Things better left unsaid by Jamaican politicians?

During 2017, I tried to keep track of comments by Jamaican politicians that, on reflection, they might have wished were left unsaid. You don’t have to share my views, in which case make your own list 🙄

I’m not being exhaustive or explaining my motivations. For me, I couldn’t choose, so will just list in no order my favourite two.

Things went downhill fast for the doctor, who to declare:

Comrade leader, today (Wednesday) I completed my application for citizenship and I expect to be a Jamaican citizen in short order.

Do we know how that ‘short order’ thing went? 🤔🙄

Apart from the patent absurdity that the Opposition found themselves defending, my other favourite was to wonder what utterance would come from the minister of national security. In the end, nothing else matched up to ‘My uncle is a Obeah man’… Enjoy the video!

The setting for that remark in January was even more portentous given that by December one of the other presenters, ‘Ninja Man’, had been sentenced to 25 years in jail for murder. Talk about ‘the company you keep’!

Happy 2018!

Choices: food for the brain into 2018

We reach the end of another calendar year and for many it’s that time to reassess life–as it was lived and how it may change. I took a decision a while back to do that on my birthday, given that date had much more personal meaning. So, I’ll just take a stroll through some of what that sentiment represents.

From the time that we are born our lives have been about one thing, beyond staying alive–choice. However, we try to dress up what we do, it comes down to that process. Give it fancy names like ‘prioritization’ or ‘rationalization’, it’s the same: deciding what to do and in what order.

Some of us have tried to convince ourselves and others that it’s possible to fudge this through so-called multitasking. Whatever, we think we are doing, our brains and bodies and things with which we interact will tell us that nothing is happening simultaneously, even if the difference is in nanoseconds. So, it’s often better to make the separation clear, even if that means give less time, energy, other resources to processes than we think is ideal. Like eating a meal; chew each mouthful carefully, swallow, start again; take a mouthful of fluid, swallow, start again. The eating analogy is helpful to show the problems of trying to do even two simple tasks at the same time.

But, choices are what make life so unbearable for many, in that they are the victims of others’ choices, and their own get subordinated. I can’t solve that, other than to fall back on my father’s advice of worry about what you can control.

As I age, inevitably, one of the things I cherish most that I feel I can control is my own thinking. If you know me at all well, you know that I am fiercely independent in my thinking 🙂 I am amenable to having my mind changed, but be prepared for a real battle, because I’m convinced I think clearly, and if I suspect fuzzy thinking, my hackles rise further and faster.

Many pieces of research now tell us that, as we age, we need to keep living a healthy life to help keep the brain working at a high rate. People who want to scoff at those who spend time doing crosswords, or numbers or words games, or something that challenges thought processes, haven’t yet hit a wall where thinking gets fuzzy. Just letting the imagination run wild can go a long way in the process. So, for older people, being with younger people, especially very young children can offer some of the best brain exercise. Try reasoning with children!

So, in advance of my birthday next month, I’m setting in train another year of choosing to think independently, along with taking more walks to help the process.

Roll on 2018.

What matters more, what we do or what we don’t do? Crime-fighting in Jamaica

As there is more than one side to a story, so there is more than one reason for a problem, and more than one solution. So, no answers provided, today. How much of Jamaica’s problems rest with the absence of things against the presence of things? Having asked that, as many people who read this may have viewpoints, and therein lies many a problem with fixing what we perceive is wrong with society: any and everyone could be right, and each of us does not have to agree with the analyses of others or their proposals. When things change in society it’s because of a critical mass that agree on where to go and how to get there. So, in that sense, the persistence of problems signals the absence of agreement on how to address them.

Today’s Gleaner has a editorial about ways to address Jamaica’s seemingly untouchable violent crime problems, and points to the remarkable turnaround in New York City (NYC), where the level of murders has returned to the level of the 1950s, with about 3 murders per 100,000 people (from around 30 in the 1990s) against Jamaica’s startling 59. The editorial touches a few raw nerves concerning Jamaica’s police force, compared to that of NYC (my emphases):

They targeted hotspots where murders, robberies and burglaries most often took place and went after the known and suspected criminals, who were sometimes picked up initially for small crimes. The police was substantially expanded, giving it the flexibility to do its tasks, without affecting its general policing functions.

Jamaica’s police force will probably insist that its approach is consistent with the New York City model – and may well be. It is not our sense, however, that it is done with the same energy and consistency that delivered success in New York City. And important for Jamaica, neither is the JCF open to the level of transparency and accountability that elicits the kind of society trust that would contribute to its effectiveness.

But, transforming Jamaica’s police force from an organisation with a reputation for corruption and ineptitude to an organisation that is professional, efficient, and accountable, demands new approaches to leadership. This must start with the top political leader, who apprehends that crime poses an existential threat to democracy, a civilised way of life, and the anarchy now imposed by criminals.’

If this assessment is correct, it begs many questions, such as why the police force would be anything but energetic or consistent in its task? But, why has the force been allowed to continue with such a damaging lack of transparency and accountability?

Trash on a bench in Nassau

Not reducing or resolving crimes is not that different from problems with garbage. Those who commit the acts know they can get away easily. Those assigned to deal with it, don’t, for reasons acceptable or not. The persistent presence tells us that no one wants to address the problems.

As with things seen from an economics approach, the questions can be boiled down to who gains and loses from these failings? How much of the transfer of gains and losses are needed to make matters better? That’s the essence of the presence-absence dilemma.

To fix an imbalance does not require that parity be achieved or that one side has to win everything; it means the sides have to be satisfied with the prospective outcomes.

I’ve resolved in my mind why politicians may not want to see a reduction in crime, and it’s based on a cynical assessment of the political structure in place in Jamaica, and its system of rewards and spoils. But, I have not found a good argument for why the police force would want to preside over such a situation. Any ideas?

Society under threat from social media and computers? Not buying it.

Another exercise is looking at dots. First, a few bold assertions:

I do not believe that social media or access to computers and the Internet by children is destroying society. Why?

Less than half of the world’s population has ever been online. Contrast that to the smaller proportions that have no access to radio or television (about 80 percent of households worldwide have access to a television).

I believe that society changed most dramatically, worldwide, with the discovery of how to transmit sound, so that people could hear clearly what was going on elsewhere without moving from where they were. The invention of the radio seems to have brought the world to within nearly every person’s fingertips, or ears, at the turn of a dial or the pressing of a button. Now, on February 13 each year, UNESCO celebrates Radio Day. Radio is the most widespread communication medium. Just look at the summary statistics for 2013, some of which are highlighted in this image.

Beyond radio, the invention that radically changed how people perceived the world and got most information, was the enabling of visual images to be transmitted broadly and quickly. So, the camera lay at the foundation of that, despite people being able to draw and share images from long before. The camera meant life anywhere could be seen anywhere else, in a short period of time, and it was a more accurate depiction than through a drawing or painting–without getting into the interpretation that any photographer could do. From the camera sprang films (documentary or fictional) and from that television.

Putting sound and images together was a profound invention. Adding mobility to those possibilities is really what computers and later mobile devices have developed. Society was already well into changes in how it interacted long before the notions that inlay social media came into play.

The true human memory is weak and easily manipulated. If you disagree, read about how memories are constructed.

A classic example of this is represented by what we may regard as nostalgia. Christmas is a good time to observe that in action. I wont say much but suggest you listen carefully to how people view past Christmas events. I wager that they will look back at most of them with fondness, including how people used to behave differently. For example, now looking at young people playing on electronic devices and suggesting that in the past people talked and interacted more. Utter rubbish!

My Christmases are not definitive so that is as good a random sample as any, I’d argue. But, I recall (since the early 1960s) people seeking to regain some rest after a long period of work or school since the summer break/holidays. They mostly got up late and broke fast in whatever way they could, when they were ready; balance and nutrition were not important. Those who wanted exercise took it, walking alone or with pets or other people. People read, books, magazines, newspapers, articles. People played, alone or in groups, some games requiring a lot of interaction (like football or cards), others little or none (such as crosswords or jigsaws–I regard those as playful activities). Phones rang, sometimes the calls took up many minutes, sometimes they were brief, often they were not about anything much other than a quick check by someone who could not be with the group on how things were going, including details of their plans to join. Music played on machines (including radios), and could be one person’s choice (often a parent, or at least an adult) or some sort of group taste (eg carols). As children grew, they exerted their influences and might have dominated mostly or given a bigger say in the choice. If circumstances allowed, those whose tastes did not suit the group, were found away from others enjoying their sounds (in the days before headphones, this could be far from others or at low volumes). Coming together tended to be for major meals (lunch or dinner). Conversation was often most animated around the dining table. The rest of the time, conversation happened around activities, often food preparation or when decisions were to be made about what the group might do.

Fundamentally, I’ve not seen any of that change, with the exception that we can share our tastes with others more easily than ever before. In the past, we might have needed to take a physical sound or image file from place to place (exchanging originals or copies physically). Now, that can mainly be done electronically, though not necessarily. Now, everyone can listen to or watch their choices without others having to be subjected to them. That’s the element of choice at the extreme for all things.

But, some want us to think that something sinister is going on with the latest turn of the technological needle. Like modern concerns about bullying, I’ve yet to see recently things as devastating as what I witnessed or learned about as a child. Some of the tools or means are different, but the motivations, perpetrators and victims are all generally familiar.

I’ll accept that the current technologies allow things to be shared much faster and therefore with less chance to verify than before. But, in the past, with things moving slower, those who chose not to, or were unable to, discern were in the same place as now. People have always had reasons to fabricate information. Ignorance has long been an excellent control tool.

Maybe, each generation wants to feel that it has moved on from those of the past, and that may seem easier than to accept that things have continued rather than changed.

It’s Christmas Day, so why are no mice stirring, and who’s the bearded guy eating my mince pies?

I’ve stated on various social media platforms that I will be absent for a while during Christmas.

However, thinking about things, problems or not, is like health: it does not take a rest when you say it’s time. But, I am not going to break my commitment, which is to myself as well as to those with whom I am spending the holidays. It’s truly important to get some space between what one normally does, which is often self-centered, and time spent with others. In that regard, I am immersing myself into the space that is filled with my wife and her immediate family, and my children. My time is being spent quietly, for the most part, and, I admit, I am happily consuming several intriguing series and maybe a few films. Interestingly, the series–mainly based around crime, are of the Scandinavian noir type–‘the settings have bleak landscapes, and the mood is dark and morally complex. The genre depicts a tension between the apparently still and bland social surface in Scandinavia and the murder, misogyny, rape, and racism it depicts as lying underneath.’ I find them appealing because I can relate to many of the settings, having travelled much to Scandinavia and Northern Europe, and there is something about such places, urban or rural, that seem to draw out the darkness that is a real part of life in northern climes. I’m currently watching Bordertown, based in Finland with a good overlap with Russia, about a detective who seeks the simpler life away from the capital, Helsinki, but quickly finds himself on the trail of odd murders. He’s odd, himself, with his mnemonic methods for resolving problems.

In watching them, I’ve been thinking whether there is space for a Caribbean noir. There is, but it may not sit well, as it must focus on our badness, which is something that many feel is part of a rapid decline in the quality of our lives. But, it’s an art form, and as such should depict life not avoid it. Genres that revolve around crime, coming from well-ordered societies, such as Scandinavia, or Japan or Korea tell us that even though they built themselves modern societies well-guided by the rule of law and have made many aspects of human life seemingly antiseptic, they have not killed off the base instincts of mischief, greed, hate, fear and whatever sins you may want to list. They have seemingly well-adjusted people who fall foul of simple temptations–children with needs that parents cannot meet; workers with aspirations that go unfulfilled; grievances for which vengeance must be extracted. We are nowhere near their level of social inoculation and I believe strongly that some of our problems stem from a simple unwillingness to face up to what we are–humans, warts and all–rather than building yet another layer of falseness to suit outsiders. Our deviousness, connivance, etc are not the same as in Europe and North America or Latin America, and that ought to be seen and resonate with those who live in our Caribbean communities. Enough of the faux dramas set in ‘fictional’ island settings, where some European dude works with some locals, including a beauty, and swill around with accents no one can recognize. Take a leaf out out the Happy Valley play book and set the material somewhere real. But, enough on that cultural diversion.

I’m not going to analyze anything more, just touch on things that I am struggling to understand. I wont elaborate, so if the matters dont resonate, don’t worry…about a thing. 🙂 So, just some topic bullets, to indicate around where my mind is rolling:

  • Separation of private and official, in the world of public office. My main thought, is that it’s a delusion:

https://twitter.com/dennisgjones/status/944450326941356032

That’s not to say that officials can take comfort from thinking there is such separation, but it matters not. Why? Because no one knows the difference, except the person concerned, and there is never anyway to prove the separation is either real or contrived, permanent or temporary. The prudent approach for anyone who hears or reads public officials making such utterances is to ignore it, because it’s impossible to know if it’s part of a ploy to distance someone from an action that has been taken officially but will not change. Broadly speaking, it’s an empty gesture.

If public officials want to express private views or see themselves as separate from their roles when they make public utterances, then resign. Simple!

  • How much of the public truly believe that the job of policing in Jamaica is too much for the JCF? I think a significant proportion. Does it matter, however, if it does not include critical mass of existing MPs?
  • I’ve gone nearly a year without uttering willingly the name of the current US president. It’s a personal commitment, and I try to correct myself quickly if I slip up. That said, some related terms are useful, such as #trumpled or #t-rump. But, I am thankful to pass through this period of political history, which has seen more misinforming of the public than I can ever recall, even after working a while around Soviet regimes. Maybe, not for you, but that’s a scary parallel.

That’s it! It’s past 8am, and no one else in the household is stirring, apart from the cat. It’s so different when your home is full of grown-ups, and they’ve lost the excitement that comes so naturally to a young child. Oh, that’s a good topic 🙂

Merry Christmas!

Effrontery

Christmas holidays provide great space for reflections.

A heated personal conversation last week exposed interesting thinking about what people believe they know about each other. I was reminded of part of that last night when my daughter asked what I thought about something, then told me my answer was wrong. I told her she coudn’t possibly know if what I thought was wrong; those are my thoughts. She eased things by saying “It’s a joke, Daddy.” But, my main concern isn’t.

I’m 62, but my actual age isn’t the source of any major problem in this topic.

The only person who can claim to know me well is me. No matter how much time anyone has spent with me the best they could ever say about my achievements is that ‘I saw him do…’ The most they could ever say about my thoughts were what I shared with them. Either way, it’s less than the whole picture, and the amount of any possible picture must diminish with time actually spent in my company.

My father has known me longer than anyone, and he’s now in his late 80s and his eyesight and memory are both failing. The other people who have known me from close to my birth are some relatives and a few friends in Jamaica; I don’t know when they first met me, but it was sometime after my mother and I came out of hospital in 1955. None of those people has been with me all the time since they met me; many did not see me for decades, when I was living in England.

My oldest living friend met me in 1961, in England at primary school, and I last saw him four years ago, after a gap of some 40 years. Other primary school friends I have not seen since maybe the mid-1990s. The person who has known me since secondary school and met me recently is a Canadian whom I last saw about 10 years ago.

Much of my life is not documented. Few pictures exist of me as a child. I know of no pictures that show me as a track athlete. But, I have trophies and certificates to prove that I won some important events. Only a few pictures show me as a footballer, and only one as a schoolboy footballer, standing with my high school team. I know pictures were taken of me during my days at grammar school, but I cant recall where any of them are. A few pictures show me during my university years, mainly socializing, and none studying. If anyone has pictures of my graduation I’d love to see them.

As Carole King sang, ‘My life has been a tapestry of rich and royal hue…’ but who knows that, besides me.

I think my parents knew I had a few crushes on girls when I was at grammar school, and met one of the girls, but just in passing. My parents knew I was drinking under-age, but didn’t have any problem with it, not least because it seemed to them to be no problem. I was driving from a young age and didn’t drink and drive. I didn’t take ‘recreational’ drugs: I was an athlete and one of my mentors had always stressed the belief that ‘my body is a shrine’.

My parents had little idea of what I did during my university years, after leaving home and living with friends, for the first time. Once I married and moved to other places, they got snippets of my life, including when they were able to visit and share time. Once I moved abroad and they also had moved back to Jamaica, contact was frequent but lives were very different. Once I got back to Jamaica, my mother had died and my father had suffered a stroke.

People who now form the core of my life were not there for my first 30-40 years. I know my youngest daughter longer than she knows, me: I was at her birth and can tell her a thing or two about that 🙂

I hope you get my drift.

Without being rude, I’ll just say it’s not a shame to admit that you don’t know me. Even if we’d been together for ever and I shared with you my thoughts, you’d still have to be sure that I told you all and that I did not distort anything. Given human propensity to self-protect… 🙂

I’ll give a passing word to those who study psychology and grapple with notions of self-awareness and whether observers can ‘know’ better.

He who knows others is learned; he who knows himself is wise.

~ Lao-Tzu

Going for the W

My wife had a new staff member join her office team in Jamaica this week. The young economist came to our house for dinner, with his wife, and several other guests. We welcomed them and I got talking to him about Jamaica and tried to give a few insights to this country, that I happily described as being an economic conundrum, but also one that had astonishing features, given its size. Someone commented that Jamaica punched well above its weight–a metaphor for our impact on many aspects of worldwide cultural, political and social life. I mentioned that as part of our national character, with our pride often well to the fore, we would rarely shirk from conflicts when we believed that right was on our side; not acting like zealots, but standing on our horses high on matters of principle. I mentioned our stance on Apartheid, which for me was a quintessential one, that marked our PM at the time, Michael Manley, as one of the great statesmen. Fear is not something that Jamaicans often display publicly. Our stance is often taken as arrogant. We are truly exceptional as a nation and not afraid to express that, despite the many internal struggles that we have to be at peace with ourselves. We are not fence sitters. Or, so I thought.

Why did Ian Borne have to leave us this week? His mind and voice and words and thoughts would be anticipated with a yearning, I think, that would be stronger than many we have had in years.

When I started my working life, I was told to park my ego at the door, in a sense. My boss told me that I had been recruited as a bright, young graduate, to do something special: it was not that I was expected to have the right answers, but I was expected to ask the right questions. Gradually, and continually, that’s what I was asked to do, and after several decades of doing it in several walks of life, it’s now how I proceed, normally. I was told, basically: Go for the W!

Why? Who? What? When?

That’s what I took from the approach adopted by Ian Boyne. It’s what it means to think critically. It’s a feature that Jamaicans don’t display often or well, however. We tend to take too many things as they are presented to us. We fail to ask enough questions and we do not hold enough people to account for their actions.

Today’s Gleaner editorial begins to do what our media does often, which is ask pertinent questions. But, it also tends not to follow-up with enough vigour, in my opinion; it’s not a mauling guard dog, often enough. But, that’s for another day.

The piece, What’s The Deal With Jamaica’s Jerusalem Vote?, states a position with which I agree fully: ‘…we are disappointed that the island didn’t find the courage at the United Nations yesterday to repudiate the United States’ move that effectively declares Jerusalem to be sovereign Israeli territory.’ For context, the editorial sets out what happened:

‘Yesterday’s General Assembly essentially reaffirmed that position [Israel’s right to exist in security, but within the borders prior to the 1967 war] by declaring that “decisions and actions which purport to have altered the character, status or demographic composition of the Holy City of Jerusalem have no legal effect, are null and void, and must be rescinded in compliance with relevant resolutions of the Security Council”.

Mr Trump, in character with his presidency, threatened to cut aid to countries that supported the resolution. “… We’ll save a lot,” he said. His UN ambassador, Nikki Haley, issued similar dire warnings. Yet 128 countries voted in favour of the resolution, with only nine in against. Thirty-five countries, including Jamaica and four other CARICOM members, abstained.

Our Government did not offer an explanation for its vote.’ (my emphasis).

So, in the absence of that explanation, Jamaicans need to step up, individually and collectively, and go for the W? Why has our government made this decision?

We are not budding revolutionaries to ask that simple question. I would hope that, as part of the normal business of running an administration, the PM will make a statement to set out the rationale for our decision to ‘sit of a fence’. If there is a ‘Who?’ or ‘What?’ or ‘When?’ that drove our decisions, speak up on them, too.

I would hope that Ian, not yet in his grave, is turning, hoping to find another breath of life to join his voice calling for those answers. But, I should not disturb him anymore. RIP, Ian

What’s there to be merry and bright about for a child in Jamaica?

As we are less than a week away from Christmas, I’ve been struck by another of those nasty features about Jamaica.

Last week, I attended a forum on the Child Health Initiative, whose theme was that speeding vehicles kill and to keep children safe drivers need to slow down.

But, Jamaica loses five times the number of people through murders than in road casualties–over 1500 to over 300.

Within that total, just over 20 children are killed on the roads, compared to over 50 murdered.

I’ve written before how Jamaica is disturbingly hypocritical in its attitude towards children–shouting to all who listen how much it cares about children, yet serially abusing them everywhere you look.

If an child health initiative is needed it’s not one that focuses on how children are endangered by careless motorists and their own negligence. It’s needed universally, to say that children in Jamaica are in grave danger just being alive on this little island.

Probably, not the message of cheer that many would wish to share, but if you hide from the truth it’ll surely bite you hard.

Child Health Initiative: Speed kills children #SlowDown

The National Road Safety Council, in conduction with the FIA Foundation, held a forum in KINGSTON this week at the Pegasus hotel. Coverage was provided live by Phase 3 production; attached is a link to the live stream feed they provided during the two days. Live stream feed https://t.co/ngEREjRNGO. Radio coverage was also provided both days by Nationwide Radio.

I was only able to attend the second day, but during my visit discussions were lively and well informed. I’ll just share some of the key points that struck me from the various presentations.

On the main theme of the danger of speeding vehicles and children, it was notable that geospatial data show the high concentration of accidents/crashes near school grounds. Yet, children are not the main victims of such incidents. What may be happening is that the tendency of children to cross roads without too much care and the volume of vehicles that may be near schools at various times of the day create an environment where accidents are more likely to happen. For example, I cited the common sight I witness of hordes of boys from Jamaica College exiting the school in the afternoon. Despite there being a traffic light to facilitate crossing, the boys tend to march across, waving their hands (as children tend to in Jamaica). Vehicles approaching may be traveling with little hint that they may need to make a sudden stop. Now, I’ve never seen any cousins there, but have seen lots of evasive action (‘near hits’). The students are mainly oblivious to the risks they create.

That’s not atypical of many situations in Jamaica, where both motorists and pedestrians engage in actions without much regard to their consequences and inconvenience created. There are few ways of pricing this behaviour away, except when it results in accidents. Then, insurance companies could start to impose higher premiums on these involved–though the risk is that both culprits and victims get snared. The best hope is for greater awareness and consideration—fine words, I know.

Available data about accidents in Jamaica can be puzzling, not least because it may be that under-recording features well-know to contribute to accidents, yet absent in Jamaica, eg driving under the influence of alcohol or drugs. This is stranger given Jamaicans’ relatively lax attitudes towards drinking and certain herbal drugs 🙂

Besides speed and poor road conditions, we know in Jamaica that many problems come from a few categories of road users, especially public passenger vehicles (PSVs), and motorcyclists. Both represent areas where supervision and control of who can drive taxis or ride motorbikes has resulted in a chaotic and dangerous situation nationwide. But, within the nation, it seems that more accidents are occurring in the west of the island, especially those involving motorbikes. Anyone who has travelled to that end of the island know it’s like the ‘Wild West’ for motorbikes.

What Jamaica has great problems with in road safety is getting people to adopt practices well-known for saving lives–wearing seat belts, proper crash helmets, properly serviced vehicles, respecting speed limit, crossing at designated places and with care, etc. Plenty of information is publicly available, but my view is that our widespread lack of enforcement renders null most of the rules and regulations we have in place. Those who do not follow the rules often get reinforced by the ‘turning of a blind eye’ by JCF officers. We also know that conflicts of interest are in play, with JCF officers being major participants in the business of running PSVs.

Moral suasion is unlikely to make much of a dent in the bad habits. As with many things, incentives have to change. When users of motor vehicles can store up traffic fines and then get offered periodically amnesties, there’s little incentive to change behaviour. Views differ on what kind of incentives need to be in place. But, ones that impinge directly on activity would seem to have the best chance of biting where it hurts most. Whether seizing vehicles would lead to a raft of protests about ‘taking away livelihoods’ is unclear. However, society cannot constantly be held hostage to ‘end justifying means’ logic, where persistent disregard for the rights of others is the standard operating procedure. Personally, I also favour more transparency as could occur by making declaration of assets and business interests of public officials mandatory. Certainly, proving that potential conflicts of interest are absent is a good way forward.

The stock-flow dilemma of Jamaica‘s progress. Is it mainly about playing political favourites?

Economists often have to draw distinctions between the problems created by stocks (balances at a point in time, which show how things have accumulated) and flows (changes in balances over time, increases or decreases). Depending on the topic concerned, stocks can be so large that only massive changes in flows can affect how things appear. Put simpler, if I have $1 million in my bank account, it wont change if I take out 2 percent a month ($20,000) and receive the same amount as new income. It will grow if my income outpaces my drawings; and decline only if my outgoings outpace my income. But, stocks can be so large or been accumulated over such a long time that people find it hard to conceive of them changing. In this sense, it’s useful to think about some of the social, economic and political problems in Jamaica in terms of how it may be possible to manage the stocks and what can be done to change the flows.

For any country, these ideas are important because it will take a lot of change in one direction to alter what we see and perceive as the situation in the country. People often look at developed countries and see how their accumulation of wealth has left them with assets that won’t decline in a hurry. By contrast, less-developed countries appear less well-endowed and their assets often seem in a precarious position.

For example, while the average age of cars the USA’s is just over 10 years, Cuba’s stock of motor cars is about 60 years (dating from the 1950s) because it had to endure an US trade embargo and restrictions on personal ownership of cars. With the lifting of the embargo, scope is now greater for new cars to be imported, but there’s still the issue of whether many Cubans can afford to buy new cars. So, seeing any major change in the ‘antique’ look on Cuban roads is unlikely to happen fast.

For Jamaica to make it from here (where some things seem alright, but many things are not alright by any stretch of the imagination) to there (where most things are alright, and some things absolutely unparalleled, and few things seem not alright), means dealing with the huge balance of ‘bad behaviour’ that manifests itself in many spheres of ordinary life, and subjecting the country to an enormous flow of ‘good’ behaviour.

We can scan the whole terrain of Jamaican activity and identify where and what those bad behaviours are, and what good behaviours we would like to see in their place. So, a classic example is the behaviour of licensed taxi and minibus drivers, who seem to have laws unto themselves and use the roads in near-total disregard of the rights of others on the roads. So, society has to withstand dangerous maneuvering, speeding, overloading, abusive and aggressive behaviour. This is made more appalling to me because their passengers seems to tolerate (and in some cases, encourage) such behaviour. So, bad behaviour is tolerated by most motorists and by fare-paying passengers, so get bigger validation. The police do a poor job of implementing road regulations and dealing with infractions by this group of motorists, which gives further validation. So, the bad drivers have little incentive to change. The costs of their behaviour are borne by the bulk of society and they profit to the extent that passengers readily run to them for transport instead of shunning them. The solutions to these problems cannot come from amnesties on road fines or occasional displays of ‘zero tolerance’. Like pulling off the heads of dandelions, the weeds soon reappear because the roots have been left untouched.

It is not possible to list here all of the misdeeds that make up daily life in Jamaica, and if I tried, anything I missed could be seen as lack of appreciation on my part or lack of observations. So, run through your own list of the things that peeve. The principle is the same. But, let me add a few more that many will know and wonder if they will ever change.

Informal settlements. The country is littered with housing that has been erected by people who decided that they wanted to live somewhere but did not go through any formal processes to obtain land and/or erect housing. Consequently, the country is well-known for the many ‘zinc fence’ communities, made up of ramshackle structures initially of wood but now including some that are made of breeze blocks. While such communities have solved a housing problem for those who chose to that route, they fall short of what can make communities work well. Roads and pathways have been created that may lead in and out, but may not be able to deal with even the simplest of vehicles: these are warrens made for foot traffic, mainly. They can support easily modern motorized service vehicles to deal with garbage and emergencies. They do not have features that make it easy to trace inhabitants, eg road names and house numbers. Consequently, many see such communities as natural breeding grounds for those who wish to be less visible, especially if they are involved in illegal activities. But, they are places just waiting for a disaster to happen. Lacking planned water supplies, sanitary provisions, or electricity, people can survive but tend to be worse-served than if the communities had been planned. By being unplanned, such communities also put an unanticipated burden on provisions that had been planned. In other words, they overstretched what would otherwise be adequate services and this tends to make life worse for a greater group of people. The solution to this problem is not with piecemeal measures. The quality of life and housing in such communities has been well-set over decades and wont change with some community programmes or installing stone walls instead of zinc fencing.

Poor quality roads. Pot-holed streets are as much a signature of Jamaica as are its zinc fence communities. Whether the deterioration of the roads reflects poor design, poor construction, overuse, the unanticipated results of extreme weather, or some combination of these factors, the result of a road structure where driving like a slalom skier is more the norm than the exception. Such thoroughfares are dangerous in general. When they occur in areas where travel is already risky, say in hilly or mountainous areas, it’s a wonder that more accidents don’t happen. No sooner are such roads repaired than they appear to start to fall apart. That leads many to wonder who has been gaining at the expense of society by authorizing and implementing such inadequate constructions. The solution to this problem cannot be through more patch-and-mend repairs; roads deteriorate faster than they are being repaired.

The physical differences in the examples I have cited mean solutions will have to be different in kind, but they have a commonality in that incentives have to change to make people want to do things differently.

  • Taxi and minibus drivers and owners need to suffer greater costs for their disregard of road rules and the needs of other users. Whether these are fines, lost licenses, seized vehicles, prison terms, or other forms of punishment, something that shifts greatly the cost-benefit calculation for them is needed.
  • Informal settlements need to be reorganized so that they become integrated with the general housing and settlement conditions accepted by the majority of the country. They need to be more formal, for the benefit of the greater society. The benefits that may be enjoyed by living without costs that others have to bear have to go. Costs borne by society as a whole have to be shared better by those who live in such communities. Some will say that nothing short of wholesale clearance and resettlement can offer a solution. Maybe, but we should know how difficult such schemes have been when tried (in whatever circumstances, eg in British slum areas) in other countries. The communities have a social cohesion that will be broken and that has to be managed and monitored carefully. Gradually changing such communities may do little to alter fundamentally the problems that exist.
  • New road designs and better construction may stop the current frequent process of build-collapse-rebuild-collapse-rebuild… But, the problems may lie less in physical construction than in administrative weaknesses, ie poor management is the real culprit. So, even if concrete roads were in principle likely to give Jamaica much better road surfaces, those who manage the process of contracts and monitoring them may be so involved in a series of corrupt practices that even these roads will be seen as inadequate.

Each of these problems show things about Jamaica that are pervasive and seemingly hard to change without a series of massive or cataclysmic changes. None can be swept away with the flick of a finger. Each requires major physical changes and changes in how people perceive what they are entitled to do. We also have to separate the problems.

Cries of ‘foul’ by those drivers who claim that their opportunities for making a livelihood are being curtailed need to be set against the daily mayhem their behaviour creates; the wins can’t all be theirs.

We need to make informal settlers understand that moving to areas that have insufficient housing does not entitle anyone to just construct fixed structures to solve that problem. (The problem in some other countries manifests itself with people moving into mobile homes and setting up ‘camps’. Camps can be moved without people losing their homes, and sometimes are, shifting the problems from locality to locality.) Cries about ‘homelessness’ that may arise if such areas are removed need to be set against the anarchic situation that has been allowed to exist.

Our road construction problems aren’t solved for most by new highways built (mainly by foreign companies) to higher standards and under processes that seem to avoid certain malpractices. To replace all the bad roads with roads having guaranteed longer durability would impose an enormous cost and inconvenience on many travellers, but would seem worthwhile if it stopped or reduced substantially the constant repairs that seem to be the current norm. Is society ready for this process and trusting of those who will set it in train?

If, by some miracle, it were possible to get every Jamaican to commit to behaving correctly from this time forward then our problems would be solved. We would stop hoping that people would behave. But, that miracle is unlikely to happen. So, the best we can hope for is that most people decide to act in this correct way, and those who are misbehaving decide to do no more misbehaving. But, even that is a big hope. What is more likely is that many Jamaicans will behave and try to weather the storm of the many Jamaicans who see continued misbehaving as what they spend their time doing. That’s where we’ve been for a long time and it wears down those who are on the good side, and makes it harder to see or believe that the bad side is not taking over and swamping the good.

We have accepted that it’s unlikely that some moral and civic wave will wash over the country so that those who misbehave will see the errors of their ways, repent, and change.

One of our grave problems is that many people have no experience of life being lived differently and of life being such that hustling and trying to beat down each other is not the only way. Our social landscape is not filled with enough bright lights who can say they shine because they did it only the right way. That’s sad because it means that people who could have succeeded by merit have to acknowledge that they got help from ‘connections’. So, if even those most likely to succeed don’t trust merit alone to move them ahead, what hope is there that those at the other end–ie most likely to fail–would choose to do otherwise?

We could offer the case of Jamaicans who migrated and how they have managed to succeed in countries that lay greater stake on orderliness and merit, and appear to deal more stringently with corruption, but again our landscape would show that such successes are few amongst the first generation (products of Jamaica), and those of later generations are really products of their new home, so have essentially been socialized differently.

Dealing with many of Jamaica’s problems now seem daunting to many people, because the problems seem so widespread and the strong impression is that the bad are quickly out-fighting the good. So, even if say 3/4 of the island’s nearly 3 million people are good citizens, the impact of the remaining 1/4 is so significant as to outweigh them. Put simply, the significant minority is beating hands-down the majority. People feel under siege from several fronts, and that creates levels of stress that have reached intolerable levels for many. Any one of these stressors could be a trigger for an explosive reaction.

But, how ready is Jamaica and its policy makers to tackle any or all of these problems? Part of the answer rests on the extent to which policy makers’ hands are ‘clean’, ie to what extent are they direct or indirect beneficiaries of the bad behaviour?

We know that to be part of the problem with public service vehicles, where members of the security forces are known to be owners and operators of taxis and minibuses, which creates clear conflicts of interest when it comes to implementing road regulations.

We know that informal settlements can be and are pockets of political support which would be diluted or lost completely if the communities were disrupted.

We know road contractors have been favoured by political connections but cannot determine if that also involve unwarranted financial or other gains by public officials. Rigorous policies on asset declarations would go someway to seeing if that were the case.

So, we have to do some serious self-examination. If a major part of the problem comes from the convoluted intertwining of political favour and implied misappropriation of public funds then its unlikely to solve itself.Our country is driven by partisan politics and it would be too risky for one party to cede control in the name of ‘levelling the playing field’ for the nation as a whole, versus the party.

If political favouritism isn’t the root of the problem, then does that imply we are a country that love to inflict pain on itself?

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I’ve not addressed specifically the problem of violent crime here. My own feeling is that it manifests features that are much like those in the three examples I cited: an official tolerance for certain misbehaviour that has then grown to a level that has more momentum that can be addressed by ‘simple’ policy changes. Instead, certain people have to be forced to accept costs and recognize losses. That politicians (and by implication, public officials) are involved in proven–at the very least in the creation of the ‘monster’ that now roams the land. To what extent are they still involved? Only they can say. Is the country prepared to look squarely into the eyes of this elephant in the room? Measures like Zones of Special Operations (ZOSOs) cannot do much as they affect little, if at all, the culture that says crime pays. Our low rates of capture, clear-up and conviction are testimony to a swathe of failed policing and justice practices, plus a society more inclined to keep silent about what they know than give up criminals.