Explaining government (economic) policies is too important to be left to government: EPOC, EGC & CaPRI show why

I was struck by an Editorial in The Gleaner on May 23, ‘Good Initiative, Mr Duncan, But …‘ noting (my emphasis) that Keith Duncan, co-chair of the Economic Policy Oversight Committee ‘has taken his show on the road. He is on an education exercise, going into communities, attempting to break down the seemingly arcane ideas of finance into the language of the people and show the relationship between achieving the IMF targets and people’s live.

The Editorial noted that many more Jamaicans that would have been the case otherwise will have a better understanding of the targets the government is committed to achieve under the IMF programme. That should make for better buy-in from the nation.

But, the Editorial saw ‘a risk, should he not be careful, of the blurring of the lines between the committee’s job of monitoring performance, based on the empirical analysis of a specific set of data, and the responsibility of political leaders to enunciate policy and explain to constituents the basis on which competing priorities are resolved.’ Further, the Editorial argued ‘Mr Duncan should be wary of being perceived as usurping the role of Government. We are quite happy with policing the implementation of the programme, rather than being drawn into social engineering.’

My view is this perceived risk is that it is not that great. Many agencies and commentators can and will attempt to help others understand what government is doing, and their stipulated roles are usually kept fully in view. If there are issues in certain interpretations, part of a good democracy would be that government can express its displeasure, if it amounts to that, or conversely express its thanks because sometimes others are better at the process of explaining policies. In fact, that’s one of the key features of a free press/media. Also, government’s explanations of what it is purporting to do can often be self-serving, not least because politicians like to give the best impression of what they do, seeking to extract credit and minimize blame.

Today, I spoke on this topic on Facebook live. You can watch the video here: https://www.facebook.com/dennisjonesasiseeit/posts/1386788341414056

During the talk, I drew attention to the other recent attempts to explain better parts of government economic policies, as undertaken by the Economic Growth Council through its public forums, and the think tank, Caribbean Policy Research Institute (CaPRI), with its recent public forums (on the 2017-18 Budget and this week on ‘Strenthening Integrity through Innovation’). All of these events try to draw the public more closely ‘into the tent’ and be part of the dialogues that are going on.

My view mirrors that expressed by educator and advocate Carol Narcisse:

“The economic programme is not going to be successful if we the people don’t understand it, don’t participate in it, don’t think it is a good thing, don’t see how it is going to benefit us, and if we don’t have an equitable way in which to both participate and benefit from the results of it.”

I would agree, also, with the complementary view she expressed: ‘EPOC going ‘On the Corner’ is an example of participatory democracy and is an extension of its responsibility to provide oversight.’

Credit to The Gleaner, who introduced the ‘On the Corner’ series, in the lead-up to the 2007 general election. A cynic might wonder if The Gleaner Editorial was not being somewhat disingenuous, in that the role of explaining policies and many other elements of government is often a function well performed by the media, and The Gleaner might really be seen as trying to protect a little of its own turf. But, surely, they wouldn’t be doing that, now, would they? Would they? 🙂

Ending the redundancy in the economy: a tale of addresses

What is the relevance of a ‘proof’ of address in the current world? With the advent of mobility, especially in communication, where you supposedly ‘live’ is of less importance than it once was. More generally, your ‘home’ may be one of several places where you may be found, regularly. Many people spend more hours daily in their offices and may feel that there is more likelihood of that location remaining fixed than their current residence. For that reason, many people put their office location as their address. To the extent that is done consistently, then the office address will be the one that is used whenever ‘proof of address’ is sought, but few, if any live at the office–despite claims to the contrary when hours at work become an issue in personal relationships. At best, ‘proof of address’ proves somewhere to which certain documents may be sent, maybe on a regular basis. Yet, for sure, I have a proof of address for somewhere where a document has never been sent.

Jamaica is one of those places (and they are plentiful in the Caribbean) that puts much store in ‘proving’ where you live. It goes to many lengths to get this ‘fact’ established. But, it’s of little true meaning. Yet, I had a testing time with it, recently, as I tried to transact something quite simple that seemed to get unnecessarily complicated.

I was excited at the prospect of moving my mobile service number from Flow to Digicel: enough had become enough. As with grades, a move from an F to a D was progress. (We’ve had number portability in Jamaica since June 1 2015, but many people are still unaware. Simply, you can port mobile or fixed-line numbers, but only within a service category, not between services, so no mobile to fixed, for instance.)

Digicel, like many companies in Jamaica, request proof of address, so they asked me to go through this loop. I’m a special case, but I easily highlight much of the meaninglessness of such requests. The normal ‘proof’ requested is a combination of utility bills, or government IDs, or letter from certain categories of people (JPs, Ministers of religion, or police officers–we can argue about that listing).

Now, it’s obvious that one can consume the utility services but not be the person whose name appears on the bill. That is a matter of personal financial arrangements in many households. It’s also the case that one can consume other services at an address, but this is (arbitrarily) not regarded in the same light (no pun intended) as a utility bill. If you have regular service of a pool, or use a gardening service, it would be clear how that goes.

I pointed out, somewhat facetiously, that being an atheist, with no contact with either policemen or JPs who could vouch for my residence, having moved my power source to solar, taking water from my well, and using small amounts of bottled gas or coal to cook, I had none of certain utility bill proofs. But, I had my local driver’s licence and my voter ID card, so why were they not sufficient, given that they vouched for me as a person (with my TRN) and location (as the voters registration involves a visit to my stated place of abode)? The reply was not at all convincing. I wont bore you with the iterations. I went off in irritation.

More frustrating was the fact that I had been a Digicel mobile customer for several years, my address for them was the same as on my government IDs, and my payment record was known and exemplary–I clear my bills on time each month. So, for what logical reason would I need to provide additional proof of address? The replies remained unconvincing.

The real concern, it seems, with their opening a post-paid account–which is really allowing customers to live on credit–is ability to pay. But, the so-called ‘proof’ offers no such guarantees. If we assumed that they had interest in coming to visit, to check out what living conditions were like, then I’m still not sure that the ‘proof’ really helped, as one could easily arrange to be there just for the visit. (That same concern applies for registering one’s voter ID, but I will not walk that path, today.)

Many people, feeling that ‘pay-as-you-go’ phone services are better and cheaper for them, go the pre-paid mobile phone route. Many people who cannot, or do not want to, provide a set of (accepted) proofs of address, also go the pre-paid route. The risk is that in an emergency or other unforeseen situation, one could be without credit or access to data. But, that’s a personal choice, with the attendant risks. (Increasingly, in a world where free wi-fi access is the norm, this latter concern matters less.) I prefer to know that I have continuous mobile service at all times. But, that’s a side issue in the story of ‘proving’ where I live.

I could not go through the loops to the satisfaction of the agent I was dealing with. I pointed out the impossibility of my meeting the conditions, and the absurdity of asking for this proof from someone who was already a customer. His stumbling block was that my bill from the competitor mobile provider had a different address. But, budge he would not. I left. This non-movement struck me as stubborn stupidity. Why would it matter what address I had on the other service, when I am coming to you for service, and you already have my address?

I went to another point of contact, and engaged Digicel in a ‘conversation’ on Twitter. They sent me a list of possible solutionsscreen-shot-2017-02-11-at-12-35-34-am and assured me that what I had offered was sufficient. Emboldened, I went back to the Digicel branch to start the process again. I had offered bank/credit card statements, but Jamaican institutions seem to not understand that foreign financial institutions can have valid Jamaican addresses.screen-shot-2017-02-11-at-12-51-45-am So, my statements from my US bank and American Express, both of which carry my Jamaican address, were rejected. My head would have been hurting had it not been for the fact that I have it full of common sense (rather than red cents?).

When I got back to the branch, the supervisor got involved. She told her junior that all that I had offered was indeed accepted, especially as the government IDs had addresses that matched the Digicel bill. Yeah!

But, I also mentioned my exceptional situation, which I had pointed out to the junior in my first visit: I have a diplomatic ID card (without an address), but that puts me into a different category, where the ‘proofs’ of address are not necessarily required. (I was asked for a letter from my ’embassy’, but I pointed out that the ‘ambassador’ was my wife, and that this seemed to be weak proof of anything except love. The point did not seem to register. Anyway, I said, no such thing would be requested, as it was utterly senseless.)

But, why should one have to be so stubborn in not accepting seeming foolishness to get to a point of sense?

So, the port request was submitted and…it did not go through! Well, that seemed to be down to some technical issues that Flow had. I’m not going into the conversation I had with a Flow contact centre agent, who told me that I ‘needed’ to visit a store to have the technical problem dealt with. I was stern and said that as I was not the cause of the technical problem, I did not see how my going anywhere could be the solution. The agent repeated the need, and said that she had given me an ‘explanation’. Sorry! I pointed out that nothing had been explained. The line went dead for several minutes. She came back and repeated her statement. My position didn’t change, and I suggested that maybe some departments within Flow needed to talk to each other, and someone call me when the problem was resolved. She said that would not happen. I said ‘goodbye’. (Interestingly, when I had a technical problem with my UK bank earlier in the week, they had done as I now suggested, and gotten some departments to resolve the problem and call me back.) I raised the issue with Flow on Twitter.  I did not bore them with the details, merely that porting was not happening. They promised to check: screen-shot-2017-02-11-at-12-53-20-am

That was at about 2pm. By about 6pm matters had been resolved. screen-shot-2017-02-11-at-12-56-55-amI was ready to be ported. I asked Scotty to beam me up on to the Starship Digicel and move at warp speed away from my ‘abusive’ relation. They did.

It’s early days in my new relation with an old partner, and it seems to be going smoothly.

But, there are serious economic implications in this simple little story. This kind of ‘saga’ happens often, in Jamaica. During the day, I had been with a friend (also a male spouse on a diplomatic assignment), who had gone through the same loops. He related how in a south-east Asian country the process had not been needed, and the whole transaction took a few minutes, and not the hour that seemed to be the norm–in part because the Asian country keyed information into a computer, when the Jamaican style was to hand write details.

Here’s the kicker in my story. I have just moved. The ‘proofs’ of address definitely do not prove where I live. However, I am now in another Catch-22 loop, where I need to provide proofs of my new address to be able to have my old addresses changed. I hope I don’t have to spell out how that cannot happen 🙂

This search for proof of address redundant! This search for proof of address is largely meaningless. It’s a bureaucratic loop that satisfies some checks but offers little of real significance. Yet, it consumes time and energy and in that way is a drag on the economy. I do not expect the Economic Growth Council to solve this sort of problem, but it may be useful for them to think about things like this as yet another strand of red tape that binds us.

The institutions need to think about what it is they really need, such as proof of ability to pay, which may be more difficult, but it is certainly pertinent.

The Jamaican economic paradox: how a stagnant economy can not look that bad

One of the conundrums that has puzzled some economists for decades is how it is that Jamaica, supposedly mired in stagnant growth for decades looks as good as it does. Admitted, that Jamaica does not look very good everywhere, and the places where it looks terrible are really pitiful to see.

Several suggestions have gone on the rounds: 

  • Informal economy is large and many real economic activities are not measured fully. This covers the many activities, like vending, where small operators do not register formally their activities, but also includes things like illegal drugs trading. 
  • Remittances are significant, so domestic economic activity can seem sluggish, but private inflows from abroad keep many afloat.
  • The economy has many layers–income inequality is high: those much better off can and do live well; those very poor can suffer enormously. 

There are other factors that may be at play, but these cover many of the significant options, I think.

The idea that Jamaica can grow much faster, as measured by official data, is exciting, and as the Economic Growth Council gets the mantra of ‘5 in 4’ rolling more, people may be energized to look for signs that faster-than-anemic growth is soon to arrive. I’d like to see it, but I will not be holding my breath. However, I’ve been pondering a few things in recent months.

The seeming weakness of the Jamaican dollar against the US dollar is a boon to many people. I’ve written about this before. Those with US dollar assets have made significant gains in recent years, especially with domestic inflation falling sharply. Put simply, those bananas that cost J$300 a dozen 3 years ago, were costing just over US$3.30 when the J$ was at 90 to the US, but now cost US2.35, when the J$ is about 128 to the US. That’s a 30% gain in a world of minuscule gains. Of course, the cost of imports has tended to go up in J$ terms, as the rate fell. 

I also made the point that one has to look at the basket of currencies to really appreciate what the exchange rate has been doing. So, for instance, those many people who had work links with the UK and now are retired in Jamaica, have seen lesser gains, as the pound has been pummeled against the US dollar. Nevertheless, they have done better than if they just had J$ assets. 

Those with access to foreign travel–and they may well be largely the same group who have US dollar assets–can keep the quality of their live higher by sourcing goods and services directly from the US. But, that group is supplemented by those who get goods (and some services) directly from relatives and friends abroad–call them ‘barrel people’. 

Construction in many places has been going on quite rapidly, mainly residential, but also commercial (plazas, here and there) and bigger projects, like hotels. 

We also have the paradox of seeming to grow because we are inefficient. As I wrote recently, digging holes and refilling them is inefficient, but shows up as more economic activity. Farming is hard to judge, but the data show that recent good weather has boosted agriculture, coming off a severe drought.

Services are even harder to judge. Financial services may well be growing well, in terms of profits and balance sheet. But, I would always want to know about the quality of financial services, where I get the impression many are unhappy. That’s not easily measured. 

Telecom services would be another fast growing area, as many Jamaicans love their mobile phones, and are getting to love more cable TV and internet access in many forms. 

Anecdotally, we can come to lots of conclusions about growth. It was never utterly flat, I think but the spread was uneven. I’m not taken by notions that traffic is a good indicator (weak pun), given that we are disastrous at planning road works and have lots of roads that get jammed for the silliest things. 

So, let’s see what data for 2016 Q4 show. I think they wont be so pretty. There! I’ve said it.

Economic Growth Council Signing Ceremony and Call to Action: Some thoughts on the illusion of optics

I did not attend the Economic Growth Council’s (EGC) ‘Signing Ceremony and Call to Action’, held at the Courtleigh Auditorium on November 7, but I was able to watch the Livestream video of the event, which you can watch here https://www.facebook.com/EGCJamaica/posts/275339559528471. There’s lots to applaud in how the EGC packages what it’s doing, and its slickness is one of the positives that can be taken from what they are doing. As I’ve noted before, I’m interested in aspect of the process of getting Jamaica onto a much faster growth path. Achieving that should be important in getting more Jamaicans contributing to the well-being of the island. Traditionally, high growth rates would be translated into faster and broader jobs growth, but many things have changed in the local and world economy, so that the prospect of ‘jobless’ growth is a real risk. That’s an outcome that Jamaica needs to avoid.

One thing that struck me in the presentations was how much of Jamaica seemed to matter. Now, I might not have been looking or listening with as much care as I could, but if so, please correct me. I saw only a few representatives of many of Jamaica’s important people. Who do I mean?

I mean farmers, vendors, schoolchildren, young single mothers with many children, the sick, the unemployed, the young men whom we often talk about as being disaffected or alienated.

Now, as is the way with many events, the process of ‘reaching out’ is often done hastily or incompletely. But, to me, this series of omissions is telling. When I watched the video ‘testimonials’ of young people telling me what they were expecting and hoping I heard what seemed like a narrow cross-section of those who are also yearning. Again, these ‘sound bites’ cannot be comprehensive, but they should give the impression of being broadly spread. I did not get that impression. Why do I think that matters?

One of my big concerns is that amongst the mistakes that we have made in the past and are in danger of repeating is somehow acting as if the change we want to see will be organic. Time was, when economies grew, people knew work would be created across a wide area of the country, so that no or few special measures were needed to see that flow occur. My belief is that those days are long gone, partly due to technology, but also due to the fact that the structure of the country has changed, both geographically and culturally. What that suggests, to me, is that some careful funneling needs to happen. That cannot be like in a planned economy, where you direct resources very specifically to areas and people, but it may need to be something similar.

I think the notion of inclusion is important, but do not see it happening spontaneously. My belief is that a large swathe of the country has actively excluded itself, or felt it was excluded, and so needs to be actively included

Some of those who need to be included live in the ‘shadows’ of our society, but that does not make they trivial; on the contrary. They have significant influence on many people’s lives. If crime is seen as the biggest challenge to getting Jamaica’s economy onto a much firmer footing, that cannot happen without addressing the flow of young people into crime. The motives for following that sort of life are complex, but talking about ‘opportunities’ in some glib, or amorphous way will miss the target massively. 

I do not have the answers to this problem, but I see what is happening in many areas as a sign that all cannot be well if the process does not reach deep down into daily lives. I just cite a simple set of experiences.

I drove across the middle of Jamaica on Sunday, from the tourist hub in Montego Bay, through our Trelawny agricultural heartland that grows sugar cane and yam, into the capital. I saw many men and women doing what they do almost daily: 

  • Sitting playing dominoes, or drinking and eating; 
  • Standing at water pipes or walking with drums on their heads to and from water tanks;
  • Living in homes that are barely fit for purpose;
  • Putting piles of produces onto roadsides, hoping for sales;
  • Getting into overcrowded taxis to head to their activities;
  • Begging on the road, at traffic lights;
  • Walking along potholed roads, long distances, to their activities;
  • Making phone calls to people on a list, plying them for money.

I just cite those snippets because they are representative of what many people are doing.

The idea of moving from ‘third world to first’ is attractive, but what does it mean, and is it something that means that people’s lives will be transformed dramatically AWAY from some of these daily activities within the next four years?

If the answer to those questions is to mean anything, those people need to know what will change in their lives and what they need to do to make it happen faster and look likely to be a permanent feature of their lives.