#COVID19Chronicles-204: November 1, 2020-JCF crime statistics now online

I asked for months what had happened to regular publications of crime statistics. The importance of timely data has been stressed by the minister of national security during the spring and was a concern also raised by MPs, for some time.

It’s been notable, since the pandemic began, that systematic reporting on crime hasn’t been a feature of government briefings. One reason could be that crimes have increased as a result of lockdowns, especially intimate partner abuse.

JCF provided a major crimes update in mid-October:

On Friday, JCF announced that crime statistics were now available of its website in interactive formats:

The new website also provides details of police station locations and routing of how to reach them:

It will be interesting to see how these data are maintained and how they are used by media, politicians and other concerned with analyzing Jamaica’s crime situation.

#COVID19Chronicles-153: September 12, 2020-Changed COVID19 health data focus

As Dr. Tufton signalled last Thursday, focus will shift from daily data variations towards lifestyle information about ‘living with COVID19’. In keeping with that, his ministry issued its new-style reports today (on its website https://www.moh.gov.jm); updates are supposed to be at 10am daily.

Other agencies, such as the Office of Disaster Management and Preparation (ODPEM) so far continue to state numbers from the reports:

Many people have become accustomed to the former style of data releases, and what I have noticed is that changes cause some to wrinkle their faces in some confusion, or even go to some form of extreme conspiracy theory reactions.

I’m not going to discuss some basic misunderstanding about data generation and statistical publications. I’ve had explanations from doctors at the ‘front line’ dealing with COVID cases and those involved in COVID testing and the inevitable glitches or whatever that complicate smooth data collection. I’ve done data collection and publication all of my professional life. My general view is to focus on whether the general data setup is robust, in light of the nature of what’s being monitored. I don’t have energy to second-guess those doing the work of which I am a consumer.

Jamaica’s growth puzzle: Trying to find some of the right pieces 

I’ve written before that I find it disturbing that Jamaica’s academic economists don’t seem to spend much time outlining to the public problems with the local economy and possible ways to fix them. 

I had an exchange with a Jamaican businessman yesterday about the exchange rate, and how it is badly misunderstood by many Jamaicans, who are fixated on the nominal rate of the J$ against the US$. He added that over many years he had ananlaysed the exchange rate trends and tried to explain them. He found many politicians, sadly, out of their depth in being able to understand notions such as purchasing power parity and the real effective exchange rate. He concluded that many Jamaicans are numerically illiterate. I agreed. 

One of the problems with that illiteracy is that people focus on the wrong variables, and do not understand what changes in variables tell us. 

Now, being a confirmed skeptic, I do not rely on politicians to be the guiding lights for much of what I think is important, except sometimes in the negativ. If a politician. says something is good, chances are it’s the opposite. Their vested interests get in the way of honest discourse. So, I’m having to listen to politicians talk about the economy and growth and productivity, and so forth, and then take a view opposite to what they say is happening. 

Right now, I’m trying to figure out why Jamaica may, one, not be growing as fast as politicians have said (just over 2 percent) and why it may be that Jamaica will grow faster than politicians have said (currently focusing on #5in4–when it’s a hashtag, it must be important :))

The slower-than-reported growth problem. GDP measures economic activity from the data on income, spending, or production. Depending on which measure is used, the story can be different. So, my argument about slower growth is about which of those measures we look at. 

I think that spending will give a truer picture in a country like Jamaica, because we know that much activity is informal and thus under-recorded. That would suggest that data on income is understated in both levels and changes, especially as more information about income means more information about taxable capacity, and people dont like paying taxes. Spending data can be captured more readily and widely, even if it’s based on household surveys. Production is harder to measure, not least because many enterprises are loath to report data, so the series are often of spotty quality and less timely.We also have the age-old problem of whether the simple units of measuring output–prices–are really capturing all we want them to, especially if quality is changing. 

So, my concern about how fast we are growing now is all about what do the three measures show. We could be at 2.3% quarterly growth, plus or minus a lot.

I also think that, flaky as it may seem, people’s sentiments about growth matter, and I think most people don’t feel that they are living with faster growth.

Will Jamaica grow much faster than 5 percent? Some people have noted, recently, that 5 percent annual growth is really a low bar for Jamaica. I am tending to agree. I think that there is more dynamism in the country than people seem to suggest. I also think that some of the faster growth will show up if we get better data about what’s going on. Now that is a taller order than many things, because data collection systems don’t just improve at the drop of a hat. But, here are areas where I think we need to look carefully.

1. Watch electricity consumption. This is often a leading indicator of what is going on, because almost everything in modern economies needs electrical power. Even if it’s being used illegally without payment or proper connection, the turbines are working and juice is going to all corners of the country.

2. Get a better handle on construction. My wife, who’s a pretty decent economist, said last night that construction is well-measured, because building work needs permits. I disagreed, because we know that much building goes on and has gone on without permits. We know, through the tragic deaths of workers, that a major hotel was being constructed in Negril without the requisite building and other permits. So, one can assume that data on this project was not being captured in official statistics. We can readily assume that a major project being derelict in its legality can be but the tip ofthe  iceberg. 

We know also that a major growth area in the corporate area, Portmore, has recently extended its building approval amnesty. So, again, we know that significant amounts of construction were going on ‘under the radar’. If we could capture that well, we could find that construction alone has been moving ahead very fast. Anecdotal evidence suggests that’s true in the corporate area, where I’ve seen over the past three years a swathe of hosuing complexes go up and also a bevy of commercial spaces being built or extended. Similar trends are evident across the island.

3. Bring more informal activity into the formal sector. Ha! Fat chance! My hunch is that this is where some faster growth may be lurking. My supposition is that, while not a ‘silicon valley’ in Jamaica, by its nature, the informal sector in its many forms has had to move faster to keep people afloat. Of course, we could find that a lot of informal activity (say, vending) is just at subsistence level. However, anecdotal stories of how people have used their ‘little jobs’ to support families, in general, and to do things like pay for children to go through schooling to university, suggests that ‘raising chcikens’ etc has provided a significant life-line. How the various activities get captured in data is a massive headache, because the incentives are strong to stay out of sight. Moves like having more taxation based on spending, rather than income, may offer a second-best way of capturing more informal activity, though. 

4. Pay more attention to what income inequality tells us. This is tricky. It’s clear that those Jamaicans who live in upscale areas have done more than get by. Large houses, more cars, private schools, foreign trip, etc, all reflect a life-style that is supported by growing financial resources (whether self-generated or through credit).  Whether they are reflective of the robustness of professional and business life, they have done much better than average in a material sense. It may be that they have both higher income/spending levels than average, and that these have grown faster than average. If that’s so, we then. Need to go to the other end of the scale to see how the ‘dirt poor’ (no value judgement) have fared. Maybe, the best we can do there is to get more sectoral information from the banking sector about deposit holder and borrowers.

So, let’s don some thinking caps and see what can be done to get a better understanding of this oh-so-important set of issues.

Teach the children well?

A firestorm has erupted in Jamaica this week over the relationship between schools and crime. Let’s put it simply. A study found a correlation between schools attended and the placement of persons in prisons. The conclusion that has been focused on is that remedial measures need to be taken at certain schools to prevent them from being the ‘source’ of criminals.

Many people understand that correlation is not causation. I grow tomatoes in a pot and they grow well. If I get better pots that does not give me better tomatoes. The reasons (causes) for (of) good growth are elements like soil, water, sun, seed quality, and other relevant factors, not the pots.

The discussion going on reminds me of a joke about a man who used to drink fortified spirits a lot. He tried rum and water; got drunk. He decided to try gin and water; he still got drunk. He moved to whisky and water; drunk again. Lastly, he tried vodka and water; blind drunk, as a skunk. He decided he’d better stop drinking water. Makes sense, right? It was the only common thing. However, we know or understand that it’s the alcohol that is working to distort the man’s behaviour, not the water.

Social deviance is complicated to understand. Most people would not put schools as the causes of bad behaviour, even though the environment in some schools may well support bad behaviour. The people working in schools are usually trying hard to ensure that behaviour is good, if only for their own survival and sanity. In what way would it serve teachers and schools administrators to ‘produce’ deviants and criminals? Alright, in a Dickensian setting, we can think of a ‘school for scoundrels’, but Fagin was not a school teacher in the normal sense.

I heard the Minister of Education, Reverend Thwaites, discussing during a post-Cabinet briefing yesterday, the report and reactions to it. He seemed to have no regard for those who concerns about the implicit absurdity of a causal link between schools and crime–above all. I stress that last part because the government’s actions only make sense if they believe that causal link.

Some, like me, would think that the socio-economic environment from which the persons came would and should be a major place to see causes. Likewise, their family or community backgrounds. If you live and breathe crime at home, what school can do to counter may be very little. Isn’t that why people talk about ‘overachieving’ students? They have done well at school despite a host of adverse non-scholastic influences. That’s why the young man who got a Rhodes Scholarship, after graduating from Vauxhall High School (one of the schools highlighted in the report in question), received a lot of attention. It’s not that any school may not be able to educate someone well. Some schools have a hard time doing the job of education because of things not to do with the school and its teachers. 

We also should not forget what the Jamaican educational system supports by having a filtering system for secondary schools. In fact, the study might have led to a better conclusion if Jamaica did not filter. Instead, children with low academic scores are pushed away from so-called ‘better’ schools. Without a group of consultants, we should be able to hypotesize about the results that systems like that would produce. If I keep feeding one person poor nutrition and another good nutrition, how would I expect them to grow?

In this discussion, I think the print media has played a very shoddy role. It was irresponsible for the Gleaner to run a story headlined ‘Prison schools’. It used terms such as ‘churning out’ or ‘produced the most inmates’. Terms like that suggest a converyor belt process, like making sausages. The sample data do not support such conclusions. To me, the press portrayal was so wrong that I was surprised to not see a retraction or apology.

I have no problem identifying (as Educate Jamaica does) secondary schools for underperformance in terms of what is produced in terms of educated individuals, something that should be at the core of their existence (or mandate). But, I would also want to understand well what the schools were having to work with in terms of ‘inputs’ (primary school students). A lot of shaping has already happened by the time children move from primary to secondary schools. To the extent that children end up badly educated, we know that our societies will give them fewer chances to succeed. They are not well equipped to compete for jobs. Hence, they are more likely to struggle to rely on ‘regular’ work to make a living. If we had a society that somehow guaranteed everyone a ‘living wage’, home and good health, many people would not feel pressured in finding ways to get on with life. (A few countries have tried something along those lines.)

But, I am not prepared to saddle schools to carry all the ills I see in my society. More so, when the schools are funded by public resources, because they may well be suffering and reflecting the financial choices imposed on a country, to the detriment of other objectives.

We may find that almost all prison inmates were born in public hospitals. Should we start remedying public hospitals because of the high incidence of criminals that are associated with them?