Why honesty is the best policy and examples of why Jamaican leaders fail badly: The Dr. Carl Williams debacle

Let me be absolutely clear. I have no personal gripe against Dr. Carl Williams, who recently found himself forced to admit that he would be resigning as Commissioner of Police. However, I do have a gripe about what he represents or represented. Jamaicans have a serious problem with candour–the quality of being honest and telling the truth, especially about a difficult or embarrassing subject (as defined by Cambridge (University) English Dictionary). That singular inability to be totally honest led Dr. Williams to paint himself into a ridiculous corner. But, he is but a child of a system where covering real intentions is par for the course, at many levels, and often disturbingly so at the highest levels. Rather than leading with information, leaders often have to have information dragged from them. Transparency is something that many Jamaicans appear to fear with a serious dread. I have thoughts on its origin, but will leave that for the moment.

When I had an exchange with Dr. Williams a few days ago, while participating in a #Talkback chat on Twitter, several of his replies to questions left me uneasy. He dealt reasonably well with a range of sometimes awkward questions about police conduct. One of the replies that left me ill at ease was that to the question of how many of the 400,000-odd tickets issued by the police for traffic violations had been paid, and what was the amount. Effective policing is about making people abide by the law, amongst other things. Issuing tickets does not matter if transgressors do not pay and merely ignore the violations and sanctions, and worse repeat the behaviour. So, I wanted to know how good the police were in that regard. I also wanted to know (as an economist would) how much of a contribution ‘crime fighting’ was making to the government budget. Then I got this reply: ‘JCF is not responsible for collection’. Now, my first reaction was shock at what I took to be a flippant reply. But, I paused and took into account the nature of Twitter and how short, clippy replies might give a wrong impression. But, I had a sneaky suspicion about police attitudes to what they do: we issue tickets, and that’s all. You can see from my follow-up reply that I wanted reassurance about the police attitude to what I saw as the totality of policing.

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Twitter exchange with Dr. Carl Williams
I was happy to know that our dialog was going to continue, however, as Dr. Williams assured the audience in his parting words, before wishing us all a merry Christmas.

Dr. Williams signs off for Christmas
Dr. Williams did not need to make any reference to future exchanges, and knowing what he knew about his planned future, had every reason to say nothing. But, he didn’t do that. Instead, he gave a palpably false indication about his intentions. Why paint yourself into that corner? What was so scary about the truth?

I did not know how small the corner was at the time, because I had been unaware that Dr. Williams had recently been on the radio and denied publicly that he would be stepping down in 2017. So, he went on the radio yesterday to apologize for misleading the public and his justification was that he’d been caught off guard. So, now the lack of candour comes and bites as hard as it can.

Singularly, he mismanaged a process that he had in his hands to control. But, he chose the route of less information is better.

Dr. Williams has as his motto ‘quality leadership inspires performance’; it’s written simply on his Twitter profile. He showed in this series of ‘parting shots’ what seemed lacking in leadership–a certain high quality in the form of respect for truthfulness. That sign of dissemblance is the sort of thing, if shown at the top, can only be assumed to be shown and condoned lower down. That is the knell of doom for ordinary citizens

Being caught off-guard over something you were hiding is either naive or careless. My father says (and I repeat to my children) ‘Don’t be surprised by the obvious!’

If one is to be interviewed, by a journalist of some sort, the least one should do is prepare for the awkward questions. This is media training 101. When one knows that a very awkward personal development is being kept from the public, why would one not be prepared for a question about that? It’s basic! In fact, the interview gave a perfect opening to come clean with the public, and say something like ‘I did not want to announce it yet, but I will be stepping down soon. I will advise of the precise dates, shortly.’ Instead, the Commissioner lied!

I wrote recently about the integrity of the police. Whether I am alone in my concerns doesn’t really worry me. I cannot see how a security force that is there to protect citizens but constantly tries to hide from citizens what it’s really doing and how badly it’s doing it has a bright future. That Dr. Williams had the gall to lie about his resignation speaks volumes.

I spoke yesterday on Facebook live chat about tensions within police ‘high command’ that were discernible if one listened to the many voices that were speaking discordantly from the top. That told me that the leader was not fully in charge, his leadership was barely respected at the top, and likely less lower down, and therefore little positive was going to change. One can only hope that the interim Commissioner understands what significant betrayal of trust has gone on and tries to rebuild that quickly.

Dr. Williams said he was glad he was not leaving under a cloud. I guess if you really are not aware of where you’re standing and what the shadows at your feet tell you then that’s a reasonable misunderstanding of what is going on above your head. Remember, this was the man who gave himself a perfect score, “10 out of 10”, after 10 months in the job. I rest my case. 😦

Democracy now. Who matters more, voters or those who fund the budget?

Not surprisingly, with each new chance for a nation to vote, comes the chance to test the mettle of its electorate. In Jamaica, and many other countries, however, voters have been less and less willing to go to the polls. In our last general election, in February this year, the official turnout was about 48%, the lowest ever, but the data point in a clear downward trend since Independence.

Jamaican national election turnout 1962-2016 (Source: DiGJamaica)
 

Let’s say this is a reflection of both voter apathy and voter antipathy. Either way, electors are not so interested these days in casting their votes in representational races. It’s not just a Jamaican thing, either.

It’s interesting, though, that voter turnout internationally seems to be higher when specific matters are being polled, as with referendums. So, people may well be interested in having their opinions counted on issues, but are less willing to have their opinions counted in the selection of representatives. The recent UK referendum on EU membership hit a voter turnout high-water mark (see report). 

This difference between voting for people as opposed to things could be telling in many ways. It says something important about candidate selections, especially about qualities that voters now count increasingly (such as gender, race, cultural background). 

It’s rare for those who have not voted to be polled about WHY they did not vote. If they were, it could tell parties and other citizens that people are staying out of electoral races for quite legitimate reasons that reflect ‘the candidate does not represent me’. The recent US presidential elections are interesting studies. First, a largely white, racist country chose a black man to lead it. After two terms, the same country voted for a white man, displaying racist tendencies, to lead it. Is the USA schizophrenic? Well, opinions change, so what seemed a good decision can be overturned. That’s freedom of choice. But, the presidential candidates represented many different things, and embodiment of ideas was one of those, so race was neutralized. White American women certainly did not think that gender was a good calling card, as they dumped Hillary Clinton. 

It’s also the case that people often vote negatively, not positively. So, voting ‘for’ a candidate can often be a vote ‘against’ another candidate. Depending on the choices, voters may not be able to vote strategically without doing damage to their own life prospects. In the UK, the re-emergence of a viable third party (Liberal Democrats) meant that people did not need to withhold their votes totally, but could now vote for another option. When that third party returned to being a questionable option, voting patterns changed again. 

In places like Jamaica, where politics is highly partisan, electors tend to do what is known to happen in such situations–they do not vote for the other side, but instead do not turn out. We have seen this clearly in the last general and local elections in Jamaica, where the voting base for the PNP collapsed. But, on top of that, the voting for the JLP increased in the general election–a double whammy.

We also know that in Jamaica many of the so-called middle class have decided not to vote. Again, the limited studies do not make it clear whether they are just jaundiced by politics, feeling mistrust, dislike or a range of negative sentiments about politicians, or if they have just stopped caring because of politics that are not affecting their lives much. Political favours are important in Jamaica, and having the ‘wrong’ party in power can seriously damage life chances in many cases. We read and hear about the seeming partisan firing and hiring of staff when controlling parties change in Jamacica. The National Solid Waste Management Authority has a reputation for such practices, which sits awkwardly with its recent reputation of being headed by political activists. This happens, too, in the USA, but their system of republican government and its layers of federal and state controls, plus the many checks and balances renders such activity in a different light. 

Reasons for not voting vary. Some have to do with the logistics. For instance, in Jamaica, a voter must vote in a particular constituency, and transferring votes takes time. So, some students, for instance dont vote because they are ‘away’ from home districts. Things like that could be overcome by, say, some form of absentee voting, by post, electronically, or some other way. Ironically, someone could find they are in a constituency where they cannot vote, but would prefer the choices of candidates where they are, rather than the choices in their home districts. But, we also know that the voter registers include people who CANNOT vote, because they are DEAD or no longer resident. So, we need to remember how that skews the apparent turnout figures. Again, too, we have people who haven’t registered. But, we also have noncitizens (e.g. Commonwealth citizens) who can be eligible to vote. So, assessing voter behaviour requires a bit of digging around to really understand what’s going on. 

Voting systems matter, too. The first-past-the-post system left by the British has morphed into ‘garrison’ politics in Jamaica, where some seats have well over 90% voting for just one party. That may make those in the, say, 10% feel their votes are always wasted. So why bother? If Jamaica had proportional representation, then the heavy biases of ‘garrison’ politics could be neutralized to some degree if people knew that all votes really mattered, and that voting for a slate of candidates changed the electoral maths. 

But, voting aside, what should representative government be? I’m a strong proponent of representation of the people, totally. One aspect of my view is that tax payers have a significant stake in a healthy democracy, not least as one of its important financiers. I stress ‘one of’ because some argue, rightly, that non-citizens also have this role. So, foreign lenders and donors may even matter more to national financing. That truth is borne out by the fact that such financiers have a big say in how government policies are shaped. So, all the hoo-ha about voting is a bit airy, when the IMF, World Bank, EU, IDB, Chinese businesses, and other private capital providers want something in return. CHEC may have a bigger say in whether you get a new road than if you burn tyres and wave placards. 🙂

So, national tax payers are as entitled to have their views counted as much as, if not more than, voters? This is tricky. While tax payers are one group who make government possible (who do you think is funding the wages and cars?), they are difficulty to represent. It’s hard to know what tax payers want. Imagine, if each time you filed your income tax return it came with a questionnaire on government policies. In some places, voting is a little like that. In the US, voter interest is often higher because it’s not just candidates on the ballot, but issues (schools, human rights issues, etc.) So, voting in the USA can be a better gauge of public sentiment. 

It’s not practical for every GCT payment or other indirect tax levy to give you the chance to express your views about policies. Some people have tried to limit their tax paying because of protests about the direction of government policies. Tax resistance has a long and interesting history. Remember the ‘Boston Tea Party’: “No taxation, without representation!” Interesting! 

My economist bias suggests to me that governments should be more fearful of tax payer protests that voter no-shows. However, it’s easier to know a voter and to go kiss his or her baby than it is to identify the person who just paid a hefty chunk of GCT to bring in some goods. That said, we (the tax authorities, at least) can see direct tax payers, and large indirect tax payers are usually easy to see, even if they would like to stay out of full view. (Nice Jeep, Usain!)

So, as we head into Christmas, my concerns for Jamaican democracy are more about whether politicians actually deliver on promises than whether Liza and Cousin Errol made it to the polls, or if voting boxes were found hidden in a warehouse in some district. We have people who tend to respect election results, whatever. (By the way, The Gambia, we’re watching!)

We could have governments formed with 100 percent or near 0 percent voter turnout. However, ineffective government is not driven by voter turnouts. We may need to see whether a slim margin of one seat leads to better delivery on promises. Ironically, going for a bigger mandate in terms of more seats also gives the cushion (pun for free) of less pressure to deliver on promises. 

So, chew over that as you hit the turkey and Christmas pudding. Sorry, if it causes indigestion, though. 🙂

How behaviour matters: Jamaican ambassadors are everywhere

I believe strongly that the things wrong with Jamaica are not that hard to fix, but they are hard to fix because they require all of us to see and understand how WE contribute to our own failings. By that, I mean a certain attention to detail in all that we do (and say and think). I’ll give a few examples, and they are relevant because we look at our neighbours and sometimes marvel at their quality of life that is supposedly better than ours. Now, on that point, it’s hard to be sure that everything is always rosier elsewhere, but we often get that impression, and it’s impressions that count a lot.

We set off on our annual Christmas journey to my wife’s homeland in Nassau yesterday, and had to deal with a few hiccups along the way, as is often the case with international travel. First, American Airlines had a hard time processing us at check-in, but that’s because we have a complicated family profile of nationalities and status. But, the Jamaican workers at the desk were exemplary in being calm, patient, courteous, and apologetic as it took almost an hour to get all of the checking in done. We had a lot of bags–Christmas presents from Jamaica, boosting exports :)–and fortunately our routing meant we did not have to collect them in Miami. So, my takeaway is a positive for the Jamaican worker. That view did not change much as we moved through the airport and headed to our flight. I had a slight reservation as the official who checks that people are eligible for the lounge called me back to verify my status. She had positioned herself to deal with the general flow of passengers, so forced me to have to back track to do this, when a few steps over on her part could mean that all flows of people must pass by her. It’s a small thing, but it isn’t done (I’ve been through this stop a lot), and someone must be giving instructions that are followed to this effect. So, only a little downward blip in perceived quality of Jamaican workers.

The lounge staff have a job to do of being gracious and they usually do this well. Plus to Jamaica. We were escorted to the gate, when called, but… The AA crew were not there, apparently due to a mix-up in getting from the hotel. We were told it would mean an hour delay. That’s a negative against US workers (so the great are less than ordinary in Jamaica–and it may be our water :)) So, off we traipsed back to the lounge. I took the opportunity to contact AA on Twitter about the snafu and they were quick to reply and assure me that all would be well and travel would continue smoothly. So, plus for US workers, and we are often asked to look at the way that US customer service puts the client first. Can we say the same about Jamaica? I think not, in general, and I don’t think I need to cite any or many examples

We got off within an hour and the flight was smooth. The transit in Miami is long, but as we had only hand luggage, we could get through quickly and did not risk missing our connection. But, once we’d had the chance to grab a bite, and headed off to our next gate, we hit another AA snafu. Imagine! The crew for our next flight were also a no-show. Sorry, AA, I had to get back to them and wonder what was going on. Again, quick apologies and and assurances, and yes we were off on time, despite that hold-up. So, the view that US quality service is there wasn’t shaken too much. Now, could we take lessons from that and pledge to Jamaicans that their interactions with local businesses would leave them feeling that they are valued customers? Let me leave the question open. 

When we landed in Nassau a band was playing as we entered the Immigration Hall. My wife–a good patriot–complimented her country on giving the arriving tourists some cheer. The snaking line did not get any shorter as we listened to ‘rake and scrape’, but I understood her point. However, being a contrarian, I replied that I wasn’t sure that the pandering mattered. She bridled at my reaction. Nothing new 🙂 Why did I say that? It became clearer once we got though Immigration. Pander means to gratify, and what I perceived was a sense of ‘giving them what they expected’, i.e. cheery island vibes as soon as they landed. Fine! But, what was the reality they had to face? In the baggage claim, suitcases were coming quite quickly and most of our bags were there when we got through Immigration. But, my golf bag was nowhere to be seen. I asked my wife to query an official who was beside her. She did not hear me, so I approached the man myself and sought to ask. He was in the process of ‘canoodling’ with someone he knew–a lady–and happy in the process. (Not untypical in our region.) Pardon my interruption! He then went into an elaborate explanation in well-modulated English and lots of long words about where oversized bags would be found. Problem? He hadn’t been much interested in problem-solving beforehand and there were no signs in the baggage area that pointed to such an area and it’s tucked way in the back of the baggage hall, behind ‘Baggage Services’. That’s a sort of Caribbean way of doing things, which is to forget that people from abroad need guidance to understand our ways. (We see it a lot in, say, how we determine what information to place on our roads as directions. Roads without signs. Houses without names or numbers. You know! Look for the mango tree and turn left past the rock. It’s improved a lot, but you know what I mean. Thankfully, Google Maps now works in Jamaica.) I got my bag and we were out in a flash. Then the pandering, already wearing thin, stopped completely. “Man, gotta get this f***ing thing moving, man!” I overheard, from a man in a nice suit and tie, looking like he was working for a limo service, as I walked through the phalanx of official meeters and greeters for hotels and businesses. So, the people working around the airport don’t see that ‘nice behaviour’ is part of the package they must present as this is often the first real contact visitors get. So, jolly music doesn’t compensate for the rude awakening one gets as soon as one sets foot amongst the ‘real people’. This is also a very Jamaican problem when people arrive at NMIA (I rarely go to Sangster). 

Now, we can argue about whether we are invested in tourism the same way The Bahamas is supposedly, but is that the point? To me, it’s about constant states of awareness. I’ve written before about how Jamaicans are not invested in tourism, and Kingston is certainly less so than, say, Montego Bay. But, it’s also a matter of whether each citizen sees him- or her-self as an ambassador, writ small. It’s hard for that to happen when you have people who are not necessarily versed in good manners, so to be civil is a new thing. I’m not going to criticize every Jamaican for being boorish. I’m just pointing out that it’s something to correct if we want to get from here to there (the land of #5in4). 

You may want to take issue with me, but many countries that are invested in tourism but as part of a bigger range of economic activities often display a civility that makes visitors wish to return. Generalizations are dangerous, but let me cite Germany, Switzerland and Norway as examples. I do not include the USA, because I see the same boorish traits that hamper us there: ‘please’ has been removed from the language as in ‘Passport!…Take off your belt!’ We Jamaicans still have a little of that civility left in certain settings: I recall last week how appalled a lady was as a teenager strolled past her at the swimming pool without a mere ‘Hello!’ The lady muttered “Damn rude!” I knew the girl and pointed out that she was American. “Aho!” We know what we’re dealing with.

This story isnt finished as we went to a little roadside cafe for some conch salad and conch fritters–like dipping your hands in Holy Water for a Bahamian. There, civility was on display with raw natural actions. The owner of the ‘shack’ was working his way through the head of his fried fish as we arrived. I looked up and he asked me why. I told him I was checking on the sign. He nodded. My wife looked around and he told his staff to serve us. They were just chilling and hanging with customers at the bar. Our orders were taken and we decided to move from the road side to the back, overlooking the harbour. It was calmer. A lone American was drinking a beer. His conch salad came and he started to enjoy it. Our food came and we did likewise, with our drinks (Sky Juice–gin, coconut water and condensed milk :)). My daughter and I noticed a little play going on with the American. A waitress came and lounged in front of him, like Salome, and started to talk to him. He said often and softly “I’m married…My wife is…” but ‘Salome’ pressed on. It was funny as it went on without my wife seemingly aware. Our server came to be paid and I asked her a few questions. As soon as she heard our accents, she modified her speech and started to say ‘…Sir’ and ‘…Madam’ after every sentence. We left about the same time as Mr. America. My daughter and I explained to Mummy what had been going on and why we were laughing.

My take away? I didnt get the impression that the visitor was offended, and he seemed to take it as ‘just how they are’. Interactions like this happen everywhere tourists frequent, because they are captive for a while and can be exploited in nice and less nice ways. We have some Caribbean ways that are charming and others that make one wonder. Not sure where to go with that episode, but I’ll ponder it.

But, my bottom line from just a few hours of travel is that we need to pay attention to what we do. How do we represent ourselves and what lasting memory will we leave with others? That’s a level of consciousness that may be hard when it seems that life is just one massive struggle after another. But, it’s a change in outlook that has to happen if we want to move from being a people of constant massive struggles.

Enjoy your Christmas! Eat and be merry and remember to leave each person you meet feeling better for having met you.

Namaste!

Jamaica’s growth puzzle: Trying to find some of the right pieces 

I’ve written before that I find it disturbing that Jamaica’s academic economists don’t seem to spend much time outlining to the public problems with the local economy and possible ways to fix them. 

I had an exchange with a Jamaican businessman yesterday about the exchange rate, and how it is badly misunderstood by many Jamaicans, who are fixated on the nominal rate of the J$ against the US$. He added that over many years he had ananlaysed the exchange rate trends and tried to explain them. He found many politicians, sadly, out of their depth in being able to understand notions such as purchasing power parity and the real effective exchange rate. He concluded that many Jamaicans are numerically illiterate. I agreed. 

One of the problems with that illiteracy is that people focus on the wrong variables, and do not understand what changes in variables tell us. 

Now, being a confirmed skeptic, I do not rely on politicians to be the guiding lights for much of what I think is important, except sometimes in the negativ. If a politician. says something is good, chances are it’s the opposite. Their vested interests get in the way of honest discourse. So, I’m having to listen to politicians talk about the economy and growth and productivity, and so forth, and then take a view opposite to what they say is happening. 

Right now, I’m trying to figure out why Jamaica may, one, not be growing as fast as politicians have said (just over 2 percent) and why it may be that Jamaica will grow faster than politicians have said (currently focusing on #5in4–when it’s a hashtag, it must be important :))

The slower-than-reported growth problem. GDP measures economic activity from the data on income, spending, or production. Depending on which measure is used, the story can be different. So, my argument about slower growth is about which of those measures we look at. 

I think that spending will give a truer picture in a country like Jamaica, because we know that much activity is informal and thus under-recorded. That would suggest that data on income is understated in both levels and changes, especially as more information about income means more information about taxable capacity, and people dont like paying taxes. Spending data can be captured more readily and widely, even if it’s based on household surveys. Production is harder to measure, not least because many enterprises are loath to report data, so the series are often of spotty quality and less timely.We also have the age-old problem of whether the simple units of measuring output–prices–are really capturing all we want them to, especially if quality is changing. 

So, my concern about how fast we are growing now is all about what do the three measures show. We could be at 2.3% quarterly growth, plus or minus a lot.

I also think that, flaky as it may seem, people’s sentiments about growth matter, and I think most people don’t feel that they are living with faster growth.

Will Jamaica grow much faster than 5 percent? Some people have noted, recently, that 5 percent annual growth is really a low bar for Jamaica. I am tending to agree. I think that there is more dynamism in the country than people seem to suggest. I also think that some of the faster growth will show up if we get better data about what’s going on. Now that is a taller order than many things, because data collection systems don’t just improve at the drop of a hat. But, here are areas where I think we need to look carefully.

1. Watch electricity consumption. This is often a leading indicator of what is going on, because almost everything in modern economies needs electrical power. Even if it’s being used illegally without payment or proper connection, the turbines are working and juice is going to all corners of the country.

2. Get a better handle on construction. My wife, who’s a pretty decent economist, said last night that construction is well-measured, because building work needs permits. I disagreed, because we know that much building goes on and has gone on without permits. We know, through the tragic deaths of workers, that a major hotel was being constructed in Negril without the requisite building and other permits. So, one can assume that data on this project was not being captured in official statistics. We can readily assume that a major project being derelict in its legality can be but the tip ofthe  iceberg. 

We know also that a major growth area in the corporate area, Portmore, has recently extended its building approval amnesty. So, again, we know that significant amounts of construction were going on ‘under the radar’. If we could capture that well, we could find that construction alone has been moving ahead very fast. Anecdotal evidence suggests that’s true in the corporate area, where I’ve seen over the past three years a swathe of hosuing complexes go up and also a bevy of commercial spaces being built or extended. Similar trends are evident across the island.

3. Bring more informal activity into the formal sector. Ha! Fat chance! My hunch is that this is where some faster growth may be lurking. My supposition is that, while not a ‘silicon valley’ in Jamaica, by its nature, the informal sector in its many forms has had to move faster to keep people afloat. Of course, we could find that a lot of informal activity (say, vending) is just at subsistence level. However, anecdotal stories of how people have used their ‘little jobs’ to support families, in general, and to do things like pay for children to go through schooling to university, suggests that ‘raising chcikens’ etc has provided a significant life-line. How the various activities get captured in data is a massive headache, because the incentives are strong to stay out of sight. Moves like having more taxation based on spending, rather than income, may offer a second-best way of capturing more informal activity, though. 

4. Pay more attention to what income inequality tells us. This is tricky. It’s clear that those Jamaicans who live in upscale areas have done more than get by. Large houses, more cars, private schools, foreign trip, etc, all reflect a life-style that is supported by growing financial resources (whether self-generated or through credit).  Whether they are reflective of the robustness of professional and business life, they have done much better than average in a material sense. It may be that they have both higher income/spending levels than average, and that these have grown faster than average. If that’s so, we then. Need to go to the other end of the scale to see how the ‘dirt poor’ (no value judgement) have fared. Maybe, the best we can do there is to get more sectoral information from the banking sector about deposit holder and borrowers.

So, let’s don some thinking caps and see what can be done to get a better understanding of this oh-so-important set of issues.

The Jamaican economic paradox: how a stagnant economy can not look that bad

One of the conundrums that has puzzled some economists for decades is how it is that Jamaica, supposedly mired in stagnant growth for decades looks as good as it does. Admitted, that Jamaica does not look very good everywhere, and the places where it looks terrible are really pitiful to see.

Several suggestions have gone on the rounds: 

  • Informal economy is large and many real economic activities are not measured fully. This covers the many activities, like vending, where small operators do not register formally their activities, but also includes things like illegal drugs trading. 
  • Remittances are significant, so domestic economic activity can seem sluggish, but private inflows from abroad keep many afloat.
  • The economy has many layers–income inequality is high: those much better off can and do live well; those very poor can suffer enormously. 

There are other factors that may be at play, but these cover many of the significant options, I think.

The idea that Jamaica can grow much faster, as measured by official data, is exciting, and as the Economic Growth Council gets the mantra of ‘5 in 4’ rolling more, people may be energized to look for signs that faster-than-anemic growth is soon to arrive. I’d like to see it, but I will not be holding my breath. However, I’ve been pondering a few things in recent months.

The seeming weakness of the Jamaican dollar against the US dollar is a boon to many people. I’ve written about this before. Those with US dollar assets have made significant gains in recent years, especially with domestic inflation falling sharply. Put simply, those bananas that cost J$300 a dozen 3 years ago, were costing just over US$3.30 when the J$ was at 90 to the US, but now cost US2.35, when the J$ is about 128 to the US. That’s a 30% gain in a world of minuscule gains. Of course, the cost of imports has tended to go up in J$ terms, as the rate fell. 

I also made the point that one has to look at the basket of currencies to really appreciate what the exchange rate has been doing. So, for instance, those many people who had work links with the UK and now are retired in Jamaica, have seen lesser gains, as the pound has been pummeled against the US dollar. Nevertheless, they have done better than if they just had J$ assets. 

Those with access to foreign travel–and they may well be largely the same group who have US dollar assets–can keep the quality of their live higher by sourcing goods and services directly from the US. But, that group is supplemented by those who get goods (and some services) directly from relatives and friends abroad–call them ‘barrel people’. 

Construction in many places has been going on quite rapidly, mainly residential, but also commercial (plazas, here and there) and bigger projects, like hotels. 

We also have the paradox of seeming to grow because we are inefficient. As I wrote recently, digging holes and refilling them is inefficient, but shows up as more economic activity. Farming is hard to judge, but the data show that recent good weather has boosted agriculture, coming off a severe drought.

Services are even harder to judge. Financial services may well be growing well, in terms of profits and balance sheet. But, I would always want to know about the quality of financial services, where I get the impression many are unhappy. That’s not easily measured. 

Telecom services would be another fast growing area, as many Jamaicans love their mobile phones, and are getting to love more cable TV and internet access in many forms. 

Anecdotally, we can come to lots of conclusions about growth. It was never utterly flat, I think but the spread was uneven. I’m not taken by notions that traffic is a good indicator (weak pun), given that we are disastrous at planning road works and have lots of roads that get jammed for the silliest things. 

So, let’s see what data for 2016 Q4 show. I think they wont be so pretty. There! I’ve said it.

Jamaica, we are what we tolerate, and now it is killing us!

For those who celebrate and enjoy Christmas, this season of ‘joy’ is turning out to be one of dread in Jamaica. Why? Because, as a society, we condone violence against each other as a means of resolving problems, from the earliest age, yet we stand awe-struck when that same attitude takes its ultimate toll as one human takes the life of another, often over something seemingly trivial. When emotions run high, calm is often needed to stop the situation escalating. That is not something that seems to be taught, or valued in Jamaica. If my sense seems off, please correct me. 

So, let me be brief. I have watched the eyes popping open as another news report tells of a man killing a woman, in these days, over a failed relationship. Yet, this is the same society that watches on silent when parent threaten to whip their children in public (for something much less than any crime that is on the books). Our approach to ‘discipline’ is NOT teaching children to know the right thing to do without being told, but it’s the principle of ‘let me beat sense into you’. 

One does not need to be a qualified psychologist to understand if, from birth in some cases, brute force and pain have been used to ‘teach lessons’, that the lessons learned are about using brute force and pain. ‘If you cant hear, you must feel!’

It is extremely hard to keep one’s temper in the face of annoyance. Let me not claim to be a saint. Let me cite an incident this morning, during rush hour. 

The man driving his van past the two lanes of standstill traffic on his side of the road, waiting for the light to change to green, who decides that driving on MY SIDE of the road is acceptable is someone who disregards others. His reaction to my continuing to drive so that our cars meet, on my side of the road, is to wave his arms at MY ‘unreasonable’ behaviour. I had no where to drive other than the lane assigned to me. He did not want to wait for traffic to clear. He was expecting that I would acquiesce to his demands. He was not going to negotiate with my life. He was the same as the motorcyclist and pillion passenger who were riding on my side of the road,  because again, their side was filled with slow traffic. I move to avoid killing them. They were followed by another pair of motorcylists and a cyclist doing the same. Their unwillingness to be patient was going to be the cause of grief, and maybe loss of life. Why?

The minute I picked up my phone, the driver of the van, to whom I made reference swerved to join his line of traffic. But, I am quite reasonable. I did not pull a fire arm, or get out my machete, or pick up a rock and aim it at him or his car. Those reactions are not uncommon in Jamaica. 

Don’t get ge wrong! I am not trying to conflate murders with bad road behaviour. But, what I see is a set of people who do not care what they do, so long as it’s what they want to do. Everyone else must accommodate them.

We are not the best people in the world, and I am not going to draw comparisons with other countries. We have our origins and we have the path taken to bring us to where we are.

There are other countries that take an approach similar to ours to ‘discipline’ that do not have the wave of killings we do. That, sorry, is not a justification for what WE do. There are few countries that do not do what we do from childhood that have our rates of killing each other. 

We’ve elevated violence to a point where we do not understand what it is, and expect to see it used in moderation when we have done little to ensure that many or any understand that that is an option. We go ‘full bore’. Now, we are getting ‘double barrels’ of us right back in our faces. 

What is now showing up as men killing women is another twist in the long-running habit of men killing men. Gangs looking to take each others’ lives are one piece of the problem that also has male partners killing female partners. It’s the same problem that has men killing defenseless children. It’s the same problem that has a women stealing a newborn baby from a hospital. It’s the same problem that has the crowd meteing out ‘justice’ by hacking to death a person accused of a crime. It’s a society that has gone so far off the rails that no one has any idea where it is headed, or how will be run over by the train that seems to be travelling faster. As I said above, we are gripped by an disturbing number of people who want things to be THEIR way and theirs only.

If we have the resources to analyze the many different forms of social disorder that is being displayed we may find that a disturbing number of people are undoubtedly clinically insane. That would be more than worrying. But, we would then have to try to understand how they got into this state. It is something that is not confined to certain classes, though it may look different in many cases and in many places.

If my assessment is wrong, please point me to the evidence that counters it. I am willing to listen and learn. I will not strike you down, if I happen to disagree.

Policing? What Policing? Redux

The Gleaner also published my letter about policing, in today’s edition. I only reprint it here, for posterity. The editorial changes are minor, but give a slightly different interpretation of one point (but not significantly so), so I won’t even highlight it 🙂

It’s worth noting that my letter was printed alongside an Editorial, The Police And Operational Protocols, which begs questions about how the police handle some routine operational matters.

Policing? What policing? The loss of integrity and professionalism

I had one of those ‘I’m mad as Hell, and I can’t take it anymore’ moments, yesterday, that are all too common in Jamaica, and wrote the following letter to the Editors of Jamaica Observer and Gleaner. The Observer published if today, and I’ll see if The Gleaner follows suit.

I omitted from my letter the police response on the rape debacle that they had no established protocol for transporting prisoners. Many were quick to say, protocol or not, there is ‘common sense’ and ‘decency’. Someone asked me last night, whether or not the transporting of the victim and accused may taint the case, in the event of an identity parade.

No sooner had I read my letter, than I read another story in today’s papers of how police bungling is causing more grief, this time because two police divisions could not decide which of them should be responsible for a murder scene, taking some 8 hours to make that decision before the body could be cleared. Read the report here.

Many people aren’t looking for the police to solve crimes and right all of society’s ills, but look to them to show a certain degree of integrity and professionalism that would give confidence that matters will be handled well. That lack of integrity and professionalism is something that no amount of words from police ‘high command’ seems able to change.

The police seem resistant to outside forces of change. By that, I mean the attitude to oversight is unashamedly hostile. Yet, the reason for that need–the many and disturbing cases of police misconduct–dont seem to be addressed in other ways.

People have in their sights an escalating murder rate, but my concern is that the many little things that the police are supposed to do daily and in dealing with a wide range of matters of public order keep showing them up to be less than competent.  For an economist, it would be an easy thing to argue the the function of policing ought to be taken away from the body that is now in charge of it.

Governments, rightly, are wary of tampering with police powers, but at some stage, with any organization, one has to ask if the present set-up can take you where you want to go.

Waiting to exhale: PNP President does the inevitable

I’m fascinated by the cult of the individual within Jamaican politics. It’s something that is clearly there, though intelligent politicians try to dance on the head of a pin to convince us that things are otherwise. You cannot appear to go against he or she who is at the head without being accused of disloyalty. But, what that tends to do is to stop change occurring smoothly and so disrupt the natural process of decay and renewal.

How a good political machine should look

If I can extend the decay metaphor into gardening, one tends to see things putrefying because they stay there as unbalanced elements. As any gardener should know, just piling things onto a heap isn’t enough to make good compost; it needs a good mixture of carbon and oxygen–brown and green materials, for simplicity, or older and younger elements. What that does is change formerly living materials so that, as they die and decay, they transfer their energy into becoming agents of new growth. I like this metaphor because the PNP has shown what happens if you do not allow natural decay to occur and if you do not take care to mix materials properly: you end up with a rancid pile. 

Clearly, the PNP has let its leadership fester and so was doing little to generate the new growth that must be there for it to compete as a viable political party. Little green shoots that started to sprout were often quickly yanked out of the ground and thrown to the roadside. Older dying wood was left in place, riddled with termites and unlikely to be able to withstand any major storm. The house that was PNP look tired and bedraggled. It was not the house that Norman built, and it was certainly not the house that Michael rebuilt.

With the gardening theme set, it’s worth recalling this:

‘A garden, you know, is a very usual refuge of a disappointed politician. Accordingly, I have purchased a few acres about nine miles from town, have built a house, and am cultivating a garden.’ (Alexander Hamilton, Letter to Charles Cotesworth Pinckney).

I’m not a cheer leader for any politician. Those who know me, know what I think of politicians and those who are in the heart of political machineries. I subscribe to the adage: ‘Politics is too important to be left to the politicians’ (variously attributed to Charles de Gaulle and John F. Kennedy, Jr.).

I’ve watched with a little interest the pseudo fight for leadership of the PNP. It couldn’t be started, really, because (as is the Jamaican wont) observing protocols meant that those interested had to shuffle around kicking dirt and whistling, acting as if they were not doing anything. Those who were likely to have big interest in becoming leader were already known: Peter Phillips and Peter Bunting. How much support each has and can muster amongst delegates is for us to learn. Who else with try to join the fray, we will await to see, and if they are really working with a substantial base of support.

To say that PNP needs an image makeover is as big an understatement as has been made for a while. I’m not sure if it’s amenable to aggressive surgery, though.

The party seems to have done something that is counter to what it says it stands for, by clearly ignoring what people want. That ‘betrayal’ has been rewarded by election defeats made more hurtful by a clear alienation of the voter base.

It also seems to have been caught by a generational shift that is easy to see and easy to deal with, but somehow appears to have been resisted. Then again, the older wood maybe didn’t understand well enough what was growing in full sight.

Modern life, like it or not, has become wedded to fast (and, sometimes, loose) communication. Of the two major parties in Jamaica, the JLP seems to have understood how to capture the public imagination by running with the pack…onto the track of social media. Without wanting to draw parallels with the USA, it’s notable how a man who spends a lot of time and energy on Twitter surprised many by winning the elections for president. Donald Trump is many things, but he is not someone who misunderstands how people think, and how to rile emotions. He rants and raves on stage, but he also does it online: it’s part of his persona. As far as anything about the ‘real Donald Trump’ goes, that part of him seems real.

I looked on at the PNP President many times, ranting and raving on public platforms, and jabbing her finger in the air, and in the direction of whoever was annoying her, then I wondered why she would dissemble from this character, which seemed to be her real self. It was the perfect persona to take on line, instead of a series of insipid pieces of non-information that dribbled out. She was a firebrand, so why act like dying embers? She admired Fidel, and as his name means, he was always true to himself–long speeches, and all. You never doubted which Fidel you saw.

If one thing seemed to mark that leadership was doomed, it was the lack of sincerity and realism in the persona that was being put out to the public. Take a look at the Twitter account @PSimpsonMiller. Note that it says that her own remarks are ‘signed ~PSM’. Now, just do a check to see how many such tweets there were. There are precious few! So, what was/is the point of the account? To post bromides in the forms of pictures of flowers and teddy bears? You cannot be serious! Even, images of the leader doing political activities were not signed by her. Not, so odd, in a way, but it goes to the point that this was a front. I struggled to find any substantive remark about any major issue. Why?

Look, it’s nice to get the homilies each day, but many people can get that from many other non-political sources. This is a sign of the ‘unspiring’ of Mrs. Simpson-Miller, if I can coin a term. She was made duller by a group of people managing her. I say that without fear of contradiction: the Twitter account proves it. Once that duller politician was rolled out, the die was cast: she was no longer the leader she was. She was not allowed to be herself. By betraying what was the real Portia, it fed the lack of interest in her and her party. People didn’t know what they were getting any more.

I mention the lack of inspiration in the online presence for several other reasons. First, as a gauge of public interest. Andrew Holness, now PM, has about 29,000 followers on Twitter; Portia Simpson-Miller has about 7,000. Yet, people rattle on about how she is the most popular politician, in Jamaica. Something isnt adding up. Second, it treats the population with a degree of disrespect in not having substance at its core. If the leader is about disseminating trivia, then trivia becomes the MO. How can you go to the electorate on issues having laid this basis of prettiness? If you want to argue that social media is just one sphere, I heard you, but show me the written tracts or speeches that laid out the positions.

Personally, when the leader went off and screamed at the crowd in St. Ann, I would have loved to have seen a tweet or a post on Facebook embracing that rant: ‘Dis gyal jus tell dem de peeple a St Ann dat she nuh freyd a nubaddy’ Signed ~PSM. My respect would have shot up ten-fold. Instead, what we got was rumblings about how this ‘moment’ had been captured by a news media cameraman and disseminated. What’s the problem with being who and what you are?

As people crawl over the legacy of Portia Simpson-Miller, they must try to chart the point as which she crossed over from being her real self, to being a creature operated by others. 

I remember seeing her in person and hearing her speak passionately about issues related to women and child abuse, especially. I had no doubt that I was hearing what this lady truly felt. But, such feelings about utterances have been long gone. For that reason alone, the announced departure was too long in coming, but then again, when you’re on the strings of puppeteers, they call the tune.