Sat | Oct 21, 2017

Things we don't want to talk about

Published:Monday | April 11, 2016 | 12:00 AM
Ronald Thwaites

There are some important things we just don't want to talk about in Jamaica. Public discourse here is probably as unbridled as anywhere in the world, but certain fundamental matters appear too hot for us to handle.

Take, for example, the issue of labour productivity. The data I have seen suggest that the graph of productivity per unit of labour is going in the wrong direction. Output is declining even as workers are requiring more pay.

After a few years' experience in the public sector, I grind my teeth at the disconnect between the sense of entitlement of many civil servants and their concern to add value by their work output.

In years past, we congratulated ourselves for arranging or enduring wage freezes without agreeing, let alone enforcing, standards of productivity. When wage increases of whatever proportion are negotiated, the question is not asked as to what greater output is to be commensurate with the extra money.

Does the Jamaican taxpayer even realise that the public sector gets an automatic increase of two and one-half per cent every year, whether or not anything extra is delivered in exchange? So no wonder the public-sector wage-to-GDP ratio is one of the most stubbornly unachievable IMF tests to date.

 

POLITICAL DYNAMITE

 

But we really do not want to talk about this. And since redundancies are expensive under our laws, and in all events are political dynamite, we have continued to kick this can down the road.

The snag is that our creditors are saying that this has to stop. This year is supposed to be when we reach that 9.5 per cent level. And having taken a 'bly' last year on the issue of contributory pensions for teachers and other public workers, it is likely to be unpostponable this time round.

But how come none of these issues even surfaced in the election discourse nor, as I remember, are they highlighted in the party manifestos? Not surprising. Add them to the list of fundamental, systemic issues of political economy that are so potentially unsettling that we don't want to talk about them. And there is much more.

What about our propensity to prefer imported goods to things manufactured locally? True, our inventory of 'Made in Jamaica' items is very limited. Why? It isn't so much the matter of quality or price, as a deep cultural skew towards 'farrin tings'.

For many of us, that is what prosperity means. Andrew Holness needs to think again if he really believes that when many Jamaicans get up to $18,000 extra, they are going to spend it on things not requiring more foreign exchange. And where will that come from - particularly in the short run?

The predicament is broader than the one facing the prime minister. For all manner of historical and psycho-social reasons, many Jamaicans instinctively, or out of dire necessity, prefer to spend any extra money to consume rather than to invest. Shouldn't we be comparing the local levels of saving with those of successful economies during their developmental stages?

 

NO MAJORITY

 

Again, tell me when such an issue has commanded the attention of the media or formed the grist of a single parliamentary debate? As for that, anyone want to bet that with no majority on the floor, the Government will have no more than two sittings of the House of Representatives per month going forward?

Finally, on this matter of speaking the unspeakable, what a breath of fresh air was Mark Kerr-Jarrett's letter to this paper on Friday ('Modernise agriculture from being unofficial welfare') suggesting that the time has come for rethinking the use of most, if not all, cane lands to grow food for ourselves.

Effective land distribution and land use are more vital subjects which we have fecklessly neglected to talk about, although vital to any hope of cutting down the unsustainable almost US$1 billion we spend on imported food every year.

If we want to keep hope alive, our leaders have to sweat the radical stuff.

We need a Jamaican Bernie Sanders!

- Ronald Thwaites is an attorney-at-law and member of parliament for Central Kingston. Email feedback to columns@gleanerjm.com.