Tue | Sep 17, 2019

Mark Ricketts | PM drunk with optimism, perhaps?

Published:Sunday | December 9, 2018 | 12:00 AM
Prime Minister Andrew Holness

Prime Minister Andrew Holness is bullish about the economy and has been making a strong case that before long, full employment can be attained.

Speaking in Montego Bay recently, he said, "If the economy continues on the path that it is now set, Jamaica will be in a position where it will have a job for every single citizen who is able-bodied and can work." So convinced is he of the inevitability of full employment that he believes the country will have to eventually import labour to satisfy its needs.

Before these overly optimistic goals can be achieved, the prime minister and his administration are going to have to finally admit that garrisons, partisanship, and patronage are going to be the death of us.

Until we can allow competence to upend loyalty and talent to ignore party allegiance, the auditor general is going to continue presenting reports that are embarrassing to governments as they reveal how state-owned corporations and agencies suffocate best practices, stifle growth, undermine productivity, repress earnings, destroy asset quality, and severely limit employment gains.

It is unbelievable that in post-Independence, both the JLP and the PNP governments have seen the devastating effects of waste and corruption arising from bad governance practices; weak directorship; poor, but loyal executive management; inadequate systems control; and badly misplaced talent, yet they persist, seemingly insensitive to the pain the society experiences and seemingly indifferent to how much it influences bad behaviour.

 

Prosperity train

 

Why should people even try when they can turn to a government to save them from court-ordered eviction from captured land, as government, aboard the prosperity train, doesn't have to blink if a billion dollars worth of fuel can't be accounted for, not just this year, but for several years? What's the loss of a billion a year, here and there, when it can be masked by promises of full employment and housing for everyone so that squatting will be no more?

A painful aspect of this is that when Government amplifies its missteps from making a hash of urgently needed imported police cars to choreographing a horror show with its stellar corporation, Petrojam, negatives multiply, as in the case of our continued decline in the global assessment of the country's ease of doing business.

Exacerbating the situation is our indebtedness and Govern-ment having limited fiscal space to address several urgent problems. So we deepen our dependency, whether as equity or loans. We draw down our bauxite levy capital fund. And we kick the can further down the road.

The continued fiasco with Petrojam shows that we cannot escape the responsibility of tomorrow by evading it today.

Look at last week's Sunday Gleaner headline, which pointed out that many young people in inner-city communities - who desperately need jobs - are being denied possible job placements because they can't pass the requisite drug tests. What happens if they do not make the necessary adjustments in their lifestyle by foregoing their current indulgence? What happens if after a time, they remain unemployed, and, possibly, unemployable?

Do they fit within the prime minister's definition of "able-bodied individuals who can work?" Or do they fall within that all-encompassing category of ordinary people, the downtrodden, the masses, the underprivileged, the oppressed, who a kinder, gentler society should take care of?

 

Failure of the State

 

Howard Mitchell, president of the Private Sector Organisation of Jamaica (PSOJ), in emphasising the importance of national drug-prevention efforts, argued that the way decriminalisation was done in 2015 there was a failure of the State to support mechanisms that were promised at the time.

"As a former manufacturer, I can say drug use and moving parts do not go well together."

Adding his voice to drugs and employment considerations, management-care coordinator Orville Simmonds says, "We need to decide as a country how we are going to deal with youngsters smoking a little thing while giving up their chances to be employed."

Interestingly, Member of Parliament Ronnie Thwaites wrote a very powerful column some time ago, which I draw on in my speeches now and again to show the conundrum that Jamaica faces.

Thwaites' story was about Legion, a name he probably selected because of its biblical association. In our Jamaica, there are many.

Legion got opportunities but drifted. As a big man, he was out of work and forcibly bunked with his mother, who didn't have the wherewithal to support him. She pleaded with Thwaites for help in trying to find a job for her son. Ronnie eventually got a job for Legion on one of the city's garbage trucks.

Not only would it ease the burden on his mother, but he would get a fresh start in securing gainful employment, which was not below his status, given his lack of skills, lack of training, and spotty employment history.

Ronnie, all excited, gave Legion the good news, only to hear a barrage of expletives. In Legion's mind, Mr Thwaites had shown him no respect. In fact, he was dissing him to have the audacity of offering him the job he did. Legion might have thought his MP could have made a better offer.

 

Double standard

 

The next week was soca carnival, and Legion picked someone's pocket, got caught, was arrested, and was carted off to jail. Petrojam picked the nation's pocket, was publicly exposed, but escapes jail time. Meanwhile, Legion will become, like many others, part of the oppressed.

Legion's story is everywhere. Drive throughout communities and towns during daylight hours. It is simply amazing to see the number of men and women hanging out. Men chillin' playing 'Ludi', cards, dominoes; others sitting on stoops, complicit in their own sense of loss; women, combing each other's hair; mothers, young, pregnant, encircled by an additional child or two, engaging others with laughter.

Abraham Lincoln's said, "No country can sustain in idleness more than a small percentage of its numbers." Our percentage is far too large for the PM to take comfort in his full-employment assertions.

A weakness in our tendency to label people as disadvantaged or ordinary is that we presume a homogeneous grouping of people who are helpless, powerless, without options, without choices, incapable of ordering their affairs to better themselves. Individuals have shown that's not necessarily true.

People, like the corporate juggernaut Petrojam, could do much better if partisanship, patronage, and tribalism didn't assure entitlement, privilege, and irresponsibility.

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