What doesn’t kill you…

Friedrich Nietzsche is credited with saying “That which does not kill us makes us stronger.” Kelly Clarkson has made the phrase popular, in recent times, and I would not be surprised, if over time, she gets more credit for the quotation than its originator. 

I listened yesterday morning to a BBC interview between Justin Rowlatt and Nassim Taleb, a professor/economist/former hedge fund manager. He’s written a lot about financial risk, especially, his book The Black Swan, which is about the extreme impact of certain kinds of rare and unpredictable events (outliers) and humans’ tendency to find simplistic explanations for these events retrospectively. He has extended his analysis and was trying to explain his notion of ‘antifragility‘–something does not merely withstand a shock but actually improves because of it.

What went through my mind as I heard his comments, and thought of Nietzsche/Clarkson was that Jamaica (and many Caribbean islands) must be on its (their) way to becoming the most resilient economy(ies) in the world. Jamaica has faltered badly over decades, buffeted by natural disasters, bad economic ideas, poor implementation of good ideas, and more. Should this have been building institutions and people who are able to withstand rough economic times very well? That latter part may be true, in the sense that people have figured out how to survive in an environment where economic gains are slim, even dwindling. But, if true, would we choose that as the way forward? Keep on failing, because it will make us better. I’m not convinced.

Taleb talks with great animation about how Silicon Valley is successful because it embraces what is the ‘natural’ order, of much more failure than success. He argues that any economic activity that has never had the need for government bailout was indicative of areas that would be very successful. He cited restaurants, as an example. Well, Jamaica is full of eating places; I have no idea what the rate of success has been. But, if we assume that most of them have failed, what does that give us? Another good example would be the sports or music industries: we see the few successes and marvel at them, but we often do not see the pile of talented or untalented persons who have tried and failed. Jamaica’s reggae music industry is riddled with failures. In other words, the few who succeed do not or cannot carry the many who fail. (For some, that is precisely why you have government and social programs, because the vast majority of people will be failures.)

We know that luck plays a great part: the right break (a chance to play–baseballer, Cal Ripken got a chance then never missed a game in 2,131 outings, breaking a 56-year old record); someone influential in the audience getting excited; the right time, simple accidents, etc. Christoval Colon ended up in The Caribbean, otherwise, who knows what might have happened to Hawaii?

Rightly, Jamaicans are all agog at what happened to Tessanne Chin. But, she’s almost a perfect example of the ‘hard work pays off, eventually’ maxim. ‘Hard work wont kill you’ is another maxim. What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger. But, it was not hard work alone that got her to where she now stands. Fresh from a wonderful ‘homecoming’ in Kingston, including getting the keys to the city. Hard work can get you there. But, hard work is no guarantee that you will get there. She was a good singer, from a family of very good musicians, who had not gotten ‘the break’ she needed. She got one, and so far, is running with it.

Is the case that Jamaica needs it lucky break? Legalisation of marijuana could be it. Right time? Right place? Just speculating. It may not be.

The failures from which some individuals seem to grow blinds us to what is left behind. Is this why economic failure does not seem to offer the prospect for general economic success? Economic fragility seems to foster greater fragility.

Taxi!

While farmers and fishers may show their KMT attitude through a dogged determination to go on, you see it’s full-disdain cousin in taxi drivers.

20130926-054336.jpgMany people give thanks after taking a taxi ride–mainly, for getting there alive.

Before laying into taxi drivers’ bad side, let’s be thankful that people are there to provide transport to most of the population, at almost all times, and to most places, and at fares that are reasonable. But, at what cost? Taxi drivers control many traffic conditions.

Taxi drivers are notorious in Jamaica, for good reasons. Their instinctive stopping and starting to, pick up or offload people is often the reason for a line of traffic building up. They switch lanes with little apparent regard for rules of the road or other users of the road. They may ignore road regulations, like stop lights or turning lanes. They mayoverload vehicles: but, they must do this with the tacit willingness of passengers. If passengers complain, they don’t do it loud enough or with enough conviction. Passengers stay, like sardines, carrying whatever else they need on their journeys.

Taxi drivers drive too fast, most of the time. But, the fare system is partly to blame. Taxi fares cover routes and are for set maximum distances. No meters. So, full car is more money. Faster trip is more money. When taxi drivers have passengers, they want to finish the rides fast and get new riders. When they are empty you can tell: they crawl along or they wait at the terminus till full. In some cities abroad, the taxi drivers love traffic jams or circuitous routes so that the meter keeps ticking over.

In Jamaica, the driver with the hand pointing ahead is the local version of the ‘for hire’ sign. When I think about it, that’s one simple, sustainable aspect of local taxis. It’s not much, though.

I should not confuse taxi drivers and minibus drivers. Though they are similar, the latter deserve their own day in court.

Taxi drivers are survivors. Some are owners; some rent cars. Those who have nicer vehicles may get different clients, maybe hired or chartered for special trips. They take vehicles, which would often be condemned in other places, and make them into chariots of hire. What if the window won’t go down, or go up? What if the doors in the rear can only be opened from the outside? Note the flexible right shoulders drivers have developed over years of curling them backward to pull door handles.

Give them credit, though. I rarely see taxi drivers yelling obscenities out of their cars. If they are cursing, it must be quietly or just so that passengers hear.

Taxis in Jamaica are not for everyone. Unlike New York or Washington, you don’t see many business people hailing taxis: they have their own cars, or on occasion have official cars. Well-dressed party goers don’t take taxis. Taxis are for those who either have no car or need to move and do not or cannot take a bus.

Taxis are official, unless they are ‘robots’ (unlicensed). No, Jamaica has not leapfrogged over Japan and invented electronic cars. We just have a lot of unlicensed taxis. Officials taxis have red licence plates; unofficial ones have white plates, like most private vehicles. Take them at your peril, some would say. I don’t know if there is any difference in the ride experience. The fares are the same. Let’s not discuss insurance. I don’t think this is in the mind of the passengers. Much like the absence of seat belts. If the drivers have insurance, I’m not sure what it would really cover.

But, many people face simple choices: use taxis or get nowhere. You cannot get all haughty and take an express train from one end of the island to another. Most communities won’t be served directly buses, even though bus services are widespread. You probably can’t move faster than by taxi. I’ve never heard of a taxi driver turning down a fare, though if you’ve a big load you may have trouble. I’m never surprised to see a taxi with a weed whacker or some planks sticking out of the window.

Sure, the taxi drivers can be thieves and overcharge. They don’t offer luxury or much style. Music may be an option, but don’t bank on it.

Jamaican taxis don’t generally offer door-to-door service: they tend to stick to routes. So, you get onto the main road and get in at a convenient spot and get off at a point near to your destination. You may need to mix routes, and so have to pay more than once.

Once upon a time, taxis in Kingston had brand colours, such as checker or yellow. No longer. Most taxis are white, because most imported cars were white. Some taxis are grey. Colour is not really that important, though. If you’re picky, I don’t think taxis are for you. Then again, let’s see what happens if you’re running late or your car breaks down.

If politicians really wanted to feel like the bulk of their electorate, I’d suggest they spend a day being driven around in taxis.