In a two-part article in the Jamaica Observer, Bruce Golding, a former prime minister, sought to lay responsibility for the indiscipline and lawlessness taking place in residential construction firmly at the feet of developers who, in their efforts to maximise profit, flout the law with impunity, flagrantly breach applicable regulations, refuse to play by the rules, violate the rights of citizens and — he neglected to mention — endanger people's lives and lay waste to the environment.
Golding, who served as minister of construction between 1980 and 1989, and who, up to days ago, was officially and intimately connected to the luxury housing development business, asserts that these rapacious, out-of-control developers, "prime culprits", he calls them, are not the only ones culpable. His "bitter complaint" is also directed at the local authority, the Kingston and St Andrew Municipal Corporation (KSAMC), which has the power and the duty to regulate construction development; the Real Estate Board, which issues licences to developers; the architects who supervise construction projects; the contractors who do the actual construction; the quantity surveyors who do the costing and issue certificates of work completion; and the banks and insurance companies which provide financing for the projects. None, it seems, has escaped the righteous wrath of the Golding.
But whence cometh this indiscipline and lawlessness, this inefficiency, incompetence, and corruption of which Golding writes? According to him, "We have a cultural proclivity toward indiscipline and disorder." Compliance with regulation, he posits elsewhere, is not part of our DNA. It is not law that Jamaica lacks, he asserts, it is its enforcement.
We need to get wicked (my term, his was "serious") with violators and their facilitators, and when they feel the burn in their pockets they will straighten up and fly right. Only "when developers find that they will have to tear down the concrete and steel that they borrowed so much money to erect will they start behaving themselves. When the architects and quantity surveyors find that they may lose their licences and building contractors find that they may be deregistered if they go along with this illegality will they start telling developers, 'No, we can't do that!' When the banks and insurance companies find that some of the money they advanced for these projects may not be recoverable and they will now have to settle for what they can squeeze out of the developer (if they can find him), they will then start to insist that the projects they finance must conform with all the requirements of the law."
It sounds fantastic, doesn't it? Well, it is fantastical. And Golding knows it.
There is no doubt that there is inefficiency, incompetence, and corruption in housing construction, as, indeed, there is in other areas of Jamaica's political economy as Golding has often averred. But to seek to explain the lawlessness, the indiscipline and, it must be said, the greed which pervade the sector purely in terms of some airy-fairy notion of a cultural predisposition towards disorder is shallow, narrow, and inadequate thinking. What is more, it is disrespectful and condescending. And too often it is a way for our leaders to abdicate responsibility for that which they themselves perpetuate.
Missing from Golding's analysis is the kind of perspective of which he is quite capable, which takes account of the broader context of the political economy in which housing construction takes place. Sure, developers are greedy and grasping, Government inept, and corruption rampant. Knaves operating in a kakistocracy would be an apt description of what obtains in the construction industry. But the greed and ineptitude on display, the lawlessness and disorder are the direct outcome of policy and, therefore, not just expected but tolerated. It is policy rather than moral turpitude or cultural predilection or the lack of ability or capacity to enforce laws which encourage, promote, facilitate, and defend the bloated, speculative free-for-some greed which drives property development in Jamaica, typified by the garish, unsexy, priapic monstrosities which scar the hillsides of the nation's capital. Or which facilitates the capture of prime agricultural lands by profit-extracting nabobs by way of housing development.
It is government action by the national authority in taxation policy, in the privatisation of public wealth, in the reduction of public debt, through tight fiscal policy and the corresponding increase in household debt, in accommodative monetary policy, and in the financialisation of the socio-economy which have caused the disorder and the frenetic gold rush in the deregulated construction sector and house prices to rise at rates not seen before. As it is in housing construction, so it is in the sweetie shop which passes for a stock exchange and in the ramshackle public transportation system.
The Government is complicit. Notably, Golding did not include it in his long list of culprits. It is in collusion with property developers. It designs and implement policies to facilitate developers and their financial cohorts. And it weakens regulations. Deliberately. I go further to suggest that far too many of the nation's political leaders are property developers moonlighting as parliamentarians. More than a few are partners in investment companies or have investments therein and several act as conveyancers. Former politicians and erstwhile regulators travel through the revolving door into high-paying jobs in banks and with private equity firms involved in property development. All apparently legitimate, I have been told. Of that, Golding has nothing to say.
Let's consider a little bit of context and add some perspective. In his budget presentation to the House of Representatives in March 2019, with growth anaemic after six years of austerity, Finance Minister Dr Nigel Clarke announced a series of tax cuts intended to encourage a construction-driven boom by reinforcing austerity for the impecunious many and socialism for the wealthy few. A "bubbling up" as it was described by Dr Clarke himself.
Quite aptly, as it turned out. The bankers and realtors were delighted. One gushed that with Minister Clarke, the realtors every wish had come true. Another, unable to contained his glee, said Dr Clarke was the best finance minister the nation had ever had. The media, local and international, sang the minister's praises. His colleagues cheered him on. Academia joined the chorus. The churches asked God to continue to guide and protect him. During the pandemic, construction was declared an "essential service", immune to lockdown and curfew. And while the rest of the economy contracted, the construction sector expanded and household debt exploded.
Tax cut was one of the four pillars of the Government's neo-liberal strategy, the others being privatisation, liberalisation, and deregulation. Easy money was to be funnelled into the construction sector by way of the financial sector. This was where the central bank, Bank of Jamaica (BOJ), and the National Housing Trust (NHT) came in. The BOJ was made "independent" of democratic control and through expansionary monetary policy, supported by tight fiscal policy, used to provide low interest money to developers.
The NHT for its part would take public money and lend it to private, extortionist, anti-development, margin-gathering institutions (banks and building societies) at heavily discounted rates for onward lending to mortgagers. However, instead of using the cheap, easy money to finance affordable housing, as was the ostensible intention, the banks and building societies made a killing rinsing the money on high-end apartments and luxury town homes, among other things. Other launderers, whose soiled garment appear to have piqued the interest of Dr Horace Chang and his investigative agencies, gathered at the laundromat.
Needless to say, an estimated 900,000 Jamaicans, over 30 per cent of the population, live in inadequate and substandard housing in overcrowded tenements or on poorly-serviced land vulnerable to natural and man-made disasters. It is not unusual for the nation's leaders to claim that these citizens are "personally irresponsible", undisciplined and disorderly. Instead of building houses for the homeless and investing in urban renewal, to promote social justice and a tried and proven crime-reducing strategy, time and energy is wasted blaming the victim. But there is no profit to be extracted from the protection of the people's right to decent housing.
The dogs were let out. Greed was unshackled. The "gravalicious" banks, which have earned their place on Golding's list of rogues, were allowed to help themselves to the low hanging fruits from the NHT easy money tree. Realtors did well for themselves. And conveyancers, as was to be expected, got their snouts in the trough. A wonderful time was had by all. Well, a few. It was a classic case of the privatisation of public assets by privateers. An upward redistribution of income, not unlike that in which the spielers of the lotto business are engaged. In addition, the NHT's barn was raided and billions of dollars plundered by the Government, the loot used for debt repayment.
Meanwhile, we were being told that the bureaucracy was bloated, inefficient, and archaic. Too many regulations. Too much red tape. It is difficult to do business. Developers needed to be unbound. Free up the market! We needed to transform the public sector. Burn the dead wood. Fire the saboteurs. Well, here we are and the complaint now is of delinquency and ineptitude. The pace of construction has accelerated and there are not enough building inspectors, Golding tells us. The KSAMC, which issues building permits and has a staff complement of only five building inspectors, clearly needs more inspectors, he said.
Over a year ago Prime Minister Andrew Holness, in response to The Gleaner's Editors' Forum, which indicated that the six building inspectors were one-third the required staff complement, promised to increase the number. Today there are fewer building inspectors than a year ago. But the hollowing out of the public sector by various means by those who consider it "bloated, inefficient, and archaic" is all part of the strategy. It is not just inefficiency, incompetence, and corruption, Mr Golding. It is ideology and policy. This is how an unregulated market is supposed to work.
Perhaps Golding, who supports what he calls sound economic policies, has had his vision clouded by the dust kicked up by the construction of US$2-million luxury town homes. He is unable to see that the disorder, the indiscipline, and unsustainable development being inflicted on the environment are the logical outcomes of those "good policies".
The main issue I have with Golding's analysis is his failure to properly situate the housing development problem in the realm of those ideas, practices, and policies, which he himself encouraged, promoted, and implemented and to this day subscribes to. It is this neo-liberal ideology which has generated the me first habitus of greed, ostentation and disorder that so troubles Golding. Surely he must know that the construction of expensive houses (and the abundance of high-end vehicles on the roads, one of his other pet peeves) flows from the neo-liberal, easy money, low taxation, policies of the International Monetary Fund/People's National Party/Jamaica Labour Party of which he is an apostle. Not only was he present at their creation, he nurtured their growth.
I put it to Golding that it may not be just a matter of cultural predisposition (whatever that is), but ideology, policy, and a politics which assigns an insignificant role to the social-democratic State and inhibits its ability to act mainly as the arbiter between labour and capital but also as an enforcer of laws of which there is no shortage. The fact is, the Jamaican State is captured, the nation's two political parties are oligarchic, and the policies neo-liberal. The Scandinavian states of Norway and Sweden, of which Golding often professes his love are different from Jamaica, not least because political parties there are not entirely beholden to monied interests, local and foreign, as they are in Jamaica. In Scandinavia, the citizens trusts the political system; in Jamaica, political parties conspire with State-capturers, scammers, scoundrels, and scofflaws to erode trust in the political economy and in institutions of the State, thereby undermining its power to enforce the laws. The State, in effect, is becoming lawless.
The one thing I would urge Golding to do is to put up a stout, careful, calm, and rational defence of the public sector against the barbarians whose objectives may well be the destruction of its integrity, honesty, objectivity and neutrality, and the weakening of its ability to enforce the law. Golding might well remember his time as a minister and prime minister when he was fortunate to have been served by an efficient, competent, and incorruptible public sector.
Ambassador Emeritus Audley Rodriques served as Jamaica's top envoy in Venezuela, Kuwait, and South Africa.