On my first visit to Amsterdam, the Netherlands, my wife's hometown, I was struck by some immense differences with Kingston, a city of the same size. Apart from the absence of slums and substandard housing the major difference was in the way people treated other people.
One day I was taking a tram but the tram got to the stop before I did. I had been running and was about to stop when I noticed that several seconds after the last passenger had boarded the tram had not moved. I trotted in to find that the last passenger before me had blocked the door, stopping it from closing and preventing the tram from starting.
I thanked the woman and thought to myself that I could not imagine a similar show of the kindness of strangers in any other large city I could think of.
I noticed other things; how unobtrusive the police were although they were always about; how many street gardens and flower boxes there were; how many street markets flourished and lots more.
In my latest visit, to be treated for advanced lung cancer at the Antoni van Leeuwenhoek /National Cancer Institute I noticed much more. Over the eight months of my treatment I cannot remember a single unpleasant encounter in the polyclinic. Everybody, from the mainly immigrant cleaners to the highly trained oncology nurses and technicians to the specialist physicians at the top of the tree clearly knew their jobs, were determined to put their patients at ease and certainly in my case, radiated optimism even knowing that my chances were not good.
Having since read an internet piece on the morbid effect of depression on cancer patients I now realise that my response to the treatment –which surprised even my doctors – probably was enhanced by my own optimism and refusal to surrender, some of it owed to the people who were caring for me.
A Caring Society
The Dutch have a high tolerance for street markets and in some areas, whole streets are blocked off for vendors of food, clothing, luggage, books, electronics, flowers, curios and almost anything your heart desires. The municipality regulates these markets, providing sanitation, parking and police services just as they would in front of the Royal Palace, and from time to time there are Ferris wheels and other amusements right in front of the palace itself and a book-market there on weekends.
The texture of real democracy is easily felt in such surroundings. The sanitation services designate special depositaries for garbage, glass, paper and plastic waste. It's a lot easier to live in a healthy environment in Amsterdam than in Montego Bay, Ocho Rios or Kingston.
The reason is simple: the Dutch society is a caring society. Such societies are denounced in the United States and in Jamaica as socialistic. What they are is civilised and rock ribbed conservatives as prehistoric as Otto von Bismarck and Winston Churchill, realised that any good machine, which a state is, requires expert handling, operation and maintenance.
On this side of the Atlantic we have been spooked by a wide array of fundamentalist opinionators – I refuse to call them thinkers. It is thought to be sissy to recognise basic human rights, to accord dignity to domestic helpers, cane cutters and so called blue collar workers. For them it is survival of the fittest – which, in subsistence societies means the survival of the fiercest, the most dysfunctional, the most abused.
Factors of production
People who habitually describe other people as "human resources' scare me. Too often they come from a world n which there was no love, in which to spare the rod was to spoil the child. I slapped my son's backside once, one blow which I have never forgotten nor for which have i ever forgiven myself. I have never physically punished either of my daughters. Yet, they are all well adjusted people, civilised people with no known enemies or neuroses.
As one who was 'flogged' more than once by my father and regularly bullied and caned at Jamaica College, I can testify that physical punishment, no matter how justified, is an assault on the soul with ineradicable scars. It leaves behind a thirst for revenge.
When I hear people speaking about the cost effectiveness of reducing work forces I wonder how they would feel if they were subject to downsizing and redundancy. Mr Don Wehby wants to add to the total of unemployed: ""I think we need fewer people in the public sector and pay those who are there more based on their productivity," Wehby said.
Of course, as the man known as "Chainsaw Al" Dunlap proved a decade ago, shareholder value will rise, at least temporarily, the more people you fire because output per worker will go up, at least temporarily.
"Chainsaw Al" was for a time regarded as a capitalist superman. As BusinessWeek said at the time "To investors who made millions by following him, Dunlap was, if not a god, certainly a savior."
In a few years, at four corporations, Chainsaw Al made $100 million for himself and millions more for other shareholders while driving 18,000 families to the breadline. When he was eventually fired after wrecking the Sunbeam corporation former employees took to the streets to celebrate.
According to BusinessWeek: ''I laughed like hell,'' says Dunlap's 35-year-old son and only child. ''I'm glad he fell on his ass. I told him Sunbeam would be his Dunkirk.'' Dunlap's sister, Denise, his only sibling, heard the news from a friend in New Jersey. Her only thought: ''He got exactly what he deserved.''
What's wrong with Jamaica can't be cured by Chainsaw Al. We have been exporting our resources for so long that we no longer recognise what we are doing.Our "human resources", our ablest people have been running away from home for years, depleting our capacity. According to World Bank figures about 80% of all our graduates have fled. Exporting brainpower and decimating the labour force is a recipe for disaster. Richard Thelwell and I, in 1979, figured that soil erosion in the watersheds of Eastern Jamaica alone plus the brain drain cost us nearly $70 million every year – half in lost farm production.and half in brains.
Our GDP has never grown by $70 million in any one year.
We are among the few countries in the civilised world with a regressive income tax which necessarily penalises the poor and enriches the rich. The poor like everyone else, are further forced to pay sales taxes on everything they consume. The poorer you are the more onerous the tax.
Meanwhile of all the thousands of highly paid professionals, entrepreneurs and self-employed/ own account workers in Jamaica, only 5,000 pay any income tax, the main burden being borne by the PAYE contributors who cannot escape.
Everybody in Jamaica is, at the same time, a consumer and a taxpayer. Most people do not realise that we pay the salaries not only of our civil servants but also of the ginnigogs of the private sector. There is no free lunch. We are being asked to beat up civil servants while allowing the wealthy to behave like 18th century plantation owners and slave-masters.
If we were to fire the entire board of directors of one firm of importers we could save the nation more than $200 million for the loss of ten jobs. Much more cost effective than firing 200 civil servants and more humane, to boot.
If our leaders were honest with themselves they would, I think, ask how any form of development could possibly make up for the economic bloodletting in brain power and soil erosion. The answer is that nothing can; what we can do is to stanch the bleeding.
We need to make Jamaica people friendly again; to stop the UDC and the parish councils tearing down shacks, to stop the police stealing and smashing the property street vendors, to stop firing people to improve a theoretical productivity index and to slake the unslakeable and demonic thirst of the IMF and the World Bank. We need to start to design a Jamaica fit for Jamaicans and not tailored to the tastes of Oleg Deripaska, our bauxite landmaster who lost 39 billion (with a B) dollars last year and hasn't noticed it.
We need a Jamaica hspitable to the domestic helpers, to former cane cutters, to small farmers, to the unemployed, to the so-called self-employed selling bottled water and doughnuts on the street and more hospitable for their children – who might yet be persuaded to swap their guns for places in school, on the playing fields and the beaches, for places in the World Cup and the Olympic Games.
Copyright©2009 John Maxwell