Ian Boyne, Contributor
THE GLOOM and doom, pessimism-mongering started even before the New Year. That there is '13' involved makes this year even more ominous to the many superstitious Jamaicans. The prime minister will have the hardest task on her hands tonight as she delivers her pep talk in her national broadcast. We are just not in a mood to be encouraged.
But while optimism has its limits - and too much optimism is, indeed, fatal - it generally beats negativity. If you listen to a lot of talk and discussion programmes as well as newscasts and are not psychologically adjusted, depression and hopelessness beckon. Baked products are going up; chicken meat is going up; bus fares are going up; gas prices are going up; general food prices are going up. Only wages and hope are not going up. We have no International Monetary Fund (IMF) agreement, and no indication of when we will have one, and we are told business people, international investors and multilateral agencies are all waiting on the IMF agreement before they make any move.
We are getting more scared as to what are these dreaded and fearsome "prior actions" which the IMF is demanding. But we are absolutely sure that wage increases are not a part of those "prior actions", whatever they are. And for those public-sector workers who feel bold and think this is 1938 Jamaica or 1968 Europe and want to strike, talk show host Ronnie Mason has been advising them that they might just be making it easier for the Government to get rid of them by granting those increases and then laying them off, so the State can pay the few. We are between a rock and a very hard place. What can we do?
Well, to draw on one of my favourite philosophers, William James, we are faced with decisions which are "forced, live and momentous". We have to live, with or without an IMF agreement. We have to live, with or without, a job. We have to live, whether the People's National Party remains in power this year or the Office of the Contractor General gets its way and has the entire Cabinet criminally prosecuted, opening the way, presumably, for a new Jamaica Labour Party government.
Find ways to cope
Whatever the bakers do, or your plumber or electrician, you have to carve out ways to live and deal with the harsh realities of Jamaican life this year. Crying in your soup, calling talk shows to cuss off Government and Portia and sitting on your verandahs or street corners to blast Government will not reduce the prices in the shops and supermarkets, or give you a job if you are unemployed. You have to find your own ways to cope, when it's all said and done. You are really on your own and you are going to have to decide what attitudes and approaches you will take to what faces you this year. I want to make some suggestions on how you can make this a happier new year than you would otherwise have.
If you are in dire financial straits or even if you are making it but barely, I want you to adopt that very useful, captivating and highly commendable Victoria Mutual Building Society 'One Less' ad. It's brilliant and I have been meaning to publicly comment on it ever since it appeared. There are several ads in the series. And they are only getting better. The ads show a number of shoes and consumer items - flashy stuff, stuff you would like to bling out in - and it says by buying one less of these, you will be able to afford one of these (a house, a necessity). I thought to myself, what would be the effect on Jamaica if more companies preached that message of frugality and consumer restraint (well, of course, that won't be good for business!) But Government or civil-society groups need to find a way to reach our people with this message of savings, postponement of gratification, reduction of bling. After you are finished cussing Government for plunging us in these hard times, you still have to decide how you are going to spend your shrinking dollar. You still have to decide whether you are going to buy that extra book for your child or go to dancehall or buy that name-brand shoes. You have to decide, when all is said and done.
Personal responsibility is what I am talking about. Now I am a progressive who believes that the state does have some responsibility toward its citizens. I am not a neo-liberal or social Darwinist who believes that people are on their own. But even though I know the state has a social responsibility and that we should not put all responsibility on individual citizens, I believe that it makes no practical sense for people to be talking theoretically about what the state should be doing or not doing when they are faced with live, momentous and forced decisions. If the state is failing to do what it ought, you have to find a way to fend for yourself.
And this is where your personal habits come in. This is where what you do and how you think will make a difference to the quality of your life this year. You can decide to cut back. You can always talk that Portia and her ministers are not cutting back and that Portia's ministers are driving in stush SUVs at your expense. But you can't do like them. So, you are faced with the real decision that you might have to forego on that car loan to pay down on your house or to invest in your children's education. You might have to resist the urge to go to that more prestigious middle-class community with its gated townhouses because your developmental needs are better served by staying right where you are in St Catherine until you can amass some surplus to move out.
There are middle-class youth who could be saving money by staying home longer with parents, but who rush to leave home to have their own apartment, not considering how much they would save by staying home longer and having more money to do the important things they want later on. (Or even the fun things which they would have more money to do by staying with mom and dad longer.) But, no, they want to show off on their peers that they have their own pad. They need to pay attention to VMBS' prize-winning quality 'One Less' ad. (Some Government agency really needs to adopt that for a national campaign, but we have abandoned the values and attitudes/national transformation programme in our shortsightedness).
So I say cut back, reduce your expenditure. You say you can't cut back any further. But you were saying that last year this time when things cost less. You have been forced to cut back in areas you thought you could not because of sheer economic necessity. The market has forced you to cut back on some things, for the market - in addition to pricing things higher - has also not facilitated much employment expansion.
So if the market can force a 'one less' adjustment on you, why can't you consciously and freely adopt that approach this year, strategically? Even the poor waste money on things which they could do without, especially bling-obsessed Jamaican working class people. How many poor people are without cable television? How many have a less than $2,000 cheap phone? How many limit the amount of credit they buy? How many have flat screen TVs when they really can't afford it? How many use their 'pardna' to buy things at Courts and Singer that they could well do without until their productivity and earnings afford them?
Forget about what Portia and Peter are doing. (Well, go on cuss them and protest). But in addition to that, you have to make your own decisions for your own life.
Next, you need to consciously nurture a spirit of optimism and faith. You don't have to be religious for that. Just adopt a can-do, winner mentality. There is an abundance of psychological research to show that generally experience follows expectation. It's not magic. But positive people generally have positive things happen to them. They create a thinking and a framework which leads to positive outcomes. Try it for this year or this week. Instead of thinking woe-is-me, me dead already, think "things will work out".
If you are religious, say to yourself when faced with a major crisis or worrying situation, "There is nothing that will happen to me today, Lord, that you and I cannot work out". Try it.
Then commit yourself to excellence. Commit to doing things to the best of your ability. Commit to being the best in what you do. Commit to being first-class in whatever you undertake. You will find that more opportunities open up; that people want to work with you. That you will keep your jobs and contracts longer. Make excellence your aim.
Try these things for 2013 and tell me what the results in your life are. Next week I will get back to the hard politics, rigorous economic analysis and blistering public affairs commentary. But today, at the start of the new year, I want to give you some approaches which can help you navigate the high tide you will face this year.
Ian Boyne is a veteran journalist. Send feedback to: firstname.lastname@example.org and email@example.com.