Many discussions in Jamaica about important national topics often get bogged down in what I would call side issues. Our favourite side issue is how partisans of each political party position themselves on the matter. Another side issue is often whether it’s a Kingston/Corporate Area vs ‘country/rural’ issue. Another is whether it’s about ‘us’ or ‘them’. That latter can get very complicated because groups and their identities can be fluid. But, a common ‘us’ might be people who are seen as ‘uptown’ compared to those who are seen as ‘downtown’, if we are focusing on Kingston/Corporate Area. After saying all that, we still need to deal with the meat of the matters.
Yesterday, The Gleaner ran an editorial ‘Editorial | Lee-Chin and the priority of crime’, about the drag of crime on economic life, which has been estimated by the World Bank to cost Jamaica some 6 percent a year. This is more than the core target set for itself by the recently created Economic Growth Council (aiming for 5 percent growth by the end of four years). What those World Bank figures relate to mostly are the categories of crime which most people fear: murder, rape, assault, robbery–i.e. violence against people and property. The thrust of the editorial was the need to tackle crime as an important pillar in moving Jamaica to a faster growing economy.
It brought to mind another piece in the Observer, by Franklin Johnson entitled ‘We sacrificed for the economy, what will we sacrifice to be crime-free?’ several weeks earlier. That was touched off by the Attorney General opining about the need to perhaps curtail certain rights and freedoms in order to address crime issues more effectively.
Most people can see how these two sets of ideas are closely related. But, in my mind, one of the pieces of the puzzle regarding dealing with crime is that age-old Jamaican trait of tolerating things that seem to be about ‘ends justifying means’. This was well addressed, too, a few days ago in a piece by Dennis Chung about Jamaica’s hustler mentality. It’s basic point was well spelled out early: ‘most Jamaicans are “doing a business” and are not “in business”. What this basically means is that many of us are really just trying to earn money through “hustling”‘. What it really argued was how our economy has really built itself on a substantial amount of informal activity. He also put the problem in a way that I have many times (my emphases):
‘Because of this hustler mentality we have created today a huge problem of a large informal economy, numerous informal settlements, and a set of people who are unable to create any value for themselves, because they have grown up learning how to sell on the streets or wipe windshields.
Effectively, the lack of action by the authorities and the support of this “hustler” mentality have ended up creating greater poverty.
This is because governance has been about giving someone a fish rather than teaching them how to fish.’
Many people would not see this as part of the ‘crime problem’, but at its core it is, in my mind.
Much of the informal economy that we tolerate is built on doing things illegally. The ‘value’ chain in Jamaica is often littered with illegality. But, people see them as problems or not largely based on personal convenience created by the activities. I will cite a few well-known examples.
- Robot taxis: clearly illegal (unregistered vehicles for hire). People tolerate because legal taxis and buses are clearly in short supply, and not covering needed journeys, and the inconveniences often seem to outweigh the convenience. People even cite the risks of using them, while willingly using them and feeling at great risk. [We should study very carefully the data on road accidents to confirm our comfort levels.]
- Vendors (sellers of goods or services): often unregistered; if registered, often operating in places other than those designated. People tend to tolerate those that provide things many feel they need/want (fruit, drinks, food, sex, etc.) and oppose those that seem to intrude or create unpleasant experiences (windshield washers, sex). We have internalized the lower prices street vendors allow us, and ask few awkward questions about what they do, and where and how they get their goods.
- Informal settlements: clearly illegal. Tolerated because formal and legal housing is inadequate. Tolerated, too, because it was a ‘subsidy’ for electoral gains. [The costs to the country of either enforced unplanned service provision, or the cost of not providing services needed in communities, need to be well understood.]
- Unauthorized electricity or water connections. Tolerated, in large part, because it was a ‘subsidy’ for electoral gains in ‘garrison communities’. [Utility providers have been trying to claw back their rights and costs, but have not done so without public and political resistance.]
- Tax evasion. No need to explain the distinction between this and tax avoidance. We know that billions of dollars in unpaid taxes are outstanding, whether through fraud or delinquency of some form. The tax authorities need to divert substantial resources to collecting those monies, which have really been ‘taken out of our pockets’.
These are just a few of the examples that most people can recognize in their daily lives.
But, as Mr. Chung pointed out, we didn’t get there yesterday or by accident. Much of this has been the creation of an ‘entitlement class’, that was given life by politicians. Unfortunately, the class grew and morphed. At its worst, we see it in gangs and what they do to sustain themselves–drugs and guns, and money-grabbing ‘schemes’ of various sorts: their latest offspring is ‘scamming’. But, it’s a child born out of needs that were allowed to be fed by illegality of other kinds.
I don’t want to make light of crimes that assault people and property, but we have a deeper seated problem, which is we like to live with the excuses that make us feel comfortable. Call that a ‘bly’, in local parlance.
As Dennis Chung said, ‘One of the major challenges we face today is that Jamaicans are so dependent on “hustling” to make money, that any attempt to bring order to the society is going to be faced with strong opposition and can result in hardship for many Jamaicans.’
Thus, the real sacrifice in dealing with widespread crime is that it’s deeply woven into our daily lives, and we do not appear ready to let that change.