Monday, April 29, 2013

Misunderstanding Francis

Wikipedia says that “self-immolation has become an increasingly used protest tactic” and on TV the other day, a Bulgarian explained that they started it under Soviet rule indeed as a protest tactic – given the unfulfilled promise of socialism. And recently it happened again – this time to protest corruption.

We Filipinos may unwittingly be embracing socialism given our instincts to be pro-poor? For example, we pushed land reform because we care for the poor. But it has been a failed program considering that farmers have remained poor, beholden to middlemen providing their credit needs – which, unfortunately, many of them won’t be able to repay. And in the case of coconut, the powers-that-be became wealthier while the coconut farmers are still destitute. And so it is understandable if we want to denounce free enterprise if not altogether replace it? Indeed we must denounce our brand of free enterprise if essentially we are recreating the era of the czars with our hierarchical system and structure and thus our lopsided economy?

I have been living and working with ex-socialists for the last ten years and most of them would not want to go back to what they call their “dark ages” – despite the imperfections of the free market. The grandparents who are no longer able-bodied would, understandably, rather live in their assigned housing and get their daily rations of bread and vegetables; and even in wealthy Germany and the US, “poverty in old age” has become a reality – which is why charity-giving cannot be abandoned. But charity can’t be confused with an economic activity – the latter presupposes viability and sustainability if it is to deliver the common good – like we did with land reform, for example.

What have these ex-socialists learned? They don’t pretend to know the discipline of economics but they now believe that because they didn’t pay market prices for bread, for example, the daily ration they got was a mirage. And in the Philippines (with due respect to our bishops – if they’d look up the works of Bernard Lonergan, SJ), do we think that a Magna Carta for the poor would overturn what is fundamental in an economic activity – that of viability and sustainability? That is not what Pope Francis is saying? Having lived through the cacique culture in Latin America, he is denouncing hierarchy and the resulting lopsided economy – thus by example and very early in his papacy is sending the signal that he is not the "Imperial pope" (which once characterized the Bishop of Rome.) If in the Philippines we divided our economic output equally among the 100 million of us, we would all be poor! The problem simply is the pie is too small. Of course, we must do charity works as Christians, but that is not going to drive the economy and enlarge our economic pie. There is not enough to go around.

The way we think of being pro-poor could be short-sighted if we aren’t addressing the building blocks of the economy? In the 21st century, prosperous nations have doggedly attracted investment and pursued technology and innovation as well as the development of talent, products and markets. Ergo: we can’t remain at the level of rewarding and celebrating hierarchy and oligopoly? Nor should patriotism mean erecting barriers to keep foreigners out – especially when our economic engine is largely made up of OFW remittances because other nations have opened their borders to our workers. Unfortunately, Juan de la Cruz struggles to recognize this reality? Nations, big and small, that have open economies attract investment and technology and thus are the most able to compete and generate national wealth. It is not about the size of a country but the openness of an economy!

But it’s natural to see the faults in others instead of learning from and picking and choosing what they have done right? There is no perfect system and no matter how imperfect others are, the reality is we are the economic laggards. Others may need to shape up but we need to shape up even more? President Aquino's "daang matuwid" is in the right direction and is making foreign investors give us a new look – with PHL earning its first ever investment-grade rating from Fitch. Yet we need more than "hot money" that is meant to seek fast returns but not long-term commitment. The acid test – “our coming back to life” – will be the openness of our economy and ease of doing business manifested in the rule of law, sound regulations and world-class infrastructure? Happy Easter!

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