Friday, August 31, 2012

We must agree on education

Based on some discussions I was having on Facebook recently, I have made a decision that I will offer no public commentary (written, interviews, or public presentations) on the macroeconomic environment, debt, IMF, or any predictions on where the economy is going, for the next few months. That is not until late January 2013. I will restrict any public commentary to any specific issues, more to deal with matters outside of any discussion on the macroeconomic environment, such as public sector rationalization, education, crime, energy etc.

I will still however accept any calls from anyone in the media who wants an explanation of certain issues, which I do give occasionally. Just that it will be for their own personal consumption. The reason for those who have asked is that I want to focus on some specific issues I think are very important and leave the economic issues to those charged with the responsibility for it.

What I would like to discuss today, however, is a matter that came up during the last administration, and has arisen again. In the last administration both the then education minister and the opposition spokesperson on education, agreed that children should not be forced to pay auxiliary fees to school, as everyone must have access to education. This time it is the current education minister who is saying that students must pay the auxiliary fees, and the opposition spokesman is saying that they should not for the same reason.

On the first occasion I was a member of the Jamaica College (JC) school board, and saw the negative effect that the lack of these fees can have on the general quality of education, as there would be no resources to run the school. A big part of the problem is that government does not provide enough funds for a school to even exist, much less to provide quality education.

My position is the same today as it was then. That is auxiliary fees are essential for the school to run, and government should not expect that the schools can run without filling the funding gap, which they don’t have the money to do. If the students do not pay this fee then how can we expect that the equality of education will improve, particularly in the schools that are already struggling to keep up with the more traditional high schools? How can we expect to turn out greater productivity in the work force if we do not provide quality education att he secondary level because of lack of funds?

It is for this reason, and my first hand experience, why I am fully in support of the position of the education minister on this. We always say that we want someone to lead by doing what is right for the country, and not popular or politically motivated. Well this is an example of a principled position.

In our 50th year of independence, how can we seek to encourage this dependency syndrome at such a basic level? The auxiliary fees average maybe around $10,000 per year. That is the equivalent cost of a phone, a few weeks call credit, a pair of shoes, two trips to the hairdresser, or going to a party or two. Why would we want to encourage any parent out of making the right choice for the sake of their children? What sort of society would we encourage when we do that.

In any event the solution cannot be for persons to pay auxiliary fee if they want. The system must be that auxiliary fee must be paid, and if you need help then seek some assistance through the government programme. But not continue to give the people a fish rather than teach them how to fish. Or is it that politicians still want people to remain dependent on them for handouts, lest they lose their power.

I see for example that politicians have come out against the recent eviction of some squatters, and saying that government must find a place for them to live. If the land is owned by a private individual don’t we understand that when as politicians we make these sounds that we are saying that private capital is not welcome? And if we scare private capital then will it not mean that the same people we are trying to help will only get poorer? Or are we content with how our society, and dependency syndrome, has developed over the last 50 years and want to continue it.

When someone has eight children, with another on the way, is it the responsibility of government, and other taxpayers to take on that responsibility. Please let’s start the change we need in this country and not start teaching the next generation that they should rely on government for everything. Auxiliary fees, especially at such small amounts, must be compulsory and I fully support the minister on his stance. It is all about taking personal responsibility for our actions.

If after we gained “political” independence in 1962 this was the theme throughout the society, we would have seen much higher standards of living today. Instead we have a lower literacy rate than Barbados and Trinidad, and we had no choice but to reverse the “free” education policy started in the 1970s, which to my mind was a good thing but did not have the structural support.

The other issue I want the minister to deal with is the dreaded GSAT exam. Years after it has been implemented we see where there seems to be a greater disparity between traditional and non-traditional high schools generally, worsening CXC results, and more importantly children focusing so much on academics that they shun in many respects the very important development aspects of sports, socialization, and health.

I see much academic talent coming out of the schools, but child health issues is a problem, and I find that the teamwork ability that we get from sports is lacking in many of the children. Maybe it’s because the other distraction is just sitting around a computer and video game.

Minister, I don’t know how many people will support you, but I am totally in your corner with this one, primarily because it is the right thing to do. If we disagree on everything else, one thing we must agree on is education.

Friday, August 17, 2012

After Jamaica 50, Olympics comes economic reality

NOW that the euphoria of the Jamaica 50 and Olympic celebrations are over, many of us are now getting back to reality. This reality has always been present for some of us, unlike the Jamaican in the diaspora who sent me a Facebook message to ask that us residents not discuss the challenges Jamaica faces during the Olympics as she didn't want to read about anything depressing during that period, so that she could enjoy the Olympics. In my words, why don't you natives in Jamaica stop talking about the problems there so that we in the diaspora can enjoy the successes Jamaica has in the Olympics without any distractions.

This is the reason why I do not support the diaspora being given the right to vote, or make any decisions affecting Jamaica and Jamaicans.

Governor of the Bank of England, Mervyn King, who was at the forefront of the UK’s austerity drive three years ago, this year said that if the austerity measures were continued, the UK economy would continue to decline.

So us residents now, have to deal with the reality of the need to have an IMF agreement in place, continuing to deal with the fiscal and crime challenges, and two days after our birthday seeing unemployment raise with the addition of another 207,000 persons to the unemployment line. This will no doubt push more people into the informal sector of the economy.

Going forward though, us natives will have to find a way to address the development challenges we face. We must seriously ask ourselves. Have we been tackling the problems correctly, and what do we need to do to ensure that we increase the quality of life for us as citizens?

Another question we must ask is: How do we do so in a challenging global environment? I think it is very clear for the world to see now that the austerity measures that Europe embarked on three years ago have not been working and will not work. In fact, Mervyn King (governor of the Bank of England), who was at the forefront of the UK's austerity drive three years ago, was quoted in February as saying that if the austerity measures were continued the UK economy would continue to decline. This, after it slipped back into recession. Greece, which is in its fifth year of recession, recently saw another annualised GDP decline of 6.2 per cent. King was only this week quoted as saying that he saw no end in sight for the Euro debt crisis.

The US, on the other hand, under the leadership and insistence of Barack Obama, chose to increase the debt and stimulate the economy. This has resulted in the US economy seeing small but consistent GDP growth. The US should be thankful the Republicans were not in charge, else they would still be in recession.

In the case of Jamaica, we have sought to consolidate on the fiscal side, but also we have introduced some stimulus measures. These include the JEEP programme and we have restarted JDIP. In addition to that there is the intention to kick-start the projects under the Ministry of Transport, which cannot come soon enough, as the growth projection numbers without them will be stagnant and you could be looking at increased unemployment.

However, while these are necessary to keep the wheels of the economy turning, it is far from sufficient if we want to start the engine of development. We need to change how we think about solving these economic problems that has plagued us since the 1990s. That is development must be driven by two things: (1) the main focus must be on the Balance of Payments; and (2) we will need to get projects on the ground to stimulate the economy through greater employment.

If we can succeed with these focus areas then the fiscal accounts will not be a problem. It is even more critical to deal with these, as without addressing these fundamental problems the fiscal accounts will always have a problem. And the truth is that, if, as S&P says, our fiscal choices are restricted much further then the fact is that the next area to look at for reducing will have to be the public sector wage bill which, in my view, would be disastrous to the economy.

Many will say that the public sector is too bloated, and needs to be cut, and will even agree with the no more than nine per cent of GDP argument. My question is on what basis do you say that the public sector is too bloated and what is the magic of nine per cent. Many persons who say that do not have any evidence to support that argument apart from what the IMF has said. My argument is that with unemployment being over 14 per cent, consumer and business confidence falling, and the IMF agreement not yet finalised, we would be suicidal to think about putting more people on the unemployment line.

What we must therefore do is, while providing the jobs stimulus needed (and it must be done strategically), our focus must be to grow the overall GDP, and not narrowly focus on debt reduction. I agree that our debt must go down, and not just the debt-GDP ratio, which can be inflated away. However, we must reduce the debt not by sucking the life out of the economy, but by increasing the income available to pay it off. Greece tried the "squeezing the life out of the economy" way, and they are in their fifth year of recession.

My own view is that it is not difficult to do this. It, will however, require no lesser office than that of the prime minister, to make sure that it is co-ordinated with all ministries. I have mentioned on many occasions the method by which this can be achieved, and so will not bother to reiterate. But suffice it to say that between energy, crime, and transportation, you are looking at over $100 billion that can be added to the GDP.

One other thing I would like to mention here is my synopsis of what I think the way forward for the energy sector should be. I am in full support of the view expressed by the energy minister that the distribution monopoly, currently held by JPS, must be broken up if we want to enjoy the benefits of lower energy prices on a sustained basis. My own view has always been also that we could end up regretting any decision to focus on LNG only as a replacement, as the price of LNG is projected to increase. Diversification must be the answer, but more importantly it must be diversification led by multiple players in the market, not by a monopoly.

Minister Paulwell, full speed ahead. You are on the right track as you have done already with the telecommunications sector.

Friday, August 03, 2012

Jamaica 2012: A time for reflection

I didn’t watch the full Emancipation message delivered by Prime Minister Portia Simpson Miller, but did see excerpts of it. I think she has hit the nail on the head when she said that Jamaica needs to use the occasion of the 50th year of Independence to reflect. We need to reflect on what went wrong with our development, because where we are today is not where most of the people, in 1962, thought we would be.

I have talked to some persons who, in 1962, felt a sense of pride seeing the Jamaican flag replace the British flag. However, many of them today question whether we made the right decision in 1962 to seek Independence from Britain. We have only recently seen where Britain stepped into the Turks and Caicos to restore confidence in the public bureaucracy there. Maybe if we were still a colony they would have stepped in to do the same here.

Prime Minister Portia Simpson Miller lays a basket of flowers in tribute to the ancestors during the Emancipation Jubilee celebration early Wednesday morning at Seville Heritage Park in St Ann.

My own view is that despite the fact that we have failed miserably to deliver a better tomorrow for the children, it was indeed the right decision for us to seek Independence in 1962.

There is no arguing the fact that we have failed miserably to deliver the hope that was promised in 1962. It was Norman Manley himself who said that his generation had accomplished the mission of seeking political independence, and the next generation had the responsibility of achieving economic independence. Can we truly say that he would be happy with what we have achieved? Can we even say that he would be happy with the way we have treated our political independence, where we have developed two tribes, that I remember clearly would kill each other because of the colour shirt worn in the run up to the 1980s election.

Would he be happy with the fact that even 50 years after we are still very much divided among party lines, not so much at the level of the politician, but more so at the level of the ordinary citizen. Would he be happy to see that elected officials are abusing the person in parliament responsible for carrying out the “law” there. Would he be happy to see the way we abuse the rights of our citizens, by keeping them locked up without charge, or for the way that the justice system is administered. Would he be happy to see how we have developed relative to the rest of the region.

We could also ask the same question of another of the founding fathers, Alexander Bustamante, who in 1938 led the labour riots and went to jail for the cause of the working class. Would he be happy to see that in 2012 the GDP per capita is the same as it was in the 1970s.

And if we are uncertain about the answers we would get from them, then ask one who was around at that time who is still alive today, Edward Seaga. Ask him if he is happy to see how Jamaica has progressed over 50 years despite the sacrifices he has made to stay in public life.

If the answers are that they are happy then we have much to celebrate. But if they are not happy then as the Prime Minister said, we must take time to reflect on what we have done and what we need to do.

I am sure that there are many things right about Jamaica, and I think it is still potentially the best place to live. The things that are right about Jamaica can be seen in the “Wray” and “Digicel” ads, and are things we speak of every day. The culture, food, sporting accomplishments, the relaxes atmosphere, the beauty of the island, our tourism, our bauxite, and our people. These are the things that we speak of when we talk about Jamaica. But these things have existed since 1962, and are either as a result of the working class or individual achievements.

Even our tourism and bauxite has survived against the odds. Our tourism has thrived because of the ingenuity of a few, who because they saw that tourism could not exist in its original form, because of crime and environmental degradation, bought beautiful pieces of Jamaica and locked away the tourist in all-inclusive resorts. Bauxite has survived because of foreign investments and previously high demand, because for 40 years we have failed to address the policy issues that would have made these plants more competitive through energy.

I agree also that we have seen much infrastructure development, but not enough. When I look at documentaries on Singapore I see stories of high-rise buildings, and a lot of industrial construction. Most of our own infrastructure development has happened from government intervention, or housing developments, which again through the NHT is government intervention. So even the infrastructure development is not because of well, “development”, but rather government intervention from debt.

We do have the raw material needed for development. These are all the things I mentioned above. But we are like a child turning 18 in 1962, who our parents gave all the tools to succeed. We had a strong dollar, bauxite, tourism, growing industries, good transport system, and concessionary prices for goods we produced. What they never taught us, however, was to govern our people in such away that we could realise their full potential, but rather left us with a philosophy that bureaucratic structures and the security forces are there to control the people rather than protect them. So 50 years later when we would be 68, that child turn adult, is now up to his ear in debt and has managed to isolate all his friends and family, because of the divisive way in which he sets one set of family against the other, never trusting anyone.

So it is indeed a time to reflect on what we want for the next 50 years, instead of just thinking about the massive party that is planned for us during these celebrations. Because after the party what? For if we are satisfied with the last 50 years of development, then sure lets party and go back to what we have always been doing. But if we are not satisfied, or can’t answer either way, then as the prime minister said, let’s reflect on what went wrong and what we need to do.