A clear divide between talking business and doing business


Sunday, September 23, 2018

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The gnawing and widening gap between the economic education of the Jamaican people and their economic expectations must be closed post-haste. There is indeed the clear and growing need for this to happen in order that greater clarity in respect to the discussions and choices surrounding the economic struggles of our people, particularly in their households, can attend to matter a view to increasing understanding of the various socio-economic and political issues directly and indirectly impacting our lives.

The barrage of political promises in the 2016 election campaign, the receptive gullibility and expectations that these promises generated and now the uncertainty about their fulfilment underscore the need for more public, political, and economic education reminiscent of the cold war period — particularly of the 1960s and 70s. In addition to some political tricksters intent on deception, interpreters and messengers of our collective economic circumstances are particularly those graduates of universities with doctorates and other certification, and whose voices are usually heard in the media telling us how individually and collectively we can get rich.

While it would be unkind to declare them totally useless — and neither am I anti-scholarship — a closer look at the track record of most of these economic and business demagogues is that they have never owned or run a successful business. Despite their brilliance in economic theories, their destinations are to be found in low-risk teaching or some other cushy Government jobs where the taxpayers give them a cheque, or in the private sector where the real owners of the business also find the money to pay them at agreed intervals.

So the divide in our country between talking business and doing business is clear from the evidence of the lives of the business and economic experts who, while they appear and sound very bright, are similarly very broke! Be watchful also for some people with all the right credentials and experience in business (usually in specific areas but masquerading as a wealth of unlimited knowledge), who still mislead ... while, perhaps unknowingly, becoming the butt of national humour oftentimes.

In short, look for the real deal. And they are actively around our country, including Howard Mitchell of the Private Sector Organisation of Jamaica, Tony Hart of Montego Freeport fame, Gordon “Butch” Stewart and Adam Stewart of Sandals Group fame, Lascelles Chin of the Lasco Group of Companies, Glen Christian of Cari-Med fame, Gary “Butch” Hendrickson of National Bakery, among the respectful others not mentioned because the lack of space has constrained my listings.

It is an understatement to remark that this, our country Jamaica, has many deficits other than financial. There is a tendency to glamourise and glorify mediocrity and foolishness... to elevate brinksmanship masquerading as seriousness of thought.

Fifty years after political independence in 1962 we are among the most indebted countries in the world. We have seen anomic growth in the economy and a description by the World Bank called “the paradox of growth”. Rising levels of poverty, income inequality, reduction in labour force participation rates, and an unmanageable debt overhang that the increased chattering within the echo chamber has not been able to solve has also been seen.

So the more the theoretical economic messengers and business advisers appear on newspaper pages, radio and television, the more our economic problems worsen. But it is not all their fault. We have to accept blame for the choices we make about managing our money and other assets, as well as, our poverty and politics. But even more than that, we must accept blame for listening to the advice of those who might sound good but have no personal success story to which they can point. At the same time, we fail to pay sufficient attention to the doers of business and their formulas for success.

These are not necessarily the mega companies within the private sector. It could be our next door neighbour or just an operator of a successful small enterprise on the corner. I salute the thousands who have made a success of their lives through the dint of hard work, sacrifice and discipline, even as they were not the beneficiary of any organised or sophisticated schooling. These people have proved that the term 'common sense' is really the sophistication in reasoning among the common, unlettered folks.

However, there are differing levels of business and economic interactions within the domestic environment and externally, due to the increasing networking and integration of a globalised economy. New and different skill sets are required to cope with economic challenges occasioned by internal and external shocks, trade policies, geopolitical shifts and tensions, and their impact on the business environment. Economic education that is underlined by application and pragmatism must lock step in our march towards collective economic progress, where the present divide between that education and economic expectation is reduced to a thin line.

In that posture and atmosphere we will increasingly discover that all economic outcomes have at their foundation — behaviour! That Jamaica's gross domestic product (GDP) is simply the arithmetical measurement of how we are behaving or how we have behaved. Consequently, our justifiable yearnings for economic growth and development in GDP/GNI numbers will not change in any impactful way until there is a change in our behaviour, and and until there is a a change in the quality of our thought not to diagnose wrongly and therefore to prescribe wrongly.

We expect the successive ministers of finance to stop the slide of the Jamaican dollar but fail to see the connection between the number of motor vehicle crashes on the road, for example, and the situation is a contributor to what prevents the minister from doing what we wanted him to do in the first place.

Because of the lack of economic education, we work against our own best interest many times without even being aware. This is simply because we fail to make essential connections in the cause and effect relationships operating in our economic space. The consequences of this failure are many. We are busy recreating, from an economic, sociocultural standpoint, a society that we have left behind with its deceptions, deflections and all its distractions, even as it creates a dark vision successfully wrestling against a new vision.

Jamaica's economic performance is not one that crowns itself in glory. Our country's conversations about economics are oftentimes reduced to theatrics, lack of qualitative arguments, with one sure result: We are among the most highly indebted countries in the world with a short leap — despite sugar-coated utterances from 'sweet-mouth' politicians and their very special friends — from economic illiquidity to economic insolvency.

Jamaica has no trade surplus with any of its major trading partners, but we have lots of 'talk-surplus'! The country's trade deficit is $6 billion for imports and $1.5 billion in exports, while there are areas still waiting for us to creatively put our shoulders to the wheel.

Agriculture is one of the industries that is a sure bet for Jamaica to rise like a phoenix from its economic quagmire. It is also true that our behaviour in agriculture will affect the slide of the Jamaican dollar. If enough is not produced for local consumption and export to earn foreign exchange then pressure is put on the country's reserve to purchase imports — including machinery and technology — and that will, in turn, cause the local currency to slide unless there are alternative areas that can compensate for the shortfall in income from agriculture.

When the reality in the sector is that because of praedial larceny farmers cannot reap what they sowed, frustration in the sector will ensue, which negatively reduces production, which impacts similarly on the slide or devaluation of the currency. I share briefly two unfortunate cases out of the parish of St Elizabeth. Farmer 'A' rears cows. At the time of the theft he had 12 with three in calf. Thieves came and stole all 12 cows, killing the three with calf and cutting out their bellies, leaving the unborn calves on the property. It was the milk from those cows that kept the farmer's two daughters in high school.

Farmer 'B' cultivates sweet potatoes. He planted one acre of the crop. Thieves waited patiently until it was time for harvest. They moved in, reaped all the sweet potatoes, leaving only four in the field for the farmer. Arrest and jail term are most appropriate in these cases, but re-education aimed at attitudinal restructuring and cognitive rewiring must be the linchpin in this broken chain of thoughtlessness towards each and among one another.

I believe that this gap between economic education and economic expectation can be substantially be reduced by business people with a proven track record of success guiding the public discourse — respect to a collective strategy to bring our people up to speed on how to approach business, both domestic and commercial, in a pragmatic world and within a context of increased social comity.

The larger part of the population has done away with school attendance but still needs information to make weighty decisions that collectively impact of us, quality information that can help them to discern and avoid the guile of sweet mouth politicians, particularly as they play the “three card man” political tricks through endless announcements about what is to be done. Action matters. There is a huge gap also between what is said, officially, and what is done in our country.

I have tried to lay out a context … the multitude of researchers, advisers and consultants in government must fine-tune, within the ambit of bureaucratic regulations, existing laws and precedents, and now put the specific solutional flesh on the bone of our many anxieties and frustrations as a still emergent nation state now. By so doing, the monetary and fiscal wobbling within framework of a huge and unsustainable debt overhang precipitating prolonged periods of economic downturn will be reduced r removed.

A good place to start tackling our myriad challenges is to speak the truth about where our current economy is heading and cut out the spin, the exaggeration, and embellishments. The people know what they are experiencing with price escalations in their daily lives. If anyone has no idea, go to the supermarkets and watch prominent, high-visibility professionals, some retired ... leaving items in the trolley by the cashier because of their inability to pay for the goods.

Head off to the pharmacies and watch people walking out with their prescriptions. When the attendant across the counter tabulates the high cost of medication, many cannot afford to pay, even with the health cards. Go to the gas station and watch how the constant escalation of the price of gasoline also creates embarrassment for motorists... the people of Jamaica.

There is an old saying: “None are so blind as those who refuse to see!” That's the sweet-mouth politicians and their wingmen when in full flight of fantasy. Indeed.

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