Wed | Feb 26, 2020

Horace Levy | Orane has right view on pie, but...

Published:Thursday | February 13, 2020 | 12:12 AM

Economist Mark Ricketts’ outline (Sunday, February 9) of Jamaica’s economic scene, both positive gains and persistent landmines, appears to be a fair one. In short, everyone agrees that the solution to the problems has escaped us so far. No one, neither governing nor opposing party, has come up with a proposal to turn the situation around.

Retired and respected business executive Douglas Orane has come the closest so far: grow the pie rather than slicing it differently. The slicing must be, I assume, the efforts to deal with the foreign exchange shortage hurting producers. Orane is right. As long as Jamaican goods earn less than what we spend to buy from foreign, US dollars will forever be short. This is reflected in the current account deficit, which is growing in fact, but also in producers gasping for US-dollar oxygen. Not all the juggling by the Bank of Jamaica, while necessary and welcome, will ever do more than temporarily supply patients with needed air.

Orane’s examples of how to increase productivity are on target. However, they have not so far gone to the base of the production ‘line’ and to the accompanying mental approach it would demand. I am referring to agriculture and to the possibilities that Donovan Stanberry clearly laid out in his recent series in The Sunday Gleaner, particularly the last (February 2, 2010).

The decades-long failure of successive administrations to attend to the needs and potential of rural Jamaica is striking. On a historical and theoretical level, it has meant ignoring the examples of developed First-World countries and the teaching of our own Caribbean gold star, W. Arthur Lewis. On a practical level, Stanberry’s testimony as former permanent secretary in the Ministry of Agriculture is telling. It is only recently, and to his great credit, that a minister of tourism, Edmund Bartlett, has seriously pressed for the linkage between agriculture’s products and the food needs of hotels.

More fundamental are the possibilities for small businesses in agro-industrial enterprises; initially for local markets, then for niche export. Again, there has been much talk and some, but limited, action to provide them with the required capital. The hour is late, however. We already see the inroads made by foreign investors into marijuana development, while our small people scrape what they can on the fringes. Azan’s undertaking in Lakes Pen is a good start, especially with its promised mothering of smaller start-ups around it (in contrast to the plans of PM Holness to turn most of excellent Bernard Lodge land into cement).

There is also the mental approach, referred to earlier, that commitment to agriculture requires. It is an openness to the people at the low-income level of society. I come to this view from the issue of controlling violent murder compulsions. The basis of the answer to this issue is also to be found in an appreciation of the need to start from and with the same low-income communities. But efforts to get the kind of action that tackles sources of violence have been rebuffed by both governing Jamaica Labour Party and, to a lesser extent, the People’s National Party.

PRIME MINISTER’S PROMISE

Flying in the face of the facts – increase in homicide, failure of extended SOEs – the prime minister promises with the same method, the opposite outcome, an astounding display of the logic usually ascribed to the mad. However, with the parties offering little reasoned policy difference on this number-one issue, this is the end of the road as far as our ‘politics’ goes: popularity will decide election result.

On the economic front, what is fundamentally lacking is an economic plan. This plan would have to be multi-year. It should be assembled after consultation with all the stakeholders – from PSOJ, JMEA, JCC and the big bankers, to the medium and small business sector, trade unions, civil society and community leaders. Annual Budgets would express in numbers, and hopefully in words as well, the stages in this plan, with such adjustments and as new circumstances would require.

The consequence of the absence of such planning is what we presently have: the continued fudging along as various crises impose responses; a looming environmental disaster; big health threat; an especially bloody event, or some Trump decision. But where we are going and along what route, these are not transparently discussed, apart from an occasional piece from the minister of finance. The prospect is not encouraging. But reality rarely offers easy answers.

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