Wed | May 31, 2023

Peter Espeut | Widening the gap

Published:Friday | May 26, 2023 | 12:25 AM
Minister of Finance and the Public Service Dr Nigel Clarke addresses the House of Representatives at the Jamaica Conference Centre on October 6, 2020.
Minister of Finance and the Public Service Dr Nigel Clarke addresses the House of Representatives at the Jamaica Conference Centre on October 6, 2020.

Jamaica is one of the most unequal societies in the world; the haves are very wealthy, and the have-nots are, well, very poor. We who live here take it as normal, but it is, in fact, pathological – the sign of a sick society.

This first came to my attention sometime early in the 1980s when I read Carl Stone’s 1980 book Democracy and Clientelism in Jamaica. He reported that – measured by the Gini coefficient – Jamaica had the eleventh highest level of income inequality on the planet, and the fastest growing gap between the rich and the poor. I call this a national scandal!

The cry of so many for “equality and justice” is grounded in a lived experience of exactly the opposite!

Our apartheid education system and the high-density, high-crime political garrisons created in inner-city areas by successive Jamaican politicians are evidence of this injustice and inequality.

Published IMF data for 2013 indicate that Jamaica has a higher level of income inequality than Haiti and every other country in this hemisphere, excepting Suriname. How does this grab you? How proud of Jamaica does this make you feel?

Real progress is measured, not by the increase in per-capita gross domestic product (GDP) alone, but also by how the national income is spread throughout the population, usually measured by the Gini coefficient. You can have a whopping increase in per capita GDP across the country, but in fact, the vast majority of that increased income accrues only to a a few. Such a country is not prospering, but in fact, is slowly imploding. Social unrest (and crime) will increase, threatening the stability of the country.

True progress and sustainable development in Jamaica – of any country – will only be attained with a decrease in income inequality: increase the per capita GDP yes! But spread the increased income more equitably across the whole society – high and low, urban and rural. Prosperity yes! But to be genuine, national prosperity must be experienced across the whole society, and not just by a few.

CANNOT UNDERSTAND

Andrew Holness and Nigel Clarke and their acolytes cannot understand why we, the benighted hoi polloi of Jamaica, cannot appreciate how rational and reasonable the huge salary increases that they have just given themselves are. The mechanism for determining public sector remuneration was devised over the years by a series of private sector moguls; the 200-to-300 per cent increases for top civil service and political posts and the 20-to-30 percent increases for low-level public servants, are not much different to the norm in the private sector that has earned Jamaica the deserved reputation as one of the most unequal countries on Earth. What is the fuss about? “Is so de ting set!” This is Jamaica!

It seems to me that Jamaica is at a turning point in its history. If not managed properly it could prove to be a powder keg.

Most Jamaicans do not like how “de ting set”. The refusal of the majority to vote in general elections is NOT APATHY, but ACTIVE DELIBERATE REJECTION of both corrupt parties and the system they represent. The widespread negative reaction to the massive increase in the salaries politicians have given themselves is a spontaneous and gut-level reaction to the injustice of rewarding inefficiency, non-performance, and even malfeasance. Examples abound of politicians breaching procurement guidelines, and giving contracts to their relatives and friends (nepotism and cronyism), with no accountability and no consequences. Even if the salary increases are according to the rules – people argue – the rules were made by the politicians themselves, to suit themselves.

And all this right after high-handed bullying of long-suffering public sector workers (teachers, nurses) who have alternatives overseas.

“We need to give massive salary increases to politicians to attract talent into politics” was the lame argument advanced. Mr. Politician: Don’t you want to attract talent into teaching and nursing? Don’t you want to reward those teachers and nurses who didn’t migrate, and to offer an incentive to those who might be thinking about it?

BLOOD PRESSURES RISE

As grocery bills mount after supposedly hefty increases, struggling civil servants see politicians earning one million, two million PER MONTH. After pressuring us to take a smalls because the government cannot afford it! Blood pressures rise!

And all this in the midst of a charade of constitutional change. The government is busy about getting rid of the monarchy as a legacy project, to win bragging rights for low- hanging fruit (they think). The people want to overturn the way “de ting set” by reducing the arbitrary power of the monarchical executive. This monarchical prime minister likes to act without consultation, like about accountability mechanisms for non-performing politicians. Humpty Dumpty is about to have a great fall!

Things are now at a delicate stage. Many issues are coming together to achieve critical mass. The politicians are nervous. “Are we going to get away with it, without social unrest? Will people take to the streets?”

They may! Give it time!

This crisis is also a moment of opportunity. This is the time to wring long-asked-for concessions from a previously unmovable political directorate: public declaration of assets, public declaration of political contributions, impeachment and the right of recall, term limits, confirmation hearings for certain appointed positions.

Any party that hopes to win the next election must seek to implement policies to reduce income inequality, achieve equity in education, and to reduce the monarchical power of the executive.

But let us see what happens between now and then.

Peter Espeut is a sociologist and development scientist. Send feedback to columns@gleanerjm.com