The stock-flow dilemma of Jamaica‘s progress. Is it mainly about playing political favourites?

Economists often have to draw distinctions between the problems created by stocks (balances at a point in time, which show how things have accumulated) and flows (changes in balances over time, increases or decreases). Depending on the topic concerned, stocks can be so large that only massive changes in flows can affect how things appear. Put simpler, if I have $1 million in my bank account, it wont change if I take out 2 percent a month ($20,000) and receive the same amount as new income. It will grow if my income outpaces my drawings; and decline only if my outgoings outpace my income. But, stocks can be so large or been accumulated over such a long time that people find it hard to conceive of them changing. In this sense, it’s useful to think about some of the social, economic and political problems in Jamaica in terms of how it may be possible to manage the stocks and what can be done to change the flows.

For any country, these ideas are important because it will take a lot of change in one direction to alter what we see and perceive as the situation in the country. People often look at developed countries and see how their accumulation of wealth has left them with assets that won’t decline in a hurry. By contrast, less-developed countries appear less well-endowed and their assets often seem in a precarious position.

For example, while the average age of cars the USA’s is just over 10 years, Cuba’s stock of motor cars is about 60 years (dating from the 1950s) because it had to endure an US trade embargo and restrictions on personal ownership of cars. With the lifting of the embargo, scope is now greater for new cars to be imported, but there’s still the issue of whether many Cubans can afford to buy new cars. So, seeing any major change in the ‘antique’ look on Cuban roads is unlikely to happen fast.

For Jamaica to make it from here (where some things seem alright, but many things are not alright by any stretch of the imagination) to there (where most things are alright, and some things absolutely unparalleled, and few things seem not alright), means dealing with the huge balance of ‘bad behaviour’ that manifests itself in many spheres of ordinary life, and subjecting the country to an enormous flow of ‘good’ behaviour.

We can scan the whole terrain of Jamaican activity and identify where and what those bad behaviours are, and what good behaviours we would like to see in their place. So, a classic example is the behaviour of licensed taxi and minibus drivers, who seem to have laws unto themselves and use the roads in near-total disregard of the rights of others on the roads. So, society has to withstand dangerous maneuvering, speeding, overloading, abusive and aggressive behaviour. This is made more appalling to me because their passengers seems to tolerate (and in some cases, encourage) such behaviour. So, bad behaviour is tolerated by most motorists and by fare-paying passengers, so get bigger validation. The police do a poor job of implementing road regulations and dealing with infractions by this group of motorists, which gives further validation. So, the bad drivers have little incentive to change. The costs of their behaviour are borne by the bulk of society and they profit to the extent that passengers readily run to them for transport instead of shunning them. The solutions to these problems cannot come from amnesties on road fines or occasional displays of ‘zero tolerance’. Like pulling off the heads of dandelions, the weeds soon reappear because the roots have been left untouched.

It is not possible to list here all of the misdeeds that make up daily life in Jamaica, and if I tried, anything I missed could be seen as lack of appreciation on my part or lack of observations. So, run through your own list of the things that peeve. The principle is the same. But, let me add a few more that many will know and wonder if they will ever change.

Informal settlements. The country is littered with housing that has been erected by people who decided that they wanted to live somewhere but did not go through any formal processes to obtain land and/or erect housing. Consequently, the country is well-known for the many ‘zinc fence’ communities, made up of ramshackle structures initially of wood but now including some that are made of breeze blocks. While such communities have solved a housing problem for those who chose to that route, they fall short of what can make communities work well. Roads and pathways have been created that may lead in and out, but may not be able to deal with even the simplest of vehicles: these are warrens made for foot traffic, mainly. They can support easily modern motorized service vehicles to deal with garbage and emergencies. They do not have features that make it easy to trace inhabitants, eg road names and house numbers. Consequently, many see such communities as natural breeding grounds for those who wish to be less visible, especially if they are involved in illegal activities. But, they are places just waiting for a disaster to happen. Lacking planned water supplies, sanitary provisions, or electricity, people can survive but tend to be worse-served than if the communities had been planned. By being unplanned, such communities also put an unanticipated burden on provisions that had been planned. In other words, they overstretched what would otherwise be adequate services and this tends to make life worse for a greater group of people. The solution to this problem is not with piecemeal measures. The quality of life and housing in such communities has been well-set over decades and wont change with some community programmes or installing stone walls instead of zinc fencing.

Poor quality roads. Pot-holed streets are as much a signature of Jamaica as are its zinc fence communities. Whether the deterioration of the roads reflects poor design, poor construction, overuse, the unanticipated results of extreme weather, or some combination of these factors, the result of a road structure where driving like a slalom skier is more the norm than the exception. Such thoroughfares are dangerous in general. When they occur in areas where travel is already risky, say in hilly or mountainous areas, it’s a wonder that more accidents don’t happen. No sooner are such roads repaired than they appear to start to fall apart. That leads many to wonder who has been gaining at the expense of society by authorizing and implementing such inadequate constructions. The solution to this problem cannot be through more patch-and-mend repairs; roads deteriorate faster than they are being repaired.

The physical differences in the examples I have cited mean solutions will have to be different in kind, but they have a commonality in that incentives have to change to make people want to do things differently.

  • Taxi and minibus drivers and owners need to suffer greater costs for their disregard of road rules and the needs of other users. Whether these are fines, lost licenses, seized vehicles, prison terms, or other forms of punishment, something that shifts greatly the cost-benefit calculation for them is needed.
  • Informal settlements need to be reorganized so that they become integrated with the general housing and settlement conditions accepted by the majority of the country. They need to be more formal, for the benefit of the greater society. The benefits that may be enjoyed by living without costs that others have to bear have to go. Costs borne by society as a whole have to be shared better by those who live in such communities. Some will say that nothing short of wholesale clearance and resettlement can offer a solution. Maybe, but we should know how difficult such schemes have been when tried (in whatever circumstances, eg in British slum areas) in other countries. The communities have a social cohesion that will be broken and that has to be managed and monitored carefully. Gradually changing such communities may do little to alter fundamentally the problems that exist.
  • New road designs and better construction may stop the current frequent process of build-collapse-rebuild-collapse-rebuild… But, the problems may lie less in physical construction than in administrative weaknesses, ie poor management is the real culprit. So, even if concrete roads were in principle likely to give Jamaica much better road surfaces, those who manage the process of contracts and monitoring them may be so involved in a series of corrupt practices that even these roads will be seen as inadequate.

Each of these problems show things about Jamaica that are pervasive and seemingly hard to change without a series of massive or cataclysmic changes. None can be swept away with the flick of a finger. Each requires major physical changes and changes in how people perceive what they are entitled to do. We also have to separate the problems.

Cries of ‘foul’ by those drivers who claim that their opportunities for making a livelihood are being curtailed need to be set against the daily mayhem their behaviour creates; the wins can’t all be theirs.

We need to make informal settlers understand that moving to areas that have insufficient housing does not entitle anyone to just construct fixed structures to solve that problem. (The problem in some other countries manifests itself with people moving into mobile homes and setting up ‘camps’. Camps can be moved without people losing their homes, and sometimes are, shifting the problems from locality to locality.) Cries about ‘homelessness’ that may arise if such areas are removed need to be set against the anarchic situation that has been allowed to exist.

Our road construction problems aren’t solved for most by new highways built (mainly by foreign companies) to higher standards and under processes that seem to avoid certain malpractices. To replace all the bad roads with roads having guaranteed longer durability would impose an enormous cost and inconvenience on many travellers, but would seem worthwhile if it stopped or reduced substantially the constant repairs that seem to be the current norm. Is society ready for this process and trusting of those who will set it in train?

If, by some miracle, it were possible to get every Jamaican to commit to behaving correctly from this time forward then our problems would be solved. We would stop hoping that people would behave. But, that miracle is unlikely to happen. So, the best we can hope for is that most people decide to act in this correct way, and those who are misbehaving decide to do no more misbehaving. But, even that is a big hope. What is more likely is that many Jamaicans will behave and try to weather the storm of the many Jamaicans who see continued misbehaving as what they spend their time doing. That’s where we’ve been for a long time and it wears down those who are on the good side, and makes it harder to see or believe that the bad side is not taking over and swamping the good.

We have accepted that it’s unlikely that some moral and civic wave will wash over the country so that those who misbehave will see the errors of their ways, repent, and change.

One of our grave problems is that many people have no experience of life being lived differently and of life being such that hustling and trying to beat down each other is not the only way. Our social landscape is not filled with enough bright lights who can say they shine because they did it only the right way. That’s sad because it means that people who could have succeeded by merit have to acknowledge that they got help from ‘connections’. So, if even those most likely to succeed don’t trust merit alone to move them ahead, what hope is there that those at the other end–ie most likely to fail–would choose to do otherwise?

We could offer the case of Jamaicans who migrated and how they have managed to succeed in countries that lay greater stake on orderliness and merit, and appear to deal more stringently with corruption, but again our landscape would show that such successes are few amongst the first generation (products of Jamaica), and those of later generations are really products of their new home, so have essentially been socialized differently.

Dealing with many of Jamaica’s problems now seem daunting to many people, because the problems seem so widespread and the strong impression is that the bad are quickly out-fighting the good. So, even if say 3/4 of the island’s nearly 3 million people are good citizens, the impact of the remaining 1/4 is so significant as to outweigh them. Put simply, the significant minority is beating hands-down the majority. People feel under siege from several fronts, and that creates levels of stress that have reached intolerable levels for many. Any one of these stressors could be a trigger for an explosive reaction.

But, how ready is Jamaica and its policy makers to tackle any or all of these problems? Part of the answer rests on the extent to which policy makers’ hands are ‘clean’, ie to what extent are they direct or indirect beneficiaries of the bad behaviour?

We know that to be part of the problem with public service vehicles, where members of the security forces are known to be owners and operators of taxis and minibuses, which creates clear conflicts of interest when it comes to implementing road regulations.

We know that informal settlements can be and are pockets of political support which would be diluted or lost completely if the communities were disrupted.

We know road contractors have been favoured by political connections but cannot determine if that also involve unwarranted financial or other gains by public officials. Rigorous policies on asset declarations would go someway to seeing if that were the case.

So, we have to do some serious self-examination. If a major part of the problem comes from the convoluted intertwining of political favour and implied misappropriation of public funds then its unlikely to solve itself.Our country is driven by partisan politics and it would be too risky for one party to cede control in the name of ‘levelling the playing field’ for the nation as a whole, versus the party.

If political favouritism isn’t the root of the problem, then does that imply we are a country that love to inflict pain on itself?

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I’ve not addressed specifically the problem of violent crime here. My own feeling is that it manifests features that are much like those in the three examples I cited: an official tolerance for certain misbehaviour that has then grown to a level that has more momentum that can be addressed by ‘simple’ policy changes. Instead, certain people have to be forced to accept costs and recognize losses. That politicians (and by implication, public officials) are involved in proven–at the very least in the creation of the ‘monster’ that now roams the land. To what extent are they still involved? Only they can say. Is the country prepared to look squarely into the eyes of this elephant in the room? Measures like Zones of Special Operations (ZOSOs) cannot do much as they affect little, if at all, the culture that says crime pays. Our low rates of capture, clear-up and conviction are testimony to a swathe of failed policing and justice practices, plus a society more inclined to keep silent about what they know than give up criminals.

Moving experiences: the power of the new

Several people found my post about the stress of moving earlier this week had lots of personal resonance for them. Some also asked me to do some more posts as things went along.

One of the things that moving does is put time into perspective. In our case, having had many personal belongings in storage for a few years, their release has exposed the ravages of time–some things do not thrive when not used or kept in artificial conditions–as well as the speed of change in recent years.

The ravages tend to ‘attack’ things that need air and light. So, many wooden things we have have lost some lustre and may need a lot of TLC to get back their sheen; maybe, some good doses of linseed oil will work wonders.

Technological change has been rapid over the past few decades. Nothing shows that more than the world of electronics. However, the side aspect of this is how homes have had to change to accept these changes. For instance, we left behind a house that had an armoire and shelving to house a television and stereo music system. Well, now the world is full of flat-screen and wall-mounted TVs, so no need for furniture. We have the space under the TV and the cable boxes, etc. need to sit somewhere, but not in the old-style (relatively) set up.

Wall-mounted, flat screen TVs now the norm

Most people are not fans of dangling wires and I can now understand how nice it must be to design and build your own home and have these wires and cables hidden or so set up that they are not so readily visible. Anyway, time to think about creative coverings.

We’ve moved from a world of music on discs and tapes to a world of streaming. So, I had to smile when I came across some packs of blank cassette tapes. I should ask my teenager if she knows what they are.

What!? Cassette tapes

A friend suggested I sell them on eBay, and there’s a good market.

We don’t even need a radio to listen to radio broadcasts, as many cable services offer radio stations in their packages.

What about WiFi? Long gone are the days of having computers connected to the Internet. Now, we have wireless access all over, or almost all over, and get antsy if we have weak signals in any part of the area. I am thinking about leaving some of those weak spots, though, as a kind of ‘quiet zone’, especially as that is around the master bedroom. I’m pretty comfortable with many changes and all the little things one needs to know about setting up Internet connections. But, my heart goes out to those who never grasped how it all works. They may even have never mastered the remotes for the TV and still are at a loss when new equipment arrives and has to be used. Like the transition from a kettle on a fire to an electric one, it can be an odd shift.

We’re also having to deal with the ‘new’ that is not so new, that is living in a different climate and culture. The climate part is great in that summer all year round is a joy. But, life is different in the tropics. I do not freak out when I see lizards crawling over my sneakers, but I’m reminded I need to check my footwear before sticking my feet in 🙂 If you don’t like living things sharing your space, then see you later. Ants love people and their food supplies. I’d rather remove the temptation than spray, etc, but my wife loves to be armed with Bagon. Then, there is the bad weather. I have not been keep to open lots of windows because I don’t know how the rain falls where we are. When it rains, it can pour hard in Jamaica, and much as I love fresh air, I do not like surprise pools of water because I did not realise from where the rain comes.

So, as we plod along and things take shape, little adjustments will get made. I’ve mastered the lights. Success! Set realizable goals. Few boxes today than yesterday? That’s the spirit!

Tear down this wall?

One intriguing aspect of the informality that characterizes Jamaican economic and social life is housing. If you’ve visited the island and not noticed the galvanized zinc/corrugated iron surroundings for some communities, and the plyboard sidings for many homes, which mark shanty towns, then you were asleep or not paying attention. If you’ve missed them, then drive near some of the gullies on lower ground in Kingston, or alongside rivers around the island.

“I would tear them down,” I heard someone utter last night as we approached Kingston from the west, along Washington Boulevard. “Then what would you do?” I asked. Unsightly, they may be, but important they are, too. They display very clearly some of the strains put on a nation as it develops. Poor people looking for work and new opportunities far outstripping available housing. With a large enough housing stock, one could see more rooms to let absorbing most of the newcomers, if they were able to afford rents. When Caribbean migrants went to the UK, USA, and Canada, after the mid-1940s, that’s what many found, and they did not need to make shanty towns. They often lived in substandard and overcrowded conditions, at least, initially.

Shanty dwellings or similar are not new, historically or geographically, especially as urban areas developed and people left the land to find work in larger towns and cities.

Estimates put squatter populations at about 1 billion, worldwide, about 1/6 of world total. Other estimates put the number of squatters in Jamaica at about 1 million, about a third of the total population. Poor services, limited amenities, high-density living, drugs, crime, diseases–all are part of daily squatter life.

Those squatters, despite their parlous and shambolic housing, often mean votes. They certainly do in Jamaica. Who’d want to dislodge voters from their homes? Keeping people in such circumstances, however, keeps the embers burning under a possible tinderbox, so, periodic social explosions should not come as a surprise. These communities can also be the source of many vibrant and creative social elements, as people claw and scrape to rise from the slums.

Last year, sociologist Peter Espuit wrote an article about Jamaica’s housing challenges. It explained much of the social and economic origin of the migration from rural areas to urban ones, especially Kingston. He also focused on the inequalities to which housing added. Importantly, he looked at the political significance of squatter and low-income communities in the tribal cauldron of Jamaican politics.

Maybe, if you have no constituents or no national links then you can talk glibly about tearing down the zinc. I don’t see any spanking new housing sprouting up to take any of the shanty dwellers. Clearing the areas without any provision for the new homeless is tantamount to insanity.

Perhaps, it was propitious that today’s Daily Observer included an article about Digicel’s role in revitalizing downtown Kingston. By bringing business activity back into the long-rundown waterfront area, hopes have been raised. Digicel added to life by investing in rehabilitating Coronation Market. Interesting, revitalizing housing downtown doesn’t get much mention. Poor people adjacent to budding business areas often sit awkwardly. Think about the City of London or Wall Street.

However, for life to be brought back into downtown housing, which now has swathes of slum housing in what were once good housing areas, one would need something like gentrification to occur. Is that likely? This phenomenon, common in developed countries, has featured little in developing nations, including the Caribbean. Developing countries have focused more on new housing rather than rehabilitation of existing housing.20130825-141804.jpgJamaica may not have a substantial enough cohort of identified gentrification types for that to be a realistic trend, near-term–affluent singles or childless couples, homosexuals, and artists or ‘Bohemian’ types.

Enough Jamaicans know what it is to live in poor housing, or to have limited services. I know many who drive past the shanty dwellings and think back to either childhood days or life in deep rural communities, if not their own, then for someone close. Go, ahead! Think about tearing them down.