Brawta politics

An important part of Jamaican culture is the notion of brawta, when someone gives you something for nothing: it’s a gift, of sorts, usually when you buy something from a vendor, who then thanks you by giving you a few extra items for which you don’t have to pay. Simple example: I was coming back from Mandeville this week, with my older daughter and a Jamaican friend visiting from the US. My friend wanted to get some star apples and oranges on our way. We stopped at a roadside vendor, whose produce I trust. My daughter doesn’t like bananas, but I thought I would let her taste a variety of banana that’s not seen (much) in the US, so I begged a finger from the vendor; she gladly agreed and my daughter nibbled. When we had done our shopping, the vendor picked off another three fingers of bananas and offered those to us. That’s brawta.

However, the notion of getting something for nothing can lead us into lots of simple problems, because we often fail to realise that not everyone wants to give you a gift, and it’s quite normal. After all, it eats into the profit of the merchant.

But, it’s something that tickles the Jamaican psyche. To me, we’re seeing the brawta principle creep into government policy. It’s not uncommon: it often gets painted as ‘populism’.

During the recent general elections in Jamaica, the then-Opposition offered something very attractive to a wide range of Jamaicans, in the form of a tax break, which for simplicity I’ll call the ‘$18,000 giveaway’. Many people who thought they would be eligible for this did not fret about how it would be paid for. Why should they? The idea of more money in your pocket is all that would concern most. How the money gets there is someone else’s problem. Except, it isn’t.

In the same way that ‘nothing is free’, tax breaks come at a cost. The simple financing of it may be by taking more money from others (we call that ‘redistribution’), either directly from others who pay income taxes, or indirectly from those who pay indirect taxes (such as those on sales). It may well be money out of your own pocket, if it’s indirect, and you go spending your tax break on lots of new items.

The government is having to go back to the drawing board on the tax break, because it had a few unfortunate features that need ironing out, namely, that near the cut-off for the main tax break ($1.5 million), those just above may find that they end up with less take-home pay than those just under that limit. Awkward!

But, that implies finding more money to give more people a tax break. Good luck, with that!

The other piece of brawta-eque policy that we’ve had, came just a day or so ago.

We’ve a spanking new toll road that links the north and south of the island. It was not cheap to build and recouping the investment is built-in to the arrangement. Therefore, tolls were likely to be high to help do that. Shock! Many people, understandably, screamed when the proposed tolls were publicised. After a few days of ‘negotiations’, we hear, the government has managed to eke out a ‘discount’ from the Chinese investors, for the next month.

A lot of questions arise from this little wheeze. But, I am not going to delve too far because I do not have all the figures. Just to say, though, that investors who have a profile for their returns are rarely happy to just shelve that profile. So, the question that will nag me for a few days is how and when the discount will be clawed back? A cynic might say that the maintenance and upgrading schedules ought to be looked at closely (for ‘cost-cutting’ to come, in some ways). Remember, the revenue profile will be made up of gross revenues minus gross costs, over time.

But, let me not spoil the eating of bun and cheese over this coming Easter weekend. Take a drive on the discounted highway, if your budget allows, on part or all of the new route. If you’re due to get a tax break, then smile as you can better afford the drive (or will be so, once you get your rebate). If your budget doesn’t allow the drive, don’t despair. Enjoy the old fun of shopping for fruit at Bog Walk or roast yam at Faith’s Pen.


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. :)

2 thoughts on “Brawta politics”

  1. I don’t think I have ever received “brawta” from a vendor, nor would I ask for it!! Putting that aside, something’s got to give on the toll road. The operators need to build volume on it don’t they? They will never get their money back with those exorbitant rates because no one will drive on the road. Certainly not the truckers!

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