Jamaica diving headlong again to the bottom? Offshore oil? What for?

Some days all I do all day is think; it’s extremely taxing, and occasionally not at all fruitful. It leads to some quite startling and disturbing insights. One such came to me today–not for the first time: education does not stop you doing foolish things. The motive forces that govern actions are much stronger than the sense to avoid trouble.

So, much of this week one piece of news had me bothered…really bothered. I read that Jamaica was intensifying research to discover offshore oil–Authorities step up search for oil offshore Jamaica. Now, this is not a piece of news that was unearthed from the archives of the 1960s or 1970s; it was fresh, this week. Now, age has made me a little sleepier than I used to be, and though my father turned 88 this week, his brain cells are still working well, and so are mine. So, in words that my father would relate to, ‘What the f**t di peeple dem a t’ink?’

So, I  am not even going to wonder if the assurances that the fishing grounds where exploration will occur will be damaged. I wont wonder what the payoff will be from this research and if it suggests exploitable reserves exist. I wont think if that exploitation will lead to jobs, for whom and for how long. I wont think about from where the substantial pool of investment funds will come. I wont think about controlling the revenues from such exploitation and how countries have struggled to manage revenue sources that are known to be finite, and thus unsustainable. Historically, we are closer in governance practices to Nigeria than to Norway. Got the point!

All I will do is ask ‘Isn’t the future in exploiting renewable energy sources’? Economic progress efforts that seek to exploit assets with limited life are doomed to encounter problems. How many centuries of experience and evidence do we need to understand that?

I will mention three words: sun, wind, water. These basic life elements will sustain us for longer than most of us can even romantically estimate.

As one of many countries that have had a serial aversion to exploiting simple solutions to deep-seated problems, Jamaica, once again, seems to be heading to the podium of medal contenders in this ‘race’ to the bottom. 

Facing challenges: CaPRI goes out of the box to explain Budget 2017-18

I was in the pleasant company, over dinner midweek, of a varied groups of mainly Jamaicans, both old and young (my daughter was there), and some living locally and some living mainly abroad. We got into talking about ‘having it’ and what that meant and if it had been achieved. I said I ‘had it all’ and went on to explain that it was partly a question of money that I had accumulated during my life–though this was by no means mega millions–but did have the benefit of not really having to think about a budget every day, something that I had to do for many years. That’s not to say that I am not frugal: I am ‘mean’ like star apple! It also goes to the nature of personal contentment, and over time, I have tried to stop striving. It helps that I retired on a good pension. My wife still has a paid job and between the two of us our daily needs are well covered, financially. But, I get contentment from being able to use my time to satisfy my needs, and most of those are simple: Can I go walking when I want? Can I travel if I want? Is my life free of deadline? Can I say no to requests? Can I choose to help when I want to? And so on. I prize my liberty and am loath to give it up. For that reason, I am leery of nice-sounding attempts to get me to ‘do things’. Again, don’t get me wrong. I love to volunteer, but that means I decide, not someone else, when and where I send my energies, because I want to give fully when I give. Done!

I also mentioned that, for me, the greatest challenge in life now is to help people do things that they say the cannot. For some people that’s a simple nudge or helping hand to get started with something, often a clearly expressed desire that somehow has stalled. For others, it means breaking down a many-layered wall of resistance that has been built over time and reinforced, often by things that are not that rational–so fear has taken hold.

Simple example: the friend who hosted the dinner wanted to get back into golf. She had played a little, with lessons, etc, but an injury set her back badly. Coming back was both a physical and mental problem because the fear of a flare-up of the injury was there and the origin of the injury had deeper health risks. So, I offered to get her started again, gently, by having a session with a few clubs in my back yard. She did great and we spent about 90 minutes swinging gently. As I coach, I explained that I always like to end a session on a positive note, so when she took a good swing, connected well, and the ball pinged off one of the avocado pears on the tree in front of her, I said “Time to stop!” However, some of her previous health issues recurred and she’s not come back. But, she’s promised to do so, and needs to upgrade her equipment to remove their state of ‘disrepair’ as a cause of not resuming. Watch this space!

Another example is a high schooler who swims for the same club as my daughter who is ‘learning’ French. I put him under pressure by insisting on speaking French whenever we meet. My basic point is that he needs to free his vocal chords and get French words flowing naturally, without concern about correctness–that latter part we can fix. In other words, he needs to be like a toddler learning and babbling and not necessarily being coherent. It’s working, to a degree, and he’s less intimidated by the process now, but is still thinking too much. I speak at normal speed, first. Then, if he’s struggling, I slow it down to help him hear the words better as separate sets of sounds; fluent speakers elide a lot of words, so ‘la plume de ma tante’ can sound like ‘laplumdemataunt’ and it’s not obvious what are the separate words.

But, a bigger challenge is getting people to understand basic things about the world they live in. I am not a paid teacher, but I am someone who has often been a giver of instructions.

One of the huge challenges is just a language barrier–like with the French student. So, many people do not have the vocabulary for subjects, let alone the ability to understand what the words could mean. So, many attempts at teaching pass from teacher above head of student. In the class room that happens often at the start of a topic, but gets less as the topic is explored. However, in life, that lack of understanding can be near permanent. Add to that the fact that we do not speak alike. That is a huge problem in places like Jamaica, where the language of many ordinary people is not the language of many of those with so-called ‘high levels of knowledge’. People rale about Patois not being a language because one cannot automatically discuss all topics in that ‘tongue’. But, for things like a lot of economics, it can be done.

So, I was fascinated to see last night how an attempt to bring such knowledge out of the dark realm of ‘mystery’ into the light would work. Our national budget is about what we try to do with what we have (a variation on ‘having it’) and shifting around the resources is one of our big challenges, which honestly we often don’t do that well.

CaPRIThe Caribbean Policy Research Institute, put on a public forum, ‘Money Talks’ What does the new budget really tell you? in the open air of Mandela Park, in the heart of Kingston, Half Way Tree (HWT), at 6pm, plumb in the middle of evening rush hour. The topic was the recent Budget, and what it meant for the nation. Heady stuff. Well, no surprise, HWT was its usual hopping self, with taxis fighting to grab people and space, and street vendors trying to deny space and take people’s money, all at the same time and mostly in the same space. Let’s call that the hustle and bustle of Kingston. In the midst of that was a set up for the live event. In typical Jamaican fashion, the event was being animated by music. Nice vibes.

The event began a little late, but mainly because the MC wanted people to come closer, as ‘they do in church’. But, it was a forlorn attempt: it’s a thoroughfare and if people are reluctant to move from the outer edges by the walls, so be it–the need was for listening, not closeness 🙂

If this could be any prettier…
The event got underway with some pleasant words from a European Union official, as the EU is a major funder for CaPRI. He was followed by the main presenter, Dr. Damien King, was is a co-director and also head of the department of economics at UWI, Mona. One of Damien’s great traits is that he speaks clearly about economics and uses terms that are usually easy to grasp. So, he began talking about esoteric things such as the debt/GDP ratio, but had it illustration as a large mountain of money, and explained that its being 147% in 2012 meant that every Jamaican needed to work for no pay for a year and a half. Clear as a bell! So, it went on as he covered the broad set of measures of the budget, which I wont repeat here. The crowd, about 70 people seated and others around the edges, was absorbed and attentive. He simplified things and made some clear statements about the important matter of how does the budget affect each of us–a matter of personal circumstances and lifestyle.

Nice, simple graphics: a picture says a 1000 words
So, Dr. King has grappled with the challenge of making the budget more accessible to the public.

Now, getting the eyes and ears of fewer than a hundred people is obviously not the same as getting that attention from tens of thousands or even a million or more, but it’s a start, especially if everyone reaches one more, and like the multiplier in economics, gets the word spread by word of mouth.

So, I applaud CaPRI for this venture and hope that others in the domain of public policy see the need to get out from the contented position of ‘doing it the old way’ to doing it a way that is effective. I also like that it fits with my recent suggestion on this blog of a need for a non-partisan debate on the budget–it’s too important to leave to baying politicians. The CaPRI team did well to give people many of the building blocks to understand what the budget means overall, and to each of us, personally.

One of the ways that public policy is being better explained is through the use of social media, and I also applaud the Government and in part the Opposition for grasping this and using platforms such as Twitter and Facebook and Instagram to get out messages, but there’s a place still for live, in your face interaction, I must admit. Let’s hope to see more things like this. Some will see the similarity with ‘TED talks’ and if that helps then so be it. Take this approach to the clubs, to the beach, to the National Stadium…to the world!

Gap analysis: life with the Jamaican donut

I’m a firm believer that one of the reasons why Jamaica is ‘stuck’ is because of our inability to adjust properly to a recent massive loss of human talent. Mass emigration, to the UK and North America, from the late 1950s, robbed us of people and their abilities. But, in that process, we also lost much of the fibre that binds a society together well: the continuity that is created through the exchange of messages between generations. We did not suffer from the skewed process of human casualty in war, by losing many productive men; we lost both men and women in their productive years.

Humans are not like many other animals, who can embed messages in their genes and pass them on naturally. We have to demonstrate and repeat messages to each other, through oral communication and from physical examples. In a simplified sense, we lost not only several generations of people, but the social links that they provided. I could characterise that by asking ‘What did it mean to have ‘barrel children’, raised by relatives and friends rather than parents?’

Many would say that the loss of people was compensated for by what those migrants were able to do by sending back a steady and substantial flow of remittances and goods that meant possibly allowing a better life for those who were left behind and became grateful recipients. But, I would argue that those financial and material flows, valuable though they have been and continue to be, could never be substitutes for the physical and social presence of the people who left. Think of it like the difference between a close relative coming to a birthday party as opposed to their sending a ‘regrets’ message and a gift token: the party may be great but the absence of ‘uncle’ or ‘aunty’ or ‘daddy’ or ‘mummy’ and their words and deeds isn’t replaced by the gift token and what it can buy.

Many would also argue that, because some (a minority) of those migrants returned, the loss to the country was not total. I would agree with that, but say that, like when you miss any event or come into it late, that never puts you in the same position as if you had been present all the time. Parents understand what it is to hear of the child’s performance rather than to witness it, first hand.

Some would say that those returnees bring back valuable experience that can then be shared with those who never travelled. I would agree with that, but also add that it’s a mixed bag. We know anecdotally that may returnees have a hard time readjusting to life in Jamaica, in terms of actual living conditions, and their expectations of life in Jamaica compared with life in the developed country. That’s one reason why many people are concerned now for the few who come back to Jamaica under duress, as deportees.

I cannot generalise and say whether that adjustment is harder for someone who spent many formative years in Jamaica before leaving, living a long time abroad, and then return (like my parents), whether the time spent abroad was deemed a good or bad experience, than it is for someone who spent early childhood in Jamaica, grew up abroad (living a happy or miserable life), and then returned to Jamaica many decades later (like myself). Or whether either of those situations compares to those who were not born in Jamaica, but were born abroad, and come to Jamaica to grow up, or later in their life to work, etc. They and other possible circumstances are all different.

So, in my mind, Jamaica stands like a donut–a wonderful looking and mouth-watering thing but with a hole in its middle. No amount of playing with that cake ever gets that hole filled.

Screen Shot 2017-03-21 at 2.38.26 AM
A metaphor for a nation?

What I know is that the threads of the society cannot be as well knotted as if it had never had to deal with that massive movement of people. The impact must be dramatic for us, losing say 1 million or more out of a total that is around 2-3 million. That proportionate impact must be dramatic. It is made more dramatic by the fact that a subtantial part of the later flow has been of some 3/4 to 4/5 of our graduates. We lost productive bodies, but very damagingly also lost productive minds. 

It’s true that many groups of people have thrived over the centuries because of similar mass emigration and we can marvel at refugees who fled their homelands and made their lives into wonderful examples of human resilience. But, we can always wonder how their homelands would have been if they had not had to endure their movement, whether because that was caused by repression or war or some other natural or human calamity. We know that many of our emigrants have done, and continue to do, well abroad. But, we have to wonder how those countries that lost masses of Jewish people because of pogroms, or Somalia, that lost masses as a result of war, or Uganda, that lost many talented people because of its leader’s xenophobia, would have fared without losing a good chuck of its talent.

Jamaica has had to live with the destabilising effect of its mass migration. Like a genie that gets out of the bottle, it’s too late to put the top back on. I think that successive governments and generations of Jamaicans have never really understood or dealt with that. That may explain why we have a hard time building a nation that is more consensual than one that is divided, even if we argue that the divisions were manufactured for the political benefits of a few. Jamaica sits closer to the end of societies that are anarchistic (with lots of people who want to act independently and not follow the guidance of ‘government’) than those which are closer knit in their thinking (and tend to follow the lead of their government).

That anarchistic strain has been more detrimental for us than it has been in other societies. It’s something that is at the root of the success of many societies–it contains the energy of innovativeness. It’s been detrimental because it’s gotten its ‘satisfaction’ through delving in things that are ultimately more self-destructive, like criminal activity, than nation building, like inventing new ways of benefiting each other.

But, don’t let me run too far beyond what I can reasonably argue.

Can we fill the gap that is the middle of the donut?

Jamaica needs a non-partisan national budget debate

Jamaica is in the midst of an annual ritual, with its politicians arguing about the national budget presented to the country by the finance minister, then initially criticised by the Opposition spokesman on finance. Others then join in the debate. Outside of Parliament, some ‘experts’ discuss what has been presented openly–on television or radio, or in the pages of national newspapers, or in the social media spaces that now exist. It’s possible to get an idea of all of that discussion, but you’d be somewhat superhuman if you managed to do that. Outside Parliament, we also know that many people argue over the measures and the things that have not been done, and some will do their own calculations of how they will be affected. Some, will wonder what has been done, but not have much capability to make sense of it all, either nationally or even in their personal circumstances. Some also have no interest in any of this, and just wish the ‘noise’ would stop so that they could get on with life: they live with the measures and suffer or gain in silence.

But, one of the things that happens a lot in Jamaica is that much of the discussion that goes on happens with the tinge of political bias deeply ingrained in the views expressed. We need to stop that!

Over the weekend, I had an article published with my brief views on the latest budget. But, I also spent some time thinking about measures that could have been made. Some people react to those who criticise the budget presentation by saying ‘Show us your plans!’. I commented that this is empty rhetoric: national budgets reflect national priorities, so if say the Opposition were to present its plan, it would reflect its priorities. Those need not intersect with the priorities of the government of the day, so we may not have anything that is truly comparable. But, what I think would be useful would be to have a better idea of what certain well-defined options could mean for the country. Let me explain.

Governments often try to get tax revenue from what we may see as ‘low-hanging fruit’, often ‘sin’ taxes–adding levies on things such as alcohol and tobacco products. In other words, the government acts a bit like a nanny and says that it knows we do some bad things and will raise the cost of doing them. But, another approach would be for the government to adopt the view that certain common behaviour is not good for the health of the nation and suggest taxing them. Because many believe that leaving people to choose for themselves, governments may be reluctant to ban things, but will raise the cost of doing them. So, if the government has a belief that it should be helping to improve the nation’s health and, say, that it wants to reduce the occurrence of things like non-communicable diseases (NCDs), it could reasonably look at taxing things that contribute to those. Last October, the World Health Organization called for worldwide action on the consumption of sugary drinks. Its main message was:

‘Taxing sugary drinks can lower consumption and reduce obesity, type 2 diabetes and tooth decay, says a new WHO report…Fiscal policies that lead to at least a 20% increase in the retail price of sugary drinks would result in proportional reductions in consumption of such products.’

Many jurisdictions have already tried to do this with taxes on sugary drinks: Denmark has had such a tax in place since the 1930s. But, it’s now on the radar for many countries and regions. So, why should Jamaica’s finance ministry not make a calculation of what a 20 percent increase would yield, assuming that we got a proportionate reduction in consumption? We could then see what economists would call the ‘opportunity cost’ of the measure, because we could then see what we have decided to give up in potential tax revenue.

My experience in economic policy making informs me that such options are often assessed, but behind the closed doors of political discussion, some options never get out of the room. The personal preferences of ministers or the political calculations of parties may block some ideas from coming to the light. But, the nation needs to know these options. I may be a serial optimist to think that a political party would show such calculations. But, in a mature democracy, what would be better? When we hear that J$2 billion will come from a particular tax, it would be good to know that this amount could perhaps have come from another tax. Doing this would also force the government and the nation to understand or discuss why a tax was imposed and another option ignored. It would also force us to try to understand who will be affected by tax measures.

This last point is a gaping hole in the way that budgets are done in Jamaica: we do a poor job of pointing out who are the gainers and losers of budget measures. Doing that analysis is not easy, and is subject to lots of criticism, but we could live with that and try our best to refine our understanding in this area.

I taught a seminar on income inequality at the University of the West Indies, Mona, this week, and one of the things I asked the students to think about was who gained and who lost from the budget and what has it done for income inequality.

But, it’s not just a range of tax measures that need to be assessed this way. Jamaica should always have at its fingertips figures for those people and organizations who do not make a contribution when they should–tax avoiders and evaders. The cost of tax delinquency should always be in the budget discussion. At the start of FY 2015/16, Tax Administration Jamaica (TAJ) estimated the stock of arrears at J$350 bn. During the year, arrears amounts deemed to be uncollectible for the Years of Assessment 2009/10 and earlier, were written-off, as outlined in TAJ’s Debt Write-Off Policy, so that greater focus could be placed on pursuing more recent liabilities. As a result, the stock of arrears was reduced to J$125 bn at the close of the fiscal year. That’s a significant reduction. While TAJ may be doing its compliance work better, with its National Compliance Plan 2016/17, the nation needs to understand what it’s doing and what it hopes to gain. I’m for ‘naming and shaming’ tax delinquents–I’ve seen it work in other countries to great effect–but our laws and regulations on that are somewhat restrictive. Moreover, the finance ministry should at least tell us why going after more arrears is not one of the measures that it wants to see pursued more vigorously. If, say, we could get back 25 percent of the existing arrears during the fiscal year, then a J$30 bn tax package may not seem necessary.

In the same way that I suggested that we could see coherence in government policies, with health objectives being underpinned by fiscal measures, we could get coherence in matters like energy policy. As I tweeted over the weekend, policies should direct us towards energy efficiency and better use of renewable energy, such as through solar power and hybrid vehicles.

Neighbour country, Barbados, saw decades ago the sense of promoting the use of solar energy and its use has been compulsory in all new buildings for years. Why has Jamaica, with its similarly abundant sunlight, been so reluctant? Another debate.

We also need to be open and clear about why certain bodies of the nation continue to gets special treatment in terms of tax obligations. In that conversation, we need to ask and have answered why religious institutions are treated the way they are. Let me not be prescriptive for the moment, but suggest that the nation could do worse than to get a better understanding of what the current situation is deemed acceptable, and why in an era when the finance minister is urging us to be ‘responsible’, that burden only falls on certain shoulders.

There are other specific topics that could be brought into the conversation, but we would go far by having a more neutral discussion and facts on the topics touched on above. The finance minister has talked about the status of a range of public bodies and how they could contribute to government finances. This is a wonderful topic. Personally, I would have preferred to have seen us have that conversation first before deciding to dip hands into the surplus of the National Housing Trust to the tune of some J$11.4 bn. Call me old-fashioned for wanting to put the horse before the cart.

So, Jamaica, how mature are we? Can we have such conversations?

Sunday Observer Budget 2017/18 Commentary: The government still in the jaws of a dilemma

Below, is commentary requested by The Jamaica Observer, immediately after this week’s presentation by the Finance Minister, Audley Shaw, in the debate on Budget 2017/18. It’s broadly in lines with comments I made on Nationwide Radio 90, the day after the Budget presentation.

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Business

The government still in the jaws of a dilemma

BY DENNIS JONES Economist

Sunday, March 12, 2017

JONES — How is the tax ‘give away’ going to be financed?

The government remains clearly committed to the idea of moving from direct to indirect taxation. This has merits, especially making it more likely that revenues will flow as expected — revenues in FY 2016/17 are already overperforming significantly.

However, it is my impression that this move is still taking more of a toll on those less able to afford this shift — the poor — in some sense or other. It’s also clear that where direct taxes remain, they are a heavier burden on those towards the top end of the income ladder.

The Budget leaves the government still in the jaws of a dilemma: it does not convincingly push the needle towards the much vaunted growth target of 5 per cent growth within 4 years, the so-called ‘#5in4’. (In that vein, it’s worth noting that the accelerated growth in 2016 has largely been driven by agriculture rebounding from previous drought, and is not reflective of the effect of policy measures.)

The tax measures — pulling $13.25 billion to cover the commitment to move the personal income tax threshold to $1.5 million — are revenue neutral: that is, income tax relief is offset by higher indirect taxes on ‘sin’ (alcohol and tobacco), but also on near-essentials such as electricity, fuel, and vehicle licence fees.

The passing through of these higher indirect taxes will impact the living costs of a wide range of people. In essence, the income tax gains of a few has been replaced by the tax-induced pain of many, and we see more give but even more take-back.

Benefits from income tax relief are diluted by higher spending by households on a range of basics and ‘luxuries’. This seems to be less growth-inducing than the opposite.

Key industry partners have already expressed various levels of dissatisfaction with some of the indirect taxes: Red Stripe argue that may have to curb their US$20 million investment since consumption of alcohol will be affected, in a market already near the regional bottom in its consumption per head of alcohol. The insurance industry sees a negative outlook from making group health insurance more expensive.

We are already seeing push-back from taxi operators to the increase in fuel taxes and vehicle licensing fees.

The reshaping of Property Tax is interesting, moving to more current valuations (2013, compared to the 2002 values, at present) but also reducing the rates that will apply. The following question needs to be answered, however: Will it really be the start of using regular valuations? We need to see how the revenues flow in the various parishes and whether the local councils will have the revenues badly needed to improve some roads and lights, etc.

Social safety net measures announced sound good, but more people other than those who qualify for PATH will need financial support.

The drawing down of $11.4 billion from the National Housing Trust (NHT) is not good, in principle or in practice. The surplus of this and other special funds is there to serve specific purposes, not for general financing of government activities. In that regard, it is not a prudent fiscal measure and is ultimately unsustainable.

To sum up, the budget looks set to hit both consumption and investment negatively, emphasising that it is not growth-positive. But it also looks at risk from offering help it sees as needed to only some of those who really need it.

What the UK deportations tell us about Jamaicans and their expectations–it’s called ‘anarchy’

I don’t want to make light of the real plight of some of the ‘Jamaicans’ who find themselves put on a plane of deportees from the UK headed back to Jamaica, but they display something quite common about Jamaica and Jamaicans, which is now coming to bite each of them (and has implications for the rest of us). Jamaicans have become used to living in a world where rules and regulation do not apply. I’ve argued many times that, it’s not that Jamaicans don’t abide by rules, but they are prompted to follow rules that they know will bite. The UK deportations stories are interesting, as many of them revolve around people who knew they were not compliant with regulations, but tended to leave that status uncorrected. They were then faced with a system that did not appear to impose heavy or quick sanctions for that, which tended to encourage people to ‘just take their time’ to get things right. Then, almost suddenly, with little warning, the UK screws get tightened, and all the people ‘in transition’ of just doing nothing, get caught.

Of course, as with many things in life, we have sad stories, which make us ponder whether compassion should trump other things, such as the mother of a sick son, who had lived in the UK for over 25 years, but is listed to be deported, while the son can stay in the UK. Many see the need for compassion; others see a case where someone did not do what was required to regularize a situation and now has other life complications, that are unrelated, and need not have any compensatory bearing. We also have the common case of what to do with people who knowingly break a country’s laws and whether that removes certain rights to remain in a country, if you are a non-national or not a citizen.

Sadly, because Jamaicans (and their offspring) are so used to ‘getting a bly’, they react with shock and horror when that option isn’t there. Many territories do not apply an ‘anything goes’ attitude to their affairs–it’s one reason why they are not in some state of chaos. There are systems and they work, and if you decide to not follow what the system requires, there are consequences. That’s not something that applies consistently in Jamaica, or in the life of Jamaicans, who often transport that ‘bly’ expectation abroad, alongside its cousin ‘I know someone’.

One of the things that will start to indicate where Jamaica goes in the next five years–during the current government’s term, loosely–is how the series of risk: reward equations in life start to change, so that the incentives go more strongly in the direction of being law-abiding. Accountability needs to be more than a catchy phrase.

I know from personal observation that the way things are done in Jamaica, and by Jamaicans, affects how ‘non-Jamaicans’ behave. Take for example something I’ve cited before–how people (this group may include Jamaicans who have lived abroad and now live in Jamaica) from countries that have strict laws against driving without seat belts behave in Jamaica: you find they tend to be much looser with that rule because they see the sanctions barely ever applied. So, years of being accustomed to ‘order’ suddenly drops away. You may get the reserve, however, with people from overseas trying to hold on to ‘good ways’. One instance concerns recycling and conservation: those accustomed to separation of garbage may try to still do that, even when the options for making that work are few and far between. They tend to find personal solutions and may manage to spread that to small community groups, even though there is little or no national support for the practices. [I put my household into that category: we separate plastics and have several outlets for them, other than into the garbage; we take food waste and save that for ‘dog food’ to be given to those who have animals to eat it; we compost vegetable matter. That means our garbage is much less than it would be otherwise, though more than it was when in US, because we cannot find outlets to take glass, aluminium or paper waste. But, I keep searching.]

People wonder why Jamaica hasn’t made more progress. It’s at least a two-sided problem. On one side, we need to stop accommodating ‘unruly’ behaviour (and it’s often more widespread that we admit, because we are often in that practice, though criticising others). But, remember, such behaviour is often not criminal, but about personal convenience. On the other side, we need to stop expecting our unruly behaviour to be without much consequence (and that is often harder than it needs to be, because the incentive is strong to keep doing it–for instance, people are shocked that I will not ‘call my friend’ to get the things sorted out, preferring to ‘suffer’ with the system and try to get it to work the same way for all). Just look at how former Cabinet Minister, Dwight Nelson, has behaved and you get an idea of how warped we’ve become“I did not attend any disciplinary hearing because I did not think I breached any regulation. Can you imagine suspending a former minister?…This is gross disrespect. I think they were out of order. I believe I tore up the letter because I was so angry.” (Nelson told The Sunday Gleaner).

If everyone thinks they are so privileged that rules don’t apply to them, you can imagine what that means. It’s called ANARCHY.

Andrew Holness is better than Portia Simpson-Miller: the people have spoken again

I have no doubt that Andrew Holness is a popular prime minister. I have no doubt that he has surprised many people with the way he has led the country since assuming his position as PM just over a year ago. I have no doubt that part of his popularity is not based wholly on a positive assessment of what he has been doing, but a combination of that and a negative assessment of what his predecessor did–or more, accurately, did not do. I tested my opinion in a totally unscientific poll on Twitter, the results of which are shown below. As such things go, the number who voted (145) is more than decent. But, I would not like to take on Don Anderson if he said that many reasons exist why I should not trust the results. But, this is the world of social media, so I will thank Don, but march on regardless 🙂 My poll shows clearly that PM Holness is favoured by more than 2 to 1 over his predecessor.

Some would say, with reasonable truth, that the result of the poll was already known. After all, Mr. Holness led his party to a memorable national election victory a year ago, and also to a resounding victory in local government elections a few months ago. True, other than the fact that our elections are not for a national leader, but I accept that many people vote for the ‘top of the ticket’ when voting for local representatives.

I think the reasons for Mr. Holness’ popularity are several, and I am going to touch on a few.

He communicates, openly. Whether you like it or not, the world of social media is the window through which many now see the world. So, a politician who embraces that as a means of getting across his message is going to look good. Add to that a tendency to encourage others under him to do the same and you get an impression of more and more open communication. I would be lying if I told you that I did not think that his predecessor and many of her team were a communications disaster: unable or incapable of giving clear messages, or worse still living with the deadly sound of silence from on high, when a word or two from that place would have done much to cement the idea that someone was in charge, and the mice were not running the kitchen.

One of the things that happened under the Simpson-Miller administration, and which is hard to understand, is how Portia became an enigma, and almost a betrayal of herself. I have heard her speak with passion about certain topics, namely issues of equity and equality, especially for women and children. But, in her latter days, she hardly went to that well of good words and much commendable action, but floundered in the world of bigger policy ideas, especially on matters economic and financial. If I were a management guru, I would wonder how and why the management of voices was not better, at least in putting in front of the people the clear message that ‘the leader has a team of excellent ministers, whose words and ideas the people can trust’, rather than fumbling and bumbling on topics which had not been mastered. I say ‘mastered’ because it’s rare for a leader to really know all the portfolios, but good briefing and sticking to key messages can make a puppy seem intelligent. Worse still, PSM was turned into a badly functioning mouthpiece that went badly off-message when caught unawares, and was kept out of the public eye as a spokesperson so much that one had to wonder what was really going on. The puppeteers were pulling strings well, but the puppet often looked as if the strings were mostly cut.

The tendency to be unbelievable is something that the PNP administration seemed to embrace and sadly that was led by the leader.

It came with remarks such as how PSM felt the pain of ordinary people, when it came to inflation, and claiming to suffer this in her regular shopping. One need not even go to the perks that are the regular part of being a national leader to start guffawing. Rather than touch a supermarket, PSM could have at least seemed sympathetic had she been seen uttering those words at a regular ‘bend down’ market over a hand of ripe bananas.

It came with remarks, often repeated, about how much PSM loved the poor. So much so, the cynic said quickly that she led the march to create more of them. But, the PSM-led administration did so little to protect the poor or most citizens that the claim was as hollow as the middle of a doughnut. It was bolstered by the regular appearance of scandals that had much to do with cronyism, smelled of corruption, and had the indelible mark of wasting public money that the country does not have.

But, enough of the poor side of the poor-loving.

I think that the new PM has become a master of PR. I am not surprised by that, and am not totally critical of it. Messaging is important, and if it’s not well-managed then it can lead to unnecessary problems. One piece of PR that I have seen, and it’s a bit subtle is how the PM seems willing to step in front of problematic positions. It’s early, so one has to watch carefully how that plays out, but his recent remarks about how to deal with the monumental matter of violent crime and also the lesser matter of ‘music from prison’ suggests that he’s not just going to bend to populist positions.

I am not yet convinced about how boldly he will go on matters of corruption, governance and accountability, and am not happy to see that he let imoportant initiatives like ‘job descriptions’ for his Cabinet were not issued, but can understand his giving ministers another six-months to prove that they can deliver on their portfolios. We will have to wait to see how the poor performers are dealt with.

I’m also intrigued how certain holes that were dug with enthusiasm only for the dirt to start falling on top of his head get deatl with. If I say ‘Caricel’ will you say ‘not well’? (Note today’s story that a sale may be in the works.)

Just in case you think it, don’t! I am not a JLP supporter. My political position is independent. I do, however, try to see a spade for what it is.

Time keeps on slipping into the future

Time is a fascinating variable. It’s personal use is often regarded as highly valuable by its ‘owner’, yet strangely regarded as unimportant by many others. Jamaicans, for example, see few problems in being late or not making appointments, which is both disrespectful and costly. They are often shocked when people arrange things and stick to the stated times. Nothing funnier than meeting people on your way out of somewhere, as they traipse in 15, 30, 60 minutes late, and you are headed to your next appointment 🙂

Time is a continuum that is often fraught with conflict over its use. Its use comes at a price, often implicit (when it’s lost the costs often become explicit), sometime explicit (lawyers and consultants have billable hours).

People hold contradictory views about time, simultaneously: ‘I love to just sit and do nothing’ can be uttered by the same person who says ‘How can you spend 3 hours playing golf?’screen-shot-2017-03-02-at-7-07-00-am

Economists have a lot of fun with time: it’s often a key variable in understanding many phenomena because they really only make sense when seen over an historical period, either looking backwards or trying to look forward. Economists don’t often put too much store in things that are evident now, or at a single point in time.

In economics, time preference (or time discounting) is the relative valuation placed on a good or service at an earlier date compared with its valuation at a later date. Someone with a high time preference is focused substantially on his well-being in the present and the immediate future relative to the average person, while someone with low time preference places more emphasis than average on their well-being in the further future.

Time preferences are captured mathematically in the discount function. The higher the time preference, the higher the discount placed on returns receivable or costs payable in the future.

People often confuse themselves about time, which is a construct in the way we measure it, but is an absolute (assuming we cannot do inter-temporal travel). The same amount of time is always available, but what matters is how people decide to prioritize actions in blocks of time. Having more time for x, usually means less time for y: even with so-called multi-tasking, one is giving less time to something than could be the case if it were being done alone.

Guilty as charged: the Jamaican psyche doesn’t welcome it

In my experience, Jamaicans have two very distinctive and contrasting ways of reflecting personal guilt: one is silence (often associated with a slightly haughty attitude, which makes it seem insolent–hence, silent insolence); the other is loud protestations of innocence, soon followed by silence (if the guilty action remains noted, especially if the ‘accuser’ is still present), though it can often be accompanied by constant muttering under the breath (somewhat, like the air going out of a tyre). 

In any situation when you think that a Jamaican should be accountable for a misdeed, and it’s not clear that the scale of the deed matters, look out for these traits to be present.