Jamaica and its ‘fight’ with crime: haphazard approaches may work, but they cannot have certainty.

Economics is one of several disciplines (and they are in both the arts and sciences) that force you to think about many problems from first principles, elaborate on those initial conditions, apply various assumptions to that, and then move to conclusions. These conclusions can then be tested in theory (with mathematical modeling, for instance) and practice, by trying to look at real world evidence and seeing if that comes close to what one would expect. However, much of life is an ongoing experiment, and we do not have the luxury much of the time to hold things static or to know whether some or many of our assumptions held true before events, through events, and hold true still after events. Humans are responsive, so modify actions based on past experience. All of that simple summary is to say what?

I have some clear views in my mind about what kinds of things work with humans and which dont. Those views are borne less out of economics and more out of living. However, I hold onto one strand of economics all the time: people always respond to incentives. Once you understand the structure of those incentives, then changing those is what will change behaviour. 

Now, we could argue to the end of the world whether or not some incentives are stronger than others, or if each incentive works the same for each person. That’s where life gets really complicated. Example: Many people use pain to get others to respond. That works better for people who have low pain thresholds. If you have a high pain threshold, someone may have to go to the ultimate point of taking your life (and maybe not even then) to get a response. 

Money is similar, in that we each respond differently, depending on our starting level of assets, and our prospects for those assets to increase or decrease. We have different tolerance for risk and different responses to rewards. Some cousins asked me to play poker for a pot of US$20, and I said I’d be interested if it were US$2000; they were not. They played and got really jacked up at the end to collect the US$20. I watched the NFL game. 🙂

So, what about crime? In particular, what about crime in Jamaica?

I fail to see how one can make a case for doing ‘something’ to ‘deal with crime’ (whatever that something is, and irrespective of the element of crime that is to be addressed) without some basic tenets and questions concerning:

  • What you see as the problem? 
  • What you tried?
  • What worked?
  • What failed?
  • How you responded to failure and success?
  • Who are the actors?
  • What are the intereconnections?
  • What are the rewards from crime and what are the risks that are being taken and overcome?

Those are just some simple questions whose answers would then lead most people to say an understanding of the problem has been shown, and we know what weaknesses and strengths we are dealing with on the many sides of law and order and law breaking. 

To my mind, none of that has anything to do with things like politics or culture or gender or a host of features and attributes that make for some interesting colour, but do not go to the fundamentals (economists love those).

So, I am about as interested in labelling someone and their opinions as I am in knowing what colour underwear they have on today. 

What I have seen repeatedly in Jamaica on the matter of crime is simple. Its main actors in leadership positions, who are in the business of law-keeping, have not been able to tell a story that makes sense from start to finish. When that is the case, the one clear conclusion is that there is much misunderstanding, much confusion, and little real idea of how to solve the problem. (What economics tells me, and it’s shown to be true in life, is that in such circumstances the responses that come forward MUST BE REACTIVE, NOT PROACTIVE–because, you’ve no real idea how to deal with the root causes, so treat symptoms.)

Before someone jumps up and shouts how unfair that is, I will ask one simple question. If successive Ministers of National Security have called on prayer and God as their answers to the problem, what are they doing taking tax payer money to perform a job that they say is not theirs?

If someone wishes to paint me a different picture, I remain as patient as ever. 

I suspect that the excitement about August Town going murder-free is founded on a series of results that came from many of the questions I posed above being asked and answered. 

Crime ‘fighting’ must be like the way that healing works in the body: it starts from the inside, not the outside.

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. :)