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!

Author: Dennis G Jones (aka 'The Grasshopper')

Retired International Monetary Fund economist. My blog is for organizing my ideas and thoughts about a range of topics. I was born in Jamaica, but spent 30 years being educated, living, and working in the UK. I lived in the USA for two decades, and worked and travelled abroad, extensively, throughout my careers and for pleasure. My views have a wide international perspective. Father of 3 girls. Also, married to an economist. :)