Ideas for a Better Jamaica (IBJ)

I tend to be a bit of an activist sometimes. Though my family and close friends know how I vote (and I do vote, everyone should) I tend to stay relatively neutral in public. I applaud when the government does (not just says) something right, I applaud when the Opposition asks the questions I am not ‘big enough’ to ask and hit everyone on the knuckles when they get careless. However, it is only too obvious that once you declare for the “wrong side” everything you say is met with smug dismissal. Political victimization is a real challenge and unfortunately our democracy does not appear to be mature enough for truly open discourse.


I want to share my thoughts on citizenship and what I think being Jamaican should mean. The hope is that we can begin to think, in a non-partisan way, of what our rights and entitlements are. When you declare that you are a Jamaican it should mean more than being born here. It should mean that there is a basic quality of life that you can access, beyond which your hard, smart and honest work will allow you to be better than basic. I call this series “Ideas for a Better Jamaica”.


I aim to share ideas on citizenship as it relates to the following:

  • Transportation
  • Housing
  • Health Care
  • Crime and Justice
  • Education
  • Economy
  • Local Government
  • Energy


In our current political climate it is easy to forget that our government serves at our behest. However, if we are not clear on what our rights are, or what their job description entails, it is easy fall into the trap of accepting whatever they tell us. It is important to be sceptical. Feel free to share in my scepticism as we explore ideas on what good governance could look like.

Mainstream Media

Finally- a word on the work of the ‘guardians of our democracy’. Our traditional media has failed us. They can no longer be trusted to speak truth to power. They are too cozy with the political and business elite, too willing to lull the masses into acceptance of our current reality.

We are ranked 17 in Press Freedom but 83 in Corruption Perception. This is an indictment on the Press and they should feel some sense of shame. How can they feel proud of enjoying freedom to find the truth while clearly turning a blind eye to that truth?

The media has a moral responsibility to help us to understand the facts. When the two political parties present different views of our economic reality, the media should be able to tell us which is right. I can single out Nationwide News as being ahead of the curve when it comes to giving us the closest version of journalistic integrity.

Consider this news item. Local Government Minister Noel Arscott, deflecting criticisms of the Jamaica Fire Brigade, says the previous government had not procured a single fire truck during its term. Nationwide posted a strong refutation from the previous Mayor of Kingston. However, it is framed as “his word against mine”. Someone is telling the truth and the other person is lying. They both CANNOT be right. The liar must be exposed and then silenced.

Sometimes there are flashes of brilliance, but these flashes are with under-funded media entities and occur too infrequently. It is hard to be a journalist (not to be confused with news carrier) and hope to survive through advertising and endorsement. He who pays the piper calls the tune. Consequently in addition to this series I will occasionally highlight a news article from our print media and do a critique.


Local Government elections are due next year, and the year immediately afterwards should be Central Government elections. It is time to write the job descriptions of our Members of Parliament, Parish Councillors, Ministers of Government and our Media Practitioners. We are their ultimate customer/employer.


I have to applaud the government on their recent achievements. I call them achievements because, well, if you had a set of objectives and you got them- then you achieved, right? It doesn’t matter here and now whether they were the right goals to achieve.

This Government was swept into power during a Standby Arrangement (SBA) with the IMF, a stable exchange rate, low inflation and interest rates and modest economic growth that was similar to that achieved in the US. They idled for about a year, allowing that deal to expire. They then pursued an Extended Fund Facility (EFF) to give them a fresh four years. Well played! The gamble they made is that in Jamaica we are only concerned with the short term. Therefore, the ~40bn tax package would soon be forgotten when a fresh and more current reality/crisis emerges. Well played again!

There are many sides to this story- all of which I will eventually ventilate- but I want to spend some time talking about the difference between a Standby Arrangement and an Extended Fund Facility. They are not the same.

Standby Arrangement

In 2009 the Jamaica Government (JLP) sought assistance from the IMF for Balance of Payment support. They wanted a SBA for U$1.2bn that would help plug a hole in the economy and allow for time to establish a platform for sustainable growth. This article brings back some fond memories of how Jamaican politicians can sometimes make tough but correct decisions.

How the SBA works is that the IMF makes funds available to us, based on the targets we agree to, ( to ensure they can get repaid) and then we are free to do what we feel is best. If we end up not wanting all the money- we don’t have to take it. However, if we want it, we just have to keep passing the economic tests and ‘unlocking’ more funds- kinda like a video game. The beauty of this, is that the IMF can’t tell us what to do. They can say to us- please ensure that you achieve stability in your exchange rate- then Jamaica does what it feels is best to achieve that.

Now, there were some points of diversion in the agreement. The facility was meant to last two years (2010 to 2012) and have an unlocking process along the way. Jamaica and the IMF agreed that to meet the next economic hurdle to unlock more funds a few things had to be in place:

  1. Tax Reform
  2. Pension Reform (so the Government stops carrying that bill forward- like a defined contribution plan)
  3. Public Sector Reform (reduce the size of the public sector and define a formula that will be used to determine the rate of wage increase based on the performance of the economy)

There was always energy reform- but the government had the LNG project in train- so that wasn’t a major show stopper.

The government was able to access U$800m from the total loan amount but did not implement the remaining three reforms that would have made the final U$400m available. Why not? This, this and this. You would be surprised at how destabilizing an activity of that magnitude is to a small country like ours. The now Government would have lambasted the then Opposition for being Enemies of the State in their attempt to derail the government.

The last I’ll say about the SBA is that it seemed to have been the right path for Jamaica. All the economic indicators from the 2011-12 financial year show that we were making great strides. We were not over though- we needed to solve those other elements, get the remaining U$400 and then start achieving Vision 2030.

Extended Fund Facility

Unfortunately, today’s blog is too long, but I would be doing a disservice if I didn’t talk about the EFF. I only recently realized the grand scheme of the Government. It makes me wonder if I live in the same country that did the gas riots- because this is something to protest about.

EFF has a longer duration than SBA and works similar to what Jamaica had in the 1990s under Michael Manley and PJ Patterson. This is where the IMF not only lends us the money but dictates how we spend it. This is called “Structural Reform” and is not a feature of SBA.

Therefore, when Min of Fin, Agent Peter Phillips said that he has no choice but to triple tax Jamaicans and raid the NHT- I now believe him. He has negotiated us into a deal that gives us few options for self-determination.

Watch the DVD Life+Debt if you want a quick review of the Structural Reforms of the 1990s. (Disclaimer: In the video below you will see a note about SBA in 1977- that isn’t the deal Manley put us in during the 1990s.)

Crying over Spilled Milk

Q. Did we have to reach this path?

A. No

Q. How could this have been avoided?

A. Implement Tax Reform, Pension Reform and Public Sector Reform in early 2012 and receive the U$400m draw down to maintain the positive effects of the programme that led to growth in 2011-12. (In some circles the shorter answer would have been to give the JLP a 2nd term.)

Q. Do we have other choices?

A. Not really. After this extensive delay we are now in a crisis. However, the reforms are still necessary- and perhaps even more so.

The rub? The PNP continues to demonstrate their expertise at negotiating borrowing agreements for Jamaica. Let us learn from history.

Six Months of Ownership

During the Parliamentary debate on the modification of the NHT Act to turn it into a tax Audley Shaw pointed out something pretty significant to me. I apparently live in low-income housing! I used to think I was so middle class- but, apparently, I am at best in the lower-middle class. This makes sense, especially since the global recession from 2008 to 2010 and our current Government’s inaction has served to wipe out the middle class.

What makes me feel a bit uneasy about that designation is that, given my education, income and other prospects- if I am lower-middle class then what is lower class? Would people with a first degree in Jamaica be lower class? It hurts my pride a little. However, the consolation is that if I married someone at my education and income level we would absolutely be living in a middle-class home.

Only one person told me that I would be broke up to three months after moving out on my own. Boy was he right! I don’t know how to prepare you for this. It is going to be six months of crawling on the floor come April- wow.

I had built some strong reserves through YNAB but I had to wipe it all out and make a fresh start. I thought I had calculated my monthly expenses perfectly- but I never saw the effect of the incidentals. Incidentals like when I have to fire my helper who washes/irons/cleans twice a month and buy a washing machine. How about the massive incidental of buying/installing a pump and water tank because of the discovery that water is not always available on my floor. The rest of my life didn’t stand still- I still had a car loan, still had to renew my insurance, license, registration. I still had to buy four (4) brand new tyres to pass the fitness test. I still have to buy food and keep the lights on.

The good news is that I think I am going to get out of this hole in about a month. I keep recording my activities in YNAB mainly to maintain awareness- but I won’t be in a position to use it to plan my life until about April/May. What I’ve rediscovered is that the credit card is a gift and a curse. If you are like me in a crisis you live on a maxed credit card. Perhaps you do the dance between statement date and due date. The only part of the dance that I don’t do is that I don’t allow them to charge me interest. The benefit of living alone without children (and I suspect being a man? No?) is that I can ‘tough it out’. However, my big plan is to again (second time since I’ve had this card) lower my credit limit- this time to a third of my income after mortgage. This ensures that even if my card is maxed, my exposure is only a third of my disposable income. I can hardly wait to get back on track.

When I lived with my parents I was balling out of control. Now, well… Far less balling and more silent bawling. However, I’m happy that I’ve been able to keep things together and now, finally, there is light at the end of the tunnel.


One Year Later at the National Solid Waste Management Authority

I gave this speech recently at a Toastmasters meeting at CIPS Communicators Toastmasters Club. Unfortunately, it was for Speech #5, so while people enjoyed it I didn’t gesticulate enough. Hope you like it- without the need to see my hands waving.

2012 was a landmark year for the world economy. The world, led by America and Europe, was just beginning to pull itself up by it’s boot straps out of the global recession. Unemployment in the largest economy was trending down- having a positive ripple effect on tourism and remittances for our economy. Europe was applying the fiscal austerity required to grow- often to the ire of it’s citizens. The crises of 2008 seemed to be long behind us and the world was on the path back to pre-recession conditions.

Our little island not many days before 2012 elected a new old government. This government’s primary assignment was to continue with the stabilization of the economy, apply the bitter medicine of tax reform, pension reform and public sector wage reduction while creating a business friendly environment.

I want you to set your attention to a single important entity in our collective experience in 2012. It may offend your noses, it may even make your skin itch a bit. Lets take a look at one year later with the National Solid Waste Management Authority.

Prior to 2012 the NSWA was under the stewardship of Joan Gordon-Webley. While she is a politician with a consistent string of losses, both to veterans and novices, she seemed to have a firm understanding of how to dispose of garbage. This is convenient since that is perhaps more than 90% of the work citizens expect of the NSWMA. I remember fondly the fiasco brought up by the well-to-do that the garbage trucks smelled too bad, especially when driving past their fancy function. While stating the obvious (she is collecting garbage, after all- and spoiled milk and ice cream mixed with old chicken smells disgusting) Joan committed to cleaning the trucks more frequently so that their delicate noses will no longer be offended.
She was visible and seemed to be very effective. Street cleaners were out and about early in the morning, trucks came at regular intervals and for once in a long time the city felt clean. She lashed out with disgust at our nation’s litter bugs and agitated publicly for legislation to empower litter wardens to ticket the various offenders.

When Jamaica changed managers we saw an atypical sequence of events. First the new bosses went on a witch hunt to weed out Labourites. This process took three full months while they ensured that everyone left was singing the same slogan- People Power! They charged a man with fraud and ensured that the trash was publicly discarded. Never mind there was a fire in the Riverton dump again, a landfill run by the NSWMA, the nation’s business of keeping comrades employed was well under way.

By March we had a new leader- Jennifer Edwards- doing the nation’s dirty work. However, one month later we renamed Kingston Rat City. Calabar students energetically told their counterparts “Ah yah so mice” and the country was surprised that we were not collecting garbage regularly, creating the perfect conditions for a healthy rat population. Somehow, after all these years, the struggling garbage trucks finally broke down and there were not enough trucks to gather all the trash. While the NSWMA took the blame the KSAC took charge and dumped 200 million into making Kingston rodent free.

During the summer months JEEP was added to the government fleet and was at full throttle. Agencies pooled funds they were already going to spend, to do tasks they were already going to do- but happily labeled it according to the guidance of the political directorate. In honor of our fiftieth year of independence, and later to ring in the yuletide season scores of street painters were deployed to ensure that Jamaicans understood where the no-stopping zones were located. People were employed!

Hurricane Sandy huffed, and puffed and blew our trees down. During these extraordinary circumstances it took nearly three weeks for pre-Sandy garbage to be collected in the Corporate Area. To give them a little lenience this is the first storm to hit Jamaica in a very long time. Given the novelty of the situation no one would expect them to already have a disaster recovery or mitigation plan in place for these types of events.

Then came Christmas. The trucks broke down again. Garbage piled up in our homes, streets and places of business. Somehow, perhaps because of the IMF, or maybe because of JEEP, the NSWMA could not afford to collect our garbage. They tried first to give us the ‘party line’ that there was mechanical failure. However, when asked why not rent some trucks the truth was finally revealed. There was no money to hire the help needed to collect the city’s garbage- though there was just enough to hire thousands to paint between our lines.

A year later I can’t help but get excited about our leadership. We started with a witch hunt, went on to a fire, eased into rat infestation, we hired a lot of painters, were caught flat footed by a storm we saw coming a few hundred miles away and then couldn’t pick up the trash. Only time will tell what new adventure awaits us in 2013.

If 2012 is any example of how governance is done under this new administration then we are in a wild ride.

Bank Fees and The Plague

I have long advocated that the most effective method of management of anything (diet, finances etc.) is by building your awareness. You have to know where you stand at all times- and you should always have that haunting tension that forces you to act. I think it is time you do something the bank fees that you pay.

To date (10/11/12) my favourite commercial bank is First Global Bank Limited. They do not have their own Automated Banking Machine (ABM) network; they do not have a Point of Sale (POS) network- yet still they are my absolute favourite bank so far. What FGB brings to the table is an opportunity for me to avoid most of the high fees that other banks charge. Most persons in Jamaica have either BNS or NCB (sometimes both). Have you checked your account statement during the last six months? Are you aware of these fee guides for NCB and BNS – it makes for excellent reading!

Why First Global?

Cheap Domestic Wire Transfer

FGB allows me to send money to any commercial bank via their internet banking system for $25 per transaction. Therefore, if I know that I want to use the ABM or pay by POS my only responsibility is to ensure that the right ATM is being used- whether NCB or BNS. I use an online standing order to automatically make the transfer at a specific date once per month, and just like that- I am able to use the free benefits of NCB’s Midas Plus account. Benefits like:

  • Free NCB ATM Withdrawls
  • Free NCB POS usage
  • Free Internet banking on NCB’s well developed bill payment gateway

Cheap ABM

FGB is connected to MultiLink but not all ABMs are created equal. ABMs belonging to credit unions cost only J$25 per transaction while ABMs for other multi-link institutions cost J$45. Since using YNAB I have limited by ABM use substantially- paying that much to get my own money just seems silly. However, the rate to use a credit union ATM (like the one very close to where I work) is a lifesaver if I have an unplanned withdrawal  If I wanted my ATM withdrawals to be free however, I’d just use an NCB ATM with my Midas Plus account.

Credit and Debit Combo

When I record my transactions I pool bank fees (out-payment) and commercial bank or credit union interest (in-payment) in a single budget category (YNAB speak for view them together.) I normally come out with a surplus. My secret? I responsibly use my First Global Bank Credit Card when I don’t have cash and have to do a POS transaction.

Banks have not yet figured out how to charge the purchaser for each credit card transaction, only the supplier. This means that if you manage your spending you will never pay credit card interest and never pay for a point of sale transaction. Every time you swipe your debit card you could be paying J$15 on top of what you are spending- and that adds up pretty quickly. (Credit cards were designed to get you in debt- but you can beat them at their own game.)

No Account Maintenance Charges or Fees for In-Branch

Several banks have started to maximize their income by charging you each month for holding your money for you. BNS charges as much as J$450 per month while my credit union charges J$46.6. While I pay withholding tax, I am not charged a fee for entrusting my money to FGB. We could go into the obvious discussion on why being charged a fee for me letting them pool my funds with others so they can gain income on loan interest and government paper is wrong- but that horse has left the stable.

At BNS they don’t want you to visit the branch, which must be why they are charging customers as much as $195 per in-branch transaction. At FGB, when I need to withdraw funds and want to pay no fees (not even the J$25 to transfer it online or use a credit union ATM) I simply visit the branch. My normal routine is to determine with YNAB how much I need for the month and withdraw it in branch. (If you are thinking of robbing me, I don’t do this on specific days, it is random and infrequent- and I have the cops trail me.)

Take a long and hard look at your bank statements for the past six months. How often do you swipe- and how much have you paid for it?

Now you can do something about it.

Levelling Up

I had shared the workout I use for the “Metabolic Workout Programme”. I know it has only been a month- but I am unhappy with my lack of results. I was in a conference and had some tasty catered food and my belly looks like I haven’t been working it during the past several weeks.

I have been researching what may be the six-pack-shortcut programme- which simply bombards you with it’s advertisement. If he were charging U$60 I would consider buying it, at $40 I absolutely would! However, he has hit his head if he thinks I will pay all of $97 for it.

Here is what I gleaned from his introduction (juxtaposed with my research.)

1) Long Workouts are Bad

The problem with long workouts is that they produce the chemical “cortisol”. Cortisol is called the stress hormone. When your body is under duress (or you experience physical, emotional or other stress) it releases cortisol into your body. Cortisol relaxes your body but more importantly (for fitness purposes) it reduces your body’s ability to produce protein. Protein is essential for muscle maintenance. (Source 1 and Source 2)

Cortisol is at it’s highest in the morning, and lowest natural levels at night. Therefore, I wasn’t doing myself any favours by working out for over an hour in the morning. I have adjusted my workouts to last half an hour. I am also drastically reducing the amount of cardio I do during the next month.

2) Improve Metabolic Rate

The body naturally produces a chemical called ATP that stimulates the acceleration of your metabolic rate. While it is good to burn calories during your workout- it is even more important to burn calories at a fast rate after your workout. This is commonly called the ‘afterburner’ effect.

I have seen a suggestion (Source 3) that says creatine helps in the stimulation of ATP for people who train hard. I refuse to do anything unnatural (except whey protein) so I have to boost my creatine levels naturally. Creatine occurs naturally in food (Source 4) and therefore an easy solution would be to eat more of the foods that have creatine. Another good suggestion I’ve seen is to take fish oil (with Omega 3 Fatty Acids) supplements which your body will break down into creatine then ATP. This is better for me than taking creatine supplements directly.

3) Increase Intensity of Workouts

The original design for the Metabolic workouts was a high intensity set of combos. However, there are some flaws that caused me to go a bit slower. Doing so many heavy lifts for one muscle group is stressful and gives diminishing returns. The new plan is to take what I consider to be the most effective workouts, and bounce through them with quick repetition straight through to the end. Total workout time should be 20m.

I am also going to give myself more rest. Therefore, workout days will be Mondays, Wednesday and Fridays- with Yoga on the weekend. I am still trying to figure out how to fit in running 5k once per week. I really think I should avoid it. Maybe I can run without over producing cortisol? Not sure.

The third pillar of my plan to increase the intensity is to substitute certain workouts each week. Therefore I may do front Lat Pull Down one week and Rear Lat Pull Down next week. It may be concentration curls one week and hammer curls the next week. I am also going to try to get more resistance. I want to ensure that I am really pushing by the time I reach the last set- by starting with a reasonably challenging weight.

Exercise Suggestions for Day 1

Combo One: Lat Pulldown, Bench Press, Cable Crunch, Cable Push Down (completion time 10m)

Combo Two: DB 1-Arm Roll, Underhand Row, Ball Crunch (completion time 10m)

Exercise Suggestions for Day 2

Combo One: V-Squat, Shoulder Press (completion time: 5m)

Combo Two: Shrugs, Calf Raise (completion time: 5m)

Combo Three: Rear Delt Fly, Hip Bridge (Completion Time: 5m)

Exercise Suggestion for Day 3

Combo One: Machine Incline Press, Concentration Curl, Leg Raises (Completion time: 10m)

Combo Two: Machine Decline Press, Preacher Curls, Knee Tuck (Completion Time: 10m)

I am thinking of doing 5 to 10 minutes of of cardio (similar to what is in the Youtube video at the top- but maybe this type of planking) after the workouts- and substitute with dynamic stretching when I get better at yoga.

I will try these new principles and verify if I see any changes after a month. Take a look at the last video for the idea behind the term ‘intensity’.

First Time Home Owner

You’ve made it as far as the Sale Agreement. You had successfully haggled over price and you got a price you are completely satisfied with. As a condition of the Sale Agreement you paid over the agreed deposit (from 10-15%) as well as the legal fees to draft the agreement. You were preapproved so you know precisely how much you are going to borrow from NHT, how much will be supplemented by another lending institution (CWJCU, JNBS for example) and how much additional cash you will pay.


I have found that all lending institutions (or the ones I mentioned) use the same documents as NHT. Therefore, you will be on the right path if you use NHT’s check list or processes to guide your decision making. NHT does a pre-interview to first determine that you have everything you need. This requires no appointment. Once you pass that phase they will schedule an interview with a loans agent who will take you through the test.

I am going to discuss the following items on the check list as well as items you need that have not been mentioned:

  • Land Valuation Report (purchaser)
  • Surveyor’s ID Report (purchaser)
  • Statement of Accounts (purchaser)
  • Fee Projection from Lawyer (purchaser)
  • Proof of Payment of Deposit (purchaser)
  • Copy of title of property being purchased. (vendor)
  • Certificate of payment of taxes for property. (vendor)
  • Proof of Payment of Strata Fees (vendor)
  • Proof of Payment of Water Bill (vendor)


Though not mentioned the Land Valuation report is extremely important. This reports sets the threshold within which you can borrow. Some institutions, like JNBS, give a specific rate based on how much you are borrowing. For example, if you want a 9.5% rate, instead of 11%, then you are only eligible to borrow 85% of the value.

If the house is valued at 10m but you are purchasing it for 11m they can only lend you 8.5m. instead of 9.35m. If you borrow 4.5m from NHT JNBS can only lend you 4m from NHT instead of 4.85- because the total amount borrowed should not exceed 85%, for example.

You may be tempted to do a valuation before you sign the sale agreement so that you contractually sign to the ‘right price’. This is risky- because you would be paying for a valuation (which isn’t necessarily cheap for a first time home owner) that you may walk away from. Your lawyer will have a hard time changing the purchase price after you put your signature to the sale agreement- so give this some thought. I used Langford and Brown- very reasonable and efficient team.

The Surveyors ID Report is charged as a flat fee and in many cases does not require physical access to the property- unlike the valuation. I found out on my second visit to NHT’s pre-approval process that some valuators do not give the full report. NHT, and you, should review the report to verify if it mentions a part B (it was called Annex B on mine). Valuators are entitled to give it to you without additional charge. Another note- ensure your chosen surveyor is on NHT’s approved list. I used Lofters and Lofters and got great service.

Statement of Accounts is possibly unique to my situation. I wanted to borrow less than my maximum which means I would pay the rest up front. I therefore had to prove I could pay it. The alternative is a letter or receipt from my lawyer that proves they have the money.

Fee Projection. My lawyer put together a spreadsheet that showed all the fees I would have to pay, inclusive of the deposit and excess of what I am borrowing. I had kept all my mortgage related documentation in one place and NHT opted to keep a copy of it. On the point of copies- the financial institutions all want originals. Everyone clearly can’t get the original- so someone (the one who is lending less imho) has to settle for a signed copy. This can be tricky- so be vigilant.

I had to get a letter from the credit union with their commitment to lend me the balance before I got the loan interview with NHT. You have to prove at every step of the way that you have the ability to complete the transaction.


The vendor has a few documents to present to the NHT as well. There is always a show stopper if property taxes aren’t paid or if they owe on their water bill. It is your lawyer’s job to give you everything you need from the vendor’s side to go to your pre-interview. Once the pre-interview is successfully completed NHT takes your documents (and in some cases make copies) and creates a file with your name on it and set your loan interview appointment.

If you are buying into a Strata community the vendor will have a hard time selling (read: you will have a hard time getting NHT approval) if the vendor owes on his strata fees. Several stratas have communal water supply so the strata fees are seen as the vendor’s contribution to the water bill. In my situation even though the title was registered NHT refused to cut a cheque until they received confirmation that the most recent month’s strata fees were paid.

Once you have all the documentation and a proven ability to settle all fees and outstanding charges you should get to your loan interview. After this interview you are at the last phase of your ‘responsibility’. You still need to follow up, but almost nothing you do can hasten the process after this.

We will discuss the interview, the wait and the closing process in a subsequent post on this topic.