The good, the bad, and the ugly

I have a strong dislike for things that seem easy to fix but go unattended. Not that I’m up and down ladders doing jobs. My dislike focuses on social and economic problems. In the same vein, I look happily on examples of ‘jobs well done’.

I’m going to try to keep my eyes and ears tuned keenly so that I can share examples that fit these ‘bad’ and ‘good’ labels. But I also want to add a category for what I think is just despicable, or ‘ugly’–physically, tonally, morally, I’m open to being appalled.

Each week, on Sundays, I will share my catalogue. That’s my day for the calmest reflections, so my bile from earlier in the week should get tempered.

I was in Miami part of this week, and you’d think that city of excess ought to feature. Let’s see.

The good:
A man named Horace Prince, who is a staff member at the Edna Manley College of the Visual Arts and MC-ed the summer camp show. The man was FUNNY, maybe the best stand-up comic not doing that for a living. I felt for my in-laws, who couldn’t keep up with the rapid-fire patois. Added to his routine was the strong and positive messages he gave all the performers.

An honorable mention goes to the official at Miami International Airport, who promptly responded to my Twitter comments about poor signs. Our last exchange yesterday was around midnight and he was clearly doing his job on personal time. Trust me on that.

The bad:
In the realm of justice, the cake goes to the US legal system and the seeming travesty that was the trial and verdict given on George Zimmerman. The pain was worsened this week by the juror who voted to acquit but then stated she thought he “got away with murder”.

The 15 year-old who was in charge of selling tickets to me but did not know how much change to give from J$1000 and selling 3 tickets at J$250 each. Bad for the education system, whichever it was.

Fountainebleau hotel in Miami Beach may be THE place at night but it gets a prize for some of the poorest front desk service I’ve ever seen. Too much going on and slow seemed to be the only gear. After checking out from my room why would I want to join a line of over 30 people to get a copy of my bill. I loved the ‘light bulb’ moment when my wife suggested having an email option on the TV check out. Priceless. I suggest to a manager that they do some serious time and motion studies.

The ugly:
The ugliest was the story about a young man in St. James who was chopped and stabbed to death after party goers discovered he was cross-dressing. Jamaica’s homophobia reaches a new milestone.

The very ugly has to be the latest sexting scandal unleashed on himself by Anthony Weiner. I really couldn’t give a tinker’s cuss about what does or says as a politician, but as someone who claims to want the public’s trust I ask myself “What is he thinking?”

An honorable mention goes to Jamaican MP, Dayton Campbell, for his unflattering comments about a Miss Jamaica World contestant. Good that he apologized quickly afterwards, but check yourself next time the finger reaches for ‘send’.

Get me back to Jamaica quick!

A day in the life of the international traveller.

  • Wake at 7.30am and head for breakfast. Wife has last day of strategy meetings. I amuse myself wandering hotel and checking in on National Bar Association 88th national convention. Meet a lady whose family hails from Seaford Town, but she’s not blond, blue-eyed, or white. Funny.
  • Check out of hotel and wait for the strategists to finish. Talk more to Miami resident about life in the city, its racial tensions, especially.
  • Leave Miami Beach hotel at 12.45pm, with almost 4 hours to spare before departure; allowing 2 hours ahead for check in at airport, there should be no problem. Right? Let’s see.
  • 30 minutes to go 1/2 mile as traffic blocked from hotel to road leading to airport, all because of one lane blocked by road works. Arrive at Miami International Airport close to 1.30pm. Still plenty of time.
  • Drop off wife and bags, and friends whom we’d taken to airport. I head to ‘rental car center’, following green signs from terminal.
  • Once round airport to same starting point. Another trip round, following signs to go straight but heading down to parking lot, because I thought I had misread the signs. I realise my error and try to back up into traffic, and follow signs again. I end up again at same start point…
  • Once round again and follow signs for airport exit, but ask a cab driver where to go. He tells me a road name and suggests I go through taxi drop-off area. I’m met by a policeman. I explain my quest.
  • “Get off at number 3,” he says. Number 3 what? I ask. “Number 3”. I have visions of The Prisoner. I head off again, looking carefully for ‘Number 3″. I see it!
  • A ramp sign marked ‘3’ pointing to a freeway exit, and below the road name is ‘Rental Car Center’ but well disguised by tree branches. Pure genius!
  • I follow ramp and eventually find rental car lot. I deliver car and head back to terminal on the monorail, where I arrive at 2.15. Still plenty of time. Gate agent hears my story and agrees about the crazy signage, saying it’s been reported many times but no action by local government.
  • My wife tells me that my ticket is booked for tomorrow, not today, but…she’s rebooked me for later flight today at 7.45pm.
  • We go to eat. We buy some essential island wear. If I had not known better, I would have thought this was for ‘comfort’.
  • She heads to her gate; her flights at 4.40. I head to the lounge. I see a family of 6 (3 couples) wanting to enter but without enough privileges for guests. I offer to put two of the guests on my card, stipulating that I will request having my choice of the women to do with as I please. One woman suggests that I take all three of them 🙂 I agree. We laugh and explain the solution to the men, who wish me good luck.
  • My wife sends me message that she has just been given upgrade to 1st class (she has status), as flight was overbooked in economy 🙂 She suggests I get on upgrade list (I have no status :-)).
  • I ask to be put on upgrade list: I’m #1H1lSISABNM5OPpg. Airline assistant tells me that two seats have opened up on the same flight as my wife, but I cannot switch because I have a checked bag. Bah! I visualise getting a bowl of hot nuts for supper on the plane.
  • I decide to go on Twitter and ‘converse’ with @iflymia about airport signage and my tour of airport. I get prompt reply and engage in back and forth on Twitter, then suggest email messages. I notice competition on MIA Twitter page, respond and win a prize! Woo-hoo!
  • I read and write while awaiting flight. I reach gate at 7pm. Plane is delayed arriving. Crew eventually arrives. Plane takes off at 8.15.
  • I have no status so am settled into window seat in economy. I read New York Times and am provoked by article on soccer and statistics; I write a critique.
  • Plane arrives Kingston at 8.45, and am out of airport by 9pm.
  • I see my family and put my daughter to bed at 10pm.
  • I continue dialog with MIA official, who wants more details and promises to drive the route and see the problems; he also asks for input on how to improve services and use of Facebook and Twitter, which are new ventures. He needs my address to deliver my gift.
  • I write this and plan to publish it. It’s 11.30pm.

Jamaica is much cooler on my arrival, after a shower and an approaching weather system. A short flight meant that I’m not exhausted. The plane was jammed full, as my wife’s had been. Tourists outnumbered by returning residents. Jamfest is on this weekend, but I suspect the arrivals for that were earlier in the week. The road is quiet on the drive home. Saturday night leads into Sunday morning and church for many. Have to head the way of all flesh as tiredness hits me.

 

Problems of assimilation

When I woke at 4.30 this morning, I was thrown by how dark it was. I’d not adjusted to the one hour time difference with Jamaica. I went back to sleep and got up again at 6.30 (my usual 5.30 wake up time). I didn’t hesitate to put on my swim trunks and tee-shirt and head out for a walk. I fancied walking south along the boardwalk to the area near the Lincoln Road shopping and party spots. Before I got out, I met four ‘people of the night’ who were just getting home, not quit doing the ‘walk of shame‘. One young lady was opening and closing her eyes as if they had sand in them. Everyone in the group spoke in a deep voice: the effect of talking over loud music  for hours, I suspected. I laughed to myself and headed on.

I met two acquaintances; the lady soon left me and another man, as she ran ahead and we walked and talked. The man and I had only met a few times before and recently, but we got talking about my early retirement. He asked me for my advice about doing the same. I gave him my take, emphasising that he needed to feel confident in his decision and embracing the new opportunities that would be presented to him. He was planning to take over a business in Europe from his very aged parents, though he knew very little about the business. Interestingly, one of two major concerns was loss of ‘exposure’ and some ‘lifestyle’ changes that may occur as he fell into the world of ‘ordinary people’. Gone privileged access to people and places, etc. I understood. It was easy to envisage him as a very successful businessman in a few years. I told him that he’d get new exposure and may find new doors opening, or interesting or influential new people, in the most unexpected places and ways. If he found that the loss of ‘exposure’ was really bothering him, I suggested that he and his ego go and have a good long talk to each other.

Unexpectedly, I went further into an understanding of Miami. At lunch, I sat with two ladies who were both Miami natives, one black (in her 20s), one white (in her 50s). Both now lived in different cities, and had felt the need to leave Miami to get on with their lives and careers. They shared several similar views about some of the social aspects of the city:

  • The influence of the population of  Cuban origin (about 860,000 in south Florida)–who had much business and political influence in the city, but despite this, had a strong desire to return to Cuba to ‘take over’ from the Castro regime.
  • The capture of culture by large waves of near-refugees from regional civil disruptions and natural disasters (eg, in El Salvador, Nicaragua, Honduras, Guatemala, and Haiti). This mixed with Latin American drug-related funds flowing in to fuel the local economy.
  • Young people of many races living a life of conspicuous consumption, exemplified by driving flashy new cars, where they ‘live large’ and party hearty.
  • People living way beyond their means, or having ‘fallen off the cliff’.

Where do Jamaicans feature in this? I didn’t get a very clear answer and it did not appear that they were sharing fully in this characterisation or benefiting much from the fact that others in the area were making up this picture. But, there was some support for the idea that they did not mingle fully with the area’s population, living in ‘their’ areas in Miami-Dade county (and shifting increasingly northward to neighbouring Broward county.

I was struck even more today by what appears to be an absence of English-speaking Caribbean people present in the Miami Beach area. They may be hidden inside hotels doing various jobs, but judging by the hotel in which I’m staying that’s not the case. So, if they have been ‘shut out’ of what should be a vibrant part of the Florida economy, what is happening to them?

Welcome to Miami!

There’s a simple logic behind many episodes of voluntary migration: a search for better opportunities. My parents sought the same when they left Jamaica for England just before Independence. Before that and since, Jamaicans have traveled far and wide; they and their offspring can now be found in many different places. Jamaica has lost much human capital through emigration, and it’s hard to see that drain of people and their intellectual and physical talent as being an overall positive for Jamaica’s development, even if in cash terms it could be shown that remittances have become the largest source of funds to the economy and provided immense support to families all over the island.imageI find myself in a location to which Jamaicans have flocked–south Florida. Here I am in Miami. I acknowledge openly that, after all the travel I have done through Miami International Airport over two decades, I had never set foot outside of those hallowed concourses. Today, that changed.

It does not take much to understand the attraction of this area for Caribbean people: sun, sand, sea, hot temperatures, jobs, jobs and more jobs, nice places to live and work, and more jobs. Don’t get me wrong: the place was not immune from the general downturn in the US economy, but by comparison with the Caribbean, things look very good for employment seekers most of the time. True, it’s America and its attitudes and ethos are different to those of the Caribbean, but it’s relatively laid back, in an industrialised way.

It is hard to verify the exact number of people of Jamaican descent living in the USA because most of them assimilate into the wider so-called ‘African-American’ communities. US census data suggest that documented Americans of Jamaican descent and (the high number of) Jamaican “illegal aliens” total close to 1 million ‘Jamaicans’ living in the United States.

Jamaicans refer colloquially to the Miami metropolitan area as “Kingston 21”.

I haven’t seen enough of the Miami Beach area to support that title, but I won’t challenge it. Maybe, as I move around Dade County in coming days, that view will change.

The early morning flight from Kingston today was full–and I understand it’s almost always that way. Makes sense: you pay about US$300 to fly from Kingston to MoBay, but about US$600 to get to Miami. You can do a lot here, even in a day, and if you’ve shopping at affordable prices on your mind, then the US consumer is your friend by needing to change with the seasons, when Jamaicans don’t have the same reasons. Autumn fashions are coming out and the sales are on to move those summer clothes. Buy yuh tikit!

Jamaica’s loss of citizens to other countries has meant considerable gains to those countries. As I walked around this afternoon, I could hear a distinct Jamaican lilt, but not as often as I heard a trace of Haiti or some Spanish. Whatever the Jamaicans here are achieving, it’s on a crowded playground, and some parts Jamaicans just aren’t touching: I only heard Haitian creole amongst the corps of taxi drivers who were standing and hoping most of the day. I heard only Spanish in the shops I entered in a nearby retail area. For that matter, what is striking about Miami is that it feels and sounds like a non-English speaking part of the USA. So, I’m left pondering, after a few hours here, how Jamaicans are faring and how they are maneuvering around this landscape.
Continue reading “Welcome to Miami!”

Done to a tee

Jamaica is full of ingenious people, and many of them are humble in every sense, may have little formal education, may not have anything that would class as much wealth, but they have a rich education in the art of survival at the University of Life.

I was out playing golf this morning, with a lady neighbour and her caddy. We’d spoken a few days ago about the dearth of sponsorship that the sport attracts, in large part because it’s seen as elitist and for people with ample means. I told her that the golf community perhaps needed to put that image back at the detractors by flagging at least the humble origins of the latest winner of the Jamaica’s Seafreight National Amateur Golf Championships: Paul Thompson hails from Cassava Piece, dubbed one of Jamaica’s crudest ‘garrisons’, but ironically, adjacent to Constant Spring Golf Course. That same day, and since, we’ve seen some of the ‘elite’ golfers on the course: one was about 4, using a borrowed glove and club that was his height, with his father teaching him, neither of them had anything elite about them except the possibility of one day beating the world’s best. Four caddies teed off ahead of us the other morning: one was wearing water boots; another had a shirt that had so many big holes it was a surprise he knew where to put his neck. None of them hit a tee shot that was less than 280 yards. A brute dem! I drooled as one took a driver shot through a narrow passage and found the green, 300 yards away. Elite? Tek weh yuself!

As happens too often, some little thing (literally, sometimes) throws you off your game. Today, my partner and I needed to hit a tee shot that required a short (not regular or long) tee; players often just pick up a broken tee for this purpose. As luck would have it, none could be found on the ground. I happened to have one in my pocket and passed it to my playing partner. She and the caddy then lamented the recent death of a man who used to scour the course for broken tees, sharpen them, teesand then sell them to players for the very purpose we sought. I don’t know his prices but it’s a viable business: during the course of the next few holes played we needed four more such tees. I suggested to the caddy that he should think about resurrecting the dead man’s business, it could do more than add chump change to his caddy fees.

That’s the latest in the litany of ideas that make so much sense and need little by way of material. Jamaica is famous for its push carts, which see their heydays in a national derby each August and are credited with inspiring the creation of a national bobsled team, made famous in the film ‘Cool Runnings’. cart1Anyone taking a road trip will see many vendors along the roadside. Jamaica recycles, but not the way they do in the USA or UK, perhaps. Used white rum bottles seem to be the choice for refilling with home-made honey: maybe tourists have been fooled into thinking that some other substance is in those bottles. With a little extra dressing up, those people who like to see everything with a label and want to go goggle-eyed at the ‘creativity of artisans’ would be soon pulling out more dollar bills for some of that stuff. The Rasta I met the other day comes back to mind, who was roasting his peanuts in a drum made from a used cooking gas cylinder. The man who’s making a concoction of noni and prickly pear, and claims that it will help cure my father-in-law’s knee joint problems, deserves his mention, too. The ‘system’ may have no means to help these people do more than they do now, but they shouldn’t be ignored when we look for ideas and marvel and the latest high-tech solution that someone proposes, forgetting that basic and low-tech are still very much in need.

True enough, that same ingenuity is not always used in ways that seem so socially responsible: raiding the electricity grid with drop cords, for example; tapping off a neighbours water supply, for another example; using used and worn tyres to make footwear, etc. But, we don’t want to stifle it. Nurture it. Tap it. Use it. 

Weh wi a go?

The optimistic tone I left in yesterday’s post, by writing ‘Jamaica offers a good life to many–not the best, perhaps in terms of certain material things, but far from the worst for most things’ should not be taken as a mark of complacency. Remember, I started out by stating that there are many problems. Dinner conversation last night with some Jamaican friends who are visiting from abroad brought up some of those problems–though the problems did not overshadow or outweigh the many good things people also noted. The group included people who have been living for a long while in two of the Caribbean region’s countries, which have had relatively more success than Jamaica–The Bahamas and Barbados–so, in some respects had a perspective of what should be possible for a Caribbean middle-income country. The visitors still have strong family and friendship ties here, and visit often. All of us have much experience and knowledge of the economic and social circumstances of many other countries. The conversations never focused on Jamaica needing to be like other countries (which prompts me to think about recent suggestions to follow the Singapore model). Among the big problems that surfaced were:

  • A perceived lack of vision by national political leaders: I say ‘perceived’ because no doubt leaders such as Edward Seaga and Micheal Manley had a big vision of the Jamaica they wanted to see, but neither managed to mobilise most of the nation behind their views and policies and left a nation deeply divided along political lines, which have left deep scars on the body national. We struggled to discern easily what was the vision held by other leaders.
  • Government inaction and wrong action: this has plagued many aspects of national life, and showed itself in big and small ways–unfilled potholes (which has allowed the mushrooming of business in road repairs by citizens); unfinished road repairs; incomplete repairs of phyiscal structures; poor services across many fields of government operation; skewed distribution of services (maybe reflecting political favouritism); public servants who are not really vested in serving the public; inefficiencies coming from the need to pass many ‘gatekeepers’; inefficiencies coming from unwillingness to change practices (please do not ask me to go to a tax office).
  • Political tribalism: at its worst, this left a trail of bitterness coming from a ‘victor takes the spoils’ mentality (“A fi wi time now!”) that punished those who supported the losing political party in national elections.
  • Lowering the bar on expectations as a means of dealing with serious national problems: this could perhaps be seen as apathy, or resignation, in the face of seemingly intractable economic and social problems, the worst of which were a constantly faltering economy with persistent foreign exchange shortages and ballooning debt burden, and intolerable levels of violent (especially, homicidal) crimes (“Is only 3 dem kill dis time”).
  • Weak commitment to work together: the well-know ‘crabs in a barrel’ mentality is still prevalent. That may be simply an indication of an immature nation: it’s always hard to be willing to ‘share’ when the resources are evidently scarce. (My young daughter reminded me this morning that ‘There is no I in TEAM” :-))

To solve any problem, you need to make sure you can identify what is really the issue. The list above is not meant to cover comprehensively what needs to be fixed. But, it puts plenty of grist into the mill of things that need to be made better. Jamaica has come a long way from the depths to which it sank in the mid-1970s, when many shop shelves were bare and many people wanted to flee. By contrast, it’s hard to distinguish today the stock of a Jamaican supermarket from those of its North American neighbours, and there is plenty of evidence that Jamaica is attractive as a home for returning residents or foreigners who feel that they can make a good future for themselves, their families and their businesses. Sure, Jamaica has real problems, but how should we approach trying to solve them?

Yesterday, I was with my kid at swim practice at the UWI Mona Bowl, and she was working on some techniques and cooling off before the coaches arrived. Some young men marvelled at how she was treading water: “How yu do dat? Yu is like a fish,” one of the men said. She started to show them how to do the arm and leg movements; they then tried but did not make much progress immediately. I sidled up to them and made a few suggestions about what they needed to try: relax and believe that they would float not sink; move slowly, not frantically; try to breathe regularly; remember that it’s easier to swim under the water than on top, so embrace going down a little, knowing that you can come up again. They tried again, and within 15 minutes were able to swim under water for half the width of the pool, and then to swim on top of the water about 15 metres. Progress. “Yu is a coach?” one of the men asked me. I smiled and replied that “I try to teach all the time.”

My kid and I left them and she headed to her group for practice. I started talking to the pool supervisor. I gently took him to task about a water cooler, whose dispenser had been broken and was now ‘functioning’ with a key ring as a pulley–it had now opened and offered two sharp points on which to hold. I’d tried to get a drink and nearly had my finger sliced. I was afraid that a child would try the same and end up badly hurt. The supervisor lamented how he had tried to get the UWI maintenance department to help repair the cooler, to no avail. He told me that it was a matter of money. I disagreed: “It’s a lack of application!” I told him. Money would be found if a child had a serious injury and some parent of lawyer started screaming about “Yu rekless peeple” He agreed and decided that the best thing to do immediately was to lock the cooler and to try to see if he could find an old one to get a replacement part.

Did we identify the real problems in these cases? Did we find solutions that were sustainable (and also simple)? I don’t think Jamaica’s problems are so intractable that we ought not try to play a part in finding solutions.

As we tucked into our jerk dinner, my mind turned to an issue that could fit into the problem bag we had identified. Jamaica has a huge food import bill (US1 billion–about 15 percent of all imports, ranking second after oil (about 40 percent)).  Tourism must be a large contributor to that bill, so any measures to try to reduce that bill should look at how that sector can raise its level of local foods and drinks. I personally lament that one of the pillars of Jamaica’s recent economic development, tourism, appears to have not been a driver for integrating economic activity. For example, local agriculture and manufacturing could have been boosted greatly by being brought more into the supply chain for the ‘sun, sea and sand’ tourism that Jamaica offers. That could have offered an important spur to setting high standards for the quality and presentation of local goods, in the face of the strong temptation to import. I was interested to read a report that the government now wants to push for better such linkages. The reports noted that the ‘tourism sector’s current overall consumption of local fresh produce, fruits and meats is at 10 per cent’. A task force has been set up to work on this issue and a unit will be established within the Ministry of Tourism and Entertainment that will facilitate the linkages. Jamaica Agricultural Society, President, Senator Norman Grant has proposed an incentive to the hotels that use locally grown produce. One important change which would help any plan work would be a sharp reduction in the 60 days waiting period that farmers pay to receive payments from hotels, which poses sharp cash flow problems. The challenge will be to attempt this without seriously impairing the real or perceived quality of what is offered to foreign tourists. It will be worth watching if the recent pronouncements are followed by action and what results emerge. We can try to do our part, too, on the import bill. We don’t have to boycott imported food, but really should give a hard thought to buying it instead of ‘local’ (I know the local label needs to be checked, as many items common on the island and now supplemented by imports).

I know that Jamaica is not the best at all things, even if we want to say “Nuh wun no betta dan wi!” The challenge I see now is to take that idea and make it real in every way possible. Jamaica may need to be more like a new swimmer and embrace the essence of a famous qoute from the Chinese philosopher, Lao-tzu (who is credited with the founding of Taoism): “Even the longest journey must begin where you stand” (often translated as ‘A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step’).

Jumayka, nuff prablem…but wi ‘appy tu rahtid…

I imagine that many people think of Jamaica as a happy and wonderful place. The images of smiling, laughing, dancing, singing, “Nuh prablem, man!” people attract foreign tourists. It would seem that these images are not wholly a myth. The UN commissioned Gallup to poll people and construct a World Happiness Report: Jamaica ranked 40th out 0f 156 countries, after the negative effects of corruption and lacklustre growth were discounted–not trivial impediments, but let’s leave that alone for the moment. Northern European countries took the top three spots (though given the high suicide rate usually associated with Finland, I find their 2nd position a bit suspect).happy

Is this high happiness something the country should exploit further? Those who try to market health and wellness tourism know that such environments may represent future boom areas. It could draw in more tourists, but also a particular breed of entrepreneurs. Look at the recent story of Randolph Cheeks, who returned to Jamaica, after studying and working abroad, to help with its development and who is ‘happy with his decision to return home,… he believes that Jamaica’s future lies in its ability to attract back and retain its human talent’. VW recently tried to exploit this happiness image in one of its adverts. “Chill, Winston!” could be a catchphrase for the ages.


But, being fair, consider Mark Wignall’s counter arguments that Jamaicans may be happy for the wrong reasons. The country has a litany of problems, and while my own philosophy is to see ‘problems’ as opportunities or challenges to be overcome, there’s no doubting the weight these put on people. I always thought, when I was working and living in Guinea, one of the poorest countries in the world, that despite the beauty and natural richness of the land, life was often so hard that it just wore people down. Limited access to safe running water for many. Limited access to stable and regular electricity for many. A political regime that made many capricious decisions. Corruption in many walks of life. Growth that had been faltering for years. A plummeting exchange rate. Roads that sometimes turned into open pits, and which could be the scene of some horrific accidents. A growing sense of tension between ethnic groups (‘tribes’ in some senses). What Guineans suffer is not so different from what many experience in Jamaica, though I sense that government actions do not have anything resembling a similar level of capriciousness. But, Jamaicans do not seem worn down in any similar way, even though you’ll often hear “Mi a suffa!”

Income inequality in Jamaica is not much different from for many middle-income countries. Many Jamaicans have a quality of life that would be the envy of many people, with the generally great climate, abundant local foods and plenty more imported, whether raw or cooked, and a picturesque vista from almost anywhere on the island. I’m not trying to lack sensitivity for those whose plight is dire–of which there are too many, in shanty towns, gully communities, or just indigent on the road.1004097_10151574688934022_2029884106_n-1 Is the country too tolerant of beggars? No country or its citizens can feel happy with the kind of abject poverty that can sometimes be seen on a street in Kingston, whatever its cause. But, for what it’s worth and whatever the individual motivations, many Jamaicans are ready and willing to address such situations as they see best. They don’t seek to institutionalize such people. They often offer direct help, and that may be a few dollars in the hand, or some food, or some clothes, or the offer of some ‘work’–help. It may get rejected, which may seem surprising, but it’s a free country.

Many families remain close and support each other, whether with the help of remittances (in-cash or in-kind) from abroad or without. People still seem to have a great regard for rest and recreation: evenings and weekends can form important down time, and when chance comes to leave the city and head ‘to country’, it’s taken. Some anachronistic things seem in keeping with the slower pace: movies still have an intermission, when people go to get their drinks and snacks. Church and religion are important in the life balance for most people: after church in the morning comes family lunch, before or after a nap. This Sunday, we had friends and some family over for lunch in the mid-afternoon, and by about 7.30pm, the last guests were slowly leaving. Kids had played all the time, when they were not eating. Adults talked or just cooled out. We’d done the same the week before, but as guests not hosts.  Most business places are closed and roads are very quiet on Sundays.

Jamaica offers a good life to many–not the best, perhaps in terms of certain material things, but far from the worst for most things.

Dollar, dollar, dollar…

IMF staff include some of the best-trained economists on this planet. So, I am not going to put my head in a noose and say that they don’t know what they are talking about. The latest staff report includes one of those phrases which those who are being trained to write should see in a class called ‘How to not say what you mean’: ‘To support growth, it [the IMF] called for measures to boost competitiveness, including structural reforms as well as greater exchange rate flexibility.’ When most people think about ‘flexibility’, they imagine some lithe body, writhing and being put into positions that sometimes seem to defy physics. When economists use the term, it also means movement, but not necessarily back and forth. In this case, I will call a euphemism a euphemism: flexibility means depreciation or devaluation. It takes a while, but those latter words are actually used in the report: ‘A flexible exchange rate regime should play a central role in Jamaica’s macroeconomic policy framework and its structural agenda going forward. The recent nominal exchange rate depreciation has been useful, by reversing part of the overvaluation of the real exchange rate that has emerged in recent years, thus supporting price competitiveness…’ Now, that we understand what the ‘medicine’ is…

Just as I arrived back in Jamaica, after 50 plus years abroad, I witnessed a new milestone for its currency: it touched a low point against the US dollar of 100. There were no cheers on the street. Thankfully, my arrival was low-key and no one has put together my arrival and this milestone and made cause and effect.

Countries, rightly, feel a sense of pride in the international value of their currency. However, in trying to hold onto a particular value when pressures are building for it to be ‘flexible’ (and I do mean in either direction), resistance may be useless and can be downright dangerous to the health of politicians and central bank governors. I remember one of the famous occasions in UK economic history, when in 1967 the British Pound was devalued from US$2.40 to $2.80: the then Prime Minister, Harold Wilson (a pretty decent economist and Oxford don), famously said “It does not mean that the pound here in Britain, in your pocket or purse or in your bank, has been devalued.” (It’s worth listening to the broadcast as a lesson in how a politician may try to tell a population some bitter news.) The British gnashed their teeth. Stiff upper lips quivered. Chips fell where they would (but not out of bags of fish :-)) Now, some 45 years later, Britain has not become annexed to the US, but the pound is worth about US$1.50–much stronger than in Harold’s day. Unfortunately, Britain paid a heavy price of higher inflation along the way, and the pounds in the pocket of most people are now worth much less, and weigh very heavily when you’re standing at the bar waiting to order a pint.

j$Jamaican cartoonists are very good at vivid imagery and the falling Jamaican dollar has not been spared their taunting. I’m not one who believes that the planned depreciation will have a major impact on Jamaica’s root problems of low productivity growth and competitiveness. Those things need to improve but that needs to come from people having a different mindset. Granted, the experience of having the value of their money being worth much less may give them pause for thought. Overall, I don’t believe that Jamaicans don’t want to do better for themselves and their country. My experiences this past week gave me an insight into what is good and not so good about some parts of the economy.

  • I needed a cell phone repaired. On Thursday afternoon, I took it to a store in New Kingston that sells and repairs phones. I’d bought a phone case from them and thought they were very attentive, whatever the situation. The young lady (early 20s) there told me the cost of repair and how long it would take. She also told me that I could trade-in the phone and get another one, paying a difference in price, if needed. I did the sums of cost of repair (and no certainty the damaged phone would work) against cost of new phone (with 30 day guarantee). I went for the trade-in. She gave the damaged phone to a technician to evaluate and meanwhile contacted their warehouse to get the new phone delivered. She told me the process would be about an hour. I waited, hoping that things would move faster. In the meantime, people came in and asked for things, and I noticed how the lady answered crisply and courteously to every question, including “We deal with everything but Blackberry; for that you need to go next door.” She spent about five minutes on the phone with a customer who was apparently not able to get the phone she wanted for her daughter: “It’s the shippers, Miss. We rely on them and if they don’t deliver the product, it’s we and you who suffer.” My kid was at swim practice, so after waiting a while, I left to pick her up. When I got back, the new phone was there, but the lady’s face signalled a problem: “The case is cracked. It must have been damaged in shipping. I don’t want to sell it to you and compromise our business.” We then spent half an hour trying to decide what phone in the shop would be an acceptable substitute. It was now well past 6pm, when the store should have been closed. Eventually, with the help of my 9 year-old, we decided on a new phone and wrapped up the deal. It was now 6:30, and we were late for dinner. I noticed that some other customers were in the store and still dealing with their problems–all happy to spend a bit more time given the prospect that things would work out. On Friday afternoon, just as I got back from a trip to Mandeville, my phone rang; I saw the number and knew it was the lady from the phone store: “Hello, Mr. Jones. I just wanted to check how things were going with the phone and if everything was alright.” We chatted for a few minutes. I was impressed: it was service that went a little further than expected or really needed and it made me (the customer) feel good.
  • On Saturday, I needed to round off the repair by having the SIM card replaced by the phone company: the new phone needed a different size SIM. I took the phone to a LIME store in Half Way Tree, where I was told initially that the change would be a “24 hour process”. Then the representative realised that the account was not in my name, but was for an organization, so I couldn’t make the change there but would have to go to the ‘main office’, which was just a few minutes down the road. Off I went. “Well, to make this change, Mr. Jones, you’ll need a letter from the organization…” I frowned 😦 We talked a little and after a few sentences, and I was asked for some ID. I gave two documents. Moments later, computer keyboards were being tapped, forms were being completed, new SIM card was being processed, phone was in full working order. The man gave me an invoice that showed ‘J$0’, and told me that the normal J$300 fee did not apply. Happy camper.
  • My mother-in-law is visiting from The Bahamas. She’s flabbergasted that the Jamaican currency “gawn don so”. “How can The Bahamian dollar be worth one US and the Jamaican is 100?” she’d asked me when arriving a week ago. She’d studied here in the mid-1980s and remembered better days for the J$. I gave a quick Econ 101 lesson about fixed and floating exchange rates. “I don’t know. It’s a crying shame,” she said after my attempted explanation. She bought green coconuts in Mandeville (for J$125 each) and wanted them chopped to get at the meat so that she could make a coconut cake. “We need a cutliss!” she told me on Saturday morning. She knew I didn’t have one and we’d joked during the car ride that I shouldn’t think bad of my father for never having bought me one earlier in my life :-). I went to a fancy-looking ‘hardware’ store near Manor Park: they really only sell interior fixtures and tiles, but the man there told me to go to a real hardware store just down the road. I asked him where I could get a gas for our grill. He was perplexed that I had asked for ‘a bottle’, and after some head scratching realised I needed ‘a canister’. He suggested the gas station across the road; no joy, as I’d tried there already. He asked a colleague, then another; no joy. He called a friend; no joy, but he got a name and number. He called and spoke for a while, then passed the phone to me. The lady asked where I lived and when I needed the canister, then said she’d call me back. I headed off to get my cutlass. My phone rang as I entered the store. “We have our supplies in Rockfort and Portmore…” I explained that these places were a long way away and I was not going to drive to either today. She told me they would deliver. Good. She told me to call a number and ask for ‘Ramon’. I called; no answer. Voice mail. I left a message. I called again a few hours later; no answer; voice mail, again. Ramon has not called me back. It’s Saturday, maybe he went to the beach. It looks like the grill will not be firing today, but we will have coconut cake.
  • While in the hardware store, I noticed that they had a sign stating ‘Dear customers, we accept US dollars as payment for goods, at an exchange rate of $96.00’. I paid in local currency.

I don’t see where depreciating the exchange rate is going to help make these kind of experiences better (in the cases where something needs changing). The ‘good’ in these stories are things which I would like in most dealings; the ‘bad’ are not terrible (but I have a few of those already and will ‘deal wi dem layta’). Maybe foreign enterprises will see the Jamaican worker as truly superior and want to employ them and invest more here.

My cell phone was certainly much more expensive to buy than it would have been otherwise. My cutlass, too, though it was considerably cheaper–I could have bought 100 for the price of the phone and could have started my own bushing business. I need to see if sales of cell phones get hit by the depreciation: Jamaicans love their phones. Maybe, next time, I buy a cheapie cell phone, like I did for my father-in-law, when we passed a LIME roadside promotion in Mandeville, for the princely sum of J$1250 (including SIM and J$100 credit).

My jelly coconuts don’t seem to have gone up in price much, and drinking one of those on Friday was a good lunch. The J$300 I paid the roadside vendor for my sugarloaf pineapple seems to be money well spent judging by the absence of it in the fruit bowl 🙂 The falling J$ hasn’t affected much the price of local produce and may hopefully keep us away from all of that ‘inferior’ foreign stuff.

It’s hard to measure productivity in services, but ‘quality’ and ‘efficiency’ have to be there. Willingness to give good service is not always evident in any country–believe me when I say that it’s hard to imagine more service dysfunction than I’ve experienced in the USA. In tourism, can I see a real difference between what The Bahamas offers me at a top-end hotel such as Atlantis versus what I got in Jamaica at the Hilton in Montego Bay? Is my wife ready to back me up on this when we complete the survey about Atlantis? Good service–and often with a laugh and a joke and a nice word, not some sourpuss or phony ‘Is everything ok with your meal’-ism, quickly followed by scowls if the tip is less than 15%–is not a dead art in Jamaica, by any stretch, so for the moment. On that score, I will say I have high hopes. But, how is the exchange rate ‘flexibility’ really going to price Jamaica into a better competitive position world-wide? The question is not rhetorical.

It’s a great house, but it needs some work

Many literary works are best remembered for their opening lines. For that reason, amongst many, I have always loved Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, which opens:

‘It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife.’

Likewise, I have to love the most recent IMF report on Jamaica, which opens:

During most of the past three decades, Jamaica has suffered from very low growth, high public debt, and serious social challenges.’

That may deserve a ‘Wow!’ Put differently, the IMF said that Jamaica had pretty much wasted the second of its two generations of independence. That wastage has shown up with an economy that has done little to produce higher real incomes and jobs, a system of government that was based on spending and borrowing much more than its revenue, and a fractured society. Let’s hear another ‘Wow!’

The Encyclopaedia Britannica defines political economy as a ‘branch of social science that studies the relationships between individuals and society and between markets and the state, using a diverse set of tools and methods drawn largely from economics, political science, and sociology. The term political economy is derived from the Greek polis, meaning “city” or “state,” and oikonomos, meaning “one who manages a household or estate.” Political economy thus can be understood as the study of how a country—the public’s household—is managed or governed, taking into account both political and economic factors.’

I’m going to take the liberty of making a tour of Jamaica’s political economy along various paths, with no precise end-point in mind other than an attempt to look at, and think hard about, many things Jamaican, economic and political, trying to remember the stark assessment given by one of the world’s leading institutions of economic analysis and policy formulation.

I try to point out to people that when they have conversations with Jamaicans they need to keep good eye contact: many messages are sent non-verbally and if you let your eyes stray you may miss some very important cues given by the body. For the same reason, you need to maintain bodily control in case you give cues mistakenly by the careless movement of some body part. Examples? Watch what Jamaicans do with their mouths and eyes: they can quickly give approval or disapproval without a break in speech, or without any need for speech at all. The rolled eyes. The pushed out mouth. The headed shaken side to side. The hands on hips.

I was waiting in my car yesterday afternoon in Mandeville town centre. I’d double parked and was getting tooted by a few taxi drivers and yelled at by a few people, “Muv de cyar outta di rode nuh, Dadda!” Then, my eyes caught two things: a bill poster and some vendors on the roadside. I wanted to take a quick picture of the vendors while they sold gineps and newspapers. One female vendor noticed my roving eye and said “Me cyan ‘elp yuh?” I quickly adjusted my glasses onto my head and replied, “No, I’m just trying to read the poster behind you.” Her eyes opened a little wider and she smiled, cocking her head a little to the side. Oh dear, I thought, she thinks I was making a proposition and now I need to make sure that she understands that I am not interested in anything she may be selling. The verbal exchange might have seemed clear, but the ocular exchange was fraught with danger. I was saved as the person on whom I was waiting came out of the Top Loaf bakery, bullas in hand, and jumped into the car. I pulled off hastily.

I don’t know how many Jamaicans have bothered to read the IMF’s report, or even looked at its table of contents (noting that the country has above average literacy rates). Let’s assume that at best it’s no more than half of the population within the island. The majority of the population, therefore, is not really focusing on what the IMF has to say. It is more likely–as good Jamaicans would–to be taking good note of what it can perceive of the IMF’s body language and what the IMF appears to be doing: Is it nodding, shaking its head, smiling, tapping its fingers, drumming its foot, kissing its teeth? Those ‘non-verbal’ signals come and will come in the form of how the IMF reacts and the money it’s prepared to dole out. Talk is cheap; money buys land. The IMF’s no charity, mind, and it has said basically that the country is in a major bind: ‘Repeated efforts to overcome these economic problems, often with Fund support, have failed to result in an enduring recovery.’

Mandeville is far from Hell in anyone’s eyes, and it’s no Paradise, either. It’s a lovely spot, sitting on lush hills and benefitting from cooling breezes. It’s local economy and society has many features which mimic Jamaica as a whole: it has a strong base in the bauxite industry; it has excellent educational institutions at all levels; small-scale agriculture is still an important part of its life; small businesses abound; it has a strong religious base; remittances from abroad have helped many people sustain a decent life style. It is in a Parish that has produced many brilliant politicians and thinkers. It has many hard-working people. Its economic fortunes have gone down in recent years, with the demise of activity by the bauxite industry. People have seen income-generating opportunities dwindle, and that manifests itself in many ways, including in house-building projects that remain stalled and homes that cannot be rented. However, it does not have the swathes of shanty dwellings common in parts of Kingston. Poor people are plentiful, for sure, but with the land and families as their support, most people appear to be doing better than getting by. It has begun to see an upsurge in certain kinds of violent crime, but that is still on a relatively lower scale. It does not reflect a wasted generation of opportunities. Despite the evidence that economic fortunes have faltered, much of Mandeville seems to bustle now as it did years ago. I get that same impression about much of Jamaica. I note this to say that the ‘truth universally acknowledged’ about Jamaica needs to be stripped down. I’m not implying that the IMF assessment is wrong, but suggest that it begs one to dig much deeper than the words and numbers. So, along my path, I’m going to try to scratch a little to see what I can find under the surface.

A friend asked for my opinion about what to do with a family homestead in Mandeville. I visited it with my in-laws yesterday, and we all agreed that it has a wonderful location, with stunning views to all sides. The house shows its age, but within that aged body are some strong bones: the old iron stove in the kitchen looked as good as new and we could imagine the smells of what had been cooked in it over the years. However, the house needs a lot of renovation. Whether it is sold or rented, it will remain a great place. It would be a wonderful permanent home. It would be a great guest house. It would be fabulous for functions. It needs energy and some money spent on it to bring it up to date. I took my in-laws from that house to Bloomfield Great House, and looked at it and its views over Mandeville. “You see the potential that has been realised, at least in part, here? The homestead has the same opportunities,” I said to my in-laws. They nodded. Sounds familiar?