#COVID19Chronicles-100: July 23, 2020-Fix the general election date

I can’t say I’m a fan of fixed election dates, only because I have never been able to vote where that applies, eg in the USA, where I lived, but was not eligible to vote. But, I find the idea of fixed dates for general elections in Jamaica very appealing.

For most of its representational offices, the US has a fixed four-year cycle. So, you can know when your Congressman, Senator and President, at least, will be up for election. You can start planning to re-elect or reject the holder the moment they win the vote for office. That has a lot to commend it, not least, the simple and obvious removal of uncertainty. It can also be condemned for giving a clear timetable for devious and negative ploys by political adversaries.

Jamaica does not have fixed election dates or fixed terms for political representation. In typical fashion, though, Jamaica has been ‘talking about it’ for years.

I’m often critical of politicians for the simple reason that they tend not to keep their promises. I like consistency, and as I say to my children, I don’t make promises I cannot fulfill. So, one of the promises we heard in the heady days at the beginning of the current administration was the new PM, Andrew Holness, saying: “Within our first 100 days of government, we will start the legislative process to fix the date for general elections in Jamaica”.

Jamaica Observer · Holness promises: The first 100 days

Well, we know that legislation was being drafted, but we have no action on that, so as we approach the possible re-election of the PM who made the promise, we are still working within the imprecise maximum five-year term window, which closes in February or March 2021.

Now, it’s not cynical to say that the promise to “start the legislative process” was kept, but whose fault is it that we’re not much beyond the start point?

Now, my general view of the Jamaican electorate, specifically, and population, in general, is that they do not really demand much of politicians beyond promises. In my more frivolous musings, they remind me of little children who can be so taken in by tales of imaginary things and led down many a garden path by the fantastical images laid in front of them. Anyone, who has children and read them bedtime stories know that they can be strung along for hours, and then fall asleep and demand the story of ‘Maisie climbing into the soda bottle and finding a diamond at the bottom’ be continued. “Please, Daddy!” 🙂

So, here we are in July 2020 with no known general election date in sight.

I don’t gamble, but I am always interested in how people speculate on events, especially those which are dictated by the inner workings of people and their minds and processes that are mostly hidden or at best opaque. So, I watched as ‘pundits’ and ‘ordinary people’ speculated about ‘summer elections’. What drove much of the guessing was the PM promising that he would not call elections while States of Public Emergency (SOEs) were still in place, and the current batch (even just added to) was due to expire today, July 23. Well, blow me down with a feather! The man only went to Parliament and sought and got an extension, till September 3; it needs ratification by the Senate on July 24. “So, hold off on that end of August BBQ, Phyllis.”

While we have the gyrations about the date, you’ll have been more than a tad naive to have not noticed that certain types of ‘news’ began to appear once the smell of pork being roasted in the pit was replaced by that of the dust in your nostrils from politicians’ shoes on doorsteps. You know the visits from strangers who suddenly want to be your friend and come with rather large grins, clip boards, and a little bevy of people snapping images and making videos? People talk about the ‘hustings’, but we know that it’s really the ‘hustlings’.

So, the PM went a little roguish and made clear that political ‘dirty’ games were going to be played:

“They continue in Parliament and they are occupying the lands. They have no documentation. They do business there. They are using the Government’s electricity… So we are going through the land and we are seeing many of them from that pot…So we will, like them, just drip drip, drip drip,” he said, suggesting that the ruling party will be slowly releasing damaging information on the PNP. Because we have a little tank and they have a reservoir.”

This was just a couple of days after he had relieved his minster of agriculture of his post for some ‘sweet’ dealings on sugar lands with his ‘sweetheart’ and their son, and sent him to the ‘ante room’ for naughty boy, the Office of the Prime Minister, to play without a portfolio.

Don’t, but, but me about this being any kind of coincidence and not tit-for-tat; the man delivered on his promise! Mr. Wright, MP, knows the PM wasn’t wrong in his prediction, and Victor knows he may be the loser. The PM’s not reserved about looking to breach the ‘reservoir’.

But, guys and gals, the problem with all of this election uncertainty, normally, is that it sets people on edge and they have little confidence about their future and the economy has to stall to ensure that eggs are put into wrong baskets and golden geese aren’t cooked before chickens come home to roost.

This year, we are also in the seismic economic and social shift caused by a global pandemic. Now, the mind of the politician may well tell him/her that, at the margin, playing a little hanky-panky with the minds of voters and pre-election muck-racking won’t matter that much relative to the kick in the teeth suffered from the pandemic. So, give opponents a good tonking. Except, it does. Research has shown that ‘policy uncertainty generated by elections encourages private actors to delay investments that entail high costs of reversal, creating pre-election declines in the associated sectors’.

So, that’s the bottom line for me: not knowing when the election will be is an important drag on economic activity, and in a country that has struggled to grow for the better part of four decades, that’s another 5 kilos on the back of a horse that was already on its knees, though trying to get back on its feet.

The PM had also talked about starting impeachment processes in Parliament, but, let’s leave that there, for now 🙂

No place I’d rather be? Jamaica 2020 vision: Has the tolerance needle moved?

As I continue my search for qualitative changes in Jamaica, I was honestly surprised to find this in my way. Something odd happened this week. Jamaican politicians, in the rabble-rousing setting of political rallies, especially when the smell of general elections seem to be in the air, often jump headlong into the gutter and expect many to follow them in. However, they got a rude awakening this week; many did not follow and many took the opportunity to individually and collectively condemn what they had done. They got called out for bigotry in the form of homophobic remarks. That’s worth reading again.

Jamaicans tend to think they have certain rights to insult, and we’ve just gone through another period when women, especially, were saying loudly that they would not put up with men and their catcalls in public. One politician who rallied to that call was Alando Terrelonge, MP, who wrote a strong column on ‘toxic masculinity’ in last week’s Jamaica Observer. He’d written an earlier piece last year, Toxic Masculinity Affecting Our Boys, urging school teachers to ‘to let boys be their natural selves instead of pressuring them to conform to society’s views of masculinity’. He’s an energetic JLP MP, who has used his ministerial position in the Ministry of Youth, Education and Information to build support for a range of views that challenge many Jamaican social stereotypes. But, in politics, opponents don’t often want to pick fights over the good that their rivals have done; instead, they look to tear down. One of the ropes they often use is to tar someone with the hint of male homosexuality. I wont go into the taboos around that topic in Jamaica and how it’s complex and different from views about lesbianism, or how Jamaican men reconcile their often hostile attitudes to male homosexuality with their often open physical displays of close friendships with each other as true ‘manliness’.

Politicians rarely apologize, and in Jamaica, that’s no different; it’s one of the many pedestals of privilege on which politicians build their images. So, after two high-ranking members of the PNP took to a platform on Sunday to act as ‘attack dogs’ in the constituency held by Mr. Terrelonge and refer to their candidate’s [Dr. Winston De la Haye] ‘straightness’.

Dr. Mark Golding, MP, is reported as saying; “…I know seh Terrelonge, when him see the straightness of the man who is coming against him, going to wobble in his boots,”

Dr. Dayton Campbell, who was recently brought back into the fold of the PNP’s inner circle following a bruising presidential race back in September, added:

“The little fake Rastaman weh name Terrelonge…, all me hear him talking about is toxic masculinity. Me ask him, ‘A wah dat?’ Every day him get up, him deh pon ‘toxic masculinity’, and I don’t know what is that.”

Most Jamaicans knew what the ‘straightness’ alluded to.

But, public condemnation of the homophobic allusion, especially on social media was swift. But, usually, such reactions come to naught. However, on Tuesday morning, the PNP issued an apology that it ‘regrets homophobic innuendoes’, and later on Tuesday night, Mark Golding issued a personal apology on his Facebook page.

I’m not going to parse the statements here and will take them at face value.

Several things had struck me about the incidents, prior to the apologies. I’d long been amazed how some of the politicians with the best academic and experimental records (lawyers, doctors, Rhodes scholars) descended so readily into a style that should have been anathema to them on a number of grounds, including the spirit of things like the Hippocratic Oath (‘…to do no harm or injustice…’ ‘In purity and according to divine law will I carry out my life and my art’…’So long as I maintain this Oath faithfully and without corruption, may it be granted to me to partake of life fully and the practice of my art, gaining the respect of all men for all time. However, should I transgress this Oath and violate it, may the opposite be my fate.’). My somewhat cynical mind sometimes wondered if I’d misheard and it was in fact a hypocritical oath. Or, in a moment of whimsy, I’d wonder how a Rhodes scholar could so easily find himself under the road’s collar.

So, has Jamaica made a turn for what I see as the better is seeing that this kind of discriminatory behaviour is just unacceptable, and using it on political platforms is especially bad given its easy consumption as part of the rhetoric of division and hate?

I don’t think we are going to see anytime soon a public tolerance of people’s lifestyles (actual or perceived) that is as liberal as in many other countries. But, I hope we see that a certain civility is due to us all, irrespective of what people may wish to think.

My regret at this stage is that, in a country where people look to political leaders to guide many of their actions, the party leader was (as far as I know) silent on the matter.

Jamaica, likkle but tallawah, so why not try to break the Macaroni world record?

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?

#WhetherJamaica and #shithole countries?

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.

Namaste!

#WhetherJamaica? A glimpse at our road traffic woes through an historical eye

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 mind 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.

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?

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

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?

***************

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.

Identity crisis? Some personal reflections on a national identity document system

I like the idea of a national identity document (NID). My reasons for being a skeptic about NID proposals for Jamaica are more about competence and performance than principle, though there are issues of principles such as privacy that I do not think are as clear-cut as some would wish to suggest. My issues with competence is based on history: poor implementation has been a constant knock against Jamaica for much of its post-independence life. They also are based on what I see as a lack of preparation in the sense that things like integration of data don’t need a NID program to get going, but if they’ve waited on a NID program a lot of inefficiency and redundancy has been cemented into processes. I think there’s not enough evidence that the bases to which the NID may be tied have been made strong enough so far. My worry is that NIDs is a top-down approach, rather than a bottom-up one, and I find it hard to see how that approach will be successful. The image I have in my head is placing a heavy table top on legs that are not well-built; toppling over is more likely.

Current behaviour reflects some of these inefficiencies and redundancies, eg, the need for a traffic ticket amnesty rests on the simple gap between police records of fines issued and tax records of fines paid and that the gap is not visible in real-time so that the status of any road user who is transgressing is flagged immediately to the police officer who has noted the transgression. So, fines have no real bite. People know and understand that gap and naturally exploit it. I had a recent experience where the records of a transaction with the Customs authorities was not reflected automatically in the database at the Tax Administration, which required more person-hours in getting that updated. If time is money, then Jamaica is letting it dribble away. But, it’s not just ordinary citizens, but also those who operate the systems, which are known to be flawed, but still to them and are happy with that because it preserves their jobs.

So, my issues with competence and performance also go to why our economy performs poorly, how our productivity is impaired and why we do things that are more likely to make us poorer than we otherwise should be.

I’ve never lived anywhere where I’ve had to have a NID, though I’ve travelled to many places that had one, especially in Europe. I remember, from my first trip to France in the mid-1960s, how I was often fascinated on such travels to see people reach into wallets and purses to pull out a NID card (in France, carte nationale d’identité), often to prove who they were for some transaction, or engagement with a government official, including the police. I recall the near panic a friend had when he was not able to find his NID. Such cards could often be used for travel within the European Union, making real the notion of a borderless union. All of that spoke to an orderliness of affairs and uniformity that was good. In the UK, there was no such thing during my time there: we had various forms of ID, depending on age and circumstance, such as driver’s licences, passports, National Insurance numbers, National Health Service cards, each of which were the best available at the time, but only the passport had a picture. However, most things in life could be done without the need to show any of these, but to get certain services, one of them was likely to be necessary. Yet, funnily, to move through life one also did not have to prove without doubt who one was. Often, systems were self-validating: you exist in some official database already, therefore you are. So, I went from primary school to the world of work after university without having to prove unequivocally who I was. The only time I stumbled was when I had to prove what I was, and I thought I was British, but was not, according to the official documentation.

My story is a simple one, which I’ve told before. Born in the 1950s, I was British because Jamaica was a colony, part of The British Empire. I left Jamaica in 1961 with that status. Jamaica became independent in 1962, and my parents took steps to take Jamaican status (passport, mainly); they had rights to retain their British passports/citizenship at the time (and for several years after). I went with the flow, being a minor. I know of my British status, not least because I had travelled to England on my father’s passport. But, as happens, I felt some affinity to Britain as I was living there. No big thing, for a child. As I grew I was eligible for things British, including temporary overseas travel documents and importantly for me, being included in squads for national sporting representation. Fast forward.

I was offered a job at the Bank of England, for which one had to be a UK citizen. That’s when the penny dropped. Hastily, I had to regain my British status. No big deal, as I still was within whatever time limit existed for this, apart from a few trips to Somerset House to sign and seal the deal.

But, I knew I was also Jamaican, and to prove that I applied for and got a Jamaican passport through the High Commission in London. Therein lay the seeds of problems to come.

All my life, I had not needed to hang onto Cogito ergo sum (I think, therefore I am); I existed and was flesh and blood and had been part of activities that were real. I was also Dennis Jones (as my parents wrote my name of every document I could read); all of my documents showed me with that spelling, including my Jamaican passport. But…Deep in some official vault was the other me…the real me, whom I did not know…Denis Jones. Fast forward, again.

I was living in the USA and working in Washington DC. My Jamaican passport needed renewing. The system now required proof of my existence, through my birth certificate. I got the document from my mother and sent it forward. Trouble! That document was NOT my birth certificate–it was what Jamaicans called a ‘birth paper’, merely registering the fact, but not the official certificate, AND it showed my name with one N not two. No real problem, though. I contacted the Registrar General’s Department (RGD) and they provided me with a computer-generated certificate, with 6 copies. Wow! Good to go. New, crisp, Jamaican passport, but with my name now with one N (remember the old one had two Ns).

Life moved on smoothly, until, I had to come back to Jamaica to live a few years ago and had to gain status here. Now, the two-headed hydra of the two Denis/Dennis reared its dreaded head. I was no longer who I thought I was! 99.9 percent of my life, as proved by documents and transactions was at ‘Dennis’, but Jamaica would have none of it. I was officially ‘Denis’ here, and so it must be. Well, sort of. I got a bank account (based on my birth certificate), then my TRN and from that my driver’s licence, and accepted the new official ‘me’, for Jamaican purposes. But, I could still go around as the other me, because my British passport proved me to be me, with two Ns. Fast forward, again.

I had to resolve the problem. Why? My good wife (as opposed to?) was worried that one of me would run into a problem. So, I re-engaged RGD and went through the simple process of having my name changed by deed poll. I am now officially ‘Dennis Jones’ for all Jamaican purposes (and also known as ‘Denis Jones’, but never mind him). My TRN was updated and from that my driver’s licence, so I was good to go, for most purposes.

I still have a few Jamaican documents that have me as ‘Denis’ because Jamaica also wants me to prove that I have a certain address so to make the simple change I have to do what I cannot do, which is prove where I live. Why? I moved. Because I am a creature of the Internet and all my bills come to be online, that doesn’t matter to my transactions, which go on in ‘the Cloud’ and nothing physically or actually comes to be at my place of abode. Utility bills are in my wife’s name. So, for Jamaican purposes I seem like a homeless person. The fact that all of my overseas financial information are linked to my new address matters not in Jamaica, where ‘rules are rules’. So, my voter’s ID needs to be updated, but… My Digicel and Scotiabank accounts, too, but… I don’t let that hamper me, as I use my phone and play with the banking system to my heart’s content without changing address for them.

I know I’m real!

Back in the day, when manual systems were king, a NID was important; with technological advances, we now know that the storage of data electronically is what is important. You are your data, including your biometric information. However, that is also one of the things that scares many people.

As I started writing, I noted that one of the ‘poster boys’ of NIDs, Estonia, is going through a security scare with its system having experienced a security breach that has compromised maybe 750,000 NID holders. Being ‘vulnerable to identity theft’ is not what makes people feel comfortable. Note the focus of the Estonian PM, Jüri Ratas, in a statement:

“The functioning of an e-state is based on trust and the state cannot afford identity theft happening to the owner of an Estonian ID card. As far as we currently know, there has been no instances of e-identity theft, but the threat assessment of the Police and Border Guard Board and the Information System Authority indicates that this threat has become real. By blocking the certificates of the ID cards at risk, the state is ensuring the safety of the ID card.”

The fault laying with the manufacturer of the chip is not the sort of thing that will make citizens any more at ease. So, when the Jamaican government makes the following claim, people will remain to be assured, especially as we do not yet have in place Acts on data protection and data sharing.

But I want to think about some of the other claims.

Does that ONLY exist with a NID? It’s interesting to contemplate that your actual existence is somehow being denied because of the absence of a NID. Surely, that right flows from the day you are born and that fact is registered? Isn’t that when your identity comes into force?

I wont pretend that unique identifiers are not important.

I wont go much further into the things that I think can go wrong in a country that has strong record of finding ways around many seemingly robust systems. Jamaicans have shown an astonishing knack for making Goodhart’s Law (named after Prof. Charles Goodhart, who was criticising UK monetary policy) come true:  “When a measure becomes a target, it ceases to be a good measure.” Put differently, in the so-called Lucas critique, named for Robert Lucas’s work on macroeconomic policymaking, argues that it is naive to try to predict the effects of a change in economic policy entirely on the basis of relationships observed in historical data, especially highly aggregated historical data. More simply, don’t expect your expected outcome to materialise. People adapt and anticipate.

One reason why NIDs work well in some countries is simply due to trust in institutions and decision-makers. Jamaican institutions and decision-makers are low on that trust ‘index’. Many would feel more at ease if they had seen clearly that trust being built to a high level for a good while.

You wan’ breadfruit? Roas’ or fry?

Among the many popular songs and dances in Jamaica is the ‘breadfruit’ song. Like many things in Jamaican life, it’s about a series of ‘this or that’ choices—we’re not big on the deep nuances—black or white covers most views. That goes too for politics, where the choice is green or orange, or in terms of voting symbols, head or bell. Now, I won’t pretend to having been brought up by nuns or having to live a cloistered life, so for me the choice between head or bell is really about more of the same just called differently. If you don’t know what I mean, I suggest you go into a men’s locker room and rummage around with the players and I think you will *see* what I’m talking about.

Let’s get something crystal clear: Jamaicans do not go to the polls weighed down by policy choices between candidates or even parties. It’s more about what’s on the menu: curry goat and rice (maybe, white or rice and peas); fried chicken and curry gravy, with rice and peas; maybe, some soup—mannish water or red peas. There! Voting issues resolved. Now, that is not a cynical glance at what is a known piece of corrupt practice, just *on the ground* observations of what’s left after political activists have passed ‘this way’.

Now, three by-elections are due to be held on October 30, but you may be forgiven for thinking only one is being held—in St. Mary SE. Let’s humour the Electoral Commission and just focus on that one seat, a moment.

All was going swimmingly with a little bit of political fighting about why and when a road improvement project needed to be approved and gotten underway. Pork! Food! Then, for reasons that could well be down to an excess of *white spirit*, a little administrative oversight got into the picture, as the PNP candidate was found to be a non-Jamaican and to boot a citizen of two other countries. Yes, yes, they’re both Commonwealth and that means they are not necessarily ‘foreign’ in the way that the British reconfigured The Empire, like the EU but without Maastricht Convention and certainly no visa-free entry between the countries. So, along came Shane, call me ‘Sugar’, Alexis, aka ‘the man who’s Canadian, Grenadian, but not Jamaican (I can’t take time to line up to do that), ready to serve you, faithfully’. Think about that and if you have doubts about the ‘faithfully’ part check out the Yello Pages for the PNP’s National Executive. If I did not know better, I’d think the candidacy paperwork had been entrusted to an intern, who scarperred at 4pm to go get a smoothie and head off to a yoga class, yelling ‘I’ll do it the morning!’

Now, all eyes are on citizenship issues, or the fact that a non-Jamaican could…just could…end up as the head of government in Jamaican. Oh, Canada! Without going too far down the road of possibilities, I just hope that if Seamus O’Alexagoran gets elected that Justintime Truethough doesn’t get an invite to Kingston and create an embarrassment of our PM singing ‘Oh, Canada’ with hand on heart and being silent when ‘Jamaica, Land We Love’ is played.

All eyes have turned to matters other than electoral issues in St. Mary to the how and why of this rather big faux pas (easy to understand if you are from Canada?). But, it’s a distraction, PNP diehards yell. Oh, yeah?

That paid ad by the man’s party tells you distractions are rife. 🤔 So distracting that the media needed to be informed that ‘citizenship soon come’ (see Gleaner report, Alexis submits citizenship application). C’mon, man!

Well, the election was never going to be about the head or the heart, but about the head and the bell. But, wait! It may now be about the head and the…foot. This latest piece of political theatre was…I don’t have the words…*ankling* for attention?…getting a firm *toehold* in the area…doing real *legwork*? I really don’t know.

But this kind of *foota hype* isn’t new, and barefoot (or feet in the water, to be exact) electioneering was already a thing. But, as some commentators noted, walking IN water is not as extraordinary as walking ON water.

My father is from SE St. Mary and I’ve an aunt who came back from England to resume her life there. I know from a long time ago how bad roads, access to electricity and water, have been and still are in that area. Dealing with it, as so many Jamaicans still do, is part of our national resilience. But, politicians love to promise and then fly away after elections–though some have been using helicopters to get into the area (how convenient!). Just, don’t forget about the people and the promises after October 30. Otherwise, it may be a big foot up the jacksy that will send bells ringing in more than a few heads. 😦img_1823