Sunday, November 23, 2014

“The power of distrust”

“Most of us did not appreciate the corrosive power of distrust, and how long it would take to heal the mental scars caused by it.” [The Legacy of Fear, David Brooks, The New York Times, 10th Nov 2014] Twenty-five years after the fall of the Berlin Wall, the biggest surprise is how badly most of the post-communist nations have done since. There was a general expectation back then that most of these countries would step out from tyranny and rejoin the European club of prosperous nations.”

Does it explain why People Power in PHL didn’t turn us around despite bravely standing in front of those tanks? And after Marcos we would contribute one if not two more to the list of most corrupt leaders? Today we’re even in two different camps: is Binay a sinner or a saint? And we are reminded Binay was one of those Cory appointees supposedly to undo the sins of Marcos rule? Fast-forward to today, what about Enrile or Revilla or the other Estrada? Simply put, we’re back to square-one?

“These failures include Ukraine, Georgia, Bosnia, Serbia and others — about 20 percent of the post-communist world . . . These are countries with at least three to four wasted generations. At current rates of growth, it might take them some 50 or 60 years — longer than they were under communism! — to go back to the income levels they had at the fall of communism.” [ibid.]

And there are “nations like Russia and Hungary that continue to fall steadily behind the West — about 40 percent of the post-communist world by population. The third group includes those with growth rates between 1.7 percent and 1.9 percent. These countries, like the Czech Republic and Slovenia, are holding steady with the capitalist world. Finally there are the successes, the nations that are catching up. This group includes Poland, Azerbaijan and Kazakhstan. But . . . many of these nations are growing simply because they have oil, or something valuable to dig out of the ground. There are only five countries that have emerged as successful capitalist economies: Albania, Poland, Belarus, Armenia and Estonia.”

“Why did some countries succeed while others failed? First, leaders in some countries simply made better political decisions. Most of these countries enacted economic reforms, like deregulating prices and privatizing nationalized companies. Some nations like Estonia and Poland enacted reforms radically and quickly, while others tried to do them gradually or barely at all — with expensive security blankets for protected interests. The quick and radical group saw a slightly bigger output drop over the near term but much more prosperity over the long run.”

“Then there is the level of institutions. Many Western advisers focused on the headline reforms — writing new constitutions and creating stock markets. But . . . the Poles and Ukrainians . . . lacked the basic building blocks we take for granted. Before you have a stock market, for example, you have to have publicly available data about companies, credit records and accounting systems. Finally, and most important, there is the level of values. A nation’s economy is nestled in its moral ecology. Economic performance is tied to history, culture and psychology.” 

And even the Vatican struggles with change.

“Change is rattling the hierarchy of the Roman Catholic Church, as the American bishops hold their annual fall meeting here this week. The vast majority of them were appointed by Francis’ two more conservative predecessors, and some say they do not yet understand what kind of change Pope Francis envisions and whether it is anything more than a change in tone.” [U.S. Bishops Struggle to Follow Lead of Francis, Laurie Goodstein, The New York Times, 11th Nov 2014]

“There is no bishop who is standing up and being the real leader of a Francis faction . . . They grew up in conservative families, went to conservative seminaries and have been told not to talk to theologians who are creative because they’ve been labeled heretical. Now Francis is saying let’s go in a different direction and let’s have a discussion. The last two pontificates, there was no room for discussion, and this makes them nervous and confused.”

If in the church – an enterprise supposedly for good – change is not a given, what more of PHL where there is so much distrust? And how does the brain work? The scandals in the Church run the gamut, you name it. And the scandals in PHL run the gamut.

“Research on the brain is surging. The United States and the European Union have launched new programs to better understand the brain. Scientists are mapping parts of mouse, fly and human brains at different levels of magnification. Technology for recording brain activity has been improving at a revolutionary pace . . . Yet the growing body of data — maps, atlases and so-called connectomes that show linkages between cells and regions of the brain — represents a paradox of progress, with the advances also highlighting great gaps in understanding.” [Learning How Little We Know About the Brain, James Gorman, The New York Times, 10th Nov 2014]

In other words, efforts to understand the brain have yielded little. That means there will continue to be winners and losers. And in the case of PHL, can we be a developed economy in 36 years [or by 2050] if countries like “Ukraine, Georgia, Bosnia, Serbia and others . . . might take . . . 50 or 60 years — longer than they were under communism! — to go back to the income levels they had at the fall of communism”?

I’ve lived and worked with Eastern Europeans for most of the last 11 years and outside the group of people I’m involved with, my sense is [what my friends call] “the mentality” hasn’t really changed. And what would explain that in our limited group, which can be likened to an “experimental group,” people are leaving “the mentality” behind?

[But why in PHL we are where we are 28 years after People Power?]

My Eastern European friends resemble an experimental group because they categorically made the choice to traverse a totally different path. And so there is no distrust within the organization and among the people. And those who cannot embrace its vision and its ways have gone.

“After the years of disjointed neediness, the iron was beginning to enter her soul and she was capable of that completely justified assertion of her own dignity. You might say that this moment was [George] Eliot’s agency moment, the moment when she stopped being blown about by her voids and weaknesses and began to live according to her inner criteria, gradually developing a passionate and steady capacity to initiate action and drive her own life.” [The agency moment, David Brooks, The New York Times, 14th Nov 2014]

“So many people are struggling for agency. They are searching for the solid criteria that will help make their own judgments. They are hoping to light an inner fire that will fuel relentless action in the same direction . . . Agency is not automatic. It has to be given birth to, with pushing and effort. It’s not just the confidence and drive to act. It’s having engraved inner criteria to guide action. The agency moment can happen at any age, or never.”

If agency is not a given for individuals indeed it’s a much greater challenge for economies, peoples and nations. And that’s probably why in public administration, the idealists would make reference to MNCs for their ability to transcend borders, markets and cultures . . . and thrive. Of course, our ideologues want to think of MNCs as strictly Western. Yet we want to talk about the decline of the West, the Asian Tigers [and the Samsungs of the world] having given them a run for their money. Still, we take it for granted because our success model is that of an oligopoly. And so we value plutocracy . . . and political patronage . . . and crony capitalism . . . a vicious circle that we won’t shake off until we attain our own agency moment?

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