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Austerity and our bling culture

Published:Sunday | June 24, 2012 | 12:00 AM

Ian Boyne, Contributor

Financial analyst Dennis Chung never tires to talk about the centrality of energy in our economic equation. He is fond of saying that if only Jamaica could have an efficient, well-functioning public transportation system, many Jamaicans could park their cars and save the country considerable import costs.

And I usually shake my head and say, "Dennis doesn't really understand Jamaicans." Whether Jamaica has adequate buses on the road which you can set your watch by is totally irrelevant to the average Jamaican. He wants his own ride, not just for convenience but to show that he has 'arrived'. After all, don't we all have 'ambition'?

On 'Hotline' with Clive Mullings last week, I raised that issue when we were discussing the country's economic prospects and John Jackson disagreed with me. He said he has gone to London and New York and has seen Jamaicans happily taking public transportation. Ah, John Jackson also doesn't understand Jamaicans. They will do that in London, New York, Atlanta, and Toronto, but not as easily in Kingston and MoBay where they were born, reared and have their friends to show off on - and especially their enemies.

Jamaicans love to bling. And this is a big part of our problem - and the dilemma for any Government. Jamaicans are genetically repulsed by austerity. That's why our politicians have been afraid to take the hard decisions over the years.

No stomach for sacrifice

Mark you, we know how to 'hold our suffering' and we have a history of hardships, pain and deprivation. But as a people we are not culturally attuned to sacrifice and the postponement of gratification the way people in the Far East are. That is why they are capital-surplus peoples and we are among the most indebted in the world. We have champagne taste on lemonade pockets.

The euphoria that swept across Jamaica two weeks ago when LIME announced its significant slashing of rates, you would think Jamaica discovered oil or gold, or that we had landed a US$3-billion investment with the prospects of employing many thousands of Jamaicans. No, that would not give Jamaicans as much glee as the prospect of chatting for more hours on the cheap. Now Digicel has cut rates too. This is what gets our adrenaline going. The sweet euphoria across Jamaica over both companies' actions was a telling cultural barometer indicative of what is wrong with us: Our values are totally lopsided.

That is why our education minister, whose philosophical sophistication is eclipsed by no Jamaican politician, can so easily talk to inner-city people about spending on their children's education rather than the hair piece, nails, dancehall fashion and rum. Go into some ramshackle dwellings in the ghetto and observe their appliances and gadgets. In some of these homes you see flat-screen TVs, and they are not bought by drug money.

You will see a few middle-class persons with some cheap phones, but many inner-city people won't to be caught dead with them. They want BlackBerrys and other fancy phones. Nothing wrong with that - except that these persons are the same ones begging lunch money and who have their children at home because they can't find bus fares.

I told Clive Mullings last week that China's savings rate was more than 50 per cent of GDP and that was why it is a capital-surplus country and why the US, with a consumerist, hedonistic culture, has a debt of over $15 trillion and is running a deficit with China. The Chinese and the Indians have high savings rates - and they are among the most dynamic economies in the world - because their people believe in the postponement of gratification.

I hear Energy Minister Phillip Paulwell talking about Jamaicans making a lot of cultural change to save energy and I laugh at him, as I do at Dennis Chung, John Jackson and other idealists. Jamaicans' making sacrifice "for the good of the country" and "for the future" while jeopardising their gratification and convenience now? (LOL, DWL!) Will the politicians themselves give up their gas-guzzling SUVs as an example? Will they drive seven-year-old cars which are fuel efficient? Are our politicians prepared to band their own bellies and tighten their belts as an example to us? I would rather see a sermon lived than hear one preached any day!

The price of happiness

The United Nations-commissioned, Earth Institute-published 170-page World Happiness Report issued in April gives the compelling empirical evidence from across the globe that materialism, consumerism and hedonism do not promote happiness and that increasing wealth and gross domestic product (GDP) don't automatically translate into happiness and well-being. The Rio conference on sustainable development is all about calling a halt to the rape of Mother Earth in the name of material progress and prosperity.

We have been fooled. Leading development economist Jeffrey Sachs, director of Columbia University's Earth Institute, says in the World Happiness Report (2012): "The Western economist's logic of ever higher GNP is built on a vision of humanity completely at variance with the wisdom of the sages, the research of psychologists and the practices of advertisers ... . There is one further word of warning to those who expect to become happier by becoming richer. Even if gains in well-being can be eked out by further income, the evidence is overwhelming that after a certain point, the gains are small. The key idea is known as the diminishing marginal utility of income." I am absolutely sure billionaire Usain Bolt is no happier than I am, by any measure.

The materialistic, hedonistic treadmill of Western capitalist society is a mirage, a dangerous seduction. Studies continue to show that relationships provide the key to happiness and that emotional health and wealth and celebrity are not correlated.

"There is, of course, plenty of evidence that people who care more about others are typically happier than those who care more about themselves. But does this mean altruism increases happiness in a causal sense? Evidence on volunteering and on giving money suggests that it does. Clearly, altruistic behaviour benefits those at the receiving end. But does it also benefit those who give as well as those who receive? There is substantial evidence that it does, and this is why it is so much more common than the crude teachings of elementary economics might predict."

There was a time in Jamaica - when we had less influence from American cultural imperialism - when people thought more in terms of others; when self-sacrifice and community service were not as uncommon as they are today. People would sacrifice for the common good. People sacrificed for their children. Now don't get me wrong. We have not lost it totally.

But there have been significant changes in our values as that towering intellectual Professor Carl Stone himself identified in his last major paper in 1992. Now people are pimping their daughters, even holding them down to have them raped! Yes, and those who don't go to that extreme encourage their children's trafficking (no wonder we were downgraded in the latest Trafficking in Persons Report).

As we celebrate our 50th anniversary, it is not surprising that a techno sound recording bearing little resemblance to our authentic reggae sound could have been passed off as our official song in our golden jubilee celebrations. We have watered down everything and have made major changes in not just artistic culture but our culture generally. We are more Americanised than ever. Our youth know more about Justin Bieber and Kim Kardashian than they do about living Jamaicans who are contributing to Jamaican development.

Living above our means

Peter Phillips will face far more opposition to his necessary austerity measures from cultural winds than from Opposition political winds. The same people bawling about hard times and increases in patties, mackerel and condensed milk are going to Courts and Singer to take out appliances they can't afford, putting themselves into debt they can't afford to repay without robbing from Peter to pay Paul.

People will cuss Government for their economic woes while eating KFC and other junk food, rather than preparing simple and healthy meals which will keep them from waiting 20 hours to get medical attention at Kingston Public Hospital or St Ann's Bay Hospital. I know of families with intense struggles to purchase food and essential medicines, but the children are dressing in the latest fashion, going on all the trips that are planned and sporting the latest electronic gadgets.

There are young, middle-class people who could stay at home with their parents while they save from their early career, but who instead go out to rent fancy apartments, not just for convenience, but to show their friends they are 'making it'. Then they cuss Government about high university fees and student loans and quarrel about not being able to make ends meet.

It's not everybody who is going to ATI Weekend in August who can afford it. But they are going. I was speaking to a strikingly attractive, highly educated and articulate young woman last week who works in a well-known corporate office in New Kingston. She was explaining to me how shocked people are to discover that she lives in Seaview Gardens. She recalled telling one young man who asked to take her out where she lived and he asked whether that was near Stony Hill! NO, she said, "Near Marcus Garvey Drive." He thought she was just putting him off! He could not believe that such a well-spoken, educated corporate woman would have chosen to live in Seaview, where she doesn't have to pay rent.

She remembered a day when she could not go home because of the violence and she said her disturbed colleagues at her office were angry at her for "you can afford to move out and yet you live there". She walks around with a cheap phone, does not spend money on expensive make-up and eats simply. She wants to do law and is saving towards doing that while using her money to help her family.

She was relieved to talk to me, she said, because she was beginning to feel like someone without ambition, as she had been told so many times. Our culture punishes people who don't conform to its tyrannical materialistic values.

This is why forced sacrifice through austerity risks resentment and social unrest.

Ian Boyne is a veteran journalist. Email feedback to and