Explaining government (economic) policies is too important to be left to government: EPOC, EGC & CaPRI show why

I was struck by an Editorial in The Gleaner on May 23, ‘Good Initiative, Mr Duncan, But …‘ noting (my emphasis) that Keith Duncan, co-chair of the Economic Policy Oversight Committee ‘has taken his show on the road. He is on an education exercise, going into communities, attempting to break down the seemingly arcane ideas of finance into the language of the people and show the relationship between achieving the IMF targets and people’s live.

The Editorial noted that many more Jamaicans that would have been the case otherwise will have a better understanding of the targets the government is committed to achieve under the IMF programme. That should make for better buy-in from the nation.

But, the Editorial saw ‘a risk, should he not be careful, of the blurring of the lines between the committee’s job of monitoring performance, based on the empirical analysis of a specific set of data, and the responsibility of political leaders to enunciate policy and explain to constituents the basis on which competing priorities are resolved.’ Further, the Editorial argued ‘Mr Duncan should be wary of being perceived as usurping the role of Government. We are quite happy with policing the implementation of the programme, rather than being drawn into social engineering.’

My view is this perceived risk is that it is not that great. Many agencies and commentators can and will attempt to help others understand what government is doing, and their stipulated roles are usually kept fully in view. If there are issues in certain interpretations, part of a good democracy would be that government can express its displeasure, if it amounts to that, or conversely express its thanks because sometimes others are better at the process of explaining policies. In fact, that’s one of the key features of a free press/media. Also, government’s explanations of what it is purporting to do can often be self-serving, not least because politicians like to give the best impression of what they do, seeking to extract credit and minimize blame.

Today, I spoke on this topic on Facebook live. You can watch the video here: https://www.facebook.com/dennisjonesasiseeit/posts/1386788341414056

During the talk, I drew attention to the other recent attempts to explain better parts of government economic policies, as undertaken by the Economic Growth Council through its public forums, and the think tank, Caribbean Policy Research Institute (CaPRI), with its recent public forums (on the 2017-18 Budget and this week on ‘Strenthening Integrity through Innovation’). All of these events try to draw the public more closely ‘into the tent’ and be part of the dialogues that are going on.

My view mirrors that expressed by educator and advocate Carol Narcisse:

“The economic programme is not going to be successful if we the people don’t understand it, don’t participate in it, don’t think it is a good thing, don’t see how it is going to benefit us, and if we don’t have an equitable way in which to both participate and benefit from the results of it.”

I would agree, also, with the complementary view she expressed: ‘EPOC going ‘On the Corner’ is an example of participatory democracy and is an extension of its responsibility to provide oversight.’

Credit to The Gleaner, who introduced the ‘On the Corner’ series, in the lead-up to the 2007 general election. A cynic might wonder if The Gleaner Editorial was not being somewhat disingenuous, in that the role of explaining policies and many other elements of government is often a function well performed by the media, and The Gleaner might really be seen as trying to protect a little of its own turf. But, surely, they wouldn’t be doing that, now, would they? Would they? 🙂

Increased Police Killings, Privacy & Other Concerns: INDECOM’S 1st Quarterly Report 2017

https://rightstepsandpouitrees.wordpress.com/2017/05/31/increased-police-killings-privacy-other-concerns-indecoms-1st-quarterly-report-2017/ Susan Goffe is always on the ball in trying to keep us abreast of important aspects of justice in Jamaica

Unconnected dots in Jamaican crime fighting

Earlier this morning, I had half a mind to write about something I’d seen on Twitter, yesterday. Giovanni Dennis, a producer at RJR, posted a video of activity around a crashed grocery truck on Spur Tree Hill (near the border of Manchester and St. Elizabeth).  Here it is:

What first struck me about the scene was what it may be saying about the really desperate economic and moral situation of a significant portion of Jamaican society.

That people without much money or the prospect of getting any seize quickly an opportunity to get basic goods for free is no surprise; it happens in lots of poor countries; it also happens in richer countries, too. But, it could happen in an area where people are well-off; it’s just that routes for transporting goods are usually not that close to neighbourhoods where such people live (I know in the USA that may not be true, given the coverage of the Interstate highways. But, the general point is still valid.)

That we could not see any evidence of injured people and what if any assistance was being offered was partly unfortunate, but also telling. Our impression is that the injured were not the prime concern of those at the scene; even the onlookers did not seem perturbed by what they saw. I think that is a powerful image, and message. 

Just now, I read that the current Minister of National Security, Robert Montague, was pleading:

“Jamaica, we need to do better! Jamaica, we [cannot] only sit on our verandahs and criticise. It is time to get up, stand up and do something. It is time more people speak up and speak what you know…It is time to get up Jamaica; it is time to draw the line. It is time to stand up and be counted.” 

Just a few days ago, in the wake of the failed fraud case against Carlos Hill, because of the unwillingness of witnesses to appear and testify, Paula Llewelyn, the Director of Public Prosecutions, talked about “a demonstration of unenlightened self-interest leading to total disengagement in the process”.

Now, we cannot have it both ways. We know and have seen again and again that the average Jamaican is mired in various states of apathy and antipathy. We can look at turnout at elections for another leg to that stool. We know this! Yet, without even a breath to acknowledge what may be the reason, we are to believe that ‘Poof!’, citizens will see the walls of Jericho tumbling down and suddenly feel urged to get up and hold it up, and if it falls, rebuild it?

Just a few months ago, the same Mininster of National Security boldly saw that citizens needed help“The country really need fi get under control because criminals a pressure everybody. So, him [Montague] haffi go wherever he has to go to get the thing under control. It [obeah] can work, but a no that alone. The whole nation have to come together as well.”  OBEAH!?

In fairness to Minister Montague, he had also previously said he had been ‘specially picked by God to tackle the crime monster. Now, I’m not too hot on all things religious, but the link with God-chosen and Obeah-reliance is lost on me. Anyone can help, here?

He’s also taken a leaf from his predecessor, Peter Bunting, who had often called for divine intervention in crime, including in 2014, and when crime appeared to be turning a corner in 2015, some lambasted him for not giving God his due. Well, Peter knew better than to take the Lord’s name in vain, especially when it appears in hindsight that such credit would have been premature.

Most of what I do each day is to look at dot. I try to see what they show when connected to each other, because if one just looks at one or a few, there’s no real picture. So, let’s add another dot.

In the middle of the month, the Inter-American Development Bank study, Restoring Paradise in the Caribbean: Combatting Violence with Numbers, stated (my emphases) ‘The Caribbean region needs to redirect its anti-crime efforts in favor of more interventions that are evidence-based and targeted at high-risk individuals and geographic areas, with improved monitoring of police and justice systems.’ What the IDB study also noted was: ‘Victims are concentrated in neighborhoods with high physical disorder, low trust among neighbors and a gang presence. Even within those neighborhoods, crime is concentrated in pockets.‘ [I need to find out if perpetrators are similarly from concentrated areas.]

So, what does my looking at dots tell me?

  • Many Jamaicans don’t care enough about themselves enough to act in their own best interest. (At its worst, they would rather be silent about crime than speak out or act against it.)
  • Many Jamaican do not care enough about each other to help even the dead and dying, instead of looking to see what they can get from the distress of such people. (It’s more likely that your fellow Jamaican will prefer to look on while crimes are being committed than doing something immediately to confront it. This goes back to those calls for ‘heroism’ when a student from Jamaica College was stabbed on a bus, allegedly for his cell phone.)
  • Ministers of National Security have been floundering badly to put together a coherent policy to tackle the high wave of crime that has been battering Jamaica for decades. In desperation, a call to the people goes out as a statement that ‘we have no idea what to do’.
  • We need to drill down to small areas to address the core problems of crime in our society. (That means ‘attacking’ the bases that have been built for political purposes, or created themselves on the back of lax policies that allowed ‘crime’ to be a way of life. Notwithstanding, the first bullet, politicians have shown amply and repeatedly that they can act in their own best interests.)

Good government and governance are built on consistency and credibility. Absent those two things, and all the talk in the world can only be seen as hot air.

 

It’s not the economy, stupid! It’s the people?

Once in my working life at the Bank of England I had responsibility for a team that looked at economic development in English-speaking Caribbean countries. I got into a professional bind by arguing, against the official policy line that devaluation was to be supported as a way of easing Jamaica out of its economic woes. I argued, based on my understanding of how Jamaica had worked for decades, that while one side of the devaluation equation worked, the economy was titled in a way that meant the gains would go out on the other side: we imported more than we exported and the balance of that meant higher net costs but without the needed gains that could come from a more competitive exchange rate; we also had lots of tied contracts in bauxite that were not sensitive to exchange rate changes. My other reasons were based on ‘cultural senses’ that Jamaicans were not going to change habits fast enough to make exchange rate shifts work quickly; that was part of the truth but also reflected that fact that jinnalship meant Jamaicans were as likely to find ways around the change, eg by making use of remittances more (which, being in foreign exchange, meant full protection). I did not win the internal debate at the Bank, and my career did not tailspin. Fast forward.

Jamaica has done what many economists would see as the ‘right thing’ in recent years in dealing with the long-standing issue of a bloated fiscal deficit and its debt burden. Now, that improvement can be an important necessary condition, but is not sufficient, to use economics jargon. It’s also allowed the exchange rate to be ‘flexible’, or depreciate in visible terms. 

What economic policies are supposed to do is to change the way that ‘economic agents’ operate, based on certain assumptions about behaviour. What has so often been the problem with Jamaica (and many other countries) is understanding how people react and if they react in unexpected ways, how to taper policies so that the desired effects are still achieved. 

One thing certain about curbing fiscal excesses is that less money will slosh around between political powers and private people: that’s simple maths. That squeeze may have some negative economic effect, but it may be less if the previous beneficiaries find other ways to operate and make money. 

Similarly, with the exchange rate depreciation, significant numbers of people and businessmen are not totally exposed and can draw on foreign exchange buffers or substitute domestic items for imports enough to get by. 

The problem with all of this is that some of the things needed to change economic behaviour are not in the hands of economic policy makers. 

A simple example. Interest rates are meant to offer incentives to save (and by extension, to spend). Now, if people are fearful of banks (for whatever reasons) changing interest rates in the banking system does not affect behaviour much because people stay away from the system where interest rates matter. So, one of the first steps in this instance is to get over people’s fears and dislike of banks and other financial institutions. That is a matter of education and life experiences; the life experiences may have deeper roots than education can uproot, so it’s a hard battle to just ‘teach’ people about the benefits of banks. No sooner have the lessons been learned than a ‘disaster’ occurs when many people (and friends) lose money deposited in banks. The old suspicions resurface and new fears arise. So, the battle is nearly or totally lost. However, economic policy makers have few tools, of which interest rates are one. Stuck.

When I look closely at Jamaica, I’m as perplexed as I ever was why somethings don’t change or change at the pace at which a snail sprints. I have to wonder if it’s something engrained, like ‘in the water’ or ‘in our food’, which are sort of intangibles.  So, in that vein, is it ‘in the people’? 

All the macroeconomics are undone easily by a microeconomic set-up that does not correspond well to many standard ways of thinking about economics. Part of me sees this as a curse, but it has also been a boon.

The curse is that all the pulling of the macroeconomic levers don’t give the expected results. We know this, for sure, in Jamaica! The good part is that Jamaicans have found ways to overcome economic ‘problems’ and found many different ways to ‘survive’. Now, a key part of that survival is about not staying within all the legal lines that exist. That is one of the binds that stop me clapping every time I think about how Jamaica has not imploded. If the world were full of ‘wild West’ countries and anarchy was the mark of success, then Jamaica would be hailed, I’m sure. 

What is more puzzling to me over recent times, as I’ve had more chance to see life lived in Jamaica, is how many of the microeconomic quirks are not restricted to any social class. We’ve carved out a way of life that makes the most wealthy and best educated less different from those at the other end of the scale than wide wealth and education differences usually mean.

Monetary gains and losses do drive how Jamaican people act but in some odd ways:

  • Businesses do not strive to be the best as a way of ensuring their financial success; many are content to just do what they do; customers like it or lump it. This is not abnormal in many economies, but usually means the demise of enterprises. That is not the case in Jamaica, which means that businesses must be surviving WITHOUT business.
  • Time is (near) meaningless: if time is money in most people’s minds, it doesn’t have that connotation for many Jamaicans. (It’s one way of rationalizing why Jamaicans don’t see timeliness as important, because they have somehow given time zero value. As a fellow blogger pointed out to me today, saying ‘7.05’ means ‘sometime before 8’ to a Jamaican 🙂 ) But, economically, if money doesn’t matter (in the normal flow of events) then value must have ways of being preserved that are not apparent.
  • Attention spans are short, but ‘memories’ are long. Many Jamaicans will have ‘ready reactions’ to any phenomenon, but barely want to analyse what is really going on. (This is reflected in the way that ‘news’ and ‘events’ are reported–much of the ‘What’ and little of the ‘Why’.)Many Jamaicans live with the illusion of things being better in the past–despite lots of evidence to the contrary or no means of really comparing. What’s funny about that is that people will talk about the ‘good old days’ but do nothing (much) to recreate those times. I’ve yet to see a Jamaican ready to give up the motor vehicle, access to running water and (near) constant electricity, or the telephones, as part of the step back in time that is needed 🙂
  • Distortion is the norm. At its worst, this is all about corruption. Transparency International defines this as: ‘Corruption is the abuse of entrusted power for private gain. It can be classified as grand, petty and political, depending on the amounts of money lost and the sector where it occurs.’ The Merriam-Webster Dictionary puts it more simply: ‘dishonest or illegal behavior especially by powerful people (such as government officials or police officers): the act of corrupting someone or something.’ My take is that ‘powerful’ has to be scaled down to include anyone who has influence over others, which means that many more are actually in the position to be corrupt and do corrupt things. The fact that the deeds are common or long-standing doesn’t change their nature. This is something that the integrity of Jamaicans often does not understand or accept. 

The first three bullets point to the impact of ‘hidden economic activity’ that may be a principal or not trivial part of many people’s lives. I hope the economic logic of that is clear. The last bullet is different, as it points squarely to what ‘government’ does, more than other parts of the economy. It bothers me more than other things, because we have a country where many monetary flows are opaque, at the level of government, where transparency and accountability are supposedly built-in to protect ‘the people’. Without dredging through Archives we find too many stories such as reported last week about hay: Millions Down The Drain In Hay Project. The extracts say enough: 

  • ‘…financial mismanagement and lax oversight uncovered…
  • ‘In reference to the proposed revenue that was forecast, the project revenue is at a deficit of -$17,492,750,’ the auditors wrote…’At Bodles, they reported that no records were being maintained for the production of hay between April 2014 and December 2015. For the first six months of 2016, the audit found that 1,329 bales of hay were produced at both facilities, compared to a projected 54,000 bales.’

The average Jamaican lives with the sense that government is full of corruption and reacts with feigned or little surprise at stories such as these. The real surprise is really that such ‘malfeasance’ goes on undetected in many realms and for extended periods. But, as I’ve said before, corruption is so entrenched that its total beneficiaries are far more numerous than those who are not. If you don’t believe in ‘trickle down’ economics, then you wont understand how the ‘feeding tree’ of Jamaica misappropriation of public funds works. Everyone gets to eat because of someone taking money that is not truly theirs to distribute. To break that system is to break the society. 

In that sense, our pervasive corruption is worse, in my eyes, than the corruption often seen elsewhere, where a very limited pool of ‘elites’ benefit. In Jamaica, almost everyone’s life depends on it. 

Institutions like the IMF know that it’s not just the economic policy levers that need to be turned to fix the economy. However, the Fund cannot enforce changes in areas outside its mandate. Its structural policies must still stay within its ambit, so it tries to go to the limits but cannot go further. To get the whole of a country change economically requires a government to be committed to putting in place a wide swathe of policy changes that go in the same direction as the desired economic policy. In other words, it must have complentatry meaures to support the economic ones. Government must also fix itself by weaning itself away from some or all of its bad habits, such as evidenced by the ‘hay project’ fiasco. That is much harder than may appear in countries like Jamaica, where (as I have said, repeatedly) have built themselves on ‘rent-seeking’ behaviour. That has to stop and maybe unwound. Like taking out a thorn, it cannot be done without pain (real, imagined, or both). 

        Government ‘fixing’ itself is both direct and exemplary: how many countries can progress if government is seen to practice things it says it is against? Also, government must change first and fast.

        Jamaica is not alone is struggling to get its economic act together. Jamaica is also not alone in terms of countries that have struggled economically then made a major forward turn. However, it takes time, consensus, and coherence in policies. 

        Getting the macroeconomy right is only a step on this journey, rather than the journey, itself. I’m not sure Jamaicans understand that. 

        #phonebillgate: another case of trial balloons with much hot air and little context 

        Jamaicans like to engage in what I call ‘gotcha politics’: if a piece of information is unearthed about political or government activities, then it is thought to be something that can and will trip up someone. The problem with this is that information (or data) on its own rarely has much meaning; it needs context. So, to cite a figure and no context is often as good as not citing anything at all. We love numbers, even though we seem not well equipped in analyzing them–many say Jamaicans are innumerate on many levels. So, many, including our media houses, trot out numbers, often culled from press releases, or drawn from reliable and unreliable sources, with little depth to their commentary on what the numbers may mean. So, let’s move on to the latest example.

        A Jamaican media house used access to information legislation to get details of government ministers’ recent cell phone use. Now, this is a good thing in terms of follow-up. In 2014, such details were released and showed less than due care in the use and monitoring of ministerial mobile phone costs, and led one junior foreign minister, Arnoldo Brown, to scurry around to explain his $1 million bill: he ‘blamed what he said was the high cost of roaming for voice and data services‘–a shocking level of naivety in one so young and given such responsibilities. That was the gotcha moment.

        Now, if a public official is using government resources for personal purposes or wasting or misusing those resources, we may have several problems and could easily point to corruption. Clearly, the lines between private and public affairs (of the non-romantic type) can be blurred, and it may be impractical to not use government equipment for personal business at certain times, and means usually exist to set the record straight by paying out of one’s own pocket for any personal use, or justify use as official. That’s how things used to be at the IMF, when monthly office phone bills were itemized and each staff member had to identify personal calls and pay for them. This is standard practice in many public and private organizations. We can all agree, however, that the public budget is not for private use and scrutinizing use by public officials is good.

        Now, to seek an update for such use is legitimate, but when the data are obtained they need to be understood and explained. The Government’s Communications and PR Director sought to get in on the act and put the latest numbers for 2017 (JLP administration) into context by comparing them with 2014 (PNP administration), trying a gotcha moment, I suspect, but it needed to be heavily qualified:

        Well, the first problem is deciding if one is comparing apples and oranges: ‘2014’ was July 2013-June 2014; ‘2017’ is actually March 2016-February 2017 (covering the first full year of the current administration). On that basis, the ‘year’ use of the current administration though seemingly higher than its predecessor’s, is not strictly comparable. Those who analyse data a lot will argue that the figures could have been put on a comparable basis, eg each set limited to July through February, which would have covered the same 8 months out of 12. Also, both sets of data are incomplete, but let’s put aside the missing data, for the moment. The time periods covered are not similar, except in duration. So, less ‘gotcha’ than it appears, in my opinion. The media house doesn’t analyze what is going on, merely describing what numbers exist.

        But, what is comparing administrations supposed to tell us? Let’s just think about a few scenarios. We can blanket our consideration by accepting that each administration has different objectives and priorities, so any similarities may just be mere coincidence, and differences are to be expected.

        • Do we know if each administration has a ministerial phone use policy and if it’s being adhered to? For instance, are bills reviewed regularly for inappropriate use and any such use corrected or paid for over time?
        • Do we know anything about the communications style of various ministers? (If you are a face-to-face person, then your external phone use will likely be less because you meet rather than talk at a distance.)
        • If a minister is tech savvy, he/she may use the Internet him-/herself to research or communicate, which may incur more personal cellular data use than if the minister relied on staff to do that.
        • If you are a minister who is very active on the ground, then you may be out of the office a lot compared to someone who isn’t that way, and so may need to be in mobile telephone contact with others (by voice or other messaging methods) more than if you can be found in your office.
        • The world in 2013-2014 is not the same as in 2016-2017: those differences should bring forward different actions and therefore different use of resources.
        • We know nothing (at this stage) about who is being called or calling (many local plans may charge for incoming as well as outgoing calls). Ten calls to the White House are equivalent to how many calls to our PM?

        More important, is high cost reflecting the kind of contractual arrangements in place? Without knowing the provider and terms on which services are being offered, what use is it to tell people about the cost of use? The issue to be tackled may well be whether government has obtained the most favourable contracts available. Is government being gouged, eg for penalty use outside a plan?

        (I used to have mobile service with both of our mobile phone service providers; neither plan was the same: one offered lots of data and lots of minutes, the other offered more data and similar minutes; the latter was dearer than the former; my usage rarely strayed away from the regular post-paid plan total because I hardly ever came near to talking enough to exceed the limits and used wi-fi when possible to curb data usage. I decided to ditch one provider and merge my phones onto the service of the other provider, then ditch one line all together. My monthly phone cost is now about the same with one phone line versus two, but I have three times as much cellular data with that plan than I had with the two plans. Better deal by far.)

        RJR have done well to unearth the data, but really done little in explaining what they could mean. Telling readers that Minister X’s phone bill was high in a particular month-‘The highest cell phone bill in the period, of the bills RJR News received, is that of Transport Minister Mike Henry. His figure stood at almost $696,000. More than $326,000 of the amount was racked up in February this year alone.’–matters not without saying what was going on in ministerial life during that period. In the case of Minister Henry, is the implication that his involvement with his football team Humble Lion during a trying time in the Red Stripe Premier League might have involved using a lot of government mobile phone services?With the mere circulation of details of phone bills we know little about what government ministers are doing and whether the use and cost of phone services tells a good or bad story.

        Nearly A Year Later: Time for Western Kingston Commission of Enquiry Recommendations Update

        Excellent thoughts from Susan Goffe
        https://rightstepsandpouitrees.wordpress.com/2017/05/20/nearly-a-year-later-time-for-western-kingston-commission-of-enquiry-recommendations-update/

        Lively at 7: TV ‘life’ seen from in front of the lens

        For my sins–which are not that many, for a boy :)–I’ve had the immense pleasure of giving my views on live TV three times, recently, as a panelist on CVMTV”s ‘Live at 7: The World This Week’. A friend quipped “You’re a regular!” I said “Let’s see if I’m still there at Christmas.”

        My most recent contribution was last Friday, and the full video is here (note that it seems to work well/better using Google Chrome).

        The shows I’ve been on have had lots of lively discussion about a wide range of topics that have passed as news during the preceding week, and this one was no different–flooding in Jamaica and how it exposes years of poor investment and maintenance; spending J$190 million on new municipal buildings in Portmore; ‘romphims’ (the less said, the better IMO :); POTUS45 and his latest woes–independent prosecutor and cozying up to the Saudis. What has been quite revealing is that, though the panelists are all people with strong views, and the host, Simon Crosskill, is very strong in his views–and it’s his show–the tempers never seem to get raw or vicious on screen, and also not immediately afterwards. I can report gladly that there have not been any fights in the car park, afterwards. In fact, I’ve been graciously taken home by my lady co-panelists, while my car was out of service. We laugh a lot off-camera, which is much better than trading barbs.

        My contributions have been sought because I tend to have a lot to say and write on Twitter and on my blog. I’m glad that both have found resonance, because I’ve often explained that my purpose is to: offer insights based on my professional knowledge and lots of international experience; offer an independent point of view (politically, I’m no party member, anywhere, and have never been); not be swayed by what seem to be popular sentiment; attack issues notindividuals. If that resonates, power to me; if not, then go and explore other views.

        I’ve been playing recently with my own ‘televisuals’ with Facebook live, which unintentionally turned out to be good training. But, being live in front of an audience of (thousands, at least, I’d hope), LIVE, is not that simple. But, credit to Simon, who’s style is very straight-forward, never afraid of calling a spade a spade.

        So far, I’ve been grouped with Sherene Golding-Campbell (attorney) and Clyde Williams (attorney, university. lecturer/tutor); Shelly-Ann Curran. (Marketing/PR consultant) and Robert Morgan (Director of Communications and Public Affairs – ‎Office of the Prime Minister of Jamaica); Sherene Golding-Campbell and Damion Crawford (ex-MP, PNP activist, university lecturer, liquid eggs entrepreneur).

        While we may not all know each other personally (some do), that doesn’t seem to affect the interactions. Some of us have interacted a lot, without ever meeting before (eg, myself and Clyde Williams, who introduced himself by stating that he knew I’d been socialized abroad ‘because you run up to the wicket differently’. Nice imagery 🙂

        Screen Shot 2017-05-20 at 4.56.30 AM
        Simon Crosskill, Sherene Golding-Campbell, Damion Crawford, me
        Screen Shot 2017-05-20 at 5.00.25 AM

        What has been good is to get a little better insight into how we each think. For instance, I love that Damion Crawford often seems to come from ‘left field’, yet he’s at once radical in his thinking but also quite conventional in his attitudes (I mean that as an observation, not a critique 🙂 ) Should he make his life outside politics? Let’s see how his liquid egg exports go. If and when he becomes a plutocrat, let’s see where he stands.

        Clyde Williams and I found we shared a passion for urban farming/gardening, and that now flavours our interactions as much as current affairs. 

        This being Jamaica, we often find we are less than six degrees of separation away from each other. One of our region’s blessings is that feeling of closeness that comes out of the blue in simple interactions. But…

        This is but a brief insight: what goes on in TV studios stays in those studios, unless it’s posted on social media 🙂

        Robert Nesta Morgan not missing a good selfie moment
        The world is not level: make-up for a lady takes 15 minutes…
        Make-up for a man takes…2 minutes 🙂

        Jamaica and the lazy bug gene: the peoples’ representatives get money for old rope?

        To get money for old rope means gaining something for doing very little. Enter, stage right, your local MP. Cheers ring out. Hats fly in the air. Why? While you ponder that question, let me suggest some reasons why not, based on some simple stories that came to light, recently.

        • The peoples’ representatives are too poor to travel to do the nation’s business! Some claimed that the cost of travelling to Kingston on the new North-South toll road was too high and that was why they were either late for Parliamentary sittings or did not attend at all. The fact that their untimeliness and poor attendance long predates the highway was an inconvenient truth. 
        • The previous week, another MP claimed that her lack of ready cash meant that she was unable to pay the toll, and lamented in a 5-minute video having received “perhaps the worst customer service” she’d ever received in Jamaica and the country’s apparent backwardness in not having credit card options to pay the toll. Here’s an extract.
          I won’t rehash the many simple ways that the ‘problem’ could have been solved. You can think about them next time you travel on the highway and the children want something to keep them busy. I won’t go into either why most of the world’s toll roads do not offer credit card payment options, but instead, take cash or offer prepaid access (via card or transponder or some sort of licence reader and later billing).

        Read about that, in less than the time it takes to make a video 🙂

        So, some MPs say they can’t pay for using the highway, while at least one says the cost is no issue, but though being a frequent user of the highway did not have the necessary fee handy for the journey. I ask you, in the name of sanity, are these people who seem to be in touch with the rest of us and our paltry lives? Again, while you ponder that question, I will go and do my yoga exercises.

        I’m sure that, after the heavy rain we had yesterday, and the condition of the new road, where once again some of the land has slipped, the reasons may extend, for delayed politicians, to the road being too muddy, or the water will clog up the engines of the SUV.

        Those who want to, do. Those who don’t want to, find excuses.

        img_1208
        Slip, sliding away…with the people’s money?

        The last question I will pose of you, because I know that a busy day lies ahead, after the enforced day at home for many of you and your children, is list 10 major things your MP has achieved during the last year. You can send me your replies, and if they get too many, I will get a bigger bag than the one I have my corn seeds in to collect them.

        Have a wonderful and productive day! 🙂

        Jamaica and the lazy bug gene? More thoughts on a state of malaise: We are expedient

        This is thinking on the go.

        Jamaicans, generalizing again, love expediency. You see that played out everyday and in many ways. But, it’s also a way to survive the last of action and good decisions.

        At its extreme, it’s at the core of much of our crime problem. The impatience of waiting to be able and equipped to obtain things legally leads some to take that by force. That extreme case can result in murder, related to the direct attempt to grab assets that do not belong or the indirect attempt through control of space (‘turf’) and activities (often a form extortion). That is no excuse for brutal crime, just an attempt to distill what is going on. That is expedience writ large.

        We see it through our so-called ‘robot taxis’, where people do not want to go through formal processes to become legal taxi operators, so just go ahead and ply their trade. In typical Jamaican fashion, people validate that decision to operate illegally by using the illegal operator, so validating his/her decision as it starts to be a revenue stream. Before long, the illegal operation is well-established and those who use it are dependents and those who operate it have depended on its income to survive, to some degree. Taking it away would mean ‘pain’ and is so resisted or avoided–take your pick–by policy makers.

        Expediency governs many of the decisions we see taken at the political level. I say that because, as is common in many countries, decisions are often reactive rather than proactive: policy comes after. Take a recent case of emergency funding given to tertiary level students, who were in danger of losing their rights to take exams because the were delinquent with fees. hard though it may be or seem, unfunded actions should not be rescued by government bail-outs. We can have a long discussion about what it means to reach tertiary level education and if it should be free, but the current situation is, my friends, what prevails, and it was the situation that was engaged. Now, if eyes and minds were not focused on the implications, well, sorry.

        Expediency often means ‘passing the buck’, often to another set of people who are not directly involved now (call them taxpayers, much of the time), or may be burden in the future.

        The issue I’m wrestling with, hence my question mark, is whether Jamaicans are lazy (i.e. unwilling to do certain things) or incapable (i.e. have never really developed the necessary faculties; which could stem from laziness). It would require a lot of detailed analysis of people and their motivations.

        This morning, I saw the expediency in full force, as I walked 5 kilometers home, after dropping off my cousin’s car at a mechanic. As I walked, I noted the state of the sidewalk. In many places, it was non-existent, or partial, with concrete mixed with dirt, and so was very uneven. I thought of a person with visual or physical disabilities.

        No uneven sidewalk, just no sidewalk. So, makeshift path… Jack’s Hill Road
        Garbage in the road is the norm when you have no regular waste management

        This was worse than an assault course. This was on a stretch of road lined with thriving businesses, not some burnout part of the city–Constant Spring Road, one of our main thoroughfares. But, this was one side of the road. On the other side, the paving was more even. Had anyone thought that this needed regularizing?

        I ambled along and noted how some paved areas had light poles taking up a good part of the pathway–again, hazards. I looked at pieces of piping jutting out of the sidewalk, from repairs that had been done or work in progress. We don’t afford ourselves the luxury seen in places like London or New York, of cordoning off parts of the sidewalk where work is in progress and putting up signs that the pathway is defective and where pedestrians should walk. We just expect people to ‘make do’. Expedient!

        What I also noticed was how little space was given to accommodate foot traffic, which is heavy much of the time, suggesting that the development of the area has happened in a haphazard fashion, and was more like road in existence, space given over to buildings, and pavement left as a residual. Planning? What a funny thought!

        Now is not the time to get too deeply into our well-known expedient problem–squatter communities, and all the impostions of unplanned mass urban settlements. But, you only have to imagine a few hundred thousand people going anywhere and deciding they will live where they way, irrespective of any consequences. Think it over and ask yourself, why you would let that happen. Then realize that much of Jamaica’s urban space has been ‘shaped’ by this over the past 50 years. Did I hear you mutter the word ‘chaos’? Did you also mutter ‘dire social consquences’? Hmm!

        I’ve commented before about one of our most common sights of expediency–the roadside vendor.

        Roadside vending, especially of fresh produce is a national feature
        The benefits of fresh food outweigh the need to observe rules?

        In the early morning, these informal sellers are in full-force, selling fruit, vegetables, drinks etc. Like the illegal taxis, these are necessities provided to people, so have taken on ‘acceptability’ under ‘ends justify means’ kind of logic. Its burdensome to deal with the plethora of such sellers. Efforts to do so are often half-hearted, for obvious reasons. People are conflicted about taking away the livelihood of the ‘little man/woman’. Whatever the moral and economic arguments for leaving them alone, we have to understand the situation we create by leaving them alone. Again, though, we see the impact of behaviour that reacts to rules that bind…or, clearly, do not bind.

        All the dots are not yet in place. Keeping my thoughts going.

        Jamaica and the lazy bug gene? Some thoughts on a state of malaise

        I’ve not posted for a few days, but it’s not for want of thinking and observing; sometimes, the words don’t fall in place, and also sometimes other stuff gets in the way. My apologies.

        Jamaicans (and yes, I’m generalizing) seem to love short cuts and easy-seeming solutions. While we may have lots of reasons why this is not odd for the ordinary citizen, it’s harder to find good justification when it comes to the political class.

        Let me put some substance to my claim, and I preface that by saying it’s also important to understand how much of life in a place like Jamaica is a burdensome process. Many people will understand the problems faced daily in getting done some of the simplest and mundane things. Add to that, the fact that the problems faced are often in place for reasons people cannot explain. I cite something I read earlier this morning, just for good measure. Rodjé Malcolm is a respected human rights advocate, and tweeted the following yesterday:

        Now, on an ordinary day, I could figure out some sensible reasons why a firm form of personal identification may be an important component of giving something vital like blood. For instance, if any issues came up with the blood it would be good to know with reasonable certainty that the person was bona fide. However, in Jamaica, the TRN is not that source of reasonable certainty, not least because it is not associated with a picture or other biometric information. But, I could understand a tendency to want it a ‘sure’ ID. My fear is that Rodjé was not given an explanation, or if one were given it did not seem robust. But, let’s move on.

        Our love of shortcuts leads up to behaviour that we hope will eliminate some of the irritating things. But, it is not a given that all short-cuts available will be taken. To make that point better, let me deal with a few ‘urban myths’ about Jamaicans.

        Jamaicans are NOT lawless. However, Jamaicans observe many rules and laws that they know will bind.

        I’ve cited before the orderliness one sees at the US Embassy, where people go for visas: Jamaicans are the picture of civility and good order. Now, one could argue that this is out of character, but I would argue that being out in the baking sun for hours for anything is not the sort of condition where one pretends. So, the behaviour we see is more ingrained that ‘just for show’. I’ve only been to our Passport Office a couple of times, but again, orderliness is the norm, there. Why? People know that if they get out of line, literally or figuratively, they will lose out, on a place and more importantly on a chance to be successful in their search for an overseas travel document.

        People often cite Jamaican driving behaviour on the road. I often rebut that by citing that the egregious behaviour is overwhelmingly by a subset of drivers–taximen and minibus drivers, especially. I had cause to believe that more last night, when I saw a motorist grind to sudden halt at a traffic light, where his exit was not clear through a ‘yellow box’ (meant to keep junctions clear). Generally, irresponsible drivers do not do such things.

        Jamaican drivers do not habitually do what I have seen in several other developed countries, citing a few examples.

        • Taking over lanes of the opposing traffic because of traffic jams (seen in Athens, Greece and Ankara, Turkey).
        • Running red lights: the fact that is a widespread problem in several developed countries is marked by the prevalence of cameras at such junctions and the number of infractions caught. The US Insurance Institute for Highway Safety conducted a survey in 2014, which reported ‘prior to the use of red light cameras, found that, on average, a motorist ran a red light every 20 minutes at each intersection. During peak travel times, red light running was more frequent. An analysis of red light violation data from 19 intersections without red light cameras in four states found a violation rate of 3.2 per hour per intersection. This is NOT Jamaica! The study found that traffic cameras cut violations by 40-50 percent.

        I’ve noted before how the average corporate area driver DOES NOT violate (the few) bus lanes, WITHOUT much if any police supervision, even in heavy traffic. This is not the style of a population of reckless or lawless drivers.

        That said, we can always find instances of recklessness.

        However, by painting a false narrative we feed into the notion that the problems are massive and almost without solution. That’s part of the laziness! We don’t want to analyse properly and deal with what data or facts actually show.

        Our crime problems often boil down to a few factors, but one of those is the singular inability of our ‘justice system’ to function in a way that acts as any form of deterrent. Added to that, a police force that by its own admission lacks public trust and contains too many ‘bad apples’ (including some (too many?) who have been involved with and charged with crimes). We recently were shocked by the fact that our laws are so out of day that an alleged criminal faced a fine of J$1oo (less than US$1). For pity sake! We see daily the police’s indifference to minor and major infractions. If ever there was a need to just ‘Do your job!’ Draw your own conclusions.

        That’s where I start to be ready to go off on politicians. They are amongst the worse in basing decisions on hard evidence, rather than notions. During any given Parliamentary session one can find so many instances where the request for information is met with no ready answer. So, either politicians do not come prepared, because they see no need or do not have the wit to ensure that civil servants give the right briefing. (As someone who sat in the ‘briefing chair’, for decades, I know that almost no possible potential question is left unanswered by an official who does not want to see deficient.)

        I’ll admit that I have struggled to understand the reluctance to ‘get bogged down’ by data. I don’t think it comes from any inability to collect information. I may come from a (declining) aptitude to manage numbers: we are a society that has poor literacy and numeracy skills, and that must play into our ability to manage information.

        They are also less-than-willing to take really hard decisions.

        I mentioned earlier how the laziness bug is an every day thing. Many of the deficiencies I see in Jamaica are NOT structural (ie predetermined that way), but matters of habits that go uncorrected. I’ll cite some easy examples:

        • Public littering (knowing that most people’s homes are kept spic and span), often comes from a sense that others will deal with it, but is reinforced by the glaring absence of places to dispose of litter. Look around! When you have found 20 public litter bins, note where they are and ask what people should do in the spaces between.
        • Tolerance of misinformation. This comes in two forms:
          • One is physical and represented by things like signs that have not been maintained or repaired on a regular basis. Drive onto the UWI Mona Campus and look at the signs for the departments and faculties. Look around many urban areas and the signs that are either so faded as to be illegible, or broken or missing. Surely, no one responsible has not noticed! But, who is waiting for whom to act? Yes, please lack of resources. But, also recognize lack of will.
          • The other is literal. I commented last week how many Jamaicans act like people in Soviet regimes–giving only the specific information requested, no more: “Is this the Registry?” elicits a reply like ‘No!’, not ‘No! You can find it….’ That may be a stark exaggeration, but I think the situation is recognizable. It comes from a lack of concern for ‘serving the customer’ as opposed to ‘occupying the post’. At its worst, the situations escalate into a bad-tempered exchange as someone tries to get more information and the ‘informant’ puts up more and more resistance, ending with a remark such as ‘You think I’m here to answer every question?’ I’ve rationalised this a being reflective of how our society is one that loves to dispense blame, so if one can remain ‘blameless’ one is safer. In the extreme, blamelessness is guaranteed by silence. Sounds familiar?

        Finally (for now), the laziness comes in the form of the ‘promise’ to do something, as in ‘soon come’. That put-off is often the prelude to days, if not years of waiting. It comes with the simple ‘Someone will call you back’, followed by hours or days of no call. It comes in the form of ‘We expect it in soon. Check back in a few days.’ When you check back, you may get a repeat of the first reply, and this may go on for a while. At worst, you may order something only to find the order was never processed and maybe with an ‘Oh, I did not deal with you, then. Can we start over?’ Which may not be a one-off.

        When we get ‘soon come’ and it does happen, we are often shocked into delirium. Yesterday, I heard we were out of cooking gas. I was on the road coming back home from Montego Bay. I got the name of a supplier and called. “Hello! I was waiting for your call!” Really? “When can we deliver?” I explained I was on the road but someone was at the house. “Call when you get home and we’ll be there. If you’ve a bank account, you can pay by transfer.” I was getting excited, but I have been there before. I called again when I as about five minutes from home. Ten minutes after getting home a supply truck and technician came to my house. Checked the cylinders; checked the line; replaced one cylinder; gave the bill: wished us a good day. Rare? You tell me.

        Anancy is our best friend and our enemy. He’s about trickery, but has he tricked us so much that we don’t see how we are tricking ourselves?

        Jack Mandora, mi nuh choose none!