When Holness speaks...

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When Holness speaks...

GARFIELD higgins

Sunday, November 24, 2019

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The paste can also strangle the owner who ground it. — Kakwa Proverb, South Sudan

This Andrew Holness-led Jamaica Labour Party (JLP) has sound reasons to be jubilant at its 76th annual conference today. Unemployment is at 7.8 per cent, according to the Statistical Institute of Jamaica. This is the lowest in our history. Jamaica has just over US$3 billion in reserves in our central bank — the most we've had since our country's political independence. And, our debt-to-gross domestic product (GDP) ratio is expected to be 92 per cent by the end of this quarter.

Standard and Poor's recently upgraded Jamaica's credit rating to “B+” from “B”. Other major international rating agencies, including Moody's and Fitch, have either affirmed and/or upgraded their outlook on Jamaica from stable to positive. Inflation is at a record low. Business and consumer confidence are at record highs. We have had 19 consecutive quarters of growth, reported the Planning Institute of Jamaica, earlier this month.

Holness will have an extra pep in his step when he takes the podium this afternoon. The urge to gloat will be great. He should resist it.

American Robert Frost is regarded by many literary scholars as the best poet of the 20th century. In his seminal poem Stopping by the Woods on a Snowy Evening, he wrote among other things:

“The woods are lovely, dark and deep,

But I have promises to keep,

And miles to go before I sleep,

And miles to go before I sleep.”

Jamaica should be mindful that we have in reality only restarted along a very long national journey of great importance. Since 1962 we have started and stopped, stopped and started, mostly stopping, along this national pathway. Holness should have this reality uppermost in his consciousness as he hits, fours and sixes this afternoon. Holness should take great care not to neglect the critical singles, twos and threes. I hope I am not sounding indelicate, since metaphors do have limitations. The point is, the Jamaican people, through blood, sweat, and tears, are the real heroes of the recent successful completion of our International Monetary Fund programme. But we have much more work ahead.

Caribbean genius, Shadow, in his calypso classic Feeling the Feeling, asks:

“Are you feeling, the feeling baby?

Are you feeling, the feeling baby?”

Sadly, the reality is hundreds of Jamaicans are yet to feel the benefits of the improved economic indicators in their pockets and/or see the results on their dinner tables. Here I am applying former United States President Barack Obama's measure for economic improvement. This is not a problem unique to this Administration. Nonetheless, the JLP is at the wicket.

Some who are wedded to a Victorian perspective of economics will doubtless say, let those who are not feeling the feeling go to the wall. That approach has not worked anywhere in the world.

Like in former years, many are asking: Growth for whom? This is a very legitimate question. With balanced confidence, Holness should deliver in this Administration and will realistically help all citizens achieve our fullest potential.

Fit-for-purpose Government

In recent articles I have argued that we need a new ambition for Government in our country; one that focuses on human and physical regeneration, like a laser beam. I maintain that perspective.

The jury is in: Trickle-down economics, also called trickle-down theory, does not work. Status-quo strategies of economics have been a miserable failure globally. Credible scholarship is replete with evidence of that fact. The so-called invisible hand of the market, left to certain interests, will forever clap in one direction. Market economics is not going to enable us to achieve inclusive growth. Antiquated methods of redistributive (the social democratic models), leftist politics, which is the prescription of Dr Peter Phillips and the People's National Party (PNP), will not achieve that objective either.

We need an activist State, whose major objective is securing happiness for its citizens.

An Administration that is fit for purpose must be priority number one, two and three going forward. If a Government is not purposefully and practically focusing on the happiness of its citizens it might begin to experience political and social tremors similar to those being felt around the globe in recent months.

Consider this! “For anyone trying to follow protest movements around the world it is hard to keep up. Large anti-government demonstrations, some peaceful and some not, have taken place in recent weeks in places on every continent: Algeria, Bolivia, Britain, Catalonia, Chile, Ecuador, France, Guinea, Haiti, Honduras, Hong Kong, Iraq, Kazakhstan, Lebanon, and more. On November 1, Pakistan joined the ever-lengthening roll as tens of thousands of protesters converged on the capital, Islamabad, to demand that the prime minister, Imran Khan, stand down within 48 hours.” ( The Economist, November 4, 2019, 'Why are so many countries witnessing mass protests?')

Jamaica is not immune to similar shocks. Remember the 1999 gas riots.

“First, let's compare Chile's inequality with other countries.

“We've looked at the Gini index, the most widely used international measure of inequality, for which the higher the number the greater the inequality.

“This shows Chile ranks as one of the most unequal countries among a group of 30 of the world's wealthiest nations.” ( BBC News, October 21, 2019)

I heard a BBC News magazine programme last week which, among other things, reported that 25 per cent of Chile's wealth is at present owned by seven families. Sounds familiar? Yes, sure the tipping point in Chile's anti-Government demonstrations was sparked by the hike in transportation fares during peak hours and the callous response of the Minister of Economy, Development, and Reconstruction Juan Andres Fontaine, who responded to the public outcry by saying people affected should wake up earlier and pay a lower rate. This incited anger. Yes, Chile is one of the most prosperous countries in South America, but bubbling for many years was a deeper reality of resentment for systems which simply were not benefiting the majority of people. To varying degrees, recent upheavals across the globe had strong relationships of cruel inequality that were allowed to fester like a sore. The puss is coming out now.

Folks were being made unhappier and unhappier because systems and institutions — supposedly set up for their benefit — just did not benefit them. That is not what government exists to do. Thomas Jefferson, one of America's founding fathers and principal author of the Declaration of Independence in 1776, has provided, in my estimation, one of the best definitions of government to date. In a letter to the citizens of Washington county in 1809, Jefferson said: “The care of human life, happiness, and not their destruction, is the first and only legitimate object of good government.”

I agree.

Work to be done

Hundreds are unhappy, because our telecommunications services are deteriorating, and the regulator, the Office of Utilities Regulation (OUR), appears to be fast asleep. The intolerable frequency of dropped calls and the declining quality of data and related services are matters of national importance. In this day and age, the Internet is an indispensable tool. Thousands of livelihoods depend on fast and reliable Internet services.

Jamaica Public Service's (JPS) planned outages — they say we should not call them load shedding — are far too frequent. These cannot be good for our ranking on the Global Competitiveness Report (GCR). Folks like me, who don't have a 'Delco' (generator) want to know what improvements we can realistically expect from JPS. Yes, I know the whole bit about renewable energy and such, but I suspect JPS will be the major game in town for many years yet.

Folks cannot be happy when a bank, which announced recently that it made billions of dollars in profits last quarter, had more security guards than tellers. That is what I saw when I physically visited once in October and last week. And, yes, I do most of my bank transactions via the use of the Internet, but there are still some functions which require a physical visit for mere mortals.

These inefficiencies have a multiplier effect. Customers were made to wait in line for upwards of an hour. Of course, managers were neatly tucked away in air-conditioned offices. Then there is another bank that has some ATMs which seem to malfunction more often than they work. They, too, say they made billions in profits last quarter. Who pays for their inefficiencies? The customers pay.

The banks in Jamaica, by and large, have levers called fees and bank charges which they can pull to ensure that profit margins keep rising like a hot-air balloon. Is this right and/or just?

Let me be clear, I don't for one moment envy the banks for making billions in profits each quarter, but at a minimum customer experience must align with their improved profit margins. Who is the regulator to ensure that this actually happens. This is an issue folks want to hear our prime minister address today.

Whether some want to admit it or not, Holness will not only be speaking to die-hards of the JLP, he will also be speaking to the entire country. The view that the annual conferences of the JLP and PNP should singularly focus on galvanising the party-faithfuls is anachronistic.

Folks whose respiratory system, house, and livestock are being destroyed by bauxite soot want to hear from Holness too.

Thousands of Jamaicans want to hear what are the specific plans to ensure that the public service actually serves the public in a dignified and efficient way.

I want to hear about the specific operational timetable to ensure that the improvements in our economic indicators result in increased and parallel improvements and regeneration of the physical, social, and economic environments of Jamaica, land we love.

Some will doubtless say for Holness to address these sorts of matters he would have to speak for six or more hours, or some marathon period. Nonsense! To those individuals, I say this, please check the speeches which are ranked the greatest in history, they were mostly very short presentations.

More critical matters

Recently, I said in this space, among other things: “Far too many Jamaicans believe they do not have a stake in this country. This is not a unique phenomenon. For example, when Lee Kuan Yew started to refashion Singapore in the very early 1960s he and his team recognised that the absence of stakehood (my coinage) was one of their major challenges. They launched several programmes to foster social mobility and opportunities for all Singaporeans, primarily through rapid improvements in education, innovations and creating an environment, which became a magnet for investments from foreign conglomerates. I have written about the impact of education, innovations and external investments on Singapore's meteoric growth in previous articles.

“Lee Kuan Yew recognised that in order to regenerate physical spaces individuals had to experience regeneration also. That is where provisions for housing factored critically in the social mobility equation, crime reduction, and general generational positive change.

“Singapore has a system of capital endowment, not rental subsidies. Some have been lobbying hard for the latter to be implemented in Jamaica. Why, I wonder? Simply, once citizens meet certain criteria they are given a substantial grant to buy their own home.

“Recent data show that close to 700,000 Jamaicans are living essentially as squatters. The vast majority of Jamaicans want to own a piece of... [this blessed rock].”

Like the Mighty Diamond, thousands of Jamaicans are singing:

“I need a roof over my head,

I need a roof over my head,

And bread on my table,

And bread on my table.”

We need to remodel the National Housing Trust to make this seismic change possible. The Singaporeans did it. I believe we can also. Holness is the right man at the right time to propel this country into a season of great practical hope.

On November 3, 2019, I wrote in this space inter alia: “Recall that some months ago I wrote, among other things: 'In the last several months I had reason to visit parts of deep-rural St Thomas, St Ann, Trelawny, and St Elizabeth. ( Jamaica Observer, June 9, 2019) Since that time, I have visited parts of rural St James, Clarendon, Manchester, Westmoreland, and I again made visits to sections of Portland and my beloved St Mary.” Most of the issues which I mentioned today represent the concerns of folks with whom I informally chatted during these recent road trips.

I believe Prime Minister Andrew Holness should deliver a message at the annual conference this afternoon that is economical on boast. Bill Gates said: “Success is a lousy teacher. It seduces smart people into thinking they can't lose.” Holness's presentation should be tall on the reinvigoration of hope for a new Jamaica.

Garfield Higgins is an educator and journalist. Send comments to the Observer or higgins160@yahoo.com.


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