#COVID19Chronicles-327: February 27, 2021-Lenten reflections 11-Where is the PM? Here!

One thing about most politicians is they prefer to be associated with good news rather than bad. So, it’s been interesting this week to watch the barbs ramp up about PM Holness, and whether he has been MIA (missing in action) while the pandemic effects of Jamaica have worsened, especially into 2021. If I were really interested, I’d track the minutes, hours, and days from the first needle prick to a full response. Well, one response appeared in the media yesterday, and the PM made clear that he didn’t feel he’d been missing, because he was “working behind the scenes”.

This muffled cri de coeur reminded me of a photo that was taken and published of the PM ‘working’ on a plane that purported to show him ‘working’ while on an official visit to China in 2019. First reactions, were funny, as the plane interior looked swish and many thought first that he was on a private jet; it was just first class on a nice airline like Cathay Pacific.

Of course, those shots need to offset the impression of a junket that some take when they seen politicians doing what looks like tourism, such as trips to the Great Wall of China:

The public also get confused when they see politicians doing what they call leisure. But, taking exercise is often seen as a good thing by most people. I’ve noticed how some politicians have played with the optics of their taking exercises; it sometimes backfires.

Many people don’t know how bureaucracy works so need relatable moments to convince them their tax dollars are being put to good use. Having been on the inside many decades, it helps to know that work often never stops for many in bureaucracies. Some would then say they should work all the time for the people. While many expect their politicians to be super human, they also want them to be relatable and like them. It’s a no-win situation.

But, it’s funny to watch.

#COVID19Chronicles-111: August 3, 2020-LAWYERS MUST TRY CASES IN COURT (WITH EVIDENCE)!

I thought that lawyers were regarded as one of the noble professions. Maybe, as with many things, it’s worth doing a reworking of social values to reflect modern conditions and be more modest about ‘nobleness’. Not meaning to stamp on anyone’s corns, but this commentary by Gordon Robinson makes one wonder, again, about the ethics of those who are supposedly mired in ethics in their professional pursuits.

I’ve become distressed at a “worrying trend” which sees some lawyers trying their cases in the media rather than the courts. I don’t like it.

LAWYERS MUST TRY CASES IN COURT (WITH EVIDENCE)!

#COVID19Chronicles-106: July 29, 2020-Bank of Jamaica goes primeval

Lake Placid - 1999
Photo Credit: Bob Akester-scene with Brendan Gleeson in ‘Lake Placid’

I have a lot of time and real admiration for our central bank, Bank of Jamaica; after all, I worked for 10 years at the Bank of England 🙂 But, my feelings are not knee-jerk ones of kindred spirits. I really admire what they are trying to do to make their business more understandable for a wider audience.

The principles, practices and language of central banking are not always easy to understand. Most people understand what money is, though they may have to be guided to realise it’s not just cash, but also money held on deposit to be used in payment; that it can include domestic currency as well as foreign currencies.

The exchange rate and foreign currency loom large in the thinking of countries like Jamaica, that have a lot of business with foreigners and can literally see money coming in and going out of the economy, and the movement of the exchange rate is often felt or perceived sharply. But, again, much more foreign currency flows than is visible to the ordinary citizen: banks and other financial institutions, corporations, government and some individuals conduct their transactions well away from the sight of people, as massive flows move between accounts. For the longest while, Jamaicans had to pay careful attention to the exchange rate and foreign currencies because the latter was in real short supply and the former reflected that as it went on a move to lower values. That’s changed in reality as the country moved to a floating exchange rate, though this hasn’t necessarily been well understood by many.

Jamaicans, not unlike lots of people, stake their pride on the strength of their national currency against others. The anguish of a major devaluation or a series of depreciations is real for policy makers as well as citizens, and I remember how Britons reacted when the pound sterling was devalued in 1967, from US$2.80 to 2.40 (14%) and PM Harold Wilson needing to reassure people that the “It does not mean that the pound here in Britain, in your pocket or purse or in your bank, has been devalued.” Whether Britons understood how this was an alternative to massive foreign borrowing, I can’t say.

Then, we have inflation, or the movements in the so-called general price level. Lots of people struggle to understand that prices going up or down is not really what inflation means, but whether this is persistent.

Wrapping all of that up and talking about each and every as part of monetary policy usually leaves many reaching for the off button or swiping away from that output. Let’s not even try to talk about what it means to supervise the financial system and macro-prudential concerns.

But, what the BOJ has done is to unpack a lot of the mystique and make it simpler to understand. They’re now famous for putting monetary policy to music. What was as notable as the medium was the international acclaim for the initiative:

For what it’s worth, the Bank of England had tried long before to make what it does a bit more accessible, but to a more limited extent, and not in as catchy a way. 

But, cometh the moment, cometh the man, and the BOJ has seized the power of social media fully in all its glory.

Generally, the BOJ has sought to really engage the public through this medium. It’s common for it to use its Twitter feed to have real conversations about topical matters and it’s carved out a style that’s also jovial, including with its sort of dorky ‘spokesperson’, Croc-O. Doyle, who has become a literal mouth piece for the bank. Everything you ever needed to know about the difference between alligators and crocodiles was explained by the BOJ:

It’s had a number of efforts to calm national nerves about the exchange rate, which is not running away, but people seem to treat with apocalyptic fears with each downturn.

Yesterday, it did something a bit different but necessary in terms of ‘setting the record straight’ by summarily dissecting the misinformation circulated by a commentator on matters economic, John Jackson:

One could say the croc bit down hard on its victim and wrestled the life out of him with some vicious clamping of the jaws.

I don’t want to stir the pot too much more, but this is what we need a lot more of from public institutions: letting the public know what they do on a regular basic and dealing with the flurry of misinformed, ill-informed, or downright wrong facts and opinions. I’m not going to say anything about the style or tone—my own fingers get very sharp edges when people just getting their facts wrong 😉

 

You wan’ breadfruit? Roas’ or fry?

Among the many popular songs and dances in Jamaica is the ‘breadfruit’ song. Like many things in Jamaican life, it’s about a series of ‘this or that’ choices—we’re not big on the deep nuances—black or white covers most views. That goes too for politics, where the choice is green or orange, or in terms of voting symbols, head or bell. Now, I won’t pretend to having been brought up by nuns or having to live a cloistered life, so for me the choice between head or bell is really about more of the same just called differently. If you don’t know what I mean, I suggest you go into a men’s locker room and rummage around with the players and I think you will *see* what I’m talking about.

Let’s get something crystal clear: Jamaicans do not go to the polls weighed down by policy choices between candidates or even parties. It’s more about what’s on the menu: curry goat and rice (maybe, white or rice and peas); fried chicken and curry gravy, with rice and peas; maybe, some soup—mannish water or red peas. There! Voting issues resolved. Now, that is not a cynical glance at what is a known piece of corrupt practice, just *on the ground* observations of what’s left after political activists have passed ‘this way’.

Now, three by-elections are due to be held on October 30, but you may be forgiven for thinking only one is being held—in St. Mary SE. Let’s humour the Electoral Commission and just focus on that one seat, a moment.

All was going swimmingly with a little bit of political fighting about why and when a road improvement project needed to be approved and gotten underway. Pork! Food! Then, for reasons that could well be down to an excess of *white spirit*, a little administrative oversight got into the picture, as the PNP candidate was found to be a non-Jamaican and to boot a citizen of two other countries. Yes, yes, they’re both Commonwealth and that means they are not necessarily ‘foreign’ in the way that the British reconfigured The Empire, like the EU but without Maastricht Convention and certainly no visa-free entry between the countries. So, along came Shane, call me ‘Sugar’, Alexis, aka ‘the man who’s Canadian, Grenadian, but not Jamaican (I can’t take time to line up to do that), ready to serve you, faithfully’. Think about that and if you have doubts about the ‘faithfully’ part check out the Yello Pages for the PNP’s National Executive. If I did not know better, I’d think the candidacy paperwork had been entrusted to an intern, who scarperred at 4pm to go get a smoothie and head off to a yoga class, yelling ‘I’ll do it the morning!’

Now, all eyes are on citizenship issues, or the fact that a non-Jamaican could…just could…end up as the head of government in Jamaican. Oh, Canada! Without going too far down the road of possibilities, I just hope that if Seamus O’Alexagoran gets elected that Justintime Truethough doesn’t get an invite to Kingston and create an embarrassment of our PM singing ‘Oh, Canada’ with hand on heart and being silent when ‘Jamaica, Land We Love’ is played.

All eyes have turned to matters other than electoral issues in St. Mary to the how and why of this rather big faux pas (easy to understand if you are from Canada?). But, it’s a distraction, PNP diehards yell. Oh, yeah?

That paid ad by the man’s party tells you distractions are rife. 🤔 So distracting that the media needed to be informed that ‘citizenship soon come’ (see Gleaner report, Alexis submits citizenship application). C’mon, man!

Well, the election was never going to be about the head or the heart, but about the head and the bell. But, wait! It may now be about the head and the…foot. This latest piece of political theatre was…I don’t have the words…*ankling* for attention?…getting a firm *toehold* in the area…doing real *legwork*? I really don’t know.

But this kind of *foota hype* isn’t new, and barefoot (or feet in the water, to be exact) electioneering was already a thing. But, as some commentators noted, walking IN water is not as extraordinary as walking ON water.

My father is from SE St. Mary and I’ve an aunt who came back from England to resume her life there. I know from a long time ago how bad roads, access to electricity and water, have been and still are in that area. Dealing with it, as so many Jamaicans still do, is part of our national resilience. But, politicians love to promise and then fly away after elections–though some have been using helicopters to get into the area (how convenient!). Just, don’t forget about the people and the promises after October 30. Otherwise, it may be a big foot up the jacksy that will send bells ringing in more than a few heads. 😦img_1823

Elections coming, in the sweet by and by…

October 9, 2017, was ‘nomination day’ for three by-elections in Jamaica, which will each be contested on October 30. As is often the way with Jamaican politics, issues are a mere small part of the contest, and much more is about political positioning, name calling, and in-fighting. So, let’s have a look at that, with a little bit of whimsy.

First, political positioning and in-fighting. I’ll be brief. The major seat at issue is St. Mary SE, whose sitting MP Dr Winston Green, died suddenly. The two candidates for the two major parties are both doctors—Norman Dunn (JLP) and Shane Alexis (PNP). Dunn has the #namefortheframe, and if the result isn’t already a *done* deal then it soon will be done, the JLP hope. Alexis is trying to find a name, and his party has dubbed him ‘Sugar’. Well, the JLP wags jumped on that and happily talk about how he will get a *caning* and that his defeat will be *sweet*. Well, we know the medical profession think too much sugar is bad for your health, so whoever thought of that nickname had better go back to writing premature death notices. The seat was won by 5 votes in 2016 and the result was working through court petitions. Will it be close? Well, that old adage of ‘vote early and vote often’ seems to already have its head in the air, judging by a piece in today’s Observer about ‘pre-inked fingers rife’.

In the other two seats, St. Andrew SW, formerly held by former-PNP president and former-PM, Portia Simpson-Miller, will be contested by Angela Brown-Burke (PNP) and Victor Hyde (JLP). This is a PNP stronghold at the moment, or what Jamaicans would call a ‘garrison’, not least because many of the JLP supporters, who used to have a good showing, have ‘run out of town’. JLP won the seat four times, and PNP 9 times, since 1959. But, it’s been PNP/Portia territory since 1976 (though PNP boycotted elections in 1983), with Simpson-Miller getting well over 90% of votes every election since 1989. Hyde will hope he is not in for a *hiding* in such an unfriendly place. Hyde ran before and lost and is out of hiding again to hopefully inflict a major defeat on Brown-Burke. The JLP have started making noise that they see an upset in the making. Funnily, the seat already had an upset with the selection of Brown-Burke, who got in through some backdoor chicanery by the PNP to deny Audrey Smith Facey the selection for which she thought she had been groomed. Brown-Burke won the selection by 595-502 votes in late July. The process had been criticized by Peter Bunting, MP, a former PNP general secretary, who thought the process was not impartial. Bunting, funnily, has his finger in the pie in the other St. Andrew by-election.

The third by-election will be in St. Andrew Southern, formerly held by Omar Davies, who decided he had ‘run with it’ enough in representational politics. There, the PNP will be represented by Mark Golding, currently a senator, and former justice minister. His JLP opponent will be Dane Dennis. Both played the ‘political money’ game, with Golding paying his $3000 nomination fee with $1000 bills, which have PNP icon Michael Manley on one side, while Dennis paid with $100 bills, which carry the image of JLP stalwart Donald Sangster. They say ‘money can’t by you love’, but it does make the world go around. Golding, recently given the shadow cabinet portfolio on finance, has gotten his teeth into that and the finance minister, Audley Shaw, quickly. He’s no newcomer to that topic, and with his close ally, Bunting, has been one of the leading lights in previous successful financial ventures. While Omar, a Clarendon man, seemed to revel in getting into the mud of representative politics, rather than the erudite style of education, I’m not yet sure if Golding can pull that ‘getting down and dirty’ act off. Being educated at Oxford University has a funny way of rubbing off rough edges, if there were any 🙂 But, then again, having dealt with *dons* at… he should have an idea of how to deal with *dons* at home. Mark said he’s ‘no soft, uptown boy’, and seemed to know how to ring the chimes to get rid of his PNP opposition Colin Campbell.

The name-calling hasn’t gotten off the ground much yet, except in St. Mary, and interestingly much of the attempt to generate that has come from someone who has little to do with that by-election, Damion Crawford (PNP), who was de-selected from his seat in the last general election, which then went to the JLP. He’s since focused on his metier as a maths lecturer and ventured into the *shell* game through a liquid eggs business.

The other aspect is what government has been doing to influence the by-election. I’m sorry! It’s a piece of utter naivety for the PM to argue that the rolling out of a major road improvement project for St. Mary isn’t politically inspired. It looks like a duck. It walks like a duck. It’s a duck. It’s not the worst piece of pork-barreling we will see (excuse the mixed metaphor), but call it what it is. Moreover, the more the PM tries to say ‘it’s not a duck’, the more the web-footed waddler looks like Walt Disney’s ‘Donald’.

Well, we’ll let the Office of the Contractor General do its job monitoring the project.

Sure, the Junction road needs a major improvement, but some of the roads in Kingston/St. Andrew are also amongst the most shocking. Sadly, nothing can offer the ‘swing’ potential of the Junction road works. It’ll be interesting to see if some of the PM’s words leading up to the last election about crime and security, such as who should be elected if citizens wanted to be able to “sleep with [their] doors open” come back to haunt him. Crime is an issue that shoudn’t be politicized, but having ‘gone there’ in an effort to win a a general election, it would seem to be ‘fair game’ for a by-election. Let’s see how clean the fighting becomes in coming days.

Jamaica and the IMF: Leadership challenges

Over the weekend, I read the latest IMF Staff report on Jamaica. The basic message was that the country has stayed on track during the first few months of the current arrangement. This we knew from optimistic comments made by various local officials. The tough part, like in most things, is not making a fast start but good running throughout plus a strong finish. My time as a Fund economist led me to understand that the start of programs tend to be attainable.

Jamaica has a poor reputation of not staying the course with the IMF. That’s always puzzled me because much of the financial support needed over the years was always dependant on staying the course. So, deviations meant naturally that a new financial hole was being dug.

People generally have a low opinion of our national political leaders. That’s not to say that the political figures are feckless, but they’ve shown so many signs of faltering under pressure or not fulfilling promises that they’ve made. This can now come back to bite Jamaica when leaders need to convince the population that more sacrifices need to be made in the form of more austerity. Telling someone to prepare for more pain is not easy.

The IMF isn’t on Jamaica’s list of best friends forever. That’s no big surprise. The Fund is usually there to take a battering for policy choices governments have to make but often find difficult to sell to the local population. Jamaicans have been given plenty of fodder to dislike IMF prescriptions, in particular with a currency that has depreciated sharply. But, local political figures have rarely explained well the arithmetic that is behind the movement in the exchange rate. I think most people would get it. Now, they may not believe that a further slide of the Jamaican dollar will do much more than raise the local cost of living. But, the way the program is being put over to the nation doesn’t strike me as compelling.

Perhaps, I’m delusional to think that a more engaging approach is possible. Maybe the decades of disappointing prospects have taken their toll. You may not be able to sell economic policies like a TV program but delivery of the messages need not be dull. I’m interested to see if the ‘face time’ to talk up the program gets ramped up in coming months.

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