Jamaica is going through interesting times. We are currently experiencing the lowest level of unemployment in our history, yet almost two million people are — according to a local newspaper — unable to afford a proper meal. We are currently having a shortfall in key areas of industry. Our workers are uncertified and therefore deemed “unskilled” so we speak about the need to import labour, with no talk about how these workers will be paid or why we aren’t pushing to certify local workers.
This level of warped thinking continues. Jamaica, like the rest of the world, is experiencing shocks brought on by COVID-19 and the Russia/Ukraine war. Global institutions which have literally overthrown governments that try to implement social security nets have been sounding the alarm, demanding that nations lay the groundwork of social security to cushion what they say will be a blow, the likes of which we have never seen before.
Jamaica, which for a decade has been living under International Monetary Fund (IMF) dictate, disagrees. Though our economy, we are told, is back to pre-COVID levels and that the targets set by the IMF and slavishly followed since the agreement ended have been met and even exceeded (a fact that has been the case for almost a decade) we are vehemently told that we must stay the course of austerity.
We must then ask, why is there so much pushback against the idea of extending the levels of aid packages and who gets them if the State has a rainy-day fund?
The talk is that they are worried about the economy imploding and returning to what existed in the 90s, or even the fact that we would have to borrow, adding to our burdensome debt levels, and that is never good they say. But that, I think, is a cop-out and a cop-out which says we the masses must tighten our belts while the rich get fat.
In these tough economic times, why not re-introduce the pre-existing tax levels that companies had? Clearly, they know how to pay taxes as seen by the record tax receipts the Government has touted, and if the worry is missing revenue targets that’s a great way to plug the gaps. Could it be that with fewer taxes to pay the companies can use the saved money to expand businesses, hiring workers who, lest we forget, can barely afford a healthy meal?
We are worried, rightly, about exploding the debt, so why not go to other lending agencies? The BRICS Bank and Asia Infrastructure Development Bank are both viable options which lend at low rates and have no problem extending or renegotiating loans. Do we not use them because that would mean us moving away from the US-backed IMF and World Bank?
We are told that the $3-billion temporary increase being spent on the Programme of Advancement Through Health and Education (PATH) is enough. The Government pats itself on the back saying that it cares, but highlights that it eats a large part of the revenue. What is not said here is that the temporary measure is on the chopping block because they can’t or won’t bear the burden. But then we must remember that the revenue targets have been met and exceeded for almost 11 years, so how much money is in there?
If $40-billion that Mark Golding has asked for is out of the question, what about $10 billion spread over everyone? Why not let the people know how much we have in the kitty so we know how much we can and can’t realistically play with? Why the immediate poo-pooing of the idea saying, as the former opposition leader has done, that future crises will be on the horizon that will have to be dealt with?
Dead people can’t deal with problems, starving people can’t deal with problems, people living in a failed state can’t deal with problems, and a country where its teachers, nurses, truck drivers and other workers leave in droves cannot deal with its problems. They are literally saying starve today so we can deal with things tomorrow, and even they know this is a pile of horse excrement.
Spending on national security, during the pandemic and now during the war, has increased. Hardly a week goes by without the opening of a new or wholly refurbished station or the handing over of cars/weapons/materials. They do this in the middle of a pandemic and faltering economy because they know if it isn’t dealt with now, it will be nary impossible to deal with later.
They have found a way to balance the economic needs with the realities on the ground, though I may and do argue about how much is spent there and the emphasis on national security over other areas, the fact that they do this shows they know what they are saying is foolishness and a mere diversion.
I don’t think we should go the whole hog and have our debt to GDP ratio return to 120 per cent, but the economy is healthy, we have reserves that have been much touted by both administrations. Therefore, why are we not at least having a serious conversation about how much we have in the reserves and how much we can realistically spend during what is set to be the worst economic period since the 30s.
The Government talks a big game about creating a new, better Jamaica. I hate to break it to the Administration, but a country filled with the ‘what lef’ because everyone who can and has some modicum of skill is gone is not going to be made into a paradise overnight.
If we continue to put off the social spending that is needed now, then when we do introduce it, it will be more than what is needed now, it will be longer-lasting as well as having less impact because the starting base of the people is lower.
As things stand now, $5,000 gets you less at the supermarket than it did pre-pandemic. The minimum wage, when adjusted for conversion to US$, is actually lower than when the current Government first increased it. Alarm bells should be ringing, and while the private sector do see the end result in the form of crime and social breakdown and actively try to stem it, they do so because it affects their bottom line. They don’t do it because they care. The evidence suggest that they insist that the masses continue to tighten belts while they expand in girth.
They complain about teachers and nurses having the nerve to ask for retroactive monies, saying promises were made to the IMF, deals signed and everything. But they have no worries about turning around and happily accepting government legislation which would see them, the most unproductive sectors — in terms of what they give back to the nation — writing off billions in potential government revenue.
The people are not in a good place, anomie is the general feeling among them. They have no faith in politicians, a sect which has abused them for years. They do not believe the business community, a class that has raped them for years. They especially have no trust in the security services, a group which has shown itself to be incompetent at investigating while being just as murderous as any gang.
The social fabric is tearing, anyone can see that, and while I have no love for the Government or the feckless Opposition, if they do not do something meaningful to stop the current trajectory then what we will be faced with is unimaginable to the average Jamaican, short of watching a movie.
Belt tightening in times of crisis, the neo-liberal model of austerity has shown itself to be a dud, we need to have this conversation and accept that while it won’t be perfect and may be dicey, a big increase in social spending is needed even while we manage our books. The choices are bleak, but I’d take going without electricity rather than going without food. These are the choices we have to make.