Many people are critical of economists because of their poor forecasting record. But, forecasting is only a part of what economists do. For the most part, they try to understand what people and organizations are doing and how that affects the production of goods, services, costs and revenues in a geographical space. If they manage to understand that well, they can go on to assess the chances of those things increasing and declining, and with what magnitude. Associated with the output and financial implications, we get to understand and assess lots of other things, including how many people get involved in all of that. We’re really interested in that because we have a general liking for people to be active (in positive ventures), not just for the economic grains but also because we believe that society will function better when people are ‘gainfully’ employed.

One of the reasons why high crime rates is such a problem for Jamaica is that it’s well understood that it reduces the economic gains of the country, ie we are a poorer country than we should be. Worse, it highlights that a small proportion of the population is determined to extract substantial amounts of revenue (and/or associated goods) from their compatriots for their own purposes, and are happy to do that without any effort to produce themselves. Put graphically, we could easily see criminals as taking food out of the mouths of children. At its simplest, people should despise criminals, for their willingness to rob anyone of their hard-earned gains, even those least able to bear it. That’s wickedness! For that, criminals should be roundly condemned. But…

There’s an extensive literature about whether taxation is theft or official extortion. What we can say is that extortion is like a tax, without any hint that the person paying is in anyway willing, or that there will be gains from the use of the proceeds that can be seen to raise the welfare of anyone other than the person doing the extortion. At least with taxes, we can try to hold the government accountable for how it raises the revenues and what it proposes to do with them. Criminal extortion doesn’t give us such options, even if claims could be made about the benefits of protection, if that were offered as part of the rationale for extorting.

Now, we know that it’s an obvious truth that many people benefit from the proceeds of crime, and that reduces their incentives or willingness to confront or expose criminals: this is like buying into the Robin Hood story of the rich being robbed for the benefit of the poor. However, in Jamaica, it’s often the poor being robbed and the benefits going to enrich a small minority (some of which may be poor and related to the criminals). But, in a beggar-my-neighbour culture, that’s not likely to make people reconsider whether they should round on criminals and cut off their ability to operate.

The government introduced two more States of Public Emergency yesterday, in Kingston (bringing the total to 10) and one of the concerns behind this was the increase in gang activities focused on extortion.

The renewed media and political oncern about extortion is interesting: they have a new buzz word–‘super gangs’, but extortion isn’t new, it just has a new source of income (namely, road projects on the eastern end of the island): the St Thomas leg of the South Coast Highway is being targeted by criminals and ‘politically-connected’ people (that has an ominous ring).  PM Holness stated:

“And we are also very particularly concerned that a national road project has started and we are seeing signs of gangs, including politically connected persons, operating in such a way as to seek to extort and to disrupt or to prevent work from taking place,”

Now, we can well understand that the government sees the negative economic impact of activities like this when the economy is about to hit rock bottom–it’s going to get less bang for its bucks–but it also hits directly at the money bags of government (taxes paid), whose dwindling revenue is now under greater threat in terms of its being turned into effective spending. In a sense, extortion of public projects is waste, and it ought to be attacked whenever it’s apparent, but we know that often it isn’t until the perpetrators are long-gone.

One reason why the government may get less support than it should fighting crime is that many ordinary people see the totality of crime better than government wants to acknowledge, especially when highly publicized misuse of public funds comes to light.

I wish the government and JCF well in their latest efforts to bend criminals to their will. But, much as the PM is now stressing that crime is a disease and needs a treatment similar to that used during the pandemic, he ought to understand that society hasn’t mobilized behind such notions for quite clear reasons:

https://twitter.com/andrewholnessjm/status/1272239755665825800?s=21

Criminals can be seen as being like a virus and will transform themselves in the way that best allows them to feed off the national body, which is why the pandemic was fertile ground for a new wave of crime, and the government understood that.

Yet, while an holistic approach was taken against COVID19, it’s hard to see anything holistic about the government’s approach to crime. While it tries to cherry pick, the criminals will keep picking our cherries.