First, let’s be happy about what the Minister of Finance is trying to do in making the annual budget something that more people can understand and relate to. That latter aspect is important because it raises the chances that policies will go in the desired direction. For the first time, there is an attempt to put a non-technical document out to the public “in an easily understood format”. It’s close, but has a few steps to go, I’d argue.
Amongst those steps are ‘how will more people get to read the document?’ We’re long past the days when pamphlets about government policies were only available at official outlets and in paper form. So, a pull-out supplement in a Sunday paper is welcome. But, we know that many don’t have or want their access limited to this format. So, while the website address to the ministry of finance is prominent on the front of the document, a visit to that site doesn’t offer an electronic version of the guide. Why not? Worse still, the site listed under ‘Resources’, http://MOF.gov.jm/documents returns a ‘404 error’!
Put out the document in electronic form across the many social media platforms that now exist.
Economics is not a subject that is short of jargon but its use should be minimal when describing things. Also, simpler terms are better, I feel: ‘used’ is better than ‘utilized’, ‘aids’ is better than ‘facilitates’, for example. Plain language goes over better.
Graphs and charts are good, so use them more.
Accuracy is important but understanding doesn’t demand precision.
At the least, the decimal places could be dropped and the numbers rounded, eg J$274,447 millions. That should make for easier reading, at least.
Consistent simplification is needed. It’s great to see a heading like ‘Where does the money go?’ but why should we then have to translate ‘compensation of employees’? Couldn’t it be ‘What money staff get’ or similar?
There are some ‘inaccuracies’ that can be confusing: ‘bilateral institutions like the IMF and World Bank’ is wrong–they’re multilateral institutions. That difference can be explained simply, if needed, by pointing to bilateral institutions (citing the bilateral partner country).
While the guide doesn’t ask for feedback, I’ve offered it! However, I think feedback should be sought explicitly. After all, it’s better to hear how well citizens feel about the guide.
Just some thoughts. 🤔
Last week I had a periodic rant (see thread below):
I’d just gotten back from San Juan, Puerto Rico, where my wife had been attending a Clinton Foundation conference on disaster recovery.
More than anything, I was struck by the look of a city that had suffered devastating hurricane damage less than two years ago: it was almost pristine. When the taxi driver had told us on the drive from the airport about water up to the fourth story of buildings, that was mind-boggling enough. Jamaica hasn’t had a major hurricane hit for several years, but the country knows well the widespread devastation and how hard it is to recover. So, why does so much of Jamaica look like it’s still recovering from a natural disaster? That’s where my frustration starts.
When I add the fact that Puerto Rico has been on its economic and financial knees, my concerns grow. Successful clean-up isn’t about good institutions and organizations but goes deeply to how people have strong sense of common purpose and pride.
That goes to answering questions like ‘How do we want our country to look and feel?’ It can’t be that we’re happy with grime and grunge mostly and the occasional sprucing up around major holidays or if US presidents are visiting.
We don’t have to totally replicate the look of San Juan, but it’s not a bad look.
What also strikes is the contrast in speed and cohesion of what’s being undertaken. That stings more now as many parts of Kingston and its metropolis are undergoing extensive urban reshaping–and I use that term instead of redesign for a reason. So much of our urban change reeks of disunity and that lack of cohesion stems from basic poor design through the obvious lack of communication with key parties that would ensure, at least, minimal disruption. Too often, we hear of or experience that much to our collective detriment: I’ve lost count of the unplanned power outages and water supply disruptions that have been caused by road construction damage.
I asked recently where are the cost-benefit analyses that should accompany the major projects underway. If they exist, they’re probably well-hidden in a draw. Why? Because, if they were glowingly positive do you really believe the government would want to hide them from plain sight?
Our patriarchal system of government is so entrenched that citizens just keep sucking it up and get ready for the next gullet full of bile. But, we are all losers in that case.
It doesn’t take a cynic to find political slogans like #NewJamaica more than a bit distasteful. One just has to remember has a newly-finished road, built to alleviate congestion stemming from one of the major new road projects, flooded and collapsed. (See reports on Chesterfield Drive.)
Out came the excuses from the National Works Agency about blocked drains that rendered the work so quickly unviable. You have to wonder how many of that agencies employees put on their outer garments before putting on their underwear. There’s a simple sequence to work, including that part called preparation. So, in the absence of that being adequate, how and why is there surprise at failure?
My rant ended by saying not caring is ingrained. In saying that, it’s easy to conclude that failure is similarly ingrained in much that gets undertaken in the name of the Jamaican people.
Happy new year!
I’ve been wondering what to write about in 2019. I still haven’t decided if my general line is going to change from looking at things in the socioeconomic space of Jamaica or more generally about things to do with my life, personally. However, while I ponder life goes on.
I drove to Mandeville early yesterday morning, for the first time since my father died in November and was buried in November. As I drove along the all-too-familiar road heading west, I thought about several things.
First, I pondered what it means (to me) to be an economist. I see a lot of barbs thrown the way of economists, and I usually bat away those coming in my direction with what I hope are some helpful insights into what economics is really about. Many people see (macro)economics as merely about forecasting (right or wrong) economic outcomes, and proposing policies (workable and not) to deal with such outcomes. While that may be where many hang their hats, the underlying basis of the discipline is about trying to understand change, especially its motivation and things that influence it. At many levels, economics is about watching a marble balancing on the head of pin; it won’t stay there, but where and when will it fall? Economists are never out of subjects to study because nothing remains unchanged.
I often focus on things that don’t work in Jamaica even though they seem to act out well in many other places. One of the obvious reasons is that we have lots of undercurrents that don’t exist elsewhere or are less prevalent. One of those undercurrents is our sizable informal sector. By, its nature, it’s a sector that stays away from formality, often because its activities border on the legal. So, we often find that policy actions can’t operate through established channels, and thus tend to fail rather than succeed. Take a few simple examples from daily life seen on my drive yesterday.
We have two new bans in operations in early-2019: one, single-use plastic bags under 24×24 inches (don’t ask me why it’s not stated in metric terms, given that we’re supposed to be on a metric system–but that goes to another point), another on sugary drinks in schools. So, should I have been surprised to see children being sold goods outside the main schools in Porus in small plastic bags, or vendors supplying schoolchildren with what looked like sugary drinks in unmarked plastic bags? Of course not! Who and how are such bans to be policed? But, this is the informal sector at its core: the pursuit of personal gain irrespective of wider social issues. It’s a Darwinian ‘fight for survival’ and as such is often accepted because there’s no ‘social safety net’ that could provide income support for those who seek to ‘do a little thing’.
Anyone who has had to enter or leave Kingston in a westerly direction over the past two years must have experienced the road ‘improvements’ underway on Mandela Highway. One of many peeves expressed by a good number of people is how the roadworks happen with scant regard for safety of non-vehicular movements. We have high-speed two-way traffic often separated by no more than flimsy plastic barriers. We have people needing to cross the highway but with no adequate provisions for that. Instead, we see impromptu attempts to get traffic to yield to allow such crossings, often a pedestrian waving arms to alert fast-oncoming traffic. One wonders what it would have taken to construct say a temporary footbridge.
Relative to the main road works, such construction is neither some new-fangled idea or major. By not doing so, government tells us explicitly how it regards lives of pedestrians over other road users–lowly, even at zero.
What these two seemingly unconnected sets of actions tell us is simply that (typically), on the one hand government shows scant regard for citirzens, and in return citizens play scant regard to government’s wishes (as expressed through policy actions). That combination is a recipe for continual failure. Sadly, government often seems oblivious of its own ‘foot-in-mouth’ posture and wonders why changes are slow.
Why did my parents choose the paths they did? After my mother decided to go to England to further her nursing career, why did my parents do what they did? My father could have stayed in Jamaica with me and kept on a nursing career path already underway. He could have taken me to my mother in England and left me with her (she had potentially good family support there). Long-distance relationships were, and still are, not uncommon amongst migrants, so too are families where children get left behind while parents seek work abroad. Splitting the household could have minimized risks and removed many uncertainties. I could have grown up as a ‘barrel child’. Their son could have moved along an educational path that, while not certain, was better known and understood. Instead, he was pitched into a new educational set-up, which he navigated better than many of his migrant peers and ended up well-positioned, as his parents had hoped. My parents opted to move into a world that often treated migrants as second-class citizens, especially in key areas like jobs and housing. What a huge risk!
At what point did any of these options get discussed or discarded? Of course, I can’t now pose those questions of my parents.
That the choices they made did not leave them on the floor of migrants’ fortunes over a period of 25 years is fascinating. They succeeded far more than they failed. For instance, they moved from renting small basement flats in London’s inner city to buying houses in the suburbs. That’s a good story to tell.
No way could they have foretold events that would leave them living comfortably as retirees in Jamaica, debt-free, pensions coming predictably from the UK, largely protected from exchange rate losses, not uncertainly from Jamaica in depreciated dollars.
Hindsight is 20-20, so I don’t know how much second guessing my parents did through their lives, but I know they were happy with the outcomes.
I spent several enjoyable hours reflecting on my father’s life while I was writing Remembrances for his funeral, and I managed to put together a piece that was part chronological, part about characteristics. Not surprisingly, at this time of year, when we tend to reflect, at least on the year past, I’ve kept reflecting on my father.
Funnily, I did that every morning beforehand, because I do about 10 minutes of yoga/stretching. My father was never an athlete, yet after his return to Jamaica in the mid-1980s he got into an active regime that involved him gardening/farming, but also walking a lot, mainly across the Manchester Golf Course, but also into the centre of Mandeville for aerobics and yoga classes. As I was arching my back, my teenage daughter walked in–early for her. In mid-stretch, I asked her if she could recall seeing her grandfather do headstands; she said no. I remember seeing him do them for the first time and being astonished with the ease of his movement. He suggested I try the pose. Well, I was never great at gymnastics, so was wary as I tried to flip myself up and over and get my legs to touch the wall, which was for guidance and support, as a beginner. After a few failed attempts, I was inverted. Then, he told me to stay there for a few minutes. What? He then told me to close my eyes and breathe gently. I’d be lying if I said I felt comfortable, but gradually I lost my sense of disorientation and relaxed. Daddy, then told me to come down slowly. I did and got into a conversation with him about the benefits of yoga.
I would never describe my father as a health nut, but during his retirement he focused more on his health and diet. He was a diabetic and decided to deal with that by controlling what he ate, a challenge for a man who loved to eat and to cook his favourite Jamaican dishes. Cooking on an open fire was one of his skills, and like many rural Jamaicans, could regulate heat without a thermometer.
Of the many changes I noticed during his time back in Jamaica was how he ate heartily but became trimmer-looking. Life in Jamaica is sweet, people often say, but that’s often reflected in a swelling waistline; I can attest.
My paternal grandmother and my parents taught me how to cook, but I can barely hold a candle to any of them. My gran could bake like a wizard, and would ply me almost daily with desserts she made, when she came to live with us in London: “Dem dont feed yu a school? Look how yu mawga!” she often said. 🙂 My mother taught me how to cook chicken, and I managed to get her to tell me recipes that I wrote in a book, so they can be added to heirlooms. But, my father was the king of seasoning food. I’d marvel at how he’d start seasoning a joint two days before roasting it, and his pot-roast pork makes my mouth water just thinking about it.
Despite all that, I can’t cook many Jamaican dishes, though my fried chicken is mean as is my take on fried dumplings and saltfish.
My Bahamian in-laws demand I cook this every visit. 👍🏾🇯🇲
So, bear with me if I get emotional sometimes over a meal; it’s probably full of great memories. I remember watching a documentary a couple of years ago about how some Asian cultures revere the memories of ancestors through meals, and there’s interesting research on links between food and memories.
The priest opened this Sunday’s church service with “Any day you wake up six feet above ground is a good day.” I’d say! It was a slip of the tongue, but had meaning. We usually value our own lives. But, that of others?
He chose as his sermon to stress the theme that life must ‘bear fruit’ (not in the simple sense of procreation, but in terms of being gainfulness) and that it should be done ‘with love’. As part of an instructional process, he elaborated on his theme and sought answers from the congregation about why these two things are often absent in their lives. Selfishness, concern about others’ views came out as reasons, but also fear of rejection. Those who have loved and lost can relate to that latter point. In my mind, I played with the notion of rejection on all sides.
I enjoyed Canon Scott’s sermon, not least for his trying to engage the congregation in a way that set him as no better than them: “I’m no saint!” He asked how many rejected the tenets of their faith as soon as they step out of the church. He knew it, personally, as he felt when people talked about him: his ears twitched. But, some people are just ‘disgusting’, often shown by utter ingratitude as when the woman whose flat tyre he and a friend changed just drove off without a word of thanks. Priestly Scott bit his lip, but his friend was ready to hurl a rock at the woman.
The idea of all-around rejection resurfaced when I read a detailed analysis of crime/murder in Jamaica, written by my good friend, Kevin O’Brien Chang, Cry, My Murderous Country. (Full declaration, Kevin and I have been friends for ages, and have many strongly argued discussions about Jamaican life, often over a long lunch in Mandeville, but also over the phone or by WhatsApp. I find him one of the island’s most perceptive commentators on things Jamaican, and his knowledge of our life and lifestyles are well documented in his books on music and the country. We both try to support our arguments with solid data, and he’s often pointed me to some fascinating trends.)
His basic pillar was ‘Jamaica’s homicide stats are horrifying. The planet’s second most murderous country in 2017. Earth’s highest violent death rate for women. Almost 10 times as murderous as the world average.‘ He went on to argue for a continuation of the State of Emergency, accepting that it is only short-term:
I listened during a car ride to a litany of horrific mass murders of members of families that have occurred in New Providence in recent decades; none seemed to have clear motives and the accused either denied the crime or claimed that he had been ‘told’ to do the crimes by ‘The Devil’. Domestic ‘disputes’ are a bane across many of our communities, though mass murders are rare.
My teenaged daughter, a bright and energetic child, has had the advantage of seeing much of the world already. She’s, however, grounded herself with the fact that her heritage is Caribbean, and many of the things that make that special centre on how pleasing it is to eat and prepare certain foods. She knows, for example, that no matter what anyone close to her but outside of her family my say, and no matter how strong may be the protestations of voices coming simply or collectively from other nations, no one…no one makes macaroni (cheese, pie, or whatever it may be called) like her ‘ Grammy’ (her mother’s mother, who is Bahamian). I suspect that sometime during her development she was infused by the voice and sentiment of her pregnant mother uttering phrases, in between deep breaths, about how to cook macaroni. I had had nice macaroni cheese growing up in England, but quickly to realize that I had been badly misled in believing that the way it was served to me was in fact the best. I now know better, and betting a good husband, when my wife offers me a piece of her mother’s macaroni cheese, I only hesitate to ask if it is (my favourite part) from one of the corners.
Fast forward. I was talking to my daughter in the car earlier this week, on our way home from school and discussing how in certain fields you have not ‘made it’ until you become the subject of a cartoon. It has happened to me, and I’m sure it happened to her mother, though I cannot recall when or where.
However, I hoped my daughter understood that ‘making it’ in politics is also about making sure that positives don’t get outweighed by negatives, and in that sense, cartoons can be a double-edged sword because they may characterize the good and the bad as seen in the eyes of the public, or at least of the cartoonist.
What I should have added, is that in the world of politics, it’s also important to not be associated with things that are the butt of ridicule.
Fast forward, again. If you’re in Jamaica and you don’t know about ‘Macaroni’, the hapless Coaster bus driver who tried to drive though a flooded stretch of road and got his bus stuck, then I am truly helpless in your case. I suggest, you find remedial help from any of a myriad collection of religious groups that are willing to keep you out of touch from reality.
Now, for the government of the day to be associated with the ‘tactics’ of ‘Macaroni’ is indeed sad, but also a classic example of what happens when attempts to manage the narratives of public discourse cannot work because reality constantly turns out to be far more ridiculous than even the wickedest of satirists could imagine. In that vein, I am going to just point to two recent instances and leave you to following the breadcrumbs. A hint: governance, cronyism. Nada mas! Well, never mind what people say, look at what they do.
Can any one politician be more ruddy tone deaf that him?
How much macaroni can you buy for J$190 million, and how many cars or SUVs would you need to transport it around the country? My guess is 18, which could easily maintain a smooth ride over the verdant (green) terrain even at the highest-end of the island.
I think Jamaica could do wonders for its image if it had a crack at breaking the world record for a macaroni cheese. Do you think the current administration wants to back this idea?
While POTUS45 was thinking of yet another way to insult a large swathe of black people (and I’m sad that my good friends in Norway were unwittingly dragged into this swim in the swamp), I was having lunch with some francophone friends and discussing something I found intriguing with a Haitian friend. In our conversation, we talked about what it was like for her to be exiled in Jamaica from her homeland as a child and trying to find her ‘way back home’ after growing up through the nostalgia with your parents and relatives and friends. That was her situation. Mine had parallels, though I had not been exiled, as my parents migrated voluntarily. She lives in Jamaica and has since gone back to Haiti and tried to find ways to make business connections between the two countries.
The point of intrigue was about how countries had wrought their independence from colonial rulers and what had happened to them. I’m tempted to use ‘befall’, but that would suggest absolving those countries from blame for the woes they experienced.
I thought about how Haiti had wrested its independence from France through a slave rebellion starting in the late-18th century, the only state formed after rebelling against colonial masters. I thought about how Guinea had gained its independence in the late-1950s, as the first colonial African country to accept de Gaulle’s offer, with its first president saying famously:
“We prefer poverty in liberty to riches in slavery.”
I thought about Jamaica, getting its independence from Great Britain in the early-1960s.
Each had been described as ‘the pearl’ of the colonies, having been a major supplier of food stuffs and minerals, and each has sank into deep economic crisis compounded by punitive extractive policies by former colonial master, pqpoor budget management, political turmoil (though Jamaica did not have violent changes of political power, though violence associated with its political parties), and social degradation of different degrees, leaving each much poorer than its resources and location would have predicted.
There’s a lot to the history of how each went from glory to gory, but how fitting that they could be summarily described as #shithole countries by the person whom many see as leader of the ‘free world’–not a view I have, but that’s me.
Sadly, many, including current and past citizens as well as visitors would agree with that description of each country. I don’t feel that way about any of them, though, I’ve not lived in or visited Haiti, so cannot base my views on anything I know personally.
The debate about the US president’s comments will rage on. The lives of people in these countries will go on. It’ll be interesting to see where views settle on whether truth was spoken or insults made.
“Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”–attributed to Spanish-American philosopher, George Santanya.
Those Americans who forget that many of them and/or many of their ancestors came from the world’s #shithole countries expose themselves in ways that are all too obvious.
I have the good fortune, or misfortune, if you prefer, of having spent much of my life living outside Jamaica. So, as my friend/attorney, Clive Williams said when we first met, “I can see that you run up to the wicket differently.” I do not disagree that I approach many local issues from a different angle/viewpoint. I have also had the benefit of living in or working in lots of different places, so many things I see in Jamaica can be put into a geographical or socioeconomic context that reflects that we are more similar than different, fundamentally, but at different points in our historical progress.
Take, for example, our traffic woes with illegal taxis and the bad driving habits of public service vehicles, in general. I know and have learned (because I studied urban planning) that ‘pirate behaviour on roads is a common feature of many urban developments. In the UK, during the period from the mid-1850s to World War 2, pirate buses created various forms of mayhem on London’s road, first with fare scams, then with ‘racing’ and ‘dangerous’ driving (as many ex-soldiers sought to find work and landed as bus owners in a poorly regulated environment):
‘After the first world war, the situation got worse. There was a shortage of buses (many had been requisitioned during the war) and many ex-servicemen took advantage of the absence of any sensible licensing procedure to set up their own bus services.
By 1924, London’s bus operations had become completely chaotic.
Pirate buses would race their General counterparts, terrifying passengers; take shortcuts to get to the busiest areas for trade; switch between routes to find the best passenger traffic.
Fines for speeding were increasingly common; there were even some more serious incidents of sabotage.’
Does that racing, terrifying passengers, taking shortcuts, totally chaotic, etc ring a bell with what we often see on Jamaican roads, though our passengers often seem sanguine?
For those who have watched the British TV series, Peaky Blinders, you can see the world of post-First Word War Britain up-close and dangerous, as ruthless ex-servicemen turned into gangsters.
The necessary conditions may be somewhat different in Jamaica, but at their base they include similar features to the 1920s UK: a general lack of employment opportunities for able young men, but also a world where public transport is in great demand and the supply is woefully inadequate: we know that JUTC alone cannot meet the needs of the Corporate Area and rural bus services are notable by their absence. Add to that a poor system of regulation and enforcement and you have all you need for mayhem.
None of that excuses what happens in Jamaica, but it means that we wont see change until the basic conditions change, plus we have a police force that is more complicit in its inability or unwillingness to enforce and a general approach by government that it’s easier to offer amnesties, periodically, than to see fines paid regularly. I’ve written before about what those perverse incentives must lead to: Who in their right mid would pay fines when due?
So, as the saying goes: History is prologue.
The Road Traffic Act that is due to go through Parliament may offer some solutions, but I would venture to guess that on the matters of enforcement it is silent, because the powers are there already, but not used fully. We also have the well-known but also untouched problem of members of our security forces being active participants in the business of running taxis and minibuses. If ever you wanted to see an enforcement ‘conflict of interest’ you’d be hard pressed to better that. Some argue for higher fines, but that’s pointless when current/lower fines aren’t being paid on time, or ignored by owners who are themselves implicated fully in both the breaking and keeping of laws.