Sunday, April 8, 2012

Choice, the common good and imperfection

We had a harsh winter and people spent more than expected for heating.” The third restaurant owner was explaining to the writer why fewer people were eating out. He had shared that in the US the reverse is happening, people are again able to dine in restaurants, no longer confined to fast-food chains. The writer's Eastern European friends are learning first hand that freedom of choice is not unbridled. [And why Wall Street has only itself to blame for ‘Occupy Wall Street’; and why we’re critical of the West!] Their experience, while comparatively short, has taught them that there is such a thing as overbuilding, for example, and thus a housing bubble. Reality has hit home: perfection is not of this world!

Choice has to subordinate itself to the common good – and why there is more to President Aquino’s “no wang-wang” mantra especially when we see a red light as optional? Unfortunately, even the common good doesn’t guarantee perfection. And so the key is for a people to seek optimized outcomes as opposed to the 'lowest common denominator.' And that presupposes maturity in the democratic process. Is it what we need to seriously consider if we are to shake off our economic lethargy?

We pride ourselves (like Eastern Europeans and Greeks who’ve learned to be philosophical about life) that we are spontaneous and happy people. But our economic realities are a reflection of the choices we've made, and simply we must subordinate our choices to the common good? We like to believe for instance that we are free to be entrepreneurs and are proud of it. Yet, from the get-go we narrowed the playing field to our parochial interests. And as sure as night follows day a few powerful vested interests control our economy!

The Japanese and American models of SMEs are meant to be more than livelihood undertakings. (We’re not there yet but that ought to be the goal if we are to attain a virtuous cycle.) They have a bigger ecosystem and their SMEs feed into that bigger ecosystem. Their products may be intermediate but they are a necessary input to the efforts of larger enterprises. For example, SMEs in Japan produce parts for Toyota. Put another way, their macroeconomics are reflective of their attaining industrialized status such that the bigger ecosystem undergirds the efforts of both SMEs and large enterprises.

And which is precisely why despite our large SME sector and with a gray economy to boot, poverty remains our challenge – because there is no bigger ecosystem to make ours an efficiently functioning economy. We have failed to address fundamental structural issues – from power generation to basic infrastructure to a handful of strategic industries. There is no escaping the fundamentals: we simply must pull these building blocks together and erect a coherent economy. [Foreign investors are again keen but we can’t count the chicken before they’re hatched; the writer was in the SRO crowd in New York when President Ramos spoke years ago; and knows firsthand why our neighbors attracted more FDIs.] And as horrible as it sounds, world poverty has been cut drastically while ours remain high. That reduction is largely attributable to China, who has embraced capitalism. Yet China is not perfect like Hong Kong or Taiwan or Singapore or Thailand isn't perfect. Choice was never meant to yield perfection. But our economy is more than perfect for Philippine oligarchy enjoying a disproportionate share of the nation's wealth. And if that is our model then we won't come close ever to approximate the common good. Our cacique and hierarchical structure makes us able to swallow a failed economy and system, and unsurprisingly the bishops call ours ‘a split-level Christianity’? Simply, directing efforts to the poor is Christian-like but is not addressing our problem!

We must recognize that choice is not unbridled but is subordinate to the common good. Perfection isn’t guaranteed either and so the key is to seek optimized outcomes. Thank God man has accumulated knowledge in how to navigate his world. But still failed undertakings have come and gone. Ergo: we don’t have to be clutching at straws because there are yardsticks to measure ourselves against. But we must decide that indeed we want to fix what we must fix – beyond our personal choices?

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