Tue | Dec 12, 2017

Mark Ricketts | PNP must find keys to growth

Published:Sunday | September 24, 2017 | 12:00 AM

If the PNP wants to seriously move the economy forward, it has to go beyond the ideological rigidities of democratic socialism and the romance of the underdog. It has to incorporate more ideas on public-sector efficiency and management, profits, success, capital formation, and an all-inclusive education relevant to innovation, today's technology, and the country's geographic space.

In the meantime, the trumpet has sounded and the new president of the party Dr Peter Phillips answered the call with an impassioned speech rousing one and all. Last Sunday's PNP conference at the National Arena did not disappoint, as Comrades everywhere were united around the usual common theme, 'land of our birth, we pledge to thee', and around a common bond.

Phillips launched a blistering attack on the JLP government, saying it has failed the people and is in over its head in terms of managing the country. He specifically referenced crime, arguing that it is rampant in every parish, with murders up 25 per cent and the entire Jamaica a crime zone.

He castigated the Government for reneging on its election promise to increase the minimum wage and appealed to the PM to have some compassion by granting an increase to the more than 100,000 national insurance pensioners. Unconstrained by budget limitations, the former finance minister implored the Government to spend more on crime, increase salaries for civil servants, fast-forward pay increases for the police, and replenish their legal defence.

Spurred on, Phillips said a new PNP administration would reserve preferential treatment for Jamaican enterprises in the construction sector. That statement was most unfortunate. The party faithful must begin to understand the need for robust economic growth, expansionism, and domestic and international competitiveness.

Are we to expect that as more voices make their concerns known about foreigners dominating the retail business in towns across Jamaica, that this will morph into xenophobia and, as economic policy, take on the characteristics of beggar-thy-neighbour policies? This could lead to an overall contraction in trade, and, even worse for Jamaica, shortages of available risk capital and specific skill sets. Beggar-thy-neighbour policies occurred during the Great Depression when some of the major economies, in trying to protect their own markets, used different techniques: tariffs, quotas, currency manipulation, thus stifling such economies and those of their neighbours.

 

LAND REFORM

 

A major plank of all PNP administrations is land reform. From the days of Norman Manley, it has been the PNP's swansong. As far as the party is concerned, it corrects the historical ills of those who worked the land not being given right of ownership following Emancipation. It corrects the inequities in land distribution between the rich and the poor, addresses the needs of the agricultural sector, and it can correct the problems of illegal settlements, urban squalor and degradation.

If the PNP is taken seriously, land reform could lessen the intractable problems of neo-colonialism, dependency, underdevelopment, poverty, and social injustice.

As would be expected in a room full of party supporters wanting to know what their party would do if it took the reins of government, Dr Phillips was on form as he twinned land reform with the National Housing Trust (NHT).

What is obvious is that the NHT is becoming all things to all people ever since the PNP used it to bolster the Budget. This has not only continued under the JLP administration but the NHT is now offered by opinion makers in the JLP and the PNP as the financial poster child for large-scale funding of early childhood education.

The big crowd-pleaser for the party leader was his announcement that he will create a legal path for the nearly 700,000 squatters to become homeowners. This can only be successfully implemented by using, guess what? The resources of the NHT.

Phillips has plans to empower the NHT to finance accommodations specifically for public-sector workers, including the police, teachers, nurses, and the indigent, who have contributed to the Trust. Also on his agenda is the release of state-owned lands to the NHT for subdivision and sale at affordable prices. All laudable, but like the PNP governments before him and during his more than 50-year association with the party, land reform (not just titling) as a driver for the economy has been a big disappointment for the party. Performance has always fallen well below expectations.

What Peter and the PNP have not faced is that our education system and our imprudent economic policies over the years have left too many Jamaicans behind who can't afford shelter, whether rent or own, and who by virtue of the ad hoc nature of their work or their very low incomes can't qualify for financing, irrespective of how low we make the qualifying standards.

So, land is captured, and every day more land is captured and illegal settlements built. Social water is often part of the package and no property tax is paid. There is no planning, no zoning, no density restrictions, no infrastructure. Conditions in many of these settlements can be harsh and brutal.

That is why Dr Phillips, even in pivotal posts during his long tenure with the PNP, and the PNP itself, have not been able to halt the pace of land capture. Such an undertaking requires massive amounts of risk capital.

It is not land reform that is a major economic driver. It is sustainable and inclusive growth that will allow incomes to increase to facilitate the novel and creative schemes Dr Phillips has in mind. What he must do now is to demand of the leaders in his party to come up with economic models and strategies to ensure robust growth when he becomes prime minister.

- Mark Ricketts is an economist, author, and lecturer living in California. Email feedback to columns@gleanerjm.com and rckttsmrk@yahoo.com.