Holness is on to something
Opposition Leader Andrew Holness delivered a largely statesmanlike budget presentation last Thursday, touching on some fundamental challenges to national development.
There were some memorable quotes: "We have been so disappointed, frustrated and jaded by our experience over the last 50 years as a people that we have developed coping mechanisms; which is, not to believe, not to trust, not to have faith, not to have hope." A profound point underlying our deep social and psychological crisis. Holness went on to show why this condition was "dangerous", to use his apt word.
"It means that:
n We will have low expectations of our leaders
n Public accountability will be low
n Standards will fall
n Corruption, inefficiency and wastage will be high
n Voter participation will be low
n Governments will be determined by a tribal minority
n There is a willingness to accept the status quo, to keep things as they are for fear they cannot be better and are likely to get worse."
Very well put, Mr Holness. But Mr Holness was not through with his sober line of contemplation: "Worst of all, the condition of hopelessness means that our children will stop dreaming. In which case the possibilities of their future is (sic) limited by the problems of today." You don't need to be up to date with the latest findings in neuroscience and sociology to realise that Andrew Holness is doing some serious thinking about the fundamental challenges which are facing us.
Ja vs Singapore
He started his budget presentation by comparing Jamaica with Singapore, noting that Jamaica and Singapore were roughly at the same point economically in 1962. Jamaica's GDP was US$460 while Singapore's was $470. Fifty years later Jamaica's GDP (2013) was $5,290 while Singapore's had skyrocketed to $55,182 - more than 10 times Jamaica's.
Holness was quick to point out that he was not making the usual political point scoring. "The real point to be made is the movement from poverty to prosperity for our people is possible. I know some people believe that in their lifetime, Jamaica will never see the type of transformation and growth that led to Singapore's first-world quality of life ... I know that our youth with 50 years ahead of them don't believe that Jamaica will ever be able to provide them with education, employment and opportunities sufficient to achieve the quality of life they desire. It is no wonder that over 50 per cent of university graduates would migrate if given the chance."
I like to see when politicians give recognition to some of our overarching problems and grasp the big picture. Holness himself later said off script that often when people talk about growth, they focus on the purely macroeconomic areas, neglecting the social and cultural factors which in fact, he pointed out, heavily influence growth.
I have held passionately and more consistently than anyone else that our deepest issues concern values and attitudes; that our fundamental crisis is cultural, not constitutional, economic or political. Our overarching crisis is a crisis of values and our social capital deficit, and this continues to hold us back, despite who is in Jamaica House.
Values and attitude
I have written numerous articles stressing that we will never deal with our critical economic and social challenges until we fix our social capital deficit. In my column of November 3, 2012 titled 'Values and attitude campaign critical', I wrote: "To some smug media commentators, the whole values and attitudes issue is just another term for moralising or, worse, and more scornfully 'preaching' and we know that's not really critical to reducing the national debt, producing economic growth, jump-startng the export sector and significantly raising productivity. Oh, really?"
But I asked some crucial questions then in answer to those who would marginalise the issue of values and attitudes: "When further cuts in our already inadequate public expenditure are made, what will cause Jamaicans to want to band together, to see the national interest, the larger picture, and sacrifice in the interest of Jamaica? What would make individualistic, acquisitive, ambitious, impatient Jamaicans want to tighten their belts further for some notion of national good - except there is a major overhaul in values and attitudes?"
I went on in that article: "Developing societies like Jamaica have an even more urgent need to be concerned about values and attitudes and to put it at the top of the development agenda ...". On my birthday, March 13, 2005, I wrote an article titled 'Politicians just don't get it!' in which I chastised both political parties for their shortsightedness. I wrote : "The political leadership overall, PNP and JLP, needs to do some fundamental rethinking of its approach to the country's social crisis. The political leadership needs to have a grasp of the nature of the real crisis which goes beyond economics and politics."
Now that our children are being murdered in high numbers and that they are turning up both dead and pregnant at 14; with front-page stories of impregnated 12-year-olds, our politicians can no longer ignore the social crisis. That crisis is connected to economics, surely, but it is not limited to it.
Holness displayed an understanding of that last Thursday as he made his budget presentation. "The country must be unequivocal in its position against adolescent pregnancy. We must encourage our young girls to stay in school longer, secure an income and then have children they can afford. This is critical to moving our people from poverty to prosperity."
'Blaming the victims'
Of course, some economistic people will say that he is merely "blaming the victims" and that it's "the system" which forces early pregnancy on these poor girls, etc. Yes, there is a connection between poverty, economic hopelessness, inequality and teenage pregnancy and sexual grooming. But there are many examples in our inner cities and in our rural communities where poor, marginalised girls with certain values and attitudes in their heads resist that path and walk the straight and narrow. It can be done. We must never deny people their volition.
"Having children before you have the means to afford them and provide a certain quality of life actually decrease the life chances of both child and parents. It increases the social cost to everyone else and continues the cycle of poverty." We need to have more of our politicians talking like this. Ronnie Thwaites, to his eternal credit, has been our foremost politician incessantly making the link between our underdevelopment and educational underachievement and our values and attitudes. People dismiss him as constantly "preaching", but brilliant intellectual that he is, with a cultural sensitivity and sensibility second to none, he marshals his arguments compellingly - and in the people's language too. All politicians must join him.
Hope and inspiration
The prime minister, when she speaks on Tuesday, must not just tell us what a wonderful job she and her administration have been doing since 'the missing years' of the last JLP administration. The country needs hope and inspiration. Something to believe in. A voice - or voices - crying out against our social crisis and speaking to the heart of issues as well as to our hearts.
Holness also said some very important things about education, but it is important to note that Thwaites has been tackling all the issues he mentioned. The opposition leader showed that some of the things which this Government has been doing he had initiated, but that's good for it shows continuity and consensus on crucial matters. Education is in the right hands and we have a minister who understands exactly what is needed and is busily dealing with those issues.
In the area of health, too, Holness could have acknowledged that this Government is also focusing on primary health care. Last year the Government spent $688 on health centres under its primary health care programme. And health has received a significant increase in this year's budget. I support the stout defence Holness put up last Thursday for the JLP administration's enactment of the no-user-fee policy in health and tuition-free education. These policies were two of the most important programmes the Golding administration put in place and they should be heartily supported by all progressives. Their implementation problems notwithstanding, there needs to be a robust philosophical commitment to them as a means of reducing inequality.
Holness gave us some sober, measured reflections in his budget presentation. The country awaits Prime Minister Portia Simpson Miller's address at this time of social crisis when we need to hope and have faith in the future.