Sunday, August 21, 2011

The Price of Eggs (inflation in Cayman)

The world is in an economic mess. All the experts are telling us that, and I guess they should know. We haven’t experienced much of a mess in Cayman yet; ours is more of a minor inconvenience. Count the monster-SUVs on our roads and you’ll see how well off we are. However, we can get a glimpse of what the future might hold for us by taking note of what is happening in the US and Europe.

Statistical unemployment in some places is at levels not seen since the Great Depression. Cayman doesn’t have statistical unemployment yet; all we can say is that our chronic OVER-employment has shrunk a bit. The boys and girls at our government Economic Statistics Office (ESO) are much too far out of their depth to give us useful comparative figures- or even relevant ones. Well, ours is a small dependent territory, and we can’t expect anything better than the statistics we get.

The ESO hasn’t a clue how to allow for the doubling of the citizenship base following the mass Status grants. Nor can it cope with the sudden halving of the proportion of migrants in the workforce. The statistics that are published are largely meaningless, so our planning process has to operate “by guess and by God”. When local property development slowed down, the pool of construction workers shrank because of the expulsion of migrants. Unemployed citizens go on the dole and continue to spend money in the community; unemployed migrants (and their savings) are deported pretty much immediately. I’m not sure the ESO is even aware that we have over-employment.

All during the Great Depression of the 1930s, Cayman’s boot was on the other foot. Most men of working age (women were rarely employed outside the home) were overseas sending their savings back to their families. There was no domestic unemployment; there never is in a subsistence economy. So there is no valid comparison to be made between the circumstances of then and now. Statistically (as well as economically), we are in virgin territory.

Our MLAs and senior Civil Servants can therefore be forgiven for being clueless about how to govern in hard times- though not for being irresponsible, reckless and arrogant. Or for pretending they aren’t any of those things. If you don’t know what’s going on around you, for God’s sake be humble about it and seek help. Fizzing around like a fart in a bottle is not the way to solve our imminent economic problems.

All our Pension Funds may well fail to provide enough money for our individual retirements. MLAs and Civil Servants who retired on the “defined benefits” scheme (a percentage of salary, index-linked) don’t worry about that, because their pensions will come directly out of taxes and government borrowings. It’s everybody else who will be in trouble.

Except for senior executives in the tax-haven sector, everybody’s wages probably won’t retain their purchasing power, when the US Dollar falls in value against many of the things we consume. Meat, eggs, and most other foodstuffs will likely cost more dollars to buy in the future than they do now. Rent and the price of houses might require fewer dollars. Jamaican dollars might become cheaper, Euros and Canadian Dollars might become dearer. It’s a gamble!

If you’re worried about a devaluation of The Cayman Dollar, don’t. It is a coupon currency (look up “local currency” in Wikipedia), and will go up and down with the US Dollar. There would be no point in devaluing it. It could conceivably go up- but only if we were governed prudently, and we know there’s not much chance of that.

Saturday, August 13, 2011

The Silence Of The Dogs (after the hurricane)

More than any other time of year, Hurricane Season is when it's prudent to be on good terms with one’s neighbours. Most hurricanes pass Cayman by without disrupting our lives much. The electricity and water are only briefly lost, and one doesn’t need help from neighbours. Hurricane Ivan was different.

The secret of survival after a severe hurricane is to be independent, and not reliant on the neighbours at all. First, your roof has to stay on, and your walls, doors and windows have to stay whole. Cooking gear, water and tinned food are the only essentials, and cash. Pretty much everything else is a luxury. Cash in the bank is nice, if you have a bike to get there and back; cash in the house is better. After Ivan, we needed cash for the small army of Jamaican women who cleared our house of sludge from the sea-surge. And for William, who entered our lives as a passer-by who buried my wife’s dead cat; he ended up with a small fortune by being a handyman to all and sundry.

Work Permit? For all we knew he wasn’t even on the Island legally. In the emergency, government experimented with a free labour market for low-skilled migrants. For once in their miserable lives, all the Gestapo agents had something else to do besides harass hardworking Jamaicans and Latinos. If our politicians weren’t so blinded by their pro-slavery instincts, they’d have noticed how well the free labour market worked. Sigh.

We were lucky with rain, after Ivan. It allowed us all to fill up every container we could find- one lot for drinking, one for washing, and one for the toilet. Once or twice we raided a neighbour’s swimming pool for water to flush the loo, and once or twice we raided Smith Cove. But most of the time we had water to spare. Ah, the advantage of being brought up in a land short of water! We knew how to brush our teeth with a minimal amount of drinking water, and to wash our bodies in a cupful of water and save the run-off. There was a camaraderie in the neighbourhood. We shared mosquito coils and endless cups of tea, and thanked our stars for having enough cooking fuel among us.

Without a live cat, we ourselves didn’t have the extra burden of pets. Strange to tell, I don’t recall ever being kept awake at night by barking dogs in the weeks after Ivan. Our neighbours were responsible enough to keep their dogs quiet; that’s what neighbours should do, after all. Barking-dogs are the bane of my life, and I can’t be the only person in Cayman who hates being kept awake by them, or woken up by them. There is a strong whiff of sociopathy about people who allow their dogs to bark during the night or early morning. (Sociopaths are defined as people who don’t give a damn about other people.) I don’t blame the dogs. Dogs are social creatures, and get lonely when left alone for hours in a confined space. Indeed, there is a strong whiff of cruelty in doing that to one’s dogs. Humane Society, are you listening?

I don’t kill dogs, even barking-dogs. However, plenty of people do kill barking-dogs. You read about dogs being poisoned in their yards and beyond, and why else would they be killed except to shut them up? Poison might well account for the silence of the dogs after Ivan. If so, we can probably expect more of the same after the next hurricane. Responsible owners’ dogs will be okay: sociopaths’, perhaps not.

Friday, August 5, 2011

Draconian Laws (in ancient Athens)

Law-enforcement in Athens in the 7th Century BC was a shambles. Government was undemocratic and irresponsible. The city-state was home to a mixed populace of citizens, immigrants with Permanent Residence, and a caste of slaves and indentured migrant workers. Its rulers were drawn from an upper caste of hereditary citizens who used their wealth to cheat and exploit their subjects. Laws were uncertain, and their enforcement even more so. The ruling elite exempted its members from prosecution on an ad-hoc basis and for most offences, and invented ad-hoc laws to keep the lesser folk in their assigned places.

The situation was out of hand. In desperation, the rulers commissioned one of their number to give the community a written constitution and body of laws. The Commissioner (called Draco: it meant “dragon”, and was probably a nickname) began his task by identifying all the written and unwritten laws recognised and enforced by the rulers, and who those laws did and didn’t apply to. Since most of the laws favoured the ruling caste (slave-owners, businessmen and citizens) and disfavoured the Permanent Residents and slaves, etc, the laws Draco presented to the ruling Council were extremely harsh for 80-90% of the population – “Draconian”, in fact. The new body of laws, embodied in a draft new constitution, so shocked his peers that they ordered a reform of the whole legal system, law by law and line by line.

The Cayman of today is equally a community with laws written and unwritten, and a rule of law that is selective at best and wholly absent in some places. Our most influential citizens are exempted (at their option) from as many laws as their money can buy. Regarding corruption: here are two questions and sets of options to think about.

1) How much corruption do we have in Cayman? a) not much; b) too much; c) about average for the Caribbean.
2) How many people are sent to prison for corruption each year? a) none; b) probably none; c) none that we know of. (Note: this is not a scientific survey.)

The marl road has always (since I’ve lived here) pointed to the Police, Immigration and Planning bureaucracies as where most of the corruption occurs. That may be a terrible slander, but in the interest of transparency I must report what the marl road tells me. What are our law-enforcement agencies doing about it all? Well, we have an Anti-Corruption Commission, whose name seems to belie its real purpose, which is to do nothing. They say they have discovered nothing worth reporting. Hmmm. Either the crooks are devilishly cunning or the Commission is blowing smoke.

The Commission on Standards of Public Life is another do-nothing body fulfilling its secret purpose. The Human Rights Commission, another. Corruption usually involves human-rights abuses, and turning a blind eye to evident corruption is itself an abuse. Draco’s one-man Commission of 3,700 years ago, operating in the absence of a working constitution, did what all our over-manned and under-performing Commissions apparently can’t do. You or I could do more in a week than all the Commissions have done in eighteen months.

We honest folk are urged to respect the law, but how can we when so many crooks are- informally- licensed to break it. There’s not one person who is on the hook for corruption, at the present moment. Not one policeman on trial for perjury, not one Immigration Officer on trial for illegally hiring out his slaves (indentured migrant workers), not one Civil Servant on trial for accepting a bribe.

Instead, our law-enforcers harass and imprison kids for a spliff or two outside nightclubs. As a community, we judge ganja to be more of a danger to our values than corruption. What the hell is wrong with us? How did our priorities get so screwed up?