Friday, May 05, 2017
Jamaica's poverty of the mind
Last week, members of the private sector met with Dr Alvaro Uribe, former president of Colombia, who was invited to Jamaica by the Economic Growth Council (EGC). At the meeting he said two things which resonated with everyone present, and which indicate the significant headwinds that have challenged our development.
Firstly he said that, if a Government does not create wealth, then the only thing they can distribute is poverty. This we are only too familiar with, as for the past 40-odd years, Jamaica has not created any wealth, even though our politicians have continuously sought to redistribute income from the most productive to the least productive. These failed “welfare” policies have resulted in fiscal deficits, low growth, trade deficits, devaluing currency, high crime, etc. This is the proof that our fiscal policies over the years just have not worked.
Secondly, he said he once had a conversation with Hugo Chavez, who told him that Venezuela does not need the private sector as they have oil. Well, we see where they are today, and to a much lesser extent this attitude against capital has also been a challenge for Jamaica.
Because of the desire to look like Robin Hood, many of our political decisions and policies have centred on “taxing the big man to give the small man a break”. What we have not realised, until recently, is that policies built on that principle will only cause everyone to become a small man. In other words, such policies will lead to impoverishment for all of us. This is what has happened to Venezuela, and the main reason for that is that we have not yet found any more efficient ways of creating value than the market forces.
In addition to those comments, we heard the minister of security say recently that an amazing 40 per cent of Jamaicans are squatting, and a recent editorial dealt with the high percentage of students who cannot cope with secondary or tertiary-level education because of poor grounding at the primary and early childhood levels.
Last week when I wrote about the lack of structure and degradation of the Hip Strip in MoBay, one person sent me an email to say that I am fighting against the small man who is trying to make a living. Obviously this person is caught up in a mentality of impoverishment, as he cannot understand that the way to “prosperity” is not to keep people at almost subsistence levels of living, but to expand the opportunities and teach everyone to take advantage of them.
The Prime Minister hit the nail on the head when he recently spoke to the fact that economic growth without social development is undesirable. And Hilary Beckles agreed by saying that this is what has happened in Trinidad, because while they were seeing high levels of growth, they failed to develop the social infrastructure, and so many were left behind with very low moral standards on top of it. Sounds like how we have developed in Jamaica, doesn't it?
As I reflected on these things, I compared it to conversations I have had with many successful business leaders, such as Hon Dennis Lalor, Hon Butch Stewart, Don Wehby, and Butch Hendrickson. These are people I enjoy speaking to and working with, as when you speak with them you get a different perspective on development, than for example the email I received about fighting against the small man on the Hip Strip.
And I would extend that even to some politicians, who suffer from the same “poverty of the mind” as the person who sent me the email.
This “poverty of the mind” is in fact what is holding back Jamaica. I have always maintained that poverty is more defined by how we think than the physical assets we own. When you listen to the stories of many of the very successful business people in Jamaica today, who were by societal standards economically poor, what you pick up is that even though initially they did not have material wealth, their minds were very fertile and prosperous, and that is what allowed them to become successful.
The irony also is that many people who say the rich should be taxed to help the poor man don't realise the difficulties they had to overcome to reach where they are. One trait I find among all the moguls mentioned above is that they never thought they were entitled to anything they didn't work for.
A serious problem that we face in Jamaica is a culture of entitlement that is ingrained in some of us. I saw a woman with nine children on the TV news one night, saying that she is suffering and the Government has done nothing to help her with her nine children.
Or we can even look at middle-class people who are in jobs and think that the employer owes them a favour, and so if they do what they are employed to do they must be compensated, or feel an entitlement to extend a long holiday weekend. And if the employer should dare to dismiss them, then they simply take the company to the IDT, where most times they will win.
Of course, this culture of entitlement receives strong support from political platforms, and is supported through legislation such as our labour laws which encourage unproductive behaviour and informal employment.
Over the years many have been mystified by the fact that despite Jamaica's obvious competitive advantages, such as in music, sports, bauxite, tourism, etc, we are still unable to develop as a country. Blessed with all these natural advantages, why are we still a poor country? Little Antigua boasts GDP per capita of US$18,000, while a much larger, resource-rich country like Jamaica is struggling at a mere US$5,000.
Or we wonder why indiscipline runs rampant in Jamaica, along with crumbling infrastructure and high crime. Why are we able to produce some of the best musical artistes in the world and the best athletes globally, yet with all of that we are still poor and struggling with economic and social challenges?
The problem is that we suffer from a poverty of the mind, which has been fed by the direction of some of our leaders over the years. The comment by the PM is to me a signal of this recognition, and must now be backed up by action.
If we are to move forward - one example being the development of the Hip Strip - it can only happen if we change our mindset, and stop thinking about poverty as our priority (such as what we can do for the poor) and start thinking about wealth creation (such as how we can make everyone better).