Living close to the edge

Jamaica sits on the brink. You can add ‘of what’ almost without limit. That is because of what we refuse to do, rather than what we do. The economic brink has been our resting place for decades, but we’re stepping back from it, slowly.

Here, just past the midpoint of the year, we look into the national mirror and see in other areas of our life, staring back at us, that monster child that is us.

Let’s start with the water ‘crisis’. For decades, we’ve suffered from bad or no decisions to fix glaring problems. Leaks that waste half the supply. Delinquent customers who cripple financial survival of the company. Theft of water, sanctioned by officials and politicians and allowed to become part of the social fabric. Inadequate storage and distribution capacity and no planning for regular droughts.image
So, again, we suffer the plaintive cries of communities who’ve had little or no piped water mingled with those who’ve had regular water but now suffer restricted flows.

We’ve tolerated decades of ridiculous administration of public resources of which this is one case. In the process, public education has never been raised so that people understand how and why they should conserve or harvest rainwater.

I know some in Jamaica who’ve had rainwater stored for years, but they’re rare. In the US, some municipalities have incentives to support water harvesting. We could and should have done that, as we ought with solar or other alternative energy. But, we’ve relied on nature and our faith to save us from bad human decisions.

Take now the crime ‘epidemic’. For most of the last 50 years this country has suffered from a crippling rate of murders and violent crime.image

What has become a national scourge has a deep root in politics. That facilitation let loose a beast that grew out of control and threatened to eat its maker. Jamaica has its own form of Jurassic Park or World.

Police struggle to tame this beast with little real success. Whether we’re off the recent peak around 1600 killings a year or up or down from the previous year is less important than the culture we live in regarding killing. We’re not the USA with many feeling a right to bear arms. But we have many who see owning and using arms as their mealticket. In a country whose economy has failed serially to provide enough work for its citizens, crime has paid many handsomely or so we’re led to believe.

Add to that a national preference for keeping things hidden from each other and you have a culture not well suited to fighting crime. Because of that, we find that it has to be done as an economic activity–people are not invested in civic goidwill but will seem civic if paid to be so. Desperation of a broader economic kind makes that equation even more toxic because many with criminal connections or knowledge can find another source of income. But only if they feel they will remain safe, because gangs and their gunmen are ruthless.

But violent crime is one aspect. We see wrongdoing as normal in so much of life. We see getting away with it as normal. We see this large with the low levels of crime detection and conviction. Like GDP growth, it’s so low it undermines much else. 

Taking things and money from others that does not belong to you is also a national sport: steal mangoes or phones or water or electricity. Get leniency when brought to court. Some magistrates are tough on mango stealers and easy of phone stealers, rapists, and human traffickers. Confuse the people! Ever see a centipede walk out of step? If you can’t figure out consistent punishment then criminals will impose consistent pressure of misdeeds. 

That brings me to the new police commissioner. He’s well decorated academically in crime issues. But it’s not clear that he understands how his force can solve our crime problems. Criminals have become more sophisticated and arguably have been better funded than the police. The proceeds of organized crime have to be protected, so beating the police at all costs is a must. You can see that in the May 2010 confrontation in Tivoli Gardens. Who would take on the national security forces if they thought they’d win?

I’ve not seen anything that convinces me that officials have any good handle on crime. 

I’m one of those who thinks they have been content with what some have called ‘whack-a-mole’, moving crime out of some areas only to see it pop up elsewhere. It’s displacement of activity, not elimination. 

How crime fighting has been in Jamaica?
 The police aren’t equipped to fight the crime levels now in Jamaica. Political decisions ensure that. When one goes back to the origin of much of the crime it’s hard not to be cynical. Political bodies gain more from crime than they lose. That’s what the crude cost-benefit analysis suggests. You don’t need to see or know all the underground links, the decisions support that argument. Spending more on ministers’ SUVs when police forces lack working vehicles leaves one conclusion. 
Sticks and stones break bones and words don’t hurt? More plans to be unveiled. New initiatives to be shared? Spit won’t fill the cracks in the leaking water pipes. Hot air won’t make a gunman sweat. If that’s all on offer, let’s rock back and watch Gayle hit sixes. If today is your day for water, bathe when you get home. If not, hope for water tomorrow. If you parked your car and no one tried to extort money, then you’ve won.

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. :)