Sunday, October 11, 2009


If one has ever seen crabs in a barrel, you will realise that they all try to come out of the barrel at the same time. So they climb on each other, in futility, as they can never individually come out of the barrel. Soon all the crabs die and none will be successful. If, on the other hand, they all realised their individual deficiency then they would join "claws" and assist each other in making their way out of the barrel.

This is also the way of the market economy. What a true market economy does, however, is ensure that the strongest and most efficient crabs will always survive by virtue of the invisible hand that guides the market. This doesn't happen in Jamaica though, as through political interference we have managed to replace the invisible hand with a very visible one that rewards political tribalism over the stronger and more efficient players. The result of this interference over the years has been a very inefficient market structure and the eventual death of all the crabs, rather than ensuring that the strong and efficient ones live to once again grow the population of crabs.

Fiscal Accounts
We, are of course, seeing the result of that in our fiscal accounts today, which has always been known to us, but has been so well outlined by the prime minister two weeks ago. The fact is, everyone who has done mathematics knows that the only way to prove our fiscal equation that one and one equals three is to add debt to it, as is illustrated in a chart on page 22 of my book. I pointed out that 1996 is when we started on this downward path in our debt to GDP ratio, when the debt started to accelerate at a faster pace than GDP. Immediately before that the debt to GDP ratio had declined to around 90 per cent, from 212 per cent in 1984, and since then has climbed to where it is.

This small illustration confirms that the size of the debt to GDP ratio is not important but what we do with the debt is. In the early 1980s, we were coming out of what was then the worst recession since the 1930s, and borrowed up to 212 per cent of GDP, much of that borrowing went into policies aimed at the country's development, rather than consumption as we have done since the mid 1990s. The result is that Jamaica was able to generate growth rates averaging around six per cent towards the end of the 1980s and substantially bring down our debt to GDP ratio.

The prime minister correctly states what the fiscal challenge is, and what we need to do now is look behind the fiscal numbers to understand what the real development challenge is for Jamaica lest the crabs keep killing each other again as they try to emerge from the barrel.

For the first in a very long time a politician (the prime minister) has come to us and laid out exactly what the challenges are that face the country, and this frankness is good as it serves as a wake-up call to all those who have been avoiding the reality of our situation. People have asked me, for example, why I am so pessimistic in calls on the economy, not understanding that if the car is heading off the cliff there is only one way to interpret that. And that it is that, the car is heading off the cliff, with all of us in it. So I am heartened by the honesty of the prime minister, because hiding from the facts never help.

What we need to do now that the message is out is to clearly outline a detailed plan of implementation as to how the challenges are to be confronted. I believe that in that plan there not only needs to be some deliberate actions by the Government, but we also need to remove the tentacles of Government from the operation of the market. That is reducing the bureaucracy and interference the prime minister referred to. It cannot be that government expenditure constitutes 47 per cent of our GDP. By any measure this means that we are operating in a state-run economy, and not a true market-determined economy.

When this reduction of government involvement happens, I expect that quite a few businesses will fail and jobs will be compromised, and not only in the public sector. What is therefore very necessary is for the Government to lay out a transition plan that will ensure that lost jobs and failed businesses can be replaced with as little pain as possible. Because of our failure to adhere to market economy rules over the years, any implementation without a proper transition plan will cause a drastic adjustment that will cause much pain, and so a carefully laid out transition plan is going to be extremely critical.

Jamaica is once again faced with an opportunity to make the much-needed paradigm shift in our economy, and based on the numbers and social influences, I believe that this could be our last such opportunity. The prime minister has made the step in the right direction but the road is going to be long and painful, however, I have seen through numbers what the alternative is like and trust me, if we continue on the same path, all the crabs in the barrel we call Jamaica will perish.


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