Saturday, February 25, 2012

‘Consuelo de bobo’

The good news is the Aquino administration for 2012 is focusing on infrastructure, tourism and agribusiness. And it is important if transparency and execution go hand in glove with these efforts and become the focus of the news that Juan de la Cruz wakes up to in the morning. Then we can truly say we’ve elevated the national agenda from ‘consuelo de bobo’ to reaping our rightful rewards.

Thus our best minds can’t be stuck in sub-optimized mode or we shall be perpetuating a failed undertaking? We can only pity Juan de la Cruz if our supposed thought leaders can't present him with a new day? Because our inward-looking template that has guided us for more than the last half century is out of sync with the 21st century?

We’ve had loads of sophisticated economic models and analyses only to take pride – with much horror this being the 21st century – in consuelo de bobo, in our handful of billionaires and OFW remittances? As many people have said, we seem to have run out of models to replicate – e.g., monetary and fiscal policies, and initiatives to generate economic activity at the lowest levels? But not so fast! There is something in these models that others were able to leverage and capitalize. It's like a plane crash – there is such a thing as human error. For example, we have neglected the basics, the building blocks of an economy: power generation, basic infrastructure and a handful of strategic industries – and it appears we’re still consumed by ‘puro daldal, satsat, sitsit.’

We can’t use the excuse that we're victims as though we were born in Siberia or some Godforsaken place? Or that we've been colonized – another convenient excuse as though others weren't? We were born to a beautiful country called the Philippines – and foreigners called it Shangri-la. While the writer’s Eastern Europe friends still shudder with what Soviet rule handed them. And aren’t we all proud of our natural resources? At the end of the day, we shall run out of excuses – because there really is none?

Models are inanimate and it takes a nation and its people to breathe life into them. And that presupposes we are bringing a new set of assumptions – which connotes we are accepting the shortcomings of the past. But false pride easily sets in and so we can trumpet consuelo de bobo as synonymous to success? We’re not meant to simply set very low expectations? Yet our hierarchical structure feeds on the accepted norm of consuelo de bobo because it reinforces our cacique hierarchy and values – which smacks of lopsidedness? But even at the upper tiers, as a friend narrates, a successful entrepreneur he knows limits his target market to Filipinos in the US. "If indeed his product is world-class and his marketing system works, why is he setting such low expectations?"

The writer was invited by a couple of groups to talk about competitiveness, and the wife noted that instinctively our comfort zone is limited to 'tabla-panalo.' We’re not truly risk-takers and don't go for the high-risk, high-reward proposition, i.e., driven by investment. And which also explains why our success model can be generalized as: (a) trading or (b) the conglomerate – a lot of businesses but none that is truly world-class. And as a friend recalls, at one time the largest Filipino enterprise had 70 businesses. And in both cases value-addition is not central. And if there is major investment involved it comes with rent-seeking and thus crony capitalism. And which explains why we haven’t developed competitiveness as an instinct. With due respect to our optimists, in a globalized economy, we don’t have the playing field to ourselves – we have to measure our efforts against others. But of course, our oligarchs dominate in our protected environment – and at the heavy price of transforming the nation to an economic laggard!

We can thus characterize Philippine industry as lopsided yet nowhere near measuring to global competition! And given how change-averse we are it would take eons for Philippine industry to simply get off its comfort zone. For example, we have focused on pricing as a strategy given the low-purchasing power of Juan de la Cruz. Unfortunately, that perspective is reinforced by a linear-thinking mode – which we must overcome by pursuing value-addition, for example. Value-addition demands new thinking and innovation which we sorely need if we are to raise our competitiveness.

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