George Davis | Everybody want everything fi free!
The concept of freeness has been used repeatedly by Jamaican politicians to win support at the polls on countless occasions in our almost 60-year history of political independence. We often cite political tribalism, along with political violence, in and outside election campaign season as the worst or, depending on how you view it, best examples of so-called ‘old-style’ politics. But trust me, nothing gets the collective blood within a political party racing like an idea built around handouts, giveaways – freeness.
And so, generations of Jamaicans believe that they are entitled to freeness and that any politician not saying what they can give to the electorate for free is not worth listening to at all.
The expectation among many is that education must be free. Healthcare must be free. Health insurance must be free. Pensions must be free. Housing must be free. There should be no such thing as business tax or personal income tax, because people should be allowed to work and operate enterprises for free. A working man wants to find a working woman so he can eventually live free. A working woman wants to find a man so she can eventually live free. Everything fi free!
To illustrate the point, I will use the Students’ Loan Bureau (SLB). Under the ‘Faces of Delinquency’ tab on its website are the names, course descriptions, schools and pictures of 446 persons who, according to the SLB, “have made no arrangements to clear their arrears or close their loans”.
On this list are six persons I know personally, three of whom were from my graduating batch. Of that batch of ‘familiar six’, all of them left university more than 13 years ago.
Among the wider group of 446 delinquents as listed by the SLB, I know that there are many persons who have run into genuinely difficult circumstances, thereby compromising their ability to pay off their debts. But even so, I suggest that the belief in the concept of freeness must have a role to play in someone not even calling the SLB once to make an arrangement in the seven or eight years since they’ve graduated.
Some people will say salaries are too small to support some SLB debtors taking care of their living expenses and then making loan repayments. I will say with strong conviction that for every person you know who says they are struggling too badly to make loan repayments, there is someone else in the same circumstances who IS making loan repayments.
I will go further to say that existing alongside these 446 SLB delinquents are another 446 persons in similar circumstances who have hammered out an arrangement with the SLB to pay the little they can to eventually erase their debts.
It took me five years after leaving University of Technology to repay my debts to the SLB, and I only borrowed for the first two years of my four-year programme.
And yes, my repayment plan did lapse a few times. And yes, a collection agency did call me with a strong reminder to pay up. And yes, two of my guarantors did call me after the collection agency called and squeezed them. But that only made me double down and sacrifice more to repay the money I had borrowed to fund my personal education.
‘SLB CAN WAIT’
I recall a girlfriend, who borrowed for all four years of her programme, buying a spanking new Honda Accord upon graduation. Problem was, by the time she was done paying the monthly mortgage for the car and taking care of her personal expenses, she had nothing left and her older brother had to be giving her lunch money! She once looked me in the eye and said the SLB could wait until she was “on her feet” to start collecting their money!
Listen, many of us who took SLB loans faced almighty struggles to repay our debts. We were never comforted by politicians proposing all kinds of fixes to the SLB, as if the entity was some evil corporation intent on pauperising us. Beware those politicians, including some of my good ‘bredrin’, prescribing all kinds of antidotes for the SLB. They know better but realise they can win votes if they can promise a ‘free’ loan from the SLB. Selah.