Most of us have heard of the Bermuda Triangle, that supposedly mysterious place where laws of physics and gravity may not always be operative; where airplanes and ships that have traveled all around the world develop peculiar mechanical problems which lead them to crash.
The Bermuda Triangle may or may not be a myth; but it bears close resemblance to another proposed geometric shape that is definitely mythical. That shape is the mythical Jamaica Wreck-tangle.
This is an item of self-flattery of which Jamaicans are often guilty, and this item of self-flattery is the one that states that “Governing in Jamaica is like trying to herd wild cats,” or “Fi wi people ‘ard fi rule so till.” However it is stated, this prevailing notion is predicated on: the idea that somehow Jamaicans and Jamaica are supernaturally difficult to govern; and the belief that the natural state of things in Jamaica is a state of disorder and discord. I categorically reject that notion, in fact there is demonstrable evidence that both the actions of Jamaicans and the disorder occurring in Jamaica — even the run-away murder rate — occurs in slavish obedience to inviolable laws.
Let’s look at the idea that some innate quality of Jamaican-ness causes indiscipline and law-breaking; the idea that “fi wi people indiscipline bad, bwoy.” Even though the vast majority of Jamaicans in the United States and United Kingdom are law-biding and hardworking; Jamaican gangs & criminals in both the US and UK have collectively gained great notoriety for criminal behavior. So why is it that, despite this notoriety, the rate of homicides committed by Jamaicans in the US and UK has not been allowed to exponentially increase year after year without abatement (like the Jamaican murder rate)?
Simply put: Americans and Britons wouldn’t stand for that shit! However, in Jamaica we do. Then, having done everything we can to reward and perpetuate wrongdoing, we pretend that somehow we are plagued with a people who are incapable of following rules and order.
Those of us who have seen Jamaicans operate and excel in foreign climes can’t buy into this blather. For example: In Jamaica many people simply stay home on days when there is torrential rainfall; yet those same Jamaicans — when they get a visa and a “work” in “foreign” — will trod through 2 feet of snow to get to their job as they fully understand the penalty for failing to show up is that they will be fired.
Those of us who have seen Jamaicans operate in foreign climes have been to the pool parties in America where a lifeguard was hired by the Jamaican homeowner (every time) to supervise the children and thereby ensure no unfortunate accidents could result in costly, wealth-destroying, litigation. Ditto for those of us who have seen Jamaicans in foreign climes wake up an hour earlier than normal in the dark and shovel snow from an overnight storm before heading to a full day of work. Why? Because in New York City, apart from the fact that you can be issued a hefty ticket for failing to shovel the snow on the sidewalk in front of your house; heaven forbid someone should actually fall in front of your house and sue you to cover the “pain and suffering” from their injuries! They might easily take your house depending on the size of the judgment they could win in court; and even if you win the case, you may have to mortgage that house again just to pay the lawyer. So the lesson is that duppy know who to frighten — or better stated Jamaicans know where to “form fool.”
The story I have heard that best typifies the ability of the average Jamaican to follow laws in foreign climes can be
gleaned from the following tale, which I repeat with the caveat that I have not been able to independently verify it. A gentleman I know from Jamaica who is a longtime US resident tells me his relative from Jamaica was visiting him here in New York City for a long summer and eventually got into the habit of moving around during the day while this gentleman was at work. The same Jamerican gentleman informs me that one day he got off the bus at the bus-stop nearest his house and saw the visiting Jamaican relative at the bus stop across the street seated on the edge of the sidewalk. Surprised, the Jamerican gentleman approached the visiting Jamaican relative with this query: “But wait, a what really mek you come a foreign come sit down a roadside?” The Jamaican relative looked at the Jamerican gentleman with a look of surprise and pointed out that the necessity to sit down on the sidewalk arose from the presence of a sign over the bus-stop that clearly dictates “No Standing.”
It was through tears of laughter that the Jamerican recounted to me how carefully he explained to his visiting relative that the “No Standing” sign was meant for cars, not pedestrians. And further the sign is a part of a system whereby drivers can ‘stop’, ‘stand’ or ‘park’ unless advised otherwise– so that cars can stop at some places where there is No Standing sign, but the driver can’t stand there with the engine running and can’t turn the engine off and park there.
Having observed a sufficient number of Jamaicans operating outside Jamaica to fully refute the argument that an innate quality of Jamaican-ness causes misbehavior; let’s look at the bulk of the myth of the Jamaica Wreck-tangle. The bulk of the myth is that Jamaica itself, as a territory, possesses some ‘natural mystic’ or is operated on by some supernatural phenomena that precludes the ability to enforce laws and administer justice. Yet paradoxically the lawlessness that encroaches upon every aspect of daily life in Jamaica is not merely a symptom of a greater disease, rather the lawlessness is the disease itself. Frankly the lawlessness is not even lawless — instead it is precisely what happens when the state refuses to do what only the state should be doing.
So it’s a really a matter of common-sense to understand what is happening in the “territorial Jamaica” today — even if scholars would prefer to dress it up in fancy names like behavioral economics and social psychology. It is really elementary though — even with all the fancy words to dress up common-sense.
Let’s begin with a look at the recent protest in St. James over stolen light. The lack of common-sense which this Observer article displays is in the belief that these people were stealing electricity from JPSCo. YET, IT IS IMPOSSIBLE TO STEAL ELECTRICITY FROM JPSCo! There is no customer in Jamaica stealing electricity from JPSCo; instead to the extent that anyone benefits from an altered meter or illegal connection –they are simply stealing the value of the electricity from their fellow customers. JPSCo is a private entity, in business to make a profit; and when electricity is stolen from them either by poor people in Retirement or by rich people like Azan of Megamart; the costs of the stolen electricity is passed on to the suckers customers who in fact do pay their bills. Even if JPSCo was a public entity, the theft of electricity would still increase the costs of the government subsidy required and thereby the tax revenue that would have to be devoted to the enterprise.
So, that it is impossible to steal light from JPSCo is easy enough to understand. We have to extrapolate that idea into a better understanding of the economic toll that crime takes on the purse and pocket of Jamaicans. Many Jamaicans imagine that it is possible for criminals to extort money from prominent and successful merchants. YET, IT IS IMPOSSIBLE TO EXTORT MONEY FROM A BUSINESSMAN! What criminals can do however, and are doing, is to extort money from that merchant’s customers. Again, the merchant is in business to earn a profit — and will aggregate the needs of his individual customers for a wholesaler and connect the goods of the wholesaler to those individual retail customers for a mark-up called “profit.” When the merchant opens his store, he incurs the wholesale costs of the goods; in addition to a host of other costs like staff, fixtures, and utilities. If the merchant has to pass on the costs of the wholesaler’s goods to the customer, the merchant also passes on the costs of all the other vendors — including the trucking company that delivered the goods, the employee that minded the store, and of course the extortionist. The extortionist is, in this framework, simply another vendor in the merchant’s supply chain; supplying a product called “non-aggression,” perhaps under a catchy brand name like “Walk & Live…”
Man is an economic animal, and it is impossible to separate his actions from commerce and enterprise. So let’s look at crime in Jamaica with this prism in mind. Remember that lawlessness is the disease, it is not a symptom; and that our so-called lawlessness, is not even lawless. What the hell does that mean: that lawlessness is not even lawless? Most lawlessness in Jamaica is emblematic of a law that needs no state to enforce it, this law is Gresham’s Law. It is an interesting topic, on which it would be possible to write the little I know about it and still not even begin to do it justice; but it is best to keep it simple:
Gresham’s Law is often stated as “Bad money drives out good.” It is best explained by understanding the times that led to its articulation. Money used to be gold coins, and some people would ‘debase’ those coins by filing down the edges, or by alloying the gold with another ‘base’ metal.
In Gresham’s day, bad money included any coin that had been “debased.” Debasement was often done by members of the public, cutting or scraping off some of the metal. Coinage could also be debased by the issuing body, whereby less than the officially mandated amount of precious metal is contained in an issue of coinage, usually by alloying it with base metal. Other examples of “bad” money include counterfeit coins made from base metal. In all of these examples, the market value was the supposed value of the coin in the market.
What would happen, which Gresham observed, is that as debased coins became more common, people would hoard the good money, meaning the pristine coins. Since the law required others to accept the debased coins as legal tender, there was no cost to those debasing the coins — only profit in gold shavings. As this hoarding continued, the cycle would feed itself, all the good coins (those with gold actually worth the face value of the coin) would all be weeded out of the money supply and hidden under someone’s mattress. Meanwhile the money supply, the currency, would be increasingly comprised of coins with metal worth less than the face value of the coin.
The hoarding process is also interesting, as it starts out with pristine coins being hoarded out of circulation, then just the nicer coins, then the somewhat whole coins, and so on — till the money supply is comprised almost entirely of debased coins.
If it seems odd to seek to apply a law/theory about money to lawlessness in Jamaica, go ahead and change the word “money” to “behavior.” Restated, Gresham’s Law now is “Bad behavior drives out good.” The application is common-sense: If I am an MP dutifully engaging in rhetorical debates and constituency service in order to secure my re-election; and another MP simply shaves the corners by passing out guns in his constituency and that MP gets re-elected; that bad behavior (when it is accepted as equal in value/result to my good behavior) will eventually force me to do the same. Similarly, if one merchant is stealing electricity/bribing customs officials; then once the merchant derives a competitive advantage without penalty other merchants will also steal electricity/bribe customs officials. If the bus-driver doesn’t deny admission to the bus for the man that skipped to the front of the line, soon there will be no line. Good behavior in Jamaica today is a competitive disadvantage! Being that no intervening authority enforces the law, since there is no penalty and bad behavior is thereby equivalent to good behavior, then bad behavior has simply forced good behavior out of circulation. The same way that the laws of gravity don’t need Gordon House enforcement to work, neither do natural laws of which Gresham’s Law is one. People debase coins when a debased coin can buy you the same loaf of bread as a good coin; the way to stop the hoarding of good coins is to prosecute those people with debased coins in their possession.
A second economic concept that is useful to understanding why Jamaica is where it is today, is the Tragedy of the Commons. It is best to define it from the Wikipedia entry: multiple individuals acting independently in their own self-interest can ultimately destroy a shared resource even where it is clear that it is not in anyone’s long term interest for this to happen.
The essence of the commons dilemma has been discussed by theorists since ancient history, but not under that name. It has also been studied more recently, such as in game theory.
Central to Hardin’s article is a metaphor of herders sharing a common parcel of land (the commons) on which they are all entitled to let their cows graze. In Hardin’s view it is in each herder’s interest to put as many cows as possible onto the land, even if the commons is damaged as a result. The herder receives all the benefits from the additional cows but the damage to the commons is shared by the entire group. If all herders make this individually rational decision, however, the commons is destroyed and all herders suffer.
An easy to understand application of the Tragedy of the Commons, a.k.a the Commons Dilemma, is global warming. America didn’t sign the Kyoto Treaty because China and India didn’t have the same forced limits. The fact that all of these three big countries continue to pollute against our collective self-interests doesn’t seem to bother anyone as much as it should. Suffice to say, if everyone in Jamaica isn’t made to obey the law and respect the commons, then all Jamaicans become reluctant to obey it (fearful of losing their competitive advantage) even when the collapse of the country (our commons) is the inevitable result. And with that we return to the protest in Retirement over stolen electricity: if everyone had an illegal connection to JPSCo, then the paying suckers customers to whom the cost of the light stolen by thieves could be passed on would dwindle and JPSCo would go bankrupt. The same is true of taxpayers, yet oddly, people seem to think that no-one in Jamaica has to pay taxes but then seem surprised when our debt service reaches 50-cents on the dollar.
Since we are wrecking our country, let us at least have the courage to acknowledge how and why. The fiscal problems Jamaica faces, the crime problem Jamaica faces, the corruption problem Jamaica faces — all of it is entirely predictable. There is no Jamaica Wreck-tangle, there is no supernatural quality of territorial Jamaica and no innate quality of Jamaican-ness that makes governance in Jamaica, or of Jamaicans, comparatively harder than other places and other people. There is only nature enforcing natural laws where the state has failed to enforce the laws passed in parliament.