources (even limited) in the right places (no matter how lowly) and use them well over time. You get returns that far exceed what you put in. Maybe, we should just give the investment funds and portfolio to Steven Francis and Glen Mills. Surely, they wouldn’t use them worse.