Sunday, September 11, 2011

Activity trap

We’re experts at looking busy doing nothing!” An Eastern European friend commented as he pointed the writer to a fairly large crew alongside a country road, and this was a few years back. The writer smiled as he recalled an incident decades ago in Manila. Rather sheepishly, a young American engineer (in the company’s management development program, getting his ticket punched in a developing country) shares with the writer: “There must be a more efficient way to do this job . . . I had a work order done and this morning I see a crew of at least a dozen with picks and shovels.”

Fast forward: The writer is having his morning coffee in a café in the heart of Eastern Europe, and sees a couple of heavy equipment on the narrow street. “There is a leak in the water main, I think, which I called about,” says the café owner. And that evening, the street was back in shape, with the affected portion repaved. These people remain critical of inefficiencies they see around them. It’s not the absence of patriotism; a number of them have decided the West was not for them, and returned home. They’re not meant for the cut-and-dried culture of North America, as they would explain, but they still believe they deserve something better.

We similarly may not be cut for the ways of the West but we do deserve something better? Yet, unwittingly we opt for the lowest common denominator? Simply put, we would rather accommodate and accept things that undermine the common good? There is corruption and there is corruption? But we can’t build a modern airport and supply energy at competitive costs – so fundamental to a nation’s economic life? Unsurprisingly, our investment levels and economic output are pitiful compared to our neighbors? There are winners and there are losers – and it hurts but we haven’t behaved like winners? And it’s a shame for people proud as we are?

We don’t want to justify our failings by the failings of others or we’re bound to sink deeper into the abyss? We don’t want a world that has ‘shrunk’, and characterized by sub-optimization? We don’t want to be left with very little choice – to simply move pieces on the board, caught in an activity trap that cannot lift us to the next level? We’ve been pursuing countless initiatives for decades but kept a blind eye – because of an inward-looking bias – on what truly drives an economy? The writer often talks about his Eastern European friends: while born and raised as socialists under communist rule, they have embraced the simple truth about the free market – i.e., investment and competitiveness! Yet they have something in common with us: when faced with an issue, they instinctively sidestep reality. And so they had to learn about the greater good and the challenge of leadership: ‘taking the team from where they are to where they have never been before’ – step-up to the challenge, exercise leadership and seize ‘the teachable moment’!

We understand what winners are like – like the Ateneo basketball team that swept the first round of the UAAP? Clearly they don’t seek the lowest common denominator? Nor do winners simply throw darts? Do we think, for instance, that the military can generate incremental resources and pursue its upgrade-program by making better use of military golf courses? Or that one warship will give us military muscle? It’s like the cellar-dwelling team recruiting an outstanding Fil-Am player – and Ateneo won’t even skip a beat?

Without investments there is no economic activity – but the bigger they are the bigger the activity; and the more competitive they are the greater the revenues and the margins they generate, and thus wealth? Why are we poor? Our investment levels and economic output are pitiable especially given our population? The administration has now realized that pursuing PPP is no cakewalk especially given how the world views us – i.e., WikiLeaks effectively have announced that we’re no place to do business? And given the string of issues we have with the Brits, the Germans, the Belgians, the French, the Japanese, foreign airlines, etc., etc., perception could become reality?

One columnist asks: “Do we really want foreign investments?” Put another way: we don’t want to be experts at looking busy doing nothing? Yet instinctively we do because the status quo gives us a feeling of equilibrium, for the short-term?

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