Sunday, February 28, 2016

We are Jamaica's problem

I am sitting down to write this article on election day (February 25), after watching the lead-up to the election and the commentary from not only politicians but also us the citizens of Jamaica.

In considering this, I am even firmer in the belief that Jamaica’s challenges have more to do with the way we have ordered our society and the way we interact with each other. After all, economics teaches us that the way economies are organised and developed has more to do with social interactions than anything else. Which is why economics is a social and not natural science.

While we spend much time speaking about the macroeconomy, the fact is that it is an outcome of the microeconomy, which is nothing more than the behaviour of individual households. And that behaviour is determined by the social interaction and behaviour of individuals within the household.

So my preferred taste for imported foods over local foods, if I am joined by enough Jamaicans, will determine what the demand for foreign currency is and ultimately the balance of payments. Similarly, if enough individuals believe that school is a waste of time and it is better to pursue an athletic or music career, or just “beg” money, then we would end up with low labour productivity.

In the context of elections, many people have made some very strong opinions about policies being proposed by both major political parties. but when when you ask them if they will vote they tell you they are not enumerated. At that point I always tune them out because I realise that they are irrelevant and can contribute nothing meaningful beyond words.

This is no different from the parent who tells their child that it is important to eat properly, but then they themselves eat the same things they tell their child not to eat. Or the person who wants to own the most expensive car, without first trying to own a home, and does so with bank loans they can’t afford.

So we can see that the accumulated behaviour of everyone determines the economic outcome for the country.

So when people tell me they feel hopeless about making changes in the country as they don’t have influence, I tell them that everyone has the platform to make their voices heard. And many times these are the same people who will say that they can’t bother to go out and vote, or worse they can’t even bother to get enumerated. I feel very strongly about this, as it is a fundamental right that we all have and even if we are the only vote against everyone else in the constituency we live, it is important for us to exercise the right that many of our forefathers gave their lives for. Ensuring that we do this also sends a very good signal to our children, not making it into a hopeless cause like the bad examples some show on health and social interaction.

As of today though, our failure to have exercised that right (because many say of frustration) on Election Day will have determined our own future whether you voted or not. Because any policy implemented by any government will affect you whether you voted or not. The fact that you did not vote means you don’t have the moral authority to criticise. Just like they say, “God helps those who helps themselves.”

If we accept that the success of economies are determined by the sum of individual behaviours, then it seems to me that countries can only successfully develop if societies are properly ordered and policies are geared towards influencing behavioural outcomes. And if that is the case, shouldn’t we as a people demand that political parties (and governments) implement policies that would lead to behavioural attitudes that will result in economic success. In other words impacting social development is critical for impacting economic development.

So as I always say, despite the economic failures of the Manley administration in the 1970s, his social policies were critical in ensuring greater opportunity for the average Jamaican and transforming the advantage from the ruling colonial class to average Jamaicans. The problem is that the policies were primarily focused on upstaging the power balance rather than integrating everyone into it.

This change in approach to policies that influence behaviour can only come, however, when we demand it as a people. And I don’t think that enough of us have paid any interest to long-term acceptable social behaviour to make the politicians pay enough attention to it. The truth is that without this the country will continue to perform way below our potential.

Societies and economies cannot, for example, develop without order. What most of us show interest in, however, is just getting rid of the high murder rate, without making the link between road indiscipline, night noise, and the way we treat our environment.

This election was no different, in that we really did not address the important issues. What we were talking about mostly is what one party would do for us as opposed to the other and vice versa. And the conflict in many respects was a retrograde step, as we have made too much progress to go down that road again.

One major problem is that many young people do not understand the social and violent turmoil coming out of the 70s leading up to the 1980 election and so are prone to repeat the mistakes again. This is why it is important for us to teach the history of Jamaica (no matter how short is is) in our schools instead of focusing on the history of other countries.

So the next time we think of criticising someone else (politicians, civil society groups, or private sector) for Jamaica’s problems, take a look in the mirror first and understand that the outcome of policies and how our governors behave have more to do with how we behave at an individual level. In other words, we can either be Jamaica’s problem or success.

Friday, February 05, 2016

One from ten leaves nought

In 1961, when Jamaica voted by referendum to withdraw from the West Indies Federation, Dr Eric Williams, then Premier of Trinidad and Tobago, said “one from ten leaves nought”.

This statement can be interpreted to mean that there are always key ingredients in an object or event that make it unworkable, or achieve suboptimal performance. So for example, if a car does not have fuel it will not drive, while on the other hand a car with a flat tyre may still be able to move but at a significantly slower pace.

So too if we look at our economy, there are some who from the start have lamented the hardships that have come as a result of the fiscal programme, and at the same time talk about development. The fact, however, is that development could not have happened until we were able to fix our fiscal and debt situation. As a result the necessary adjustments, which created the downturn, were an essential part of any development that was to take place.

I think that many have accepted that reality, with the exception of a few diehards who still believe that it is always going to be possible to have economic and social prosperity without sacrifice. And it is not surprising, as even at the individual level there are many who believe that sacrifice is not necessary for success, and so they will borrow to buy the most expensive cars when they are young, only to face the reality at retirement.

Now that we are at a point where the fiscal and legislative reforms have borne fruit (as we see from the confidence sentiments, low inflation and interest rates, improved capital market, relative exchange rate stability, etc), it is now necessary for us to realise what the next ingredient is to move to the next level of economic and social development.
To illustrate, growing an economy or a company is similar to riding a century (100 miles). The first 50 miles may be the easiest, but even if you can’t easily get to the first 50 miles, you can still be in condition to go the full century. As you progress, however, every additional mile is going to require more fluids, food, and physical and mental toughness.

So it is with our economic and social development. Getting to a point of fiscal and macroeconomic stability is an essential base, but to move from this base to the next 50 miles of real economic and social development is going to require more, and different strategies, than what we used to complete the first half of the journey.

This, of course, is one of the challenges we have had with implementing Vision 2030. The fact is that we have sought to make it happen without any real attempt to change the bureaucratic and social environment needed for us to realise that vision. The result is that we are pressing the gas pedal with the emergency brake still engaged. The car may move slightly with the emergency brake engaged, but the performance will be way below what is required to get anywhere soon.

New thinking needed

It is important for us to understand this as we move from fiscal and macroeconomic reform to sustained economic and social development. In short, for this to happen it will require a different and bold way of thinking, as the strategies that got us to this point cannot be the same ones to get us through the next 50 miles of the race.

For this reason I have always maintained that any strategy that focuses primarily on fiscal revenues will do so to the detriment of economic and social progress. This is because the nature of a focus on fiscal revenues is in contrast to incentivising productivity and investment. Therefore, it is important for us to find the optimal balance, where fiscal revenues are maximised and productivity and investments are optimal.

This is the mistake that we have always made with our fiscal accounts, and as a result have always put more and more taxes in place only to watch economic performance stagnate over the years.

Today, my view is that the economic reform programme of the past three years has created a very attractive base for us to now move to the next level of real economic and social development, like no other time that I can remember. Whereas in the ‘90s we were attractive for debt, today we are seen as the best place in the Caribbean to do business (Forbes andDoing Business Report) — a significant contrast.

The only way to move to the next level is to now get the ingredients necessary for it all to come together. It is going to require a new and bold way of thinking. Not the old linear way of saying that if we increase fees and taxes, then more will come to the government coffers. Or that every business person is trying to run a scam.

It is going to require even more public-private partnerships (which has been one of the reasons over the past three years for the progress we have made). It is going to require bold moves such as charting a way for more competitive tax rates by reducing rates, and even setting out a programme to gradually move from direct to indirect taxes. It is going to require an assault on indiscipline, such as road indiscipline, and clamping down on night noises. It is going to require investing significant sums in the security forces, not just for equipment but for training, and demanding even more accountability. It is going to require that we take decisions — such as was taken with the oil hedge — and realise that we won’t win every time, but that we take decisions based on risks to the stability of the country. It is going to require political maturity to rally around a common cause, and for us as individuals to be tolerant of each other’s views and to vote based on issues and to move away from welfare politics.

Unless we can make this paradigm shift in our thinking, then we will always be reminded that “one from ten leaves nought”.