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.

Thursday, May 6, 2010

My Brain is a Stranger

My Brain Is a Stranger

Do you ever have those moments when you wonder who you are? My brain is a stranger at times, cooking up concepts and ideas that I have no part in. I lecture my wife about not using her favorite expression “s**its happen” in front of our young son. Then I turn around and cut lose an expletive laden tirade against those flipping a**holes in Customs who levy a P1,800 fee for inbound shipment of two pairs of size 12 flip-flops costing P2,200.

I don't know that hot-headed hypocrite, the guy who says one thing and does another.

Or take that cute chick next door with the big bazoos. I'm a happily married man, loyal and true, but the stranger in my brain ogles her like a lion in the grass salivating over fresh meat down by the watering hole. Who is this guy who preaches high values and propriety and doing the difficult things that must be done, yet lusts automatically, without even thinking. My brain has a life of its own, I'm certain. It is not me. It's on its own.

Or the arrogant bastard who struts his blogs as if he knew down to the dimple on Jesus' knee what makes the world, and especially the Philippines, tick. In real life, I am a sweet and even shy guy. What happens to my brain when I sit down at the keyboard? I tell you, whoever is in there is not me. He is irreverent and cynical and obnoxious and ridiculous and manipulative. He's smarter than me, so I know he comes from somewhere else.

Maybe an alien got implanted there that day back in 1982 when I fell asleep in the haystack after Laurie and I . . . um m m never mind . . .

The words that pop out of my head prove the point. I don't even know what half of them mean, but they leap forward in perfect context as if I were Webster hisself, polishing for the publisher. Turpitude or exigency or salubrious. My brain even makes up words, like “ego economics” and the “trading of favors”. It is bound by no rules of grammar or punctuation or fine considerations of tact. It is a runamuck brain, making up words as it goes along.

Helloooooo! Who's in there? And what kind of kickapoo joy juice you been sipping on in there?

I'm sure my brain has rolled more eyes than most. It has a strange sense of humor and comes at issues from left field. Certainly Bert's eyes gyrate with each unkind observation I output about the Philippines. But really, Bert, it's not my fault. I love the Philippines.

There's a stranger in my cranium.

He did it.

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

The Humorous Bone

It comes to me occasionally that there is not a great deal of literary wit on Filipino blog sites. Oh, manuelbuencamino offers up a bit of satire now and then and occasionally a humorous bone is dropped into a discussion thread, and that fires up a good chortle. But most of the writing bewails the state of the state or criticizes leading characters or activities in the archipelago's multi-act comedy-tragedy.

I have remarked that you rarely see Filipinos with a book, reading casually. In Europe one is much more apt to trip over a book than here. The US has lots of books and some fine booksellers.

Reading expands the mind enormously and breaks down rigid walls of perspective. Always musing, I wonder, without concluding anything, if there is a correlation between Filipino stubbornness and lack of reading, or if there would be more compassion if there were more readers.

I was a narrow-minded chump at the age of 26 when I met and married my first ex-wife, a passionate Singaporean of Chinese descent and British accent whose father was a communist writer and whose mother put Singapore's birth control measures into place in the 1960's.

I figure that puts the Philippines exactly one-half century behind the Singaporeans. And still fading. I suppose there is an advantage to not having the Catholic Church hung about one's neck like a rusty anchor pretending it is a pretty gold necklace with magical powers of redemption.

But I digress.

I was a narrow-minded chump at 26, bred on a farm and raised with simple values honed by the Golden Rule, not to mention an oft recited Pledge of Allegiance that lead young and innocent minds to believe America stood for all that is good on God's great green earth. I was fresh out of the army and various escapades in Viet Nam. That was a hallucinatory year and I never took drugs. It is the only place I've ever been that is more surreal than the Philippines. But that was mainly because of the lunacy of the war. That one year rocked my naive American foundations, so it was fairly easy for the commie pinko's daughter to tilt her husband hard left.

We were poor in those days. My ex worked for a pittance as a radio music programmer to help me get a masters degree which led to a job in banking. I worked the early years at a pittance to help her get her Doctoral degree in literature. Needless to say, she liked reading, and so I took it up, too. Deeper works than the Hardy Boys I had read on the farm. Russian writers, German, British, American. Our TV sat there, neglected and dusty and turned off. I grew my hair long, protested Viet Nam, earning the honor of my own file at the Los Angeles FBI office, and worked like crazy at the bank. Then the first-ex and I hit the rocks and we went our different directions.

Somewhere during that period, my brain got bent. It stopped being defined by other people's thoughts and expectations and came up with its own. I learned that others generally had very limited points of view, shaped by where they'd been, and those perspectives were fixed as if they alone had been granted the awakening plucked like a red ripe apple from the Tree of Knowledge. I determined to open my intellectual windows and did this by reading and traveling about the globe. I rose rapidly in the bank because, as a drunk colleague confided at a drunken executive conference, “Joe, you are successful because you can think around corners”. Yes, that and I could work computer spreadsheets like a speed freak, so I had the answer while others were still figuring out the question.

Even today, I read about two hours a day, usually in the afternoon munching on barbecue flavored Nagaraya and lounging in a comfortable P1,200 canvas chair acquired at SM Mall Pampanga. My current undertaking is entitled “Jeeves in the Morning” by P.G. Wodehouse, a British writer. This is comedy as only the superbly dry and witty Brits can cook it up.

Let me share a little of it, as we bloggists are way too full of ourselves.

Our hero, Bertie Wooster, has been given residence in a small house, Wee Nooke, owned by his Uncle Percy on the outskirts of London. Bertie is standing outside the house, which has been set ablaze by Uncle Percy's son. Uncle Percy arrives, more than perplexed, and Bertie speaks, gives him greeting.


“Oh, hullo, Uncle Percy,” I said. “Good afternoon, good afternoon.”

My civil greeting elicited no response. He was staring past me at the little home, now beyond any possible doubt destined to be a total loss. Edwin might return with all the fire brigades in Hampshire, but nothing was going to prevent Wee Nooke winding up as a heap of ashes.

“What?” he said, speaking thickly, as if the soul were bruised, as I imagine to have been the case. “What? What? What? What . . .?”

I saw that unless checked, this was going to take some time.

“There's been a fire,“ I said.

“What do you mean?”

Well I don't see how I could have put it much clearer.

“A fire,” I repeated, waving a hand in the direction of the burning edifice, as much as to tell him to take a glance for himself. “How are you, Uncle Percy? You're looking fine.”

He wasn't, as a matter of fact, nor did this attempt to ease the strain by giving him the old oil have the desired effect. He directed at me a kind of frenzied glare, containing practically nil in the way of an Uncle's love, and spoke in a sort of hollow, despairing voice.

“I might have known! My best friends would have warned me what would come of letting a lunatic like you loose in the place. I ought to have guessed that the first thing you would do – before so much as unpacking – would be to set the whole damned premises ablaze.”

“Not me,” I said, wishing to give credit where credit was due. “Edwin.”

“Edwin? My son?”

“Yes, I know”, I said sympathetically. “Too bad. Yes, he's your son, all right. He's been tidying up.”

“You can't start a fire by tidying up.”

“You can if you use gunpowder.”


“He appears to have touched off a keg or two in the kitchen chimney, to correct a disposition on its part to harbor soot.”

Well, I had naturally supposed, as anyone would have supposed, that this frank discussion would have set me right, causing him to dismiss me without a stain on my character, and that the rather personal note which had crept into his remarks would instantly have been switched off. What I anticipated was that he would issue an apology about that crack about lunatics, which I would gratefully accept, and that we would then get together like two old buddies and shake our heads over the impulsiveness of the younger generation.

Not a bit of it, however. He continued to bend upon me the accusing gaze which I had disliked so much from the start.

“Why the devil did you give the boy gunpowder?”

I saw that he had still got the wrong angle.

“I didn't give the boy gunpowder.”

“Only a congenital idiot would give a boy gunpowder. There's not a man in England, except you, who wouldn't know what would happen if you gave a boy gunpowder. Do you realize what you have done? The sole reason for your coming here was that I could have a place where I could meet an old friend and discuss certain matters of interest, and now look at it. I ask you. Look at it.”

“Not too good,” I was forced to concede, as the roof fell in, sending up a shower of sparks and causing a genial glow to play about our cheeks.

Sunday, May 2, 2010

A Nation of Traitors

I'm sure some are likely to reject this notion without consideration: “What an arrogant twit. And we thought that Chinese dude was bad.”

Well, let me exercise your brain a little, limber it up, rather like stretching before the basketball game. See if you can get in the mode of thinking before you do the concluding. I know it is sometimes hard to do that, but the discipline is good.

I'll pose five questions that set the scene. And as always, I must apologize for painting in generalities, as they unfairly include those who ought not to be so painted.

  1. What is a foreigner living in the Philippines to do? He is a leper, an outcast from the rightful caretakers of Philippine society. He has few rights, little respect among skins of onion, and little power. But he sees things differently because he carries a different historical and societal telescope.

  1. I wonder, do our fundamental premises agree? Do Filipinos, in the main, want a modern, productive, clean, honest society? Or do Filipinos opt for their culture, as it is, because it is their culture, and they are proud of it?

  1. If they want a progressive nation, do Filipinos understand that things have to change in order to change? Or do they believe things can both change and stay the same?

  1. If they understand that things have to change, do they agree on the general direction of change, or are they forever locked in the inertia of debates that paralyze action?

  1. Can those with power let go of their power for the empowerment of the people?

Here are my answers:

  1. He must do his best for the Philippines, and not join the inert.

  1. We agree. A modern, productive, clean, honest society assures a longer and richer life for more Filipinos.

  1. Filipinos in the main understand that things must change, but they also want to retain the unique identity that is “Filipino”. They like being different from other Asian or Western cultures. They are proud of their heritage, tortured though it may be.

  1. Here things get difficult. Filipinos are a self-confident people. That often translates into hard-headedness and a firm insistence that there is only one way to do things: my way. Compassion, concession and generosity are not stalwart characteristics of cultural norms. Power, if available, will be wielded, and there is not a great deal of concern about how others might be affected.

  1. No, they can't

Government is deeply infested with men and women of power who use this power for their own gain, first, and the gain of the state, if it is convenient.

These people sacrifice the nation's well-being for their own gain. This treachery is not carried out by some ambitious, ego-stoked general wanting to stamp his iron fist into the history books. It is not spirited away in the middle of the night by some sneaky spy in a trench coat creeping down the back stairs with an arm-load of secret government documents.

These villains simply walk in and sit down at their desks. They are everywhere, in the Palace, in the Legislature, behind court benches, and in every nook and cranny of government from the LTO to the Ombudsman's office to the barangay Captain's chair. Yes, even there.

Let us define our words, as Humpty Dumpty would expect no less. Humpty had no Wiki, but we are blessed . . .

Treason: The crime that covers some of the more serious acts of betrayal of one's nation.

Traitor: A person who commits treason.

Sovereign State: A political association with effective internal and external sovereignty over a geographic area and population which is not dependent on, or subject to any other power or state.

Betrayal of one's nation! Understand that notion in all it's profound meaning.

Originally, treason applied to assassins who would seek to execute a head of state. But then it became political, and, under totalitarian regimes, anyone who disagreed with those in power could be hauled off and executed for treason.

But in the Philippines it is neither murderous nor political. It is societal.

Wha? You threw a blank at me, Joe.”

Yes, that statement is so obtuse as to be meaningless. So let me explain.

Treason is societal in that the means for bringing down the state are accepted by society. Indeed, most who participate in the Filipino brand of treason are just doing what has long been done: exercising their personal power. They do, however, commit a gross sin of omission; they fail to connect their small private acts to the ruination of the Philippines.

But, make no mistake, they are bringing down the state, one stolen brick at a time.

These men and women, oh so invisible, black of hat and shady of eye, don't trade in coded messages or smuggled micro-diskettes loaded with megabytes of classified information. They trade in favors. One after another, piling up like so many demons in hell. They gather as the accumulated demons of a nation and overwhelm the honest trade of commerce and virtue.

Favors are an exchange of private benefits. They are outside the official mandate for public service and outside the oath of office that government officials swear to.

This sinister trading of bad values for good undermines the wealth and honor of the Philippines. It is insidious for the way it is wrapped in acceptability and carried out right before the public's eyes. It is an overt act opposed to the best interest of the Philippines and it is done without a twinge of conscience or ounce of regret.

The exchange of a nation's well-being for personal gain is done so surreptitiously that you are more likely to get angry with me for insulting your esteemed culture with words than rail at those who would tear your beautiful nation stem from root with deeds.

The king is very, very naked, and he has not been on the treadmill lately. It ain't a pretty sight.

Two values anchor the well-being of a nation. Wealth and Honor.

Wealth is represented in the sum of all economic activity over the whole of history, the equity arising from money raised through taxes less money spent on infrastructure and services aimed at taking care of the people. Wealth-building requires high productivity to care for more people in a better way. Wealth is represented in the vibrancy of the business community and the availability of technology and financial instruments such as loans and investments. It is represented in stability and protection against disasters and nations or people of bad character. It is represented in jobs and opportunity and food on the table.

Honor is represented in the moral fiber of the people, in trust, in honesty, in valor during battle, in dignity, in compassion, in bravery, in caring for those who can't care for themselves: the children and the old people, the sick and the disenfranchised. Honor is represented in the will and courage to do the tough deeds necessary to protect one's family, neighbors and fellow-citizens; it asks that some give their lives to protect the greater community.

The trade of favors undermines all of this.

Favors are not real values. They are not earned in the marketplace of ingenuity or competition. They are cheaters' values. They destroy wealth rather than create it. They undermine honor rather than cherish it.

Sometimes favors are a manipulation of the machines of power to keep legislative or mayoral positions in the family. Some families have been locked in offices so long that the Manila street signs bearing their names have rusted away. These entrenched scions block innovative thought. They block skilled work, crisp rational decisions and progress. They thrive in the mediocrity that is their offal, the very fertilizer of their foul deeds. They don't have to try hard because they are blessed with title.

Even the President - perhaps ignorantly, perhaps with intent – works against the well-being of the nation. When you stock the cabinet, the armed forces and the supreme court with cronies, you expect favors and obedience. You don't expect skill or commitment to public trust. Any appointment based on a criterion other than capability creates an IOU of favor. It suppresses the appointee's honesty. It puts personal power and gain ahead of the nation's well-being. How does the country ever get to excellence if its leaders fill positions with pals instead of experts? How does it achieve wealth if economic might is replaced by personal IOU's. How does it achieve honor if the trade of favors is itself dishonorable?

The President behaves as if she were a housewife who has appointed her coffee klatch friends to power. She does not act as an executive, intent upon skilled appointments, good management and productivity. Productivity for her is a new evening gown to wear at an Obama dinner.

It would be better to sell the nation out to the Koreans or the Japanese or the Chinese, or, praise Mary, even those dastardly Americans. They at least understand the importance of productivity. They know how to honor achievement and they know how to honor honor.

Every favor granted or called in the Philippines undermines the nation's well-being. It is treason, soft and innocent of cloak, but black-hearted of soul.

Every job filled by a friend, family member or favorite – outside of their proven ability - is a job that is not filled by an ambitious, capable person working diligently for a career and an opportunity to grow. National success is by definition the sum of all individuals' contributions to achievement.

That is what is being side-tracked and stolen every day in the Philippines. The power to achieve.

Therein rests the mediocrity of the Philippines, and its grand collective treason. It is the trading of favors and the swapping away of productivity for personal gain. It is trading the future down the tubes so our children have only chaos and poverty as their inheritance. It is the denial of the right of the people to be ambitious and productive, to have skills and a career path, to rise by making good decisions instead of bad ones, to find deep satisfaction in achievement.

It is the nation's wealth, stolen, and its honor, corrupted.

It is the trade of favors. It is the suppression of ambition and skill. It is treason.

Now some of you are probably doing the old water off a duck's back “big deal” shrug. “Another arrogant foreigner trying to pretend he knows more than us.”

Before you dismiss me, at least let me remind you what the trade of favors brings to the Philippines and you tell me if those who enable these outcomes undertake “serious acts of betrayal of one's country”:

The selling of young girls. Construction kickbacks funded with public money. Heavy taxation of the poor and tax concessions for the rich. Dirty, unhealthy living conditions for children and the elderly. Clothes-hanger abortions in the dark alleys of squatters villages. Deaths; deaths in poorly equipped hospitals, in ferries, on the riverbanks of flood-swollen rivers, in political killings and massacres, in extra-judicial murders of journalists; deaths in the home from diseases that the poor do not even know, for there is no medical care there. It is a killer society that frets over condoms, offering that up a laughable pretense of high moral value.

Make no mistake about it, when an official charged with public service engages in a trade of favors for personal gain, he is stealing value from the economy and from the honor of a nation. He is enabling these horrible flaws to flourish.

The trade of favors is serious business and it is betrayal of the Philippines.

It is treason.

Dedicated to Mama Dora who died March 10, 2010, on the floor of her shanty in the fishing village that was her home all of her short life, of an illness unknown and untreated. Government officials traded away her well-being for their personal advantage. They did not notice her passing.

It was a serious act of betrayal.