Please don’t consider alternatives

Just reflecting on Jamaicans’ often common resistance to full discussion, in the following Twitter thread.

Thoughts on some Jamaican productivity issues: traffic woes and paper flows

Last night, I should have attended an important launch in New Kingston. Fortunately, I didn’t try to go but ended up heading to the University of Technology to sign some loan documents for a student. I heard on the radio that traffic was terrible, after another bout of seasonal afternoon rain, and my student sent a text message to say that our 6.45pm meeting would have to be at 7.30, though her class was due to start at 7. After I got home, I had a few thoughts on this common situation, which are in the following Twitter thread:

Random image from my dashcam last night. Old Hope Rd, eastbound

Let’s all play detective 🤔

Over time, I’ve developed a high degree of skepticism. Years of dealing officially with people who have strong interests in hiding information have taught me to at least double check what is presented as facts.

Internet access and social media, specifically, have opened up a flood of false reports, in part because people get a buzz from being part of breaking stories, but also because some like being disruptive and misinformation is another ‘toy’ in their arsenal; some also don’t know how to verify information and rather than being seen as passive or not caring, they will share indiscriminately. At its extreme, there’s just fabricated information. Often, there’s misinformation that gets spread with good intentions but without any serious checking. Sadly, we all have to be the filters. Other than hoping that everyone checks before pressing ‘forward’ or ‘retweet’, I’m not sure what exhortations one can offer.

This is a constant concern, but it sometimes hits home more when one reads or sees something that palpably false. Add to this, technology that allows creation of false images or videos that are not truthful. (The BBC drama ‘The Capture’ is a scary crime story based on fabricated CCTV footage.) Yet, we are often comfortable that what we see and hear should be believed.

If you’ve any experience with photography you’ll know how easy it is to convey false narratives with images, just by simply choosing a particular perspective from which to film.

For my own sanity, I trust few things on first take and often rewatch to see if I note signs of splicing, shifting of angles, etc. That’s harder with amateur videos, say, that purport to be ‘live’ action, with its shakiness, etc. But, I often look for tell-tale lies, such as signs or evidence to disprove a certain claim regarding location or timing. I saw one video of a robbery in Jamaica where the vehicles in the footage were driving on the right side of the road–we drive on the left. Without sound, eg foreign voices or accents, one can easiy be fooled. A video of police allegedly beating a young man in Kingston was circulated at the weekend, and is now being investigate by the JCF. However, one of my first thoughts was to recall reports of people dressing as police to perpetrate crimes. That is not a new story (see ‘Beware of criminals in cop clothes‘ reported in 2015, and convictions of people impersonating police officers). As I noted to a fellow blogger, yesterday, I was also intrigued initially by the seeming lack of concern by the alleged policemen given that it was clear that people were using phones to capture their actions. This incident, first shown in a 30 second video on social media, was followed by much longer video versions of the incident (WARNING: VIOLENCE & OBSCENE LANGUAGE).

We’re seeing many more instances of ‘citizen journalism’ and flitering is often harder because the initial intent is usually just a personal recording that then turns into something more interesting, especially if the incident shows apparent law breaking. At its more amusing and less harmful are the plethora of pet and children videos. At its more disturbing are the CCTV images captured of crimes or misdeeds, eg inside people’s homes by caregivers or inside instutitions where responsible caregivers are seen to be abusers.

But, it’s a set of difficult paths to tread. We’re finding in Jamaica that well-intentioned video taping of traffic infractions may be less useful if the person recording is not prepared to be publicly associated with it, for a bunch of understandable reasons (reprisals, collusion, etc). Each person has to find his/her own comfort level. We do know, however, that video evidence has not eliminated misdeeds, most vividly in the case of police officers wearing bodycams or using vehicles equipped with dashcams, which are then the source of corroborating evidence. The Brookings Institute (2017) study, ‘Do body-worn cameras improve police behavior?‘, stated ‘The behavior of officers who wore cameras all the time was indistinguishable from the behavior of those who never wore cameras…Those officers may become more likely to use force when they know camera footage will demonstrate the facts were on their side.’ 

So, we’re left with another puzzle to solve in the Internet age.

 

The muse isn’t dead

Writers are often advised to write what matters to them. But, sometimes you don’t write because dealing with the matters in words doesn’t seem so productive. However, things that matter are all around, and to use another cliché, a picture says a thousand words. So, here are a few thousand words.

I drive past this squatter community just outside Kingston several times a month but often cannot get a picture as I’m behind the wheel. This weekend, I was a passenger and our car was stuck in traffic. Voila! It looks near idyllic but is a warren of unmarked lanes and limited access. But, for many it’s home, though it represents one of Jamaica’s perennial social problems.

I rarely see soldiers not acting as guardians, so it was interesting to see a squad out exercising just as I joined friends for golf on Saturday morning. I wasn’t due to play as I’ve back issues. One of my friends is a retired major and he explained how it was necessary to teach the recruits to run and rest with equipment.

Few things catch my attention as the wonders of nature. The mimosa flowers are so fine and delicate and so contrary to most flowers. I remember that there sensitive to touch. Awesome!

International travel is much less fun these days. But it’s sometimes less arduous. I fly through Atlanta last week; it’s a huge airport. My connection time seemed ample till I remembered that the concourses are long and connected by a train. Fortunately, one of the buggy drivers saw me limping and offered to take me to the train link. I love the clean lines of the design of these stations: shiny steel.

What you been up to?

I’ve been chirping around in other places over the past few months, thinking and writing and expressing my views but not in essay format. I’ve enjoyed taking in my surroundings visually and taken lots of pictures.

Typically Jamaican things always catch my eyes, like these boiled crabs sold in Kingston at Heroes Circle:

Scenes from travels abroad-Exuma with family:

Time spent with family and friends doing enjoyable things, including watching tennis legend, Roger Federer, win another title in Miami (when I should have been travelling with my wife on business to China):

Enjoying the wonderful natural sights of Jamaica:

Working a few golf tournaments like the US Open at Pebble Beach in the bitter cold of June 😱 but worth it to see another living legend, Tiger Woods.

So, bear with me while I reestablish some writing equilibrium. My thoughts are freely flowing on Twitter (@dennisgjones) and my pictorial interest shows up on Instagram using the same handle.

The Citizen’s Guide to the 2019-2020 Budget: a good start, but…

First, let’s be happy about what the Minister of Finance is trying to do in making the annual budget something that more people can understand and relate to. That latter aspect is important because it raises the chances that policies will go in the desired direction. For the first time, there is an attempt to put a non-technical document out to the public “in an easily understood format”. It’s close, but has a few steps to go, I’d argue.

Amongst those steps are ‘how will more people get to read the document?’ We’re long past the days when pamphlets about government policies were only available at official outlets and in paper form. So, a pull-out supplement in a Sunday paper is welcome. But, we know that many don’t have or want their access limited to this format. So, while the website address to the ministry of finance is prominent on the front of the document, a visit to that site doesn’t offer an electronic version of the guide. Why not? Worse still, the site listed under ‘Resources’, http://MOF.gov.jm/documents returns a ‘404 error’!

Put out the document in electronic form across the many social media platforms that now exist.

Economics is not a subject that is short of jargon but its use should be minimal when describing things. Also, simpler terms are better, I feel: ‘used’ is better than ‘utilized’, ‘aids’ is better than ‘facilitates’, for example. Plain language goes over better.

Graphs and charts are good, so use them more.

Accuracy is important but understanding doesn’t demand precision.

At the least, the decimal places could be dropped and the numbers rounded, eg J$274,447 millions. That should make for easier reading, at least.

Consistent simplification is needed. It’s great to see a heading like ‘Where does the money go?’ but why should we then have to translate ‘compensation of employees’? Couldn’t it be ‘What money staff get’ or similar?

There are some ‘inaccuracies’ that can be confusing: ‘bilateral institutions like the IMF and World Bank’ is wrong–they’re multilateral institutions. That difference can be explained simply, if needed, by pointing to bilateral institutions (citing the bilateral partner country).

While the guide doesn’t ask for feedback, I’ve offered it! However, I think feedback should be sought explicitly. After all, it’s better to hear how well citizens feel about the guide.

Just some thoughts. 🤔

Sometimes, the frustration with Jamaica is just overwhelming

Last week I had a periodic rant (see thread below):

I’d just gotten back from San Juan, Puerto Rico, where my wife had been attending a Clinton Foundation conference on disaster recovery.

More than anything, I was struck by the look of a city that had suffered devastating hurricane damage less than two years ago: it was almost pristine. When the taxi driver had told us on the drive from the airport about water up to the fourth story of buildings, that was mind-boggling enough. Jamaica hasn’t had a major hurricane hit for several years, but the country knows well the widespread devastation and how hard it is to recover. So, why does so much of Jamaica look like it’s still recovering from a natural disaster? That’s where my frustration starts.

When I add the fact that Puerto Rico has been on its economic and financial knees, my concerns grow. Successful clean-up isn’t about good institutions and organizations but goes deeply to how people have strong sense of common purpose and pride.

That goes to answering questions like ‘How do we want our country to look and feel?’ It can’t be that we’re happy with grime and grunge mostly and the occasional sprucing up around major holidays or if US presidents are visiting.

We don’t have to totally replicate the look of San Juan, but it’s not a bad look.

What also strikes is the contrast in speed and cohesion of what’s being undertaken. That stings more now as many parts of Kingston and its metropolis are undergoing extensive urban reshaping–and I use that term instead of redesign for a reason. So much of our urban change reeks of disunity and that lack of cohesion stems from basic poor design through the obvious lack of communication with key parties that would ensure, at least, minimal disruption. Too often, we hear of or experience that much to our collective detriment: I’ve lost count of the unplanned power outages and water supply disruptions that have been caused by road construction damage.

I asked recently where are the cost-benefit analyses that should accompany the major projects underway. If they exist, they’re probably well-hidden in a draw. Why? Because, if they were glowingly positive do you really believe the government would want to hide them from plain sight?

Our patriarchal system of government is so entrenched that citizens just keep sucking it up and get ready for the next gullet full of bile. But, we are all losers in that case.

It doesn’t take a cynic to find political slogans like #NewJamaica more than a bit distasteful. One just has to remember has a newly-finished road, built to alleviate congestion stemming from one of the major new road projects, flooded and collapsed. (See reports on Chesterfield Drive.)

Image courtesy of RJR News

Out came the excuses from the National Works Agency about blocked drains that rendered the work so quickly unviable. You have to wonder how many of that agencies employees put on their outer garments before putting on their underwear. There’s a simple sequence to work, including that part called preparation. So, in the absence of that being adequate, how and why is there surprise at failure?

My rant ended by saying not caring is ingrained. In saying that, it’s easy to conclude that failure is similarly ingrained in much that gets undertaken in the name of the Jamaican people.

More servings of the mess of pottage?

Happy new year!

I’ve been wondering what to write about in 2019. I still haven’t decided if my general line is going to change from looking at things in the socioeconomic space of Jamaica or more generally about things to do with my life, personally. However, while I ponder life goes on.

I drove to Mandeville early yesterday morning, for the first time since my father died in November and was buried in November. As I drove along the all-too-familiar road heading west, I thought about several things.

First, I pondered what it means (to me) to be an economist. I see a lot of barbs thrown the way of economists, and I usually bat away those coming in my direction with what I hope are some helpful insights into what economics is really about. Many people see (macro)economics as merely about forecasting (right or wrong) economic outcomes, and proposing policies (workable and not) to deal with such outcomes. While that may be where many hang their hats, the underlying basis of the discipline is about trying to understand change, especially its motivation and things that influence it. At many levels, economics is about watching a marble balancing on the head of pin; it won’t stay there, but where and when will it fall? Economists are never out of subjects to study because nothing remains unchanged.

I often focus on things that don’t work in Jamaica even though they seem to act out well in many other places. One of the obvious reasons is that we have lots of undercurrents that don’t exist elsewhere or are less prevalent. One of those undercurrents is our sizable informal sector. By, its nature, it’s a sector that stays away from formality, often because its activities border on the legal. So, we often find that policy actions can’t operate through established channels, and thus tend to fail rather than succeed. Take a few simple examples from daily life seen on my drive yesterday.

We have two new bans in operations in early-2019: one, single-use plastic bags under 24×24 inches (don’t ask me why it’s not stated in metric terms, given that we’re supposed to be on a metric system–but that goes to another point), another on sugary drinks in schools. So, should I have been surprised to see children being sold goods outside the main schools in Porus in small plastic bags, or vendors supplying schoolchildren with what looked like sugary drinks in unmarked plastic bags? Of course not! Who and how are such bans to be policed? But, this is the informal sector at its core: the pursuit of personal gain irrespective of wider social issues. It’s a Darwinian ‘fight for survival’ and as such is often accepted because there’s no ‘social safety net’ that could provide income support for those who seek to ‘do a little thing’.

Anyone who has had to enter or leave Kingston in a westerly direction over the past two years must have experienced the road ‘improvements’ underway on Mandela Highway. One of many peeves expressed by a good number of people is how the roadworks happen with scant regard for safety of non-vehicular movements. We have high-speed two-way traffic often separated by no more than flimsy plastic barriers. We have people needing to cross the highway but with no adequate provisions for that. Instead, we see impromptu attempts to get traffic to yield to allow such crossings, often a pedestrian waving arms to alert fast-oncoming traffic. One wonders what it would have taken to construct say a temporary footbridge.

Relative to the main road works, such construction is neither some new-fangled idea or major. By not doing so, government tells us explicitly how it regards lives of pedestrians over other road users–lowly, even at zero.

What these two seemingly unconnected sets of actions tell us is simply that (typically), on the one hand government shows scant regard for citirzens, and in return citizens play scant regard to government’s wishes (as expressed through policy actions). That combination is a recipe for continual failure. Sadly, government often seems oblivious of its own ‘foot-in-mouth’ posture and wonders why changes are slow.

Arc of the covenant: Thoughts on a migratory path

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Why did my parents choose the paths they did? After my mother decided to go to England to further her nursing career, why did my parents do what they did? My father could have stayed in Jamaica with me and kept on a nursing career path already underway. He could have taken me to my mother in England and left me with her (she had potentially good family support there). Long-distance relationships were, and still are, not uncommon amongst migrants, so too are families where children get left behind while parents seek work abroad. Splitting the household could have minimized risks and removed many uncertainties. I could have grown up as a ‘barrel child’. Their son could have moved along an educational path that, while not certain, was better known and understood. Instead, he was pitched into a new educational set-up, which he navigated better than many of his migrant peers and ended up well-positioned, as his parents had hoped. My parents opted to move into a world that often treated migrants as second-class citizens, especially in key areas like jobs and housing. What a huge risk!

At what point did any of these options get discussed or discarded? Of course, I can’t now pose those questions of my parents.

That the choices they made did not leave them on the floor of migrants’ fortunes over a period of 25 years is fascinating. They succeeded far more than they failed. For instance, they moved from renting small basement flats in London’s inner city to buying houses in the suburbs. That’s a good story to tell.

No way could they have foretold events that would leave them living comfortably as retirees in Jamaica, debt-free, pensions coming predictably from the UK, largely protected from exchange rate losses, not uncertainly from Jamaica in depreciated dollars.

Hindsight is 20-20, so I don’t know how much second guessing my parents did through their lives, but I know they were happy with the outcomes.