Reasoning ability 101, Jamaican-style-April 27, 2021

The house phone rang last Friday and my wife answered it: “Dennis? I’ll get him.” Before she even started to approach, I asked her who it was and what did they want. People don’t generally call me on the house line. She said it was Z, who helps around the house, asking about a machete; he’d gotten a message from our housekeeper, who’s gone abroad to sort out her passport. My wife relayed a message that Z had read our housekeeper couldn’t find the machete. I just jumped out of my couch. “Stop dealing with foolishness!” I yelled at my wife. She couldn’t understand why I was so frazzled, so fast. She told Z that he could speak to me when he next came to the house, in a few days.

He came to do one of his regular sessions yesterday, and I asked him about the call. He explained that ‘Miss G’, the housekeeper, had left him a message on his phone about a missing machete. I looked at him and asked how she could be concerned about such a thing, given that she’d been in the USA for about 10 days. He kept on about the machete. I said that’s not relevant, but just ask himself what sense the message could probably have. It was more likely that an old message just appeared on his radar. He blinked and saw that he was chasing a rabbit into a dark blind alley. But, he still went to check on the machete, which was where I had left it the day before, after doing some chopping. The ‘missing’ machete was a figment of imagination, but concern about it based on a message from someone in the USA showed a lack of intelligence.

If it’s still not apparent, there’s no way that our housekeeper, 3,000-plus miles away could have any issues with things going on at the house, unless she’d suddenly become Superwoman with x-ray vision or had master intercontinental travel without need for aircrafts.

I have lots of conversations with people in Jamaica where they don’t see that they have no logical basis for the points they want to discuss. But, they press on, regardless, and I keep saying the basic principle of the argument has no sense; just stop the discussion.

I fall back on the fact that I was only educated for three years of prep school in Jamaica and I know that they (rote) teaching here leads many to struggle with constructing arguments without first establishing some important assumptions about the points at hand.

I had a similar experience yesterday when discussing the exchange rate, where it seemed some people didn’t understand the basic arithmetic of exchange rate conversion, so that they did not see immediately that if someone had say US dollars, then the Jamaican dollar depreciation was a gain for the US dollar holders. They still went on about how people were suffering from the weaker Jamaican dollar exchange rate. Worse still, someone stated “only rich people gain from deprecation”. I guess all those ‘rich’ people we’ve seen lining up outside Western Union and other remittance agency offices prove the point….NOT.

Such is the lot of many issues in Jamaica. I’ve decided to really give my brain a holiday and not engage in discussions where people cannot see white and black are different, let alone that there’s a place between that’s grey.

Jamaica and its ‘fight’ with crime: haphazard approaches may work, but they cannot have certainty.

Economics is one of several disciplines (and they are in both the arts and sciences) that force you to think about many problems from first principles, elaborate on those initial conditions, apply various assumptions to that, and then move to conclusions. These conclusions can then be tested in theory (with mathematical modeling, for instance) and practice, by trying to look at real world evidence and seeing if that comes close to what one would expect. However, much of life is an ongoing experiment, and we do not have the luxury much of the time to hold things static or to know whether some or many of our assumptions held true before events, through events, and hold true still after events. Humans are responsive, so modify actions based on past experience. All of that simple summary is to say what?

I have some clear views in my mind about what kinds of things work with humans and which dont. Those views are borne less out of economics and more out of living. However, I hold onto one strand of economics all the time: people always respond to incentives. Once you understand the structure of those incentives, then changing those is what will change behaviour. 

Now, we could argue to the end of the world whether or not some incentives are stronger than others, or if each incentive works the same for each person. That’s where life gets really complicated. Example: Many people use pain to get others to respond. That works better for people who have low pain thresholds. If you have a high pain threshold, someone may have to go to the ultimate point of taking your life (and maybe not even then) to get a response. 

Money is similar, in that we each respond differently, depending on our starting level of assets, and our prospects for those assets to increase or decrease. We have different tolerance for risk and different responses to rewards. Some cousins asked me to play poker for a pot of US$20, and I said I’d be interested if it were US$2000; they were not. They played and got really jacked up at the end to collect the US$20. I watched the NFL game. 🙂

So, what about crime? In particular, what about crime in Jamaica?

I fail to see how one can make a case for doing ‘something’ to ‘deal with crime’ (whatever that something is, and irrespective of the element of crime that is to be addressed) without some basic tenets and questions concerning:

  • What you see as the problem? 
  • What you tried?
  • What worked?
  • What failed?
  • How you responded to failure and success?
  • Who are the actors?
  • What are the intereconnections?
  • What are the rewards from crime and what are the risks that are being taken and overcome?

Those are just some simple questions whose answers would then lead most people to say an understanding of the problem has been shown, and we know what weaknesses and strengths we are dealing with on the many sides of law and order and law breaking. 

To my mind, none of that has anything to do with things like politics or culture or gender or a host of features and attributes that make for some interesting colour, but do not go to the fundamentals (economists love those).

So, I am about as interested in labelling someone and their opinions as I am in knowing what colour underwear they have on today. 

What I have seen repeatedly in Jamaica on the matter of crime is simple. Its main actors in leadership positions, who are in the business of law-keeping, have not been able to tell a story that makes sense from start to finish. When that is the case, the one clear conclusion is that there is much misunderstanding, much confusion, and little real idea of how to solve the problem. (What economics tells me, and it’s shown to be true in life, is that in such circumstances the responses that come forward MUST BE REACTIVE, NOT PROACTIVE–because, you’ve no real idea how to deal with the root causes, so treat symptoms.)

Before someone jumps up and shouts how unfair that is, I will ask one simple question. If successive Ministers of National Security have called on prayer and God as their answers to the problem, what are they doing taking tax payer money to perform a job that they say is not theirs?

If someone wishes to paint me a different picture, I remain as patient as ever. 

I suspect that the excitement about August Town going murder-free is founded on a series of results that came from many of the questions I posed above being asked and answered. 

Crime ‘fighting’ must be like the way that healing works in the body: it starts from the inside, not the outside.

The good, the bad, and the ugly (April 13, 2014)–The Thinking Jamaican Edition

Jamaica has some very sharp-witted people. We also have an inordinate number of those termed ‘not the brightest button on the jacket’. Some of our thinking is heavily constrained by certain moral and religious positions that make sense to some but little or no sense to others. We also have a bunch of people who, rather than fess up and acknowledge that they have done something really silly, will sit there and bluster and bluster and wait for the house to be blown over. The saddest part of that is it’s so awfully obvious. Add to it a bit of pomposity and you’ve got yourself the makings of a great interchange. Anyway, let’s have at it.

Good

I will single out JUTC (Jamaica Urban Transport Company) for a series of moves trying to make its segment of the public bus transport market a saner place. Most welcome were the quick measures to stop people throwing stones at buses. The series of attacks on JUTC buses is suspected to be by people thought to be opposed to the reformed sub-franchise bus system introduced by the JUTC on April 1, 2014. JUTC recorded 18 other incidents over two days which left damage estimated at J$2.5 million to a number of the company’s buses. The police have arrested a number of people in connection with the attacks. However, the Joint Coalition of Transport Operators has sought to distance itself from the series of attacks.

The new system for sub-franchise operators took effect on April 1. Under the reformed system sub-franchisees are now required to abide by a new set of regulations which include painting their buses yellow, wear uniforms with clearly displayed identification cards and have route numbers and franchise stickers displayed on the back and front of their vehicles. Order! Accountability! They are also required to pay a fee. According to the operating groups, the sub-franchise fees in some cases have increased from J$280,000 to $756,000. They have been warned that licences will be revoked if the requirements are not adhered to.

JUTC is also going to get heavier with its existing ban on preaching/evangelising on its buses.

It takes all sorts...
It takes all sorts…

It may make for a colourful journey (though I should say that as I’ve not had to deal with it, though recall experiences on the train that used to run across the island, and know it from similar activities in other cities). Jamaica does not have the lock on that. The logic of some pastors/evangelists is that they must spread the word of the Lord wherever and whenever they can. Some of them say we must listen or remove ourselves.

An already tense atmosphere in the process of travelling by bus may get more tense.

For Jamaicans, problems are often obvious and speak for themselves
For Jamaicans, problems are often obvious and speak for themselves

Bad

Yesterday morning, I wrote about the strange way that Jamaicans think. I headed out to spend the day at the National Stadium complex, where my daughter was swimming in the Mayberry Investments Prep/Primary Schools Swim Meet. I go the complex each Thursday for my daughter’s swim training; I occasionally go there at the weekends for swim meets or sometimes for track and field events. A few things have struck me about the management of the complex, which is the responsibility of Independence Park Ltd, a government agency under the Office of the Prime Minister. IPL’s mission is ‘to manage the entities under its control as viable facilities ensuring that they are maintained at “world class” standards‘. I imagine that most patrons going to the complex don’t know that mission. I wont speak about the other places managed by IPL. But ‘world class standards’ are eluding them, if we’re talking about high standards.

On the many occasions that I have visited the complex over the past nine months, a few things have struck me.

The flow of people is poorly managed: Parking is provided at the complex, and available in three main areas, but I have never seen a sign indicating the parking areas. In somewhat typical Jamaican fashion, it seems that the notion is that if you’ve been before you’ll know where to go. Except that one area is ‘to the back’ of the Stadium near a community called ‘Nannyville’. Parking is for a fee, usually. I have never seen a posted fee structure. Instead, some ‘security personnel’ man the gates and inform parkers of the tariff. That’s a lot of interaction for each car, which tends to make things slower. It also invites negotiation of various forms: people who think they don’t have to pay (eg those in diplomatic vehicles); those who don’t want to pay; those who will pay but want something else, whether on offer or not. At least one guard spends a lot of time telling people that they cannot enter by the gate marked ‘Main Entrance’, to which many drivers flock, naturally.

When multiple events are being staged, such as yesterday with a major all-day swim meet and a major track event, the parking areas are designated for each event, except no one has bothered to make a sign to indicate that. Look, Jamaicans love to put up sign, and even in our sometimes bad English, it would be easy to write ‘UTech Classic Meet parking here’ or ‘Swim Meet parking via Nannyville entrance’. The result? Minor chaos yesterday morning–that, well before the track meet started at 4pm. People got angry as they found they had to turn away from entering near the main gates, or the front of the stadium, and circle around to Nannyville. Lines were forming at the front and the manoeuvering was getting harder as cars started to “bump up against each other” as one angry woman retold the tale. Probably, made worse because many visitors are not regulars at the complex. The guards seemed to lack a few basics in courtesy (and probably were met with similar by some), and “did not have any manners”, as the lady also retold. Lines to enter via Nannyville started to stretch back a long way: the gate had one guard, who in the absence of a sign that said anything other than ‘No entry’ on one side (closed) was having to handle each driver who had a simple query, “Where do I park?” I got there early and parked easily, but judging by announcements at the pool area for drivers to come to move their cars, which were blocking others, things got a bit tight.

I suggest that IPL review how a few excellent stadiums manage the people and car flows. I won’t tout the US, necessarily, but it’s close and has lots of venues of similar size and layout, albeit in a society that is much more car-oriented.

I don’t know how IPL interacts with other agencies and, therefore, which of these problems come from that interaction not working well. But, if that is part of the problem, I’d hope that the OPM would be able to knock heads together and get the matters sorted out. Funnily, for all the talk about Jamaicans and aggressiveness, there’s an amazingly high level of tolerance for the kind of nonsense that exists at the Stadium complex. That may be part of the problem: we know and accept “that’s how we do it”.

Ugly

Pride of place has to go to Northern Caribbean University (NCU, for its banning of a student for her part in a cheerleading routine that ‘deviated’ from what was approved (though NCU never vetted the whole routine so it’s not clear what deviation there was from something incomplete–head shaking already). For the record, the team was disqualified and then the summons process began. The proximate problem was that the female student, playing the part of a male groom on top of a wedding cake-simulated pyramid, apparently kissed the hand of the female ‘bride’. She was called to a meeting (I simplify the bureaucratic language), during which she was asked some questions about her personal life (for reasons NCU have deemed no one need know) and handed a two-week suspension from NCU; to this was added a two-year ban from all extra-curricular activities at NCU as a ‘probationary’ measure. Well, some lawyers have had a field day. NCU is a private Seventh Day Adventist institution, but accredited by the University of the West Indies, so has to be consistent with UWI’s overall philosophy, not a law totally unto itself. NCU has also not been as open and clear as it should be. We heard that the student did not show enough ‘remorse’ and that weighed on the punishment. She also attended the meeting with a tongue piercing and without her student ID. Good grief! You’d think someone would either have told her to go get the ID, or given her a ‘temporary pass’. Likewise, if the tongue thingy was so offensive, she could have been told to go to the washroom and remove it before the meeting began in earnest. Too simple? I guess, if you are after pound of flesh.

Many have talked about ‘natural justice’ and punishment fitting the ‘crime’. NCU have not explained why they punished just one of the cheerleading team, and the girl who was on the top, not her supporters. This was not a solo performance, after all. NCU said that another student called to the meeting did not attend. She has not been ‘found’ and hauled before the ‘bailiffs’. They said, when pressed during a television discussion, that investigation are ‘ongoing’, except that no one has been scheduled to any more meetings. All of this coming over a month after the incident. The other students may be ‘in hiding?’, or have run home? NCU surely know who they are. The performance has now featured in videos circulating on YouTube. (Some wags have said the ban should have been for the performance being long and boring.)

People are talking about rules and abiding by them. NCU haven’t actually said what rules were broken, but give the impression that we all know and agree that what happened was terrible (presumably alluding to same-sex relations) and needed to have a student put out of circulation for the rest of her university life, somehow on a probation that is not for review. Sha-Shana James, the student, said on CVM TV that she has no intention of returning to NCU. I wonder why? The school seems to have been a bit knee-jerky and got itself into a least one pickle after another. Take a look at the video of the routine. If the university is about ‘ethos’ etc, you have to wonder why they are getting students to perform cheerleading routines, and ones that start with hip-swinging routines. In this case, they seem to want their (wedding) cake and eat it, too. The amount of onscreen dancing by Charles Evans, who was speaking for NCU on CVM the other night was a little disquieting. NCU has seen only one culprit and have not really sought anyone else. That’s discrimination and they know it and seem to want to play it as something else. But, given that NCU upset some students late last year with  a new policy that makes the absence from the twice weekly chapel assembly punishable by expulsion from the institution, we have to understand that the place is strict. But, strictness and sense are not substitutes. The routine was a depiction, not real. The rationale that a man was too heavy to play the role himself seems reasonable. The troupe did not suddenly collapse in disgust as the final move was played out, suggesting at least tacit approval by all in the troupe. Anyway, enough head shaking.

If NCU has a problem with student’s sexual orientation, then be upfront about that and put it on the table. In that sense, the ‘performance’ is irrelevant. If it’s the performance that is a problem, then deal with the performers in a way that makes sense. Look, I for one wont judge NCU for being consistent in applying its rules, but don’t do this cherry picking and dissembling.

Read Orville Taylor’s take on the incidents. Read also Carolyn Cooper’s accounts of the incidents.

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