Sunday, April 27, 2014

“Individuals and communities face trade-offs”

That’s from “Nobel economist Thomas Sargent [speaking] to [the] graduates of Cal-Berkeley in 2007. It's only 335 words long, but it's really great. It breaks down the 12 economic concepts that every graduate should know.” [The Greatest Graduation Speech Ever Given Is This Bullet-Point List Of 12 Economic Concepts, Rob Wile, Business Insider, 17th Apr 2014] Does that one line explain why crab mentality can be such a slippery slope?

It is not uncommon for citizens to have very strong feelings about their country yet it takes maturity for nations to grow and develop – i.e., to pull together for the common good. More to the point, we can’t keep giving ourselves too much slack . . . way too much slack? After 68 years . . . we don’t have to be bogged down and fixated by “our history” like juveniles rebelling against their parents? We’re supposed to be smart people and can take responsibility; and the sooner we demonstrate it the sooner we could “lift all boats,” to quote President Kennedy.

Given this blog is several years old, some people know that I’ve been a development worker for eleven years now. And I’ve shared in this blog the crux of my message to my Eastern European friends. [See below re transparency, integrity, trust.] And while we Pinoys could talk about our history these people have far more to tell us; for instance, the land which today they call their country is a mere shadow of the original. They’ve ceded a big chunk of their land. And as they would admit, they were always on the wrong side of history, aligning themselves with the wrong bloc a number of times and ending up among the poorest Europeans. I could not address their entire nation and I am only committed to one particular group. But we Pinoys have far greater experience in freedom and democracy and progress and development, and don’t need – really – international institutions to tell us what to do? But why is our reality at odds with the assumption?

That is why leadership matters – but the right leadership. For example, while Russians perhaps because of national pride may be rooting for Putin, countless Eastern Europeans shudder at the thought that a semblance of the old Soviet empire has reared its ugly head. [In the meantime Russia continues to rely on natural resources to be the core of its economy that is nurturing an oligarchy instead of promoting an egalitarian, competitive economy. And the model is not lost to Eastern Europeans that have learned their lesson – about ideology and the imperative of “bread and survival.” And we Pinoys like to romanticize what development is about?] As one of Putin’s mentors in the KGB had noted, the man had very little sense of danger. Such strong-man rule would bring Marcos to mind? And did he likewise minimize the danger inherent in martial rule – and has it damaged the moral fiber of the Filipinos?

There are studies about leadership that say CEOs in general have big-size egos. And even Pope Francis is viewed as a CEO by The Economist, 19th Apr 2014: “The pope as a turnaround CEO” – with a “strategic focus on the poor” . . . and employing “the tools of brand repositioning and restructuring.” To pursue restructuring demands tough-mindedness and it is not something that is truly welcome – not in PHL where we see it as the opposite of compassion? But inherent in leadership is to navigate the path into the unknown we call the future. And since the endeavor is likely to be complex, room for error is a given. But the sin of omission is no less of a sin and weak leadership can only be characterized as marking time, with no vision of the future?

And the 21st century globalized world complicates leadership even more: while nations collaborate given the imperative of interdependence – or the folly of isolation – they are in fact engaged in friendly competition. Because at the end of the day, nation-building is an enterprise, i.e., the products and services necessary for the wellbeing of nations and their people don’t just fall from the sky like manna from heaven. [“Yes, Christ saved us. He is still helping us but He doesn’t work miracles to solve our own problems. We should save ourselves now,” Fr. Bel R. San Luis, SVD, Christ saved us; let’s save ourselves, Manila Bulletin, 22nd Apr 2014.] And nations must be committed to interdependence internally if they are to attain synergy or the common good. And which in today’s lingo is what being competitive is about – and why even in PHL we have a national council for competitiveness.

While we like to highlight our good deeds – or the progress of our efforts, and they are laudable – where PHL is today and was yesterday and will be tomorrow says we have yet to succeed in the pursuit of the common good? And have yet to produce a string of the right leadership – not a string of plunderers?

But perhaps the biggest hindrance to PHL progress and development is crab mentality? If we can’t get what we want – given our lack if not absence of community sense – we would rather undermine representative democracy, as in our party-list system and the initiative for people to participate in the budget process? It is worse than running an enterprise by committee – and why enterprises have CEOs! Or does Juan de la Cruz miss the distinction between teamwork and leadership? For example, even in “bayanihan” (cooperative) efforts there is still a “kapatas” (foreman.)

Is it why we can't produce the right leadership, and are constantly devolving into chaos – which is what characterizes crab mentality in the first place? Representative democracy presupposes a community sense, of trusting one another – including the leadership – because everyone is committed to do their part of the endeavor. It means committing to transparency and integrity in order to build democratic institutions that level the playing field – and thus engenders trust and fosters a community sense. 

Sadly, we are light years behind? Because of our “kawawa” [pitiful] persona we instinctively invoke “victimhood” – and that is “the how not to” . . . pursue excellence and competitiveness? In this day and age, no one will pity Juan de la Cruz. We can't cry victimhood while misusing our resources and, worse, our talents – for the benefit of the few. Every time my Eastern European friends talk about freedom and democracy, I could only lament how we Pinoys continue to trample on what could have been a precious gift. Unfortunately, so long as our elite class continues to prosper, who cares about the Philippines?

“I remember how happy I felt when I graduated from Berkeley many years ago. But I thought the graduation speeches were long. I will economize on words.” [ibid.]

And here is a part of that speech: “Economics is organized common sense . . .  Many things that are desirable are not feasible; Individuals and communities face trade-offs; Other people have more information about their abilities, their efforts, and their preferences than you do; Everyone responds to incentives, including people you want to help. That is why social safety nets don’t always end up working as intended; When a government spends, its citizens eventually pay, either today or tomorrow, either through explicit taxes or implicit ones like inflation; Most people want other people to pay for public goods and government transfers (especially transfers to themselves).” Amen.

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