Mon | Aug 21, 2017

Who had the bigger balls?

Published:Sunday | January 31, 2016 | 1:00 AM

Democracy requires something of a basic belief in the wisdom of crowds. Still, it is folly to underestimate the perversity that people are capable of. Hence it's often important to state (or repeat) some very simple things.

One such is that the Jamaican economy is in far better shape today than it was in early 2012. This isn't a particularly controversial statement, in the sense that impartial observers from all over the world keep making the point. It does, however, induce political dyspepsia in those heavily invested in confusing this issue, so there are strenuous attempts to make it a divisive claim.

This is why it was so important for The Old Lady of North Street, which doesn't have a partisan axe to grind, to award Dr Peter Phillips Man of The Year. The simple fact is that Jamaica was steered from the brink of cataclysm to the point where confidence is gathering, our fiscal house is improving, and for the first time in 40 years, the stage has been set for more than anaemic economic growth.

Naturally, the implicit endorsement has not gone unnoticed. The Gleaner itself reports that at a meeting in Clarendon:

"Shaw poked fun at Phillips being named the Gleaner Man of the Year for 2015 ... . Holness said Phillips is being celebrated for doing nothing, but taxing Jamaicans."

As you can well imagine, this is the merest tip of the iceberg, and the award has left Peter's opponents seething, and blowing smoke through their gills.

Alas, there is nothing like politics to make otherwise sensible people walk up and down and talk gibberish. How else can you explain Audley's behaviour back in 2011? Recall that he was playing hide-and-seek with the multilaterals. Also bring your mind back to the utter panic that had settled upon Jamaica when it became clear that he had taken IMF money, failed to enact the agreed reforms, spent the money, and essentially steered the country to near-pariah status economically.

Now Mr Holness has announced that Man A Yaad will be put back in the driver's seat of the economy if the JLP wins the majority of seats in the next election. That threat by Holness (and it's impossible to conceive it as anything else) would have been driven by internal politics, but is also cause for concern.

I'm always quick to volunteer that Audley had started out well back in 2007. Recall there was the JDX to give some breathing space. That was no small thing. Then there was the divestment of some assets that had been bleeding the public purse from forever, and which, for mostly political purposes, previous administrations clung to tenaciously.

 

RECKLESS PROMISES

 

Mind you, there was other stuff, which even at that time, one had to ignore: electioneering promises and reckless promises to the public sector. There were some OLINT comments that one had to forget, and there were predictions about the 2008 market crash benefiting Jamaica. But if one kept one's eyes firmly focused on the BIG PICTURE, Audley was getting along pretty well.

But then it all went up in smoke. Audley was like a baller dribbling from his own goal line and moving steadily forward. He's outrunning opponents, 'chopping' others, bussin' salads, and all that. But as soon as he crosses the midfield, the initial brilliance just evaporated. Nothing. He starts to wander around aimlessly and eventually just boots the ball back, scoring an own-goal.

My reading is that it was political heat that caused Audley's eventual dithering and backsliding. General elections were looming, but equally important, Bruce Golding was self-deconstructing, and Audley had his eye on the Iron Throne.

And that's a major portion of Audley's (and this country's) problem: good economics made bad politics, and bad economics made good politics.

Contrast this to Phillips. He started with the distinct disadvantage that, after Audley, the re-engaged multilaterals set steep preconditionalities to dealing with Jamaica. These were met and, thereafter, the whole society has been engaged through EPOC, the NDX, and public-sector wage restraint to chip into the resetting the table. Along with unprecedented economic legislative reform and the monumental PetroCaribe buyback, Jamaica is in a completely different place.

Phillips has proven himself the bigger baller, and is scoring, not turning back.

Confusingly, by the way, Mr Holness has been looking to take credit, if only in some minuscule way, for the successful completion of the IMF reviews, by pointing out that he has refrained from street protests. Like Audley, it seems he has never settled in his mind, far less communicated, a clear position on whether Jamaica should abide by the IMF programme.

Rather, they hop on and off the bus as a matter of political expediency, talking occasionally like they would have had the balls to enact the bitter medicine, but ultimately being allergic to hard decisions. Needless to say, at this stage in Jamaica's democratic development, we deserve more from an Opposition and its leader.

Let's look at this business of the absence of street protests, for it is a remarkable thing that the Government kept up a 7.5% GDP surplus without the streets running red. It is certainly worthy of analysis. But I am quite certain it is not due to the forbearance of the Opposition. Here Holness is just advertising political weakness as statesmanly virtue. For example, recall the modest increase in bus fares that caused, as those things will do, some resistance. Mr Holness attempted to harness that into street protests, but the effort failed. Who knows? Perhaps there is more wisdom in the crowd than I would generally believe.

So this Man of the Year honour was a Big Deal, I'm sure, for Dr Phillips, and definitely for his opponents. But it's also a Big Deal for Jamaica, for it signals the newspaper's judgement that it's better to be where we are today than where we were when Audley was hiding from Dr Gene Leon.

- Daniel Thwaites is an attorney-at-law. Email feedback to columns@gleanerjm.com.