Friday, December 24, 2010

Holiday Spirits

Well, I see I managed to pen one whole blog during the month of December. This is attributed to two reasons. One, the wife and I are building a house and spend most of the day fretting over the alignment of the columns or other somesuch. I am the plumber, as we declined to accept the ripoff bids from the local thieves, the most laughable of which was P70,000 for the labor. Heck, gluing big plastic pipes together is easy for someone who spent his younger days gluing little model tanks and airplanes together. It is rather like playing with Legos, or TinkerToys or Lincoln Logs.

The second reason is that my cell-phone modem blew out so I must trundle down to the internet cafe to go on line, and write from the top of my head, rather than compose thoughtfully and paste. As there often is nothing in the top of my head, that is what I write.

Nevertheless, I wish y'all a very happy Christmas and a very merry 2011. Cheers!

Saturday, December 4, 2010

Boxing Egos

I find it fascinating that we all grasp for outside structures to define who we are inside. We belong to a church or defend our patriotism with a gun because, without the church or our nation, we are winging it in the world, rather like that space guy in the movie "2001" that Hal cut loose. It is scary to lose the anchors of our being.

One can find enrichment in the church, without question. But one can be a highly moral or even spiritual person outside the church. One can thrive inside one's nation. But one can also soar and grow rich, internally, amidst the inevitable dramas of surrendering to a different culture.

Similarly, one can either listen to what others say, and repeat them. Or one can look about to decide what different people say, look for facts, and make up one's own mind. In our reality-bound sound-bite world, it is easy to generate sense out of nonsense, like the notion of Sarah Palin being president. It is more difficult to generate sense that is anchored in truth and goodness.

I am fascinated by Philippine culture and how the dominance of Ego anchors the dysfunction that keeps the nation from becoming modern and productive. Taking care of self. It is the basis for the trade of favors that sees cousins and classmates appointed to important jobs instead of competent people. It is the basis for corruption that sucks off the wealth generated by the many for the benefit of the few. It is the basis for trash and dogs on the roads and guns in the holster and massacres and extrajudicial murders and every other negative nuance of a country struggling.

When Filipinos can get outside themselves to take care of others, it can become a modern, productive nation. Until then, it is a haphazard collection of Egos. People hanging onto themselves because they can't depend on anyone else.

Therapy anyone?

Wednesday, December 1, 2010


The current furor about the Wikileaks release of stolen government documents is fascinating. On one hand, you have those who defend it as an exercise in government transparency. They see the government as essentially deceitful and deserving of the "outing". On the other hand, you have loyal Embassy workers around the world who are horrified that an offhand comment, transmitted from their hand to some other functionary, is now being blasted worldwide almost as if it were government policy. And of course, the release does hurts not just the US.

This is the surreal world of reality living, of internet uses and abuses, of the prevalent mode of sound bite and spin. Get used to it. Big Brother is the sum of all the bytes and bites strewn about the world, creating our environment detached from anything true and principled. The Wikileaks organization that argues for transparency creates chaos through which the truth cannot be discerned by releasing documents out of context and for no purpose other than disruption.

I personally think the Wikileaks people are more deceitful than the US government. And like any dump of pollutants, the sewerage eventually flows downriver and to the bottom of the sea.

Monday, November 29, 2010

True Blue

I caught an interview with Richard Branson, the creative and business genius and free spirit behind Jet Blue airlines and his private space-travel venture, among other undertakings. He argued that it would be foolish if the United States got into any kind of trade battles with emerging nations, especially China, India, and beyond most peoples' radars, Africa. These nations will power the world economy for years to come, so why would you cut yourself out of this unstoppable force?

The logic applies also to the Philippines as the hyper-nationalists continue to shrink in fear from welcoming foreign engagement within the Philippines. The Philippines isolates itself from competition, from investment, and falls further and further behind. Oh, yes, the economy is growing nicely, but it is still a slogging covered wagon, hauled through the muck by karabao, rather than a Jet Blue space ship, which it could be, for its strategic location in the middle of Asia, magnificent scenery, and ample human and physical resources (ore, ports).

I wonder what the nationalists are afraid of. That they will lose the distinction of being native Filipinos?

That and 20 pesos will get you a loaf of bread.

They fear industrial spies will steal all their secrets?


They fear that they won't be able to match the productive power and thinking of more experienced businesspeople?

And that means, what, exactly?

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Brains of Cement

How do you teach or encourage innovation and creativity, the drivers of progressive thoughts and acts? The Catholic Church is locked into the same doctrine as in the 13oo's even though Man has stepped on the moon and crammed a zillion gigabytes into a tiny cube. Great minds explore the reaches of science and creativity and the Church cannot even see the suffering roaring down the pike in terms of too many mouths consuming everything like swarming locusts in the wheat fields. Condom is a dirty word. Starving and riots are fine words, as they assure a big flock of sheep for the priests to herd.

The simple move of a tourist slogan from "Wow Philippines" to "Kay Ganda" brings shrieks of despair from across the land as terror surges at the notion that this change presents risk. My God, folks, it is an advertising slogan. People want to go back to the "Wow", as a baby separated from its blanky.

I won't get into the mandated march for the National Anthem. Talk about fear of someone thinking differently . . .

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Three and Only Three

I enjoy words, the collection of symbols which, if lined up a certain way, create mood or intrigue or paint a picture or explain things. The masters are Charles Dickens and Victor Hugo . . . and many others, too, for sure. Sherlock knew words. And Robin Williams even.

If you were asked to choose the three most profound words in the universe, which three would you choose?

I would select . . . reading, integrity and achievement
  • Reading as a way to nurture the brain and open the entire world to thoughtful exploration.
  • Integrity as a high personal morality apart from external structures such as God, patriotism or love.
  • Achievement as a way to apply direction to our acts during the short time we are gifted with life on this wet and spinning orb.
With these three symbols as an anchor to a lifestyle, I can envision riches beyond gold, behavior of the most brave and giving kind, and progress for the betterment of all.


Sunday, November 7, 2010

The National Anthem

I have a difficult time explaining to some Filipinos why I write behind the Joe America nametag. It fundamentally comes down to my belief that the Philippine standard of free speech is considerably different than that found in America, and, as a visa holder, not a citizen, I am vulnerable to being tossed out of the country if I happen to run against the grain of some official with power based on some wayward utterance. Or even one that is intentionally offensive, for the sake of sparking a brain to think.

The clearest case in point is the Philippine view that the National Anthem MUST be sung in a militaristic march cadence. I was stunned when, oh, a year or so ago, Martin Nevera was required to apologize upon his return to the Philippines after having interpreted the National Anthem as something other than a march at a Paquiao fight. I personally found his rendition inspiring, and was proud to be living in the Philippines.

But Martin Nevera, a talented, globally recognized artist who did the Philippines proud with his rendition, apologized for doing this. If he has to bow, can you imagine how powerless I and my plastic visa card would be?

Somehow, my definition of patriotism differs from that of legislators. They view patriotism as militaristic, and they draw off from the National Anthem the stanzas referring to invaders and tyrants, not mindful that they, themselves, are tyrannical when they hold the only legitimate singing style for the Anthem is a march.

I draw off something different, sacrifice. Giving of one's life to the country. I see nothing that requires this be done in a military uniform. Indeed, I see the millions of working poor and OFW's as sacrificing their muscle, tears, life, and family to try to scrape out another plate of rice by fishing all night long or pedaling a pedicab all day. They are the backbone of this country. The legislators are perhaps not familiar with this kind of sacrifice.

My English translation of the first stanza reads:

Land of the morning

Child of the sun returning

With fever burning

Thee do our souls adore

Now that is plain beautiful, poetic, inspiring. Alas, I would sing it to a blues beat, with a touch of sadness and as much courage as I could get into the tune. I see no guns, no grenades, no uniforms, no saluting, no bowing to tyrants who say "sing it my way" or go home.

Patriotism is where the heart is, not where the gun is.

Freedom means not having to sing it "your way". I would sing it with my heart, loyal to the Philippines, true, willing to give my life to the Philippines. As I am, in my way.

Therein lies the reason I write behind the bushes.

The militaristic legislators, the people with power, don't get "heart" unless it rides on a bullet. How would they ever comprehend that an opinion that differs from theirs can also be patriotic?

Remind me again, what does the Anthem say about tyranny?

Friday, November 5, 2010

Tea Bags

The US elections show how fickle trends are in the US, where sound bite deceits are more profound at changing minds than facts or reason.

The main gripe from voters, of course, is jobs. Also fueling the anger is a lot of financial pain, with people sitting on homes worth less than the mortgage, or retirement accounts worth about 70% of what they were worth in 2008. I think the Obama camp got roasted because Mr. President was ineffective at explaining how brutal the economic collapse was, and that fixing it was a long term deal. It is easy for corporations to fire people when they are in a panic survival mode, and they will add people back only when their root growth supports it.

That is not a short-term deal, and the response should have been couched in the beginning of the President's term as a "Five Year Plan". In other words, he should have clearly tempered expectations on the job front. But he did not, and he got a bat on the knees for the failing (thanks UP nn grad for the nice visuals that emerge in my mind with that description).

And I love that Fed, with money presses smoking, giving China a brickbat across the forehead.

Mr. Toad's wild ride.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Hey Doc, ya got any pills?

It has come to me of late, as I strain to recover from another bout of mystery illness, that the Doctors in the outlying reaches of the Philippines, or at least the male doctors that I have rummaged through to (fail to) find one I respect, are mainly bullshit artists and pill dispensers. I wish that just one would, upon hearing that I have a pain here or there, get out from behind his desk and actually place a hand on the painful area to see exactly where it is. He can poke and prod anywhere he likes, as I can assure you my former American doctors displayed no reticence about being thorough in the physical part of the physical. Let us say, I have been probed thoroughly, the most interesting being a bone marrow extraction to see why I evidently have water in my veins instead of red and white cells. Now this extraction is done via a 8 inch needle about a quarter of an inch thick which is ground through the hip bone to find the marrow. As the doctor cranked away, jamming it through the bone, he asked, "where do you work?"

"Uh, California Bank."

"Oh, they declined my request for a loan."

Perhaps it was just my imagination that he started cranking harder.

The routine in the Philippines is almost assembly line in its absence of thinking. Patient in. Hear complaint. Order a lab test or 25. Get the results. Concoct a diagnosis; it doesn't matter if it is right or wrong. Write up a prescription for at least 3 pills. Pay P250. Come back next month and pay again.

If I did what the doctors here said, I would be dining on chemicals, my guts full of capsules and pills and liquid medicines.

I get more information from the internet than from the bullshit artists who are, like so many hereabouts, mainly interested in preserving their egos, not caring for the patient. Dispensing a pill is not what medicine is about. It is about discovery.

I told my wife I want to see a woman doctor next time. Maybe they have more of a care-quotient. Maybe a woman is more inclined to search for medical truths.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Miners in a Tube

Like most, I am fascinated by the drama of getting 33 miners out of the ground through a tube. I am claustrophobic, and every time one of those dudes climbs into that can I get a severe case of heebie jeebies, and am sweating by the time they emerge 15 minutes later.

The aspect that amuses me is that everyone immediately thanks God, rather like a quarterback does if a pass reaches the end zone to win an important game. I think the thanks should be given to the Chilean government for barring no expense at ensuring a successful rescue, and to the US commercial animal, oft criticized, for incenting the kind of productive technology that allowed that huge drill to dig a half-mile through rock.

If God is to be thanked, it is for gifting us the brainpower to achieve.

Sunday, September 26, 2010

Upward Bound . . . and a Bump

This morning in my half-sleep whilst sipping my strong Philippine coffee, Seven Flavors, if I get the translation correct, it struck me that I somehow feel more secure in the Philippines this year. It is nothing tangible, really. It is just a sense that the government is honorable rather than ruthless. It may not be competent, always. Who is? But it is not totalitarian and manipulative in the guise of sweet concern for the public, the sense I had of things under President Arroyo.

I also think President Aquino generally thinks about the well-being of the Philippines first, and his own gains second. That, too, is a reversal. It is inconsistent with how so many think here, where self-gain is all that matters. Principles like honor and integrity and compassion and generosity hold little stock. The "trade of favors" that underlies corruption in the Philippines is deeply and broadly rooted, and is essentially the foundation of self-dealing that undermines high-standing principles.

My wife and I were driving along a narrow road; we came upon a crowd of motorcycles, the owners of which were gathered at a cock-fight about 25 paces away. One of the motorcycles was parked in the road, blocking it. I honked. No one responded. My wife got out to try to get the attention of the owner. 50 guys turned and looked and someone told told her to move the motorbike. She is 4'9" and the bike was big, but she struggled to get it out of the road. Not one guy was gentleman enough to step over to help.

It is a frame of mind. You think of helping others, or you don't . . .

Sunday, August 15, 2010

God's Flawed Gift

The human capacity is limited, eh? Our minds are unable to grasp the scale of the universe or come up with a unified picture of God, animals like pigs can smell better (where smell is a verb, not adjective), lions can hear better, and dogs have inbred GPS that allows them to find their way home if they get dumped in the middle of nowhere; we humans, on the other hand, sit down and cry.

Like striking the wall in front of our noses, solid, we bump into complete vacuity, a very dead nothing, at the end of our understanding. Yet we don't miss what we don't know. We don't run around feeling empty or substandard or shortchanged or guilty at the overwhelming ignorance we cart around in our heads. No, just the opposite.

We are proud of our overwhelming grasp of things. We are confident of our correctness in debate, pleased with our ability to explain to Junior why he cannot run with a pencil, happy to tell our stories, our life's lessons, gleaned by clambering down the bumpy path of life and somehow, after the fact, taking pride in the bumps. Life's a big motocross, eh? There for the telling. We know what we know, and that is plenty.

That it is virtually nothing, or even wrong, does not phase us.

My current fascination is with the deceits that make up the patterns of our understandings. These deceits can be blatant, like “my God is better than your God”, or Head and Shoulders is a better shampoo than Palmolive, or the Lakers are God's gift to ball players, or Wiki is honorable, or the FBI is honorable, or a Filipino is inherently corrupt. They can be subtle, like name-calling to avoid take a loss when discussing an issue. Or logical fallacies in debate. Or seeing the absence of light as a fearful dark even though there are more threats in the daytime than at night. And the night critters grasp that, even if we do not.

This confidence in what little we know keeps us from shrinking into curled up little balls of inadequacy. If we were to grasp with clear understanding how little we know, we'd shrink with embarrassment, zoom right pass humility and go into a catatonic horror, frozen at the impossibility of making it through the day being so outright stupid.

So like the first fish that grew feet and ambled up on the banks to find a worm, we evolved a state of blindness about what we don't know. It is necessary to our survival to block a certain kind of knowledge about our prized human cranial capacity. We block out the understanding that we really don't know much of anything, and we most certainly know nothing about other people's lives or motives or being.

But we act – and feel inside - as if we were God's gift to others with our glorious awareness and knowledge. Yes, yes, I demonstrate this trait with about every blog I write.

I wonder what would happen if opposing parties stepped back a pace from the edge of this blind arrogance and started serious debate with the fundamental premise,

“I wonder in how many ways my thinking is wrong.”

Maybe we'd do a better job of finding harmony. Israel and Hamas would find ways to agree. Mindanao and Luzon would become respectful neighbors. Democrats and republicans would put the people's interests first. Oligarchs and farmers would walk arm in arm through the rice fields, singing “Up with People”.

In groups of animals, a hierarchy arises, most dominant to least dominant. It is done without thought, an inborn need to find the proper place to exist in harmony.

What if our minds were applied to find real equality instead of dominance?

What if we actually thought about what we are really doing rather than operated from the premise that only we know best, and anyone who thinks otherwise ought to be made to be subservient?

Thursday, August 12, 2010

The Earth is Melting

Color me Chicken Little . . .

The following pro-forma has been added to The Society of Honor's permanent pages so that it will not get lost in stale blog archives.

Climate Change Response Program”

There is nothing that prevents any city or municipality from taking up its own defense, nothing that prevents them from making each day safer and more prepared.

Thursday, August 5, 2010

Fictions, Frictions and Economic Predictions

I am always surprised when a Filipino accuses me of being an “idealist” or an “intellectual”, as if my writings were somehow detached from practicality. And I am equally surprised when I opine about things that I consider to be foundational about the Filipino social structure, and the economy it generates, and it shoots right past people as irrelevant.

Take the hiring of cousins and classmates, a part of the “trade of favors” that is a major currency, in addition to money, in the Philippines. Look at the US economy. What energizes it is the daily pounding away of people trying, and incented by the boss, to do more in a better way. People compete for raises and for skills and for recognition. It is high octane gasoline.

In the Philippines, people largely just subsist. “Productivity” is absent from the economic lingo, just as “appointment” is a dirty word. The Philippines use wood chips from the dirty kitchen to power the economy.

Why is this dynamic – the collective AMBITION of a people driving for self-improvement – simply shrugged off by Filipinos.

Many, I suppose, because they got their own job by a favor.

It's our way,” they say. But then they look for scapegoats as to why the economy is doing so poorly, why there are so few jobs and so many mouths to feed, and why corruption is so rampant. Last May, it was Arroyo's fault. Now it is Aquino's.


That is idealistic? I think not.

That is the way it is. Down and dirty, applied, functional, pragmatic. As real as it gets.

I even scream “PASS A FAIR EMPLOYMENT LAW” that makes capability the only lawful basis for hiring and promoting people, and that is considered just one of JoeAm's intellectual ramblings. Not practical. No one will take that up. Detached from reality, that old Joe.

Christ almighty. How do I get more “applied” than that?

What part of “IMPROVEMENT” do you not see connected with “AMBITION” that channels “SKILL” into the management of “PRODUCTIVITY”?


Idealistic intellectual fictions, eh? Your MIND is a fiction*.

[*Standard caveat; this insult does not apply to all Filipinos; only those who got their job by favor and/or feel that favor is a better way to power an economy than ambition that leverages skill.**]

[** Please excuse my temporary relapse; it is like the need for alcohol or bananas; comes and goes.]

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

What a Jerk

Sometimes, upon re-reading what slid out of my brain and onto my typewriter, I agree that I really am a piece of work, insensitive and arrogant and too willing to let anger run my keyboard. Sigh. I will not remove the bits that offend me, and undoubtedly others. They stand as a stamp across my concrete cranium that I really need to try harder next time.

I moved to the Philippines for the adventure of it; the exploration, the beauty of the land and the enjoyment of a lifestyle that is incredibly rich, though not always easy to adjust to. Like fireworks on Christmas. But that is MY problem, decidedly . . . not yours.

Saturday, July 31, 2010

It Really Fries My Bacon

What is it about dysfunction that comes so easily to the Philippines?

I spent a little time researching Philippine initiatives on climate change. I am fascinated by global warming and the climate changes it is producing, real time, in our lifetimes. Al Gore won the Nobel Prize a few years ago for his work to elevate awareness. Skeptics exist, mainly those who want to make money and are willing to sell our kids down the pike betting that the relentless uptick in global temperatures is merely balmy weather.

The Philippines sits right smack in the middle of Typhoon Alley and faces a geo-logistical nightmare to manage food, energy and water for 7,000 islands. Wait until half of Mindanao turns to desert. You might think climate change would be a priority.

And it is, in the tried and true way of Filipino bluster and neglect, useless engagement and waste, incomprehensible stupidity and zero achievement.

President Arroyo signed into law the Climate Change Act of 2009. February 9, 2009. Lots of pomp, circumstance and photos of the little lady being progressive. The Act created the Climate Change Commission, gave the Commission 50 million pesos to get started, and ordered that a “Framework Strategy” be developed within six months.

Sounds good, eh? Crisp, authoritative, competent, forward looking, driving the Philippines into the modern era of climate change awareness and response.

Ummmm, not quite.

First of all, check out this language in the Act:

It shall be the policy of the state to incorporate a gender-sensitive, pro-children and pro-poor perspective in all climate change and renewable energy efforts, plans and programs.”


What does gender have to do with rising seas, more intense storms and changing micro-climates within the Philippines?

But sure enough, there in the mandate to the Commission for development of the Framework Strategy, last item, as if they were scratching their heads and trying to figure what this rhinoceros is doing in the playpen, you will find:

Gender Mainstreaming”

Whatever the frick that means. Now I guess I had better go back and read Al Gore's writings again, as I don't recall that global warming degraded our gender sensitivity, but perhaps there was some wayward phenomenon caused by too much wind or melting icebergs in the tropics that I fail to recall.

Oh, and catch the make-up of the Commission. It is chaired by the President, as if she (he now) did not have enough to do without organizing the agenda for the nation's climate change initiatives. Rounding out the Commission are three people the President appoints. That is the Commission. Manny, Moe and Curly . . . led by Groucho in drag.

I figure it was an honor to be appointed a Commissioner and be in such close proximity to P 50 million.

There is an Advisory Board of 23 members . . . essentially the President's Cabinet members plus a throw-in or two. High level. Busy people. They need this headache like another Ondoy roaring through the Intramuros. They probably get a few spiffs from the fund, too.

The last time 23 people got together and recommended anything useful was when the camel emerged from the work of the Advisory Board on the Creation of a Horse.

But sure enough, the Strategy Framework was eventually developed. It was released in April, 2010, about six months after it was due. It contained 12 very generalized directions and zero . . . count them . . . zero specific actions.

And we wonder why PAGASA is still forecasting weather by throwing rice chaff in the air to test the wind, and predicting rainfall amounts by looking at the color of the clouds over there.

What happened to the P50 million, you figure? That is about P4 million for each general strategic direction written down on paper.

Now you sense my sarcasm getting thicker with each sentence, eh?

Keep reading.

A few weeks ago, a Commissioner blew his cork when he found out that a P105 billion loan from France, intended generally but not specifically for climate preparedness, had been dumped into the general budget without the Commission even being advised of the money's arrival. Yes, that is billion with a “b”. The French Embassy, doing a kind two-step, said the money really did not have to be used for a specific purpose and climate change was just guidance. I think the fine print included a French chuckle and a wink about the interest rate, and maybe an “oooo la la, zees peeples ees reeley funny.”

So now the Commission sits as close to dormant as it is possible to get and still have a heart-beat. Its web site reports “Site Under Construction” for any web page of significance. Broke, busted and out to lunch.

And the storms come whistling through. The seas creep upward. And Manila's water disappears until the first typhoon of the season dumps a load.

Nero, thy name is Arroyo . . .

Poor President Aquino, so many needs, so little money left. Perhaps it would be wise to reconsider that “no new taxes” commitment. The longer you hang onto that leaky boat, the deeper the ship sinks into the seas, and the seas are very deep hereabouts and . . . ahahaha . . . getting deeper every year.

By the way, about a year ago, I wrote a plan for addressing climate change in the Philippines. It was three pages, had specific goals and timetables, and took me about four hours. Issue a mandate and format for cities and municipalities to plan for climate change. Measure elevations and map them. Revise zoning. Evaluate dikes vs relocation for low-lying areas. Prioritize food and water sourcing. Revise building codes. Get the houses out of the runoff drainage channels. That sort of thing.

But I would not be so presumptuous or arrogant as to lay this thinking across the table for the Philippine Government to consider. Like the Anti-Pinoy web site, these ego-barons tend to resist outside thinking, preferring to bask in their own crustacean thinking . . . which is mainly focused on the glory of how well they look in their own eyes.

Truly, it is best not to turn over rocks around here. Nothing but snakes and spiders and gargantuan centipedes crawl out from under them.

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Silencing of the Lambs

The modern whiz-bang real-time era of videos and tweets and blogs and social networking sites and hundreds of cable television channels offering up everything from fake diamonds to porn is putting governments under duress and our social fabric under strain.

China tries fruitlessly to keep its billions of residents protected from the onslaught of information that might undermine control of its Government by Committee, trying the lawyers of Google and the patience of the Committee. Google wants to give its customers around the world unfettered access to search results. The Committee wants to avoid chaos caused by free thinking.

The US political machine is ensnarled in bitter partisan debates of sound bite and spin, where every quip is a potential candidate maker or candidate breaker. Issues are played out in press conferences and video clips on news programs, all with a slant, so left or right, you can find your partisan perspective. Truth? What is that? It is what it is defined it to be. President Bill Clinton was oh so wise when he said, beads of sweat popping out on his forehead, “It depends on what the definition of 'is' is.”

Wars are brought into the living room where we can see office towers collapsing as if choreographed by Steven Spielberg and the march of American caskets across the TV screen turning stomachs and will against the fight. Never mind that the next step by terrorists who don't care about such trivialities as the death of innocents could be the destruction of a whole city. Maybe New York. That is in the future, does not exist, does not count. Out of sight, out of mind. No, we are in the now, real time. A reality detached from . . . well . . . reality.

That, then, is the problem.

With more powerful and more immediate access to information, we find that our environment assumes the proportions of a surreal motion picture, with little dramas played out before our eyes and fictions, deceits, and manipulations so rampant that they form the new truth. Truth is a variable, not a constant. The drama of reality shows turns television into an emotional test tube where we amoebae get our chuckles and tears from the cheers and fears of others, as if we were there. As if life were meant to be that.

The educational level of discourse collapses to the lowest common denominator, about grade 8, as blog sites and chat rooms become infested with inane perspectives masking as wit and bluster pretending to be wisdom.

New expressions arrive daily, lol, and the courtesies we knew before erode, calling elders sir or holding the chair for the lady. It is dog eat dog, the intimidators and amoral manipulators in control of the agenda and the discussion. It is a confused new world. To be silenced, to be held captive by distortion - to sacrifice truth and honor and integrity to deceit and manipulation and illusion - is the way of the lamb. The way of the lamb is to accept that big brother is not some master government spying on our daily affairs, but the collective of deceits wielded by half-wits and scam artists. And to succumb unknowingly to them.

I choose the lion. I choose to walk with my eyes open, aware of the falsehoods bombarding every medium around me. I choose to remain unattached to someone else's definition of truth, or to cram my brain into some wee little box others would hold up as righteous. I choose to resist being packaged, stamped, and mailed to the rest home by minds pretending the knowledge of Jesus.

I'll walk alone, thanks, head up, enjoying the sunshine and rain equally.

Although I suspect I am not really alone.

Isolation is just another distortion, the temporary inability of people with integrity to connect and hold their ground against the unwholesome flood of ulterior motive.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Anti-Pinoy: Deceit or Honor?

The Anti-Pinoy (AP) community blog site is the brain child of US resident Filipino BongV. The site was enriched when, exasperated by the editorial restrictions on the FilipinoVoices (FV) community blog site, Benign0 and BenK joined BongV with the aim of building a more open and robust counter to the FV site. Benign0 is a Filipino who works in Australia. He founded the “Get Real” web site and its seminally critical view of Filipinos, Philippine society and Philippine governance. BenK, like Joe America, is an American transplant who lives full time in the Philippines.
The hallmark of the AP site was “no censorship”. It has been a brazen, boastful, attack-minded site largely critical of Noynoy Aquino. Indeed, President Aquino remains the main subject of much AP commentary.
The articles for the most part are intelligent, the comments wide-ranging. However, AP largely promotes an agenda rather than search for new understandings from dialogue. Much of the time the conversation reduces to personal insults and chat-room repartee. Amongst the rubble are gems that make visiting the site worthwhile.
AP broke new ground when it removed Joe America's comments from the site on July 17, 18, and 20, 2010. He had been arguing against the grain for respect for the President as a democratic or patriotic principle, a view that got him labeled pro-Aquino, a critique that missed the point entirely but fit into the simplistic slander and tear-down mode of arguing. He did not swear, name-call, or in other ways abuse readers. He only disagreed and tried to state a point.
The remarks were later returned to the site after the discussion threads had grown crowded and stale, and where the comments were out of sync with the original sequence of remarks. It wasn't exactly banning Joe; it was diluting and harassing him, possibly in hopes he would storm off. As the AP founders did, from FV.
Now, I must be consistent here and say that it is entirely the blog editor's right to edit comments. AP is a private blog site that will rise or fall according to it's content. I don't view the deletions as censorship, as there are many outlets of expression open to me. It is just blatantly hypocritical and illustrates the vendetta-minded approach that anchors much of the commentary on AP. Amusing to me, the AP operating method is consistent with the dysfunctional old-school Filipino style of “my way or the highway” intimidation, thuggery, and reaching for the gun. Or the blogger's equivalent, deleting posts.
Another amusing thing is, you can go back and read my comments and they are rich with compliments toward BongV, Benign0 and BenK, because I think they are all bright, thoughtful, capable people and writers. They cause me to think. I don't read them because I always agree with what they say, but because them help me comprehend the Philippines and my engagement with the oddities (from a Western perspective) of Filipino society.
BongV's strength is his ability to acquire information on the internet and post reams of historical, definitional, or insightful analysis in a short time. He is acerbic, occasionally witty and personable, but evidently very bitter about how he was treated when he was in the Philippines. He can dish out criticism but perhaps can't tolerate the same treatment aimed at him. Perhaps I entered his personal cross-hairs and was shot.
Benign0 has, in my view, the deepest Filipino mind on the internet. He doesn't just look at the events, he looks at the reasons, the dynamics that create them, and the personal failings that are behind the dysfunction that is rampant in the Philippines. He sees things that the rest of us don't, and is very skilled at putting them into words, words that often sting for their ability to slice and dice right into people's vulnerabilities. I've had to concede many an argument to his superior perspectives.
BenK is much like me, a pragmatist who enjoys writing and experiencing a culture that is different from the one he experienced in the US. Whereas I blow off into the winds on words that go astray searching for literary clout, he stays practical and constructive. He deals with issues as issues, and only when it is the only resort will he label an idiot an idiot.
Frick, Flack and Frack.
Gotta respect them, appreciate them, no matter the number of flies in their assorted ointments. Keeping to the positive tenor of my remarks, there is no need to mention the many maggots born of those flies. . .
AP: Deceit or honor? Some of both, I reckon. But a site that executes, by editorial fiat, personal vendetta's that are not linked to any publishing criteria such as obscenity or irrelevance? Wow, how the icing has dripped from the AP cake. At least FV published standards that guided its decisions. Disagreement with a post was not one of them.

Saturday, July 17, 2010

Anti-Pinoy Thugs

Words are great fun, eh? One of my favorites is “epiphany”. Elegant, ephemeral, artistic, profound. Angels singing hallelujah against the brilliant rays of the rising sun, casting elation across a big internal sky of fluffy white clouds. Cool word.

Thug” is nice, too. Dumb. Physical. Heavy, like the clubs used.

Anyway, I had an epiphany the other day as I was engaged in a bit of spat with the Anti-Pinoy blogsite founder, who uses the screen name “BongV”. Now I hold a great deal of respect for BongV, as he is a quick-draw internet maven able to provide reams of relevant information on any issue, he is a successful professional in the US, he operates charity endeavors benefitting kids, I agree with a lot of his observations about flaws in Filipino society, and I particularly appreciate the historical basis he provides for the current state of the State.

But I have been troubled by the Anti-Pinoy method which generally tends to gang up on and name-call anyone who disagrees with the AP line of thought. Try patriotically to support President Aquino and you will be filleted and fried.

The epiphany came when BongV issued a threat to me. It was a small one, nothing serious. Something on the order that if I wanted to play the game (of disagreeing with the AP line), I better be prepared.

My response was that this was simply old-school Filipino way of reaching for intimidation first and the gun second.

Suddenly, all the dominoes clacked into place, ringing up five's and multiples thereof at every combo.

The AP crowd behaves just like the Filipino government and power-based society the AP writers criticize. Clannish. Rich with intimidation. Ego-bound. Unable to listen or hear contrary views. Unwilling to put in place an architecture for building, always willing to tear down.

If ever there were a black pot, it is AP. Precious little refined consideration that the world is populated by individuals who have different backgrounds, thoughts, needs, and points of view. Little give, lots of totalitarian push.

Don't get me wrong, there is a lot of good thinking on AP. And the site inspires good thinking (along with some bad thinking, I fear). It has gotten richer and deeper and less shrill with maturity, while rival FilipinoVoices has dwindled through lack of commitment and passion.

But the method is exclusionary, not inclusionary. It drives out opposing views through insult. It doesn't teach, it lectures. It has set in place a dividing line between AP and FV. It does not welcome dissent. AP's passion is painting people black or white, for us or against us. The passion is spent bringing well-intentioned people down rather than applying the energy to hearing, respecting, and incorporating different views in a wholesome community.

Frankly, the site is so . . . so . . . so . . . Filipino.

How would this observation go down on AP? I'd be labeled a crybaby for seeing and saying what I see and say.

I dunno.

Indeed, sometimes I whine with the best of them. But I see a lot of hypocrisy in AP, an operational method that mirrors the power-mongering dysfunction that they criticize, of not being open to new perspectives and approaches, of being unable to articulate an agenda for building.

Too many thugs, not enough diplomats perhaps. Too many agendas to push and not enough exploratory science. Too much looking back and not enough building for the future.

A site in its teens, pimply and full of itself; not yet in adulthood but, indeed, growing . . .

It is a fun place to visit if you like to risk a verbal “Wipeout” now and then.

Thursday, July 15, 2010

Of Snakes and Wives

I've been remiss in writing here. Part of it is the distraction of building a home, where my wife is the informal general contractor and I am the chief nag and bone-picker. I don't know when our roles got reversed, she started wearing the pants, and I got relegated to second fiddle in the fief. Or third. I think the kid is second. Maybe I'm fourth, as we have a housekeeper . . .

It started benign enough, me the pompous, well-organized American, her the smiling and docile Filipino. But, as in most marriages, it takes a couple of years to get to know the real person, to get past the showmanship of dating and the out-of-body effort we give in the early years, prepping and preening and doing our farts outside, as if we never had gas. Then reality sets in, slowly, like a glacier grinding down the hillside inching huge boulders into sand. One day the realization sets in that we have gotten rid of the plastic covers and are dealing with each other real time, face to face.

Sometimes it ain't pretty.

I think what has happened is that my pompous bluster has ceded to her head-like-a-brick insistence that she knows best. That she usually does is beside the point. She is a traditional Filipino, engaging her interests first and the rest of us get her kind attentions in their proper order. Sometimes the order is never.

But I can always tell she loves me, when, after a fight which oft extends into the night, she cooks bacon and eggs in the morning.

Another reason she wears the pants is because her fundamental skill at managing things is beyond compare. She was a poor kid who barely eked out a high school degree, what with the years off tending to this kid or that field along the way. Had a benevolent uncle not emerged during her formative years, who knows what might have happened. But she deals with construction people with humor and demand, and they respect the little lady. She gets things done.

Oh, sure, she has the typical Filipino style of dealing with things as they happen rather than thinking ahead and planning them. Damn if I can get her to set times for appointments, as people drift in and out of our place on their own schedules, and because everybody is loosey goosey, no one has difficulty with the non-structured agenda except me.

So I go out and wander amongst the bamboo on our property, admiring the snakes to be found there, and let her tend to the chaos. The prettiest snake is some four feet long, black of body and yellow of head. He looks right at you, and I am inclined to want to pet him like a tame dog, but something in the back of my head says that is not such a hot idea. So we both just amble on, remote but wary friends.

Sort of like me and BongV, I suppose, as we both eye the other as the snake, but one worth respecting.

But I digress.

My wife.

One should never mistake quiet for shyness. This quiet cutie will read riot to the hardware store owner for sending out cement a grade below that ordered, making him take the whole load back. I think her next step would be to go for the gun.

As I said, she is a fairly typical Filipino.

Ooops, will finish this later. She needs someone to take care of the kid while she gets her nails done. I don't know where the housekeeper is today. Probably out having her hair done . . . brb

Friday, July 2, 2010

The Vanities of the Philippines

Okay, I've got it. Crystal clear, thanks to a few slaps in the face on and the brutal but perceptive views of The Judge.

Here's my blatantly unstatistical take on things, generalizations so gross that they should be used for nothing other than make you think.

Filipinos come in three basic styles: (1) The Vain, (2) The Worker, (3) The Modern Man.

The Vain

This is an ego-bound person of little consideration for others. It is his way or the highway and money is his prime motivation. Civic duty means little, even if the Vain holds public office; self-gain is what is important, not the people's well-being. We often think of this as a class of oligarchs, who, indeed often fit the picture. But they have already made big money, that's all. The Vain belongs to a much broader class of Filipino and can even be found on common blog sites. You can identify them by their resistance to ideas from others, protecting their home turf as if they were some Ampatuan on a verbal binge. They collect into clans for comfort. In addition to being closed to opposing ideas, they are vengeful. Those on line use name-calling or other deceits to try to demolish anyone who would have the gall to oppose their thinking. Those on land occasionally reach for a gun. If these on-line people had money, they would be ego-bound oligarchs too, although they would mightily contest this observation. You see . . . their MOTIVATION is the same. Self protection, self build up, tearing down the perceived competition. Win, even if the cost is a poorer Philippines.

The Worker

This is a more innocent and committed soul. By innocent, I mean he knows he has no power to leverage, but must feed his family, so he crawls out of bed every day to work the fields, clean the highways, pedal his tricycle, man the call center, or carry the bricks. He laughs easily, especially at the shortcomings of his friends or co-workers, but has a serious edge to what he does. Feeding the family with no assured future is serious business. He may cheat a little around the edges, for, after all, his life is full of drudgery and you grab ease where you can. But he is fundamentally a good man. He is the heart and soul of the nation.

The Modern Man

I haven't really met very many of them, but I think there may be quite a few around. Or they are at least developing, in other countries, perhaps, or through the wisdoms to be gained on the internet. The Man is driven by achievement and fair play; competition, skill, honesty, confidence and consideration of others are the hallmarks of this Filipino. He is a principled person, not afraid of change, and includes kindness toward others among his principles. The Man is often a woman. He is the future of the nation.

Where do you put yourself?

C'mon, be honest now.


Sunday, June 27, 2010

Would Jesus Wear a Uniform?

I was driving the National Road, as the paved highway is identified on the Biliran map, engaged in an argument with myself. As is often the case, I have no facts at my disposal so I simply concoct the different points of view in my brain.

Why do Filipino public school kids wear uniforms, and is it a good or bad thing?

In the US, public schools generally do not require uniforms. Church or private schools often do.

There are some good reasons for uniforms. For example, they ensure consistency of dress so poor kids don't get caught being poor. Rich people can't wear stylish shoes or other expensive trappings and thereby put down less glamorous classmates. If poor people can't afford the uniforms, they can just stay home and fish.

In the US, uniforms are sometimes used to suppress gangster style dress and the bloodletting that comes with over-the-top macho showmanship.

Uniforms also offer a rallying symbol. Hurrah for the good old green and gold; one for all and all for us.

Another reason, neither good nor bad, is “that's the way we've done it for a long time”. Well, actually, if you are pro-change, that is a bad reason.

There are some other bad reasons for uniforms. They iron everyone into the same cloth and suppress individual expression. They cost more money than last year's jeans and big brother's hand-me down shirt. They look goofy if the popular style is short and the required hemline is long. If one looks like a goof, one often feels like a goof. Then one starts BELIEVING inside that one is a goof.

I won't say anything about the militaristic formations schools demand as their kids line up prior to the start of the school day to salute the flag with pledges or songs. All that is lacking is a mandated goose step past the principal's office.

Many schools in the US take the half-way approach, publishing a dress code that allows both individual expression and prudent garb. For example, dress hemlines must drop below the knees, no gang colors allowed, no sandals, no armless t-shirts, and so forth.

In the Philippines, I see overdone authoritarianism as a huge problem – check the surly attitude of service people in government offices and many retail stores - and, of course, its obverse is relentless obedience that takes the form of lack of creativity, lack of ambition, lack of protest, and lack of risk-taking.

The uniforms seem to me to be reflective of a national mind-set that young Filipinos are not expected to think or act for themselves. They are not expected to be responsible in choosing their dress. They must follow the rules laid down by the elders. Alas, the elders are predominantly a bunch of big egoed, money-bound power-mongers with zero sense of compassion, generosity, concession for the common good, or public service perspective. To argue with or disobey these power-pips is a huge personal affront to their Big Egos, provoking threats, goon squads, and on occasion, weapons. They likely prefer kids be jammed into uniforms and their mouths stuffed with cotton to suppress any kind of intellectually bound objection to the way the Egos manage things.

Now again, I have no facts, so I could easily be wrong. Remember, I am just arguing with myself.

Perhaps the schools are churning out thousands of independent thinking, ambitious, talented go-getters. They are just all going overseas to go get, leaving the stiffs to care for the local economy and social values, the latter featuring the shooting of journalists, coddling of criminals, trashing of paradise and other upside down thinkings.

I do know the school kids all look alike, undistinguished, as I drive past them on the National Road. I fear they are made to bend to a consistence of appearance and thought, not driven to get outside imposed limits, not driven to challenge and create and excel.

I put 2 plus 2 together and can't help but come up with 4. And 4 falls way short of being a 10.

And, no, Jesus would not wear a uniform. Nor did He require his disciples to look, think, or act alike. He believed in the wholeness of spirit not the limitations that occur when an individual's spirit is stuffed into a container.

Sunday, June 20, 2010

Chameleonic Thinking

Interesting, the spell checker did not flag “chameleonic”. I thought I was making up the word, meant to mean thinking like a chameleon.

All of us have ego, eh? We are self-confident of our understandings most of the time, and our opinions flow from that confidence. If we are shown to be wrong, we tap dance out of it some way, never quite having to strike the realization “I was inadequate to that task”. We go on as confident as before, leaving our errors behind in the dust of time and other people's forgetfulness.

I've dabbled with fictional writing now and then but was always a “C” level writer when the markets demand “A+”. I continue to read regularly, always packing a tad of envy about how other authors wend a phrase so beautifully. But my latest book goes beyond that. Beyond envy or even admiration. It is one of those rare works where the writer's intellect goes so deep that it is hard to grasp without re-reading the illusive passages two or three times. It is one of those works like Finnegan's Wake or David Copperfield that stretches the brain in ways it has not been stretched before. It is an amazing book.

The title is “Night Train to Lisbon” by Pascal Mercier, translated from German to English by Barbara Harshav. The writing is a little confusing because of the translation, for German cadence meets English half-way sometimes and leaves one guessing about who is really the subject of a particular paragraph. But the beauty is in the reaches of the views on the human condition. Take this excerpt from the preface, English translated from Portuguese:

Each of us is several, is many, is a profusion of selves. So that the self who disdains his surroundings is not the same as the self who suffers or takes joy in them. In the vast colony of our being there are many species of people who think and feel in different ways.

Fernando Pessoa, Livro Do Desassossego

Hah! Well, that explains why I can rip Philippine society one moment for mediocrity and lack of sense, and turn right around and express amazement at the depth of beauty and soul that surrounds me. My surroundings are the same, but my inner point of view shifts.

That self-confidence I mentioned earlier is born of our ability to be chameleons of the mind.

Of course, this suggests we are all a tad disingenuous if not downright deceitful, playing tricks on ourselves so that we can play tricks on others. I must remember that and not get so upset at the posturings of blog-writers who seem to me to articulate half baked ideas.

Let me just open the book and type a paragraph I find there. Okay, page 171, right at the bottom.

I would not like to live in a world without cathedrals. I need the luster of their windows, their cool stillness, their imperious silence. I need the deluge of the organ and the sacred devotion of praying people. I need the holiness of words, the grandeur of great poetry. All that I need. But just as much I need the freedom and hostility against everything cruel. For the one is nothing without the other. And no one may force me to chose.

This is the protagonist translating the writings of revolutionary hero Amadeu Prado. Prado is the magnet who drew our reflective hero to Lisbon on that night train.

I am of no organized religion myself, as I find the fairy-tale delusions expressed by the preachers with such earnest conviction a little scary. I love cathedrals for the same reason stated above but I could never articulate their attraction so richly. My favorite cathedrals are in Santiago de Compostella, Spain, where history is written into the architecture of the huge, vertical building, and the one in Cordoba, Spain, with its wild and woolly red and white striped arches. The stained glass windows there push ghostly patches of pink and yellow across the floor and walls as the sun transverses God's little kingdom below.

I just grabbed that random page of the “Night Train” book to make a point. Any page in the book will provoke thinking.

Generally that is a good thing.

It gives us more perspectives, more colors to change into as we argue the chameleon's various visions.

Friday, June 18, 2010

Of Chickens and Thumbs

I was watching the NBA finals when I was smacked in the face by one stark cultural difference between the US and Philippines. A few minutes prior, I had been watching the news on CNN. The news world has obsessed for two months about the Gulf Coast oil disaster, replete with pictures of oil-covered fowl being scraped of the foul muck that was likely to kill thousands of the birds. This particular newscast featured one family in Denver who sold their home so they could head south to help clean up the coast.

Animal rights activists are a force in the US.

Then, several times during the NBA game, I was subjected to Thunderbird commercials pronouncing the Philippines as “the cockfighting nation”. Sabong was the word used, I believe. The video showed a bunch of orderly, clean, smiling Filipinos, conjures up great patriotic music, and then shows two roosters being squared up to fight. Finally it cuts to a patriotic theme and the Thunderbird close.

The outcome, of course, for one of the birds, is a fate worse than oil.

And I don't know about you, but the cockfight crowds I have seen are hardly the well-moneyed set; they smoke and drink and spit and are grubby. It is the sport of the poor, if you consider it a sport. Were the gladiators vs. lions a sport, in Rome, I wonder?

Much of the social advancement in the US has occurred because of the outcries of the lunatic left, you know - those people arguing for homosexual rights, opposing wars, saving whales and trees, insisting on food labels so consumer can make informed dietary choices, permitting medical marijuana, and other extreme views that seem to me to be essentially of kindness.

I don't get upset about cock-fighting, as I've seen seen chickens swung by the neck until their heads pop off; the body runs around on reflexes for a while as the red red blood spews out the severed neck. Then I dined on the chicken along with Mom's mashed potatoes and wonderful cinnamon rolls. I figure only vegetarians have the standing to protest, and then, only if they believe vegetables have no feelings as they are hacked, chopped, stewed and eaten.

It is a hard, hard world from some perspectives.

The Philippines is not the only country cruel to lesser animals as a sport.

In Portugal and Spain, they still stick bulls with knives and spears. In the US at the rodeo, they still rope and wrench the necks of young steers; as if – for the steer - having one's chingaderos chopped off is not humiliation enough. In the Philippines, they set chickens against one another to fight to the death and, not even a sport, let hundreds of thousands of disease-ridden, flea-infested dogs roam free amongst the kids. In the Middle East pious folk kill innocent people in the name of God's goodness. There is a sporting event to end all sporting event.

I understand that the genome mapping of humans has shown that Man has about the same number and kinds of genes as many animals; indeed, some animals have more complex genetic structures than humans.

If I think about it, that makes sense.

We delude ourselves if we think we are some kind of higher animal. The main distinction between us and creatures is our opposing thumb and ability to twist grunts into communicable words.

If you drop a dog in the middle of nowhere, he will find his way home. If you drop a human in the middle of nowhere, he will likely die, cursing intelligibly and clawing uselessly at the rocks with his opposable thumb.

Sunday, June 13, 2010

Soul, Brother

I enjoy learning of the history of the Philippines, although, as in college, I can take it only in small portions. Some characters certainly stand out, putting their personal stamp on the nation, for good or ill: Rizal, Aguinaldo, Marcos. I think history will dump Ms. Arroyo in the dust bin of largely smaller than life people who wasted an opportunity by putting out propaganda but achieving little. This is not unlike many cheaters in the Philippines who tell stories to rein in the suckers, of which I have been one more times than I care to admit. Truth has little bearing on the matters of these crooks, for their fundamental aim is deceitful, so why would they overlay the manipulation with truth? No, manipulation is overlaid with deceits, one after another to bury the truth in places where it can cause little damage.

But the aim of this blog is not my traditional picking away at the warts of Philippine society, but rather to express an observation recently gained.

Filipinos have more depth of soul than most Americans. I have no statistics to back this up, and am not going to spend any time defining “soul”. It is just my sense of things.

Americans grow shallower by the year as television and consumerism and reality-show relationships diminish the place where soul once resided. It is rather the difference between reading a romance novel and reading Charles Dickens. America is full of shallow romance with less meaning every passing day.

But Filipinos retain their soul, which I would describe as not exactly literate, but of the heart. It is poetic, not always in words, but in spirit. Read the writings of Rizal and others, the passions expressed in Edsa, the awareness of the way the empowered take what is not theirs and give struggle to so many impoverished families. Perhaps it is the ache that is so huge. The sending of sons and daughters overseas, the relentless awakening early to slog on the tricycle or whack roadside weeds or stoop again in the rice fields, and the belief in goodness in spite of what one must deal with daily. Ha. And the mysteries of all the superstitions that haunt the day and night and death and birth and even building a house.

I came to respect the white lady who inhabits the eerie roots of the huge trees on my jungle property in Mindanao. She, to me, gives glimpse of the Philippine soul. Deep, mysterious, complex, mystifying, hard to see, sometimes dark, often full of fun, sometimes a little scary, and arising with passion again and again, in search of the light, no matter the hurdles placed in the way by God and other jokesters.

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Of Rocks and Weeds

The bank I worked for was once owned by the British. The Brits are a fun lot, dry of wit and sharp of mind. But they are human, too. I know because one of the top Brits, a very handsome and polished guy, was busy banging the secretary in the Public Relations department. It's not that he had bad taste, for she was a doll, blond of hair, blue of eyes and cheerful of disposition; but she was married. So was he, come to think about it. I guess bent values come with ego and opportunity.

But that is just grits for the swill. I learned a lot from one Brit in particular, a brilliant, arrogant intellectual who had banked in South America before coming to the USA. He was Noriega's banker for a time, visiting him in jail to handle his financial dealings. The Brit banker believed that one should develop a set of principles that stand as guideposts through the chaos of life or business practices. And stick with them.

He did that, and I've tried to do that over the years as well. I find the discipline enlightening, if not always easy.

Some of these principles are copied from others, but, hey, wisdom is where you find it. Some examples:

Secondary effort, allowed to thrive, will overwhelm primary effort.” If we only do what is comfortable, rather than what is important, then we will soon fail. Appointing a cousin to a job is easier than finding a truly skilled practitioner, and it keeps harmony in the family, and working with the cousin is easier than dealing with someone who knows more than we do, but hiring an incompetent cousin will not get competent work done.

Ask why five times.” We often look at the superficial reasons for things. If we dig deeper, we get to the fundamentals. Only when we change the fundamentals can we get something done. To end corruption, it is important to understand the role poverty plays in forcing people to do what they must do to eat, and it is important to understand the role ineffective punishment – a Judiciary that is bogged down in a backlog of 300,000 cases – has in permitting crime to persist. Do something about these fundamentals rather than looking to stop corruption by shaking a stick at it.

If we were meant to do nothing, to stay the same, God would have made us in the image of rocks. Or weeds that stay rooted, live, and die, achieving little more than populating the globe with more weeds. To grow is to live. One reason the Philippines is a laggard nation is its hardheaded resistance to anything that smacks of criticism, change, innovation or application.

Whoa . . . What do you mean by 'application', Joe? I was with you until then.”

Application is what you do after you have listened to the criticism, agreed that change is needed and thought about what has to happen. Then you DO something about it. Alas, the Philippines is landlocked in a sea of need but couldn't find a rubber boat if Teodoro put his fleet up on the beach. The ability to get from problem to solution is absent, non-existent, gone with the wind.

Take the rampant overbirthing that drowns the islands in a sea of hungry mouths and produces young girls as commodities to sell into the sex trade.

Everyone sees the problem. There is not enough rice, not enough money to go around. Schools are overpopulated and under staffed. Good jobs are lacking. People beg, borrow and steal to eat.

But where is the solution?

The moral pinning of the nation is anchored in the Catholic faith, but the loud and self-certain elite of red clothed robes - or purple or yellow on some days, but always cheerful – somehow connect education and condoms with abortion and loss of life. These self-declared profound people offer no solutions to poverty but make birth control sound as if it emanated from the mouth of Satan himself. Meanwhile many of those precious lives the church is so “pro” are living a miserable existence. The church turns its head on all the coathanger abortions taking place in the ghettos as if these unfortunate women were so many abused choirboys calling desperately for help. To the church, these lives are worth ignoring. But a wayward drop of sperm in a plastic bucket needs their passionate prayers and protection.

And the landlocked elders of the land with heads of concrete, families of mediocre skill, and values of money do nothing.

And the youth go mindlessly from here to there texting and dancing.

No one has a clue about how to end the misery that infests the land. No one has any idea how to achieve, to improve, to grow. How to DO something. The leadership is so many babbling elders pontificating as if they were God's gift to us, and having absolutely no clue as to where to begin. They are lost in a muddle of trees unattached to any known forest. The distinction can be found in the Constitution. The US Constitution is short and pithy, providing the essential rights and responsibilities of citizens and government and leaving intricate interpretations to the lawmakers and courts. The Philippine constitution plagiarizes the US wisdoms, but tosses in a mountain load of minutiae as if wisdom were to be found in the quantity of words rather than the quality. This prized instrument of democracy becomes but another mindless set of authoritarian rules with no reason for being. And it is ignored.

The Philippines, as a collective of government and people, falls way short of its potential. It does not take a rocket scientist or Cambridge sociologist to eyeball the achievement, improvement and growth of the Philippines and say, “Hmmmmm, got a laggard here.”

For stalwart Filipinos who believe this is the way we are and it is not for an outsider to critique it, I can only say, “I agree”. You are what you are, and you need not be anything better. You need not DO anything. That is your right.

Weeds are an important part of the ecosystem.

Standard disclaimer. Wear the shoe only if it fits. There are many good and competent and well-meaning and intelligent and hard-working Filipinos. I'm referring to the others. The Philippines is also drop-dead gorgeous and I wish y'all would stop dumping your trash all over paradise.

Saturday, May 8, 2010

Ego Economics

In a prior commentary, I criticized the “trade of favors” that is undertaken by those in power as they obtain personal enrichment by leveraging their power. I questioned how the Philippines could ever expect to achieve anything but mediocrity if appointments don't focus on skill and instill ambition as the driving force in economic production. If the standard is to appoint wives and uncles and those you owe favors, or from whom you expect favors, how will the nation ever develop competence? If the standard is to give out Farm to Market roads in exchange for political loyalty, how will infrastructure investment ever get directed to highest and best use? If the standard is to add large percentage kickbacks for construction projects, how will the financial return on investment ever reach a positive number?

Well, as Don Quixote's loyal sidekick Sancho Panza would observe, “the proof is in the pudding” (apology to thenashman). Sancho never met a trite wisdom he couldn't wing into the conversation. And pudding it is . . .

In the Philippines, excellence refuses to reign. I'm confident you are as tired of dessert as I am. Poverty pudding. Corruption pudding. Pollution pudding. There can be no doubt that the public's investment is going places other than to public good.

Nowhere have so many decent and intelligent people backed by a reasonable constitution bowed so low to the whims of the powerful. And been taxed out their earholes to make up for the financial transgressions of those responsible for the integrity of the nation's fiscal dealings.

In successful capitalistic societies, the drive to be efficient and create profits assures excellence. You can only compete if you hire the best and invest wisely. The entire social architecture is competitive and ambitious, always driving toward better performance. Government must itself create value. The agency that slacks off will get publicly reamed six ways from Sunday (thank's, Sancho); its Director will be fired and new operating rules will be put in place to right the listing ship. The public is empowered by the constitution and a justice system relentless about righting wrongs, not emasculated by those who circumvent good by trading in favors.

In the Philippines, the systematic method whereby investments are made and public funds spent is “ego economics”. The financial rigor of most investment deals would not stand up to an accountant's inspection. It doesn't have to. Those in power paper over the lousy financial returns with words. And cover their tracks with IOU's and favors. Dean De La Paz recently explained how the approved budget to build more electricity generation capacity on Mindanao is sufficient to generate 400 megawatts of power, but the expectation is that only 160 megawatts will be obtained.

The national highway is an economy-busting, traffic-jammed slaughterhouse of dogs, chickens and bicyclists, but infrastructure money goes to concrete strips across the rice paddies, used by an occasional water buffalo. You see, the “Farm to Market” concrete gets the local legislators re-elected, and they perform like the indebted ratpack they are, so many toadies kissing the queen's behind.

You don't need excellence to stay in power. You don't even need a sound economy. You simply need to be able to get and give favors. That is the primary currency. Favors and power. Ego economics.

Sancho again: “You pat my back, I'll pat yours.”

In ego economics, the measure of success is “return on favors”, measured by the duration and weight of power achieved. The skilled practitioner does not need to worry about the rigors of accounting, for the books are balanced out with favors.

Cooked”, Sancho would say.