Professors young and old: an involuntary debate

The young professor:

When I visited Jamaica in the Fall of 2009, here is how a knowledgeable observer described the political reality facing the government: Desperately needed policy steps—steps that any objective observer would recognize as being good for the country—would cost the government many votes in the next election.

Jamaica is located on important sea lanes. It is close to major markets. Its cultural, climatic, and natural amenities rival those of any other place on earth. It is ten times larger than Singapore. Though its potential for prosperity is tremendous, its history of bad policy has undermined its appeal as a place to live and work. One clear indication is its high levels of crime and violence, including one of the highest murder rates in the world. Given the level of violence, it is not surprising that many Jamaicans, particularly the ones with the most education, move away.

The Jamaican diaspora is now estimated to be well over 2 million, compared to a population still on the island of about 2.8 million. In each cohort of young Jamaicans, a majority of those who receive any education beyond secondary school leave to pursue opportunities elsewhere. Some estimates put the figure as high as 80 percent.

Competition for local votes now perpetuates criminal activity in what are known as Jamaica’s “garrison” communities. A garrison is an area in which criminal and political activity are tightly controlled by politically affiliated gang leaders. Historically, the political party that happened to be in power would use large-scale public housing projects to reward and geographically concentrate their supporters in garrison communities. Violent, politically affiliated criminal gangs would then enforce the political homogeneity of the garrison in exchange for a measure of exemption from law and order. At various points in Jamaica’s history both of the major political parties, the Jamaican Labor Party (JLP) and the People’s National Party (PNP) have created new housing projects that have turned into garrisons. Several seats in Parliament are now virtually guaranteed for each party by the garrisons they control.

According to a report commissioned by the Jamaican government (Kerr Report), the politically aligned gang leaders serve as unofficial brokers between the political leadership in parliament and the local communities. Residents who openly oppose the garrison’s dominant political party face violent retaliation from the gun-toting gangs. The gang leaders give their members of parliament an element of electoral certainty. The politicians who benefit return the favor by diverting government benefits to the garrisons in their constituency and turning a blind-eye to the criminal activities of the gangs.

The political arrangement allows many of the gangs to operate unchecked, with disastrous consequences for Jamaica’s poorest communities. Armed border disputes between garrisons make it difficult to maintain public infrastructure, exacerbating the slum-like conditions of the communities. Because gangs restrict movement between communities, they hamper labor mobility, transport, and the entry of new firms—entrenching an already deep level of poverty.

Paul Romer, Senior Fellow, Stanford Institute for Economic Policy Research, 2010.

The old professor:

The commonplace intrudes upon the imaginative. At moments one can fancy that the world is an enchanted place after all, but then comes generally an absurd awakening. On the first night of my arrival, before we went to bed, there came an invitation to me to attend a political meeting which was to be held in a few days on the savannah.

Trinidad is a purely Crown colony and has escaped hitherto the introduction of the election virus. The newspapers and certain busy gentlemen in ‘Port of Spain’ had discovered that they were living under a ‘degrading tyranny,’ and they demanded a constitution. They did not complain that their affairs had been ill-managed. On the contrary, they insisted that they were the most prosperous of the West Indian colonies, and alone had a surplus in their treasury. If this was so it seemed to me that they had better let well alone.

The population all told was but 170,000 less by thirty thousand than that of Barbadoes. They were a mixed and motley assemblage of all races and colours, busy each with their own affairs, and never hitherto troubling themselves about politics. But it had pleased the Home Government to set up the beginning of a constitution again in Jamaica, no one knew why, but so it was, and Trinidad did not choose to be behindhand. The official appointments were valuable, and had been hitherto given away by the Crown. The local popularities very naturally wished to have them for themselves.

This was the reality in the thing so far as there was a reality. It was dressed up in the phrases borrowed from the great English masters of the art, about privileges of manhood, moral dignity, the elevating influence of the suffrage, &c, intended for home consumption among the believers in the orthodox Radical faith.

J A. Froude, Regius Professor, Oxford Faculty of History, 1888. (Join the Froude Society.)