Friday, September 30, 2011

American Twits

When I first started offering up blog comments on Filipino Voices a couple of years ago, a number of people would get upset that an outsider would have the temerity (audacity, "balls", hubris, arrogance) to "instruct" Filipinos on how to live their lives. In my mind, their minds had a short circuit, viewing criticism as somehow being AGAINST the Philippines, rather than indicating an interest in seeing the country develop as a more productive place.

But over the years, the objections to my being an outsider have diminished. Possibly in part because I have tried (on occasion) to temper the bluntness of my observations. Possibly in part because others understand that I live here, too, and have a right to offer my perspectives. Possibly in part because people have bigger fish to fry than JoeAm's hangups. Or maybe they have become accustomed to my odd style or concluded that I am largely irrelevant.

But just to set the record straight, to let readers know that I am an equal-opportunity criticizer, I will today lay some unkind observations on the US.

I have commented numerous times that the United States is descending into a pit of shallow-minded deceits, where sound-bites and intentional distortions have become the foundation of dialogue, and it makes for a very angry, unproductive, bickering government and society. The TV generation is in power, turbo-charged to light speed by the internet.  By TV generation I mean those who, as kids, sat in front of the TV and had their brains zapped to mush by the passive nature of the electronic playground. They later learned new realities, those brought on by Jerry Springer, tabloid journalism and Fox News where salacious and biased content was touted as profound truth.

So that is one criticism that I've been consistent on.

Herein I propose a second. And, because this is a Philippine blog, I will make a connection.

There is a certain similarity between the Philippines and US in terms of "missing the boat" regarding how to advance the economic agenda.

In the Philippines, corruption is fought from the top down, with corruption police attempting to nail the chief offenders and scare the bejesus out of everyone else in hopes they will stop receiving payments for favors. There is no effort to rework the foundation that underpins corruption, such as the rampant use of favoritism as the basis for hiring and promoting people, or the failed judiciary that blocks people from having damages rectified.

Worker skill and productivity are largely irrelevant in the Philippines, as evidenced by the surly treatment you get from government and retail clerks and the shoddy nature of construction and manufactured goods. Because people have little career opportunity - cousins of the boss get the plum jobs - they grab the quick cash available under the table.  They don't actively set out on a clean career because aspiration is not in the Philippine lexicon, in any dialect. Ambition is a swear word. Quality is an accident.

To get rid of corruption, you have to give people other ways to move forward and even get rich. A career is one of them. And you need free, open and fair courts to allow people to right their own wrongs and start a groundswell of lawsuits against unfair business practices and localized cheating. Today, the people can see the corruption but are not allowed to do anything about it.

In the US, there is a rabid cry for JOBS, JOBS, JOBS that is completely detached from the realities of what happened during the Bush economic meltdown. President Obama blithely made the mistake of accepting responsibility for US economic performance without understanding that trillions and trillions of dollars of wealth had been ripped out of homeowner assets and he could not put it back on a wish and a prayer. I put his hubris in accepting ownership of the economy side by side with the Bush "mission accomplished" bluster. Whilst his chest was out, he got kicked in the balls.

The US is driven by consumer spending. Manufacturing is a shrinking part of the economic base. Cars, drugs and computer chips are mainly what is left. Textiles, furniture, toys, electronics, home wares, auto parts, computers . . . are made overseas. It is a service-based economy. Finance, auto maintenance, insurance, home repairs, electronic communications and utilities. Nothing is created except service, and much of the purchase of such services is a discretionary choice.

Americans, faced with underwater mortgages or diminished home equity, are being highly discrete. They are not spending. They are paying off credit cards and holding onto what cash they can eke out.

The US government's idea is to spend tax money to create jobs. But that ramps up the borrowing hole and it risks becoming so deep that it becomes a gigantic  financial black hole sucking everything nearby into its tight non-existence.

If the government really wants to create jobs, it does not need to pay for bridge-building. It needs to insert a bit of bubble back into American home values. It needs to help consumers feel more at ease with their own financial situation, even if one of the kids or the neighbor is still unemployed.

"This will be the mother of all jobless recoveries!" touted one economist midyear in 2009. Sign that dude up as seer of the decade.

Except we have yet to get very far into the recovery part. We are still in hunker down mode.

As the US found it necessary to buy a stake in GM and Bank of America, it needs to assert ownership of the national mortgage warehouses to stabilize the place where banks sell long term mortgages. Banks need the facilities to get long-term obligations off their balance sheets. The Mac brothers, Fannie and Freddie, are so battered that they are beyond saving. They need to be nationalized and reconfigured. 

A 30 year-mortgage is a big chunk of inertia in a bank's lending power. It constrains what a bank can do on the liability side (deposits) because banks work hard to match the maturities on assets (loans) and liabilities (deposits) to insulate themselves from rate shifts.

(See "Bank Asset and Liability Management", Google search.)

The trading of synthetic instruments pinned on mortgages is what collapsed during the Bush mismanagement era. That is what in turn froze the banks; they stopped lending because a big part of their liability book was turning bright red. They are still frozen and do not easily lend to homeowners. Or businesses, for that matter.

So to get jobs, the US needs to: (1) unfreeze banks so they can again start pumping out leveraged wealth in the form of loans, and (2) transfer some paper wealth to homeowners so they feel a little more willing to spend their real cash wealth.

This is so much more effective than trying to create jobs one at a time. It unleashes the whole of US consumer wealth.

That makes a recovery, a real one.

Now the specifics of HOW (1) and (2) can be accomplished is the subject of later blogs.

My point here is that the US, like the Philippines, is spending too much time on the Band-Aid and not enough time on the illness.

In the US, work on the foundation. Leverage wealth up. Don't build a deficit hiring people who don't create much wealth.

In the Philippines, work on the foundation. Give people values other than quick cash under the table. Give them career opportunities. Don’t continue supporting a culture of favors that ignores productivity.

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

When Life is Mostly Lies

I observe the deceits in our surroundings and I know for sure why humankind cannot find peace in the world. The angers, the absence of trust, the different perspectives of what is moral. The sound bite manipulations, the relentless advertisements "with no therapeutically verified proof". The cheating and bribing; a maladjusted scale for weighing fish, a construction job done poorly, the fixers at the LTO and most other government agencies. High government officials stealing citizens' tax money. NPA commie rebels who claim some kind of political high ground to justify blowing up buses while running a Mindanao-wide protection/extortion racket. Muslims who murder in the name of their faith, who shoot at children and blame heathens for all the wrongs in their world; they claim no faults themselves, for they are God's emissaries. Rather like Catholic priests I suppose. Jews and Palestinians who can't seem to grasp the simplest notion of concession for peace. They respectively build settlements and shoot rockets and blame the other party for the choices they make that undermine peace and build resentment so thick that even Jesus would weep.

Possibly Jesus has not paid his second visit because he has given up on this sloppy, dirty, cheating orb; let Satan work this messy place until we better understand the Bible and His teachings and act accordingly.

How does one negotiate in this wretched environment? Do you concede to the absence of moral constancy worldwide and become a conniver, too? Or do you adhere to principles that can only lead you to despair as you try to walk the high ground while the outer world continues to operate rich with deceits and users and scapegoats?

The problem in the Philippines is more troublesome than elsewhere because the educational system and authoritarian social model  have for so long suppressed and impoverished much of the population. Impoverished both financially and intellectually. Many of the great laboring masses have no depth of vision, no perspective, no comprehension of the part they play in the nation's weak development.

Excuses, blames, tearing down those who succeed to elevate oneself. No sense of responsibility.

They are innocent, of course. For they cannot know what they cannot know.

Left turn.

I believe I write against the wind.

I often muse that most Filipino readers do not get my perspectives and satire. I won't call these expressions literary, but I will say they have hidden messages, or twists, or pokes, or good humored fun and games. And most Filipinos can't find them. That is because many of my lines are based on literature or famous events and sayings that are hidden from non-literary Filipinos.

When I write a book review, no one has an opposing view or even a complimentary one. Few "reads" are recorded for those articles compared to juicy subjects  like dissing the Anti-Pinoy blog site.

So I suppose there is a reason why there is (in my personal opinion) so little understanding of the fundamentals that underpin corruption and lack of productivity in the Philippines.

I can see so plainly how favoritism in the job market cuts off careers and opportunity, leaving workers only graft as a way to improve their standing. But no one in government sees this, or if they do, they are pleased with the way things are now.

I can see so vividly the empty heads being shuffled obediently through the school system absent the ability to think creatively, organize and execute masterfully under the drive of initiative and ambition. Obedience. Rote. Inward.  Not hope. Not aspiration. Not achievement. Not outward.

These are our children. This is the best we can dream for them? Zombie schools?

This is a nation that finds its heroes on the stage of entertainment, not in  research labs or on battlefields or the halls of justice. It is a nation that finds honor in cheating, not in discipline and responsibility. It is a nation that turns a blind eye to theft, or abets it, and chuckles at the tricks played on victims.

It is a nation that laughs at those hurt. The women fucked, impregnated and abandoned. The kids out of sight, out of mind, suffering without a father or a positive role model. It is a nation that twists its jokes on the innocent into righteous justification of Egos detached from humility or compassion. That finds some kind of macho camaraderie in the assertion of sexual dominance. That looks at having a mistress as a medal of valor. That cites kids as evidence of virility, then abandons them.

Not everyone mind you. There are the good, for sure. Lots of them.  But there are way, way too many Ego-bound dickheads, and a social fabric that shouts loudly "I don't care".

For myself, I walk hidden in my mind, a mask in front to face the untrustworthy, ill-thinking Filipino who wants only to bring people down so that he can seem to rise higher in comparison. Who wants to chalk up victory points by being rude or crude or dominant over others.

When life is mostly lies, mostly people lying to themselves and hurting others, it is best to pretend they don't exist. It is best to walk a steadier, more forthright, more honorable path. To keep it simple. To help those deserving of help. To marginalize the cheaters, the boastful, the users. To make them irrelevant.

They are irrelevant to the finer hopes and unified spirit of those who comprehend that we are only as good as the best principles of the community we build.

As individuals, we are pieces of shit. As a community we can be a big pile of shit or something more worthwhile . Something courageous and intelligent and honorable.  It's a choice.

Too many Filipinos choose poorly.

Monday, September 26, 2011

The Cock Fight Crowd

It is fiesta time here. My hillside barangay joins the celebration in proper fashion, arranging for baptisms at the small church, putting up banners and decorations, fattening up on feast day, and dedicating four days to cock fights, from 2 to 5 in the afternoon.

Sufficient time to kill a decent number of chickens.

Now the first time I observed this crowd, I saw it as a bunch of drunken macho malcontents with nothing better to do than waste their time and money watching chickens peck each other to death.

But since then then I have installed better glass in my cross-cultural window. I have come to appreciate the enjoyment attached to cock fights.

Oops . . . wrong photo gallery . . .
I saw people I respect there this year and it opened my eyes and brain. I saw the mason who built my home, the neighbor from whom we bought our land, the barangay captain, and the woman who has become my wife's best friend. And yesterday my wife was at the arena. She quickly lost her P150 betting allocation but she had fun doing it. And she had the nerve to tell some guy standing next to her to kindly put out his cigarette because SHE did not want to die young sucking in his smoke.

He put it out, laughing at her or with her. Which is not exactly clear.

That was a major clash of cultures, eh?

When cock-fights become official non-smoking establishments then all cultural norms will have been ripped from their foundations.

And I confess, too, that I like tuba. It flows more amply than water about the cock fight arena.

It is one of the few alcoholic beverages that, in concert with my ample blood pressure medications, do not give me headaches. I'm sure because it is coconut juice, not really liquor, eh? Besides, my father-in-law sells the stuff, and he is a good guy.

Furthermore, I like the drunken men's table under the mango tree where we can get away from the mindless natter of those ridiculous women. And talk about the ones we would like to, umm . . . date . . .

So I now appreciate cock fights. I don't attend them myself because too many people stare at me and the introverted, self-contained private Me rebels against that. But I concede that a cockfight is good fun.

Divorcees in action . . . how we humans are
not much different than chickens . . .
It was just a twist of heritage that gave the Philippines lots of chickens and not so many horses and steers and bulls for bull fighting and rodeo. And there are zero horse-race tracks hereabouts as near as I can tell. If Manila has one, the Inquirer doesn't report race results in the Sports section. Anyway, the horses I've seen are smaller than a lot of the pigs. And they probably couldn't outrun them, either.

So chickens it is.

Given my cultural enlightenment, perhaps next you'll find me parking in the middle of the National Highway when it is convenient, or letting my dog roam free to impregnate the rest of the dog world hereabouts, or tossing my trash out the window for someone else to pick up. I already find relief along the roadside now and then. It is really convenient.

It's a style, for sure . . . some aspects better, some worse than the sanitized and rule-bound western norms.

Footnote in history: Catalonia, Spain today held its last bullfight. Animal rights people won the achievement by characterizing the tradition as "barbaric". There is no truth to the rumor that they will now turn their attention to chickens.

Saturday, September 24, 2011

Is Barak Obama Delusional?

I enjoy the collective brainpower of blog-writers and those who offer comments to the posts. In the economic arena,  the writings of Doy Santos ("The Cusp") on Pro-Pinoy and J_ag always provide interesting perspectives.

J_ag offered up a comment the other day that made me laugh. It was something on the order of "Barak Obama is delusional . . ."

Now, I personally like President Obama. I also like J_ag's bluntspeak. And I even know what he is talking about half the time, and mostly he seems to make sense . . . but . . .

I think President Obama is the most diplomatic, classiest president the US has had in a long, long time. He is no cowboy shooting from the hip like George Bush. He has family values unlike Bill Clinton. He can give a speech, unlike George Bush, Senior. He is no crook, he doesn't stumble coming down airplane steps, he doesn't walk about with pen holder in his shirt pocket, and he doesn't sleep during Cabinet meetings. His accomplishments are remarkable: stopping a panicked meltdown of the global economy on the strength of his charisma and some bold decisions by his financial people, remodeling the health care system where so many presidents tried and failed, methodically extracting the US from Iraq and Afghanistan, killing the world's chief terrorist and many top-level Islamic murderers, rebuilding America's reputation internationally, and developing a successful new model of international policy, leading from behind the scenes, as was done in Libya.

Yet, at home in the US, citizens are seeing something entirely different. Indeed, if you look at President Obama through the eyes of a Tea Party reactionary, for example, he is obsessed about things that don't matter:  caring about the disenfranchised (the sick, the poor, the retired), for instance. Tea people are against his using "my tax money" to support those beggars.

If you look at President Obama through the eyes of an unemployed worker, he is an outrageous failure. He has not provided jobs.

Being a failure at making jobs appear clearly defines him as delusional.

The non-delusional view, of course,
Is that he was supposed to be the second coming of Jesus Christ,
Wine from water
Bread from heaven
Jobs from deficit reductions.

That is the non-delusional view. To hold that our leaders are miracle workers because they are supposed to LIVE UP TO OUR HOPES AND DREAMS and surpass man's limits.


Who's the real delusional party in that debate?

I do think President Obama has made a few key mistakes during his term. The biggest was to accept responsibility for the economy's collapse in late 2008. The meltdown occurred before he took over and it ripped trillions of dollars of wealth from consumers in collapsed home equity values and collapsed stock investment values. He should have left that albatross hanging around Republican necks while claiming responsibility for having saved the world from economic destruction.

He could ride that thoroughbred all the way to 2012.

But right now his donkey is bucking. And it is bucking because he claimed responsibility for correcting the economic collapse. That will take 10 years but he in effect promised he would correct it during his first term.

Big mistake.

If the Republicans could field a capable person as a candidate, they could take the White House.

But they field lunatics far beyond delusional. I look at the cast of characters and laugh. Just laugh. THIS is the cream of the Republican crop?

Two preening stuffed shirt religious nuts, a failed congressional leader, weird Ron Paul, a wild-eyed woman spouting platitudes, and a couple of people along for the ride. And please, please let Sarah Palin join the fray. She is the icing on the cake, the mayo on the hero, the froth on the cerbeza, the up of the chuck.

It is proving most entertaining, this Republican primary, like 30 red-haired clowns at the circus popping out at center ring from a blue and yellow Cooper-Mini. They do their somersaults and slapstick routine and pretend they are the real Jesus. But they are not. They are Brian, as in "The Life of Brian".

Sarah Palin within reach of the nuke button? Dull minded Perry in charge of international relations?

Give me a break.

I'll vote for delusional Barak Obama for another term. So will most Americans, I think, when they reflect on what it would be like under a knee jerk, dull witted, erratic president full of populist slogans and a lot of hot wind where reflection, candor and thoughtful action should instead reside.

Friday, September 23, 2011

Giant Crocodiles and Office Buildings

You have no doubt read of the giant saltwater crocodile captured in the Southern Philippines. Something like 26 feet long and thick, rather like Uncle Bob after 40 years of beer drinking, only with a belly several meters long.

That sucker is big, and mean, and suspected of dining on Filipinos.

Tourist Trap
Animal rights activists are outraged that the beast is being held in captivity where the shock of being under lock and key has suppressed the croc's desire to eat.

Tickets to see the monster go for 25 pesos and I would guess the locals are making a bit of money at the beast's expense.

The animal rights activists want the monster set free to roam the swamplands as one of God's precious creatures.

I had the pleasure of visiting Australia in 2004 and roamed for several days in Kakadu National Park, where aboriginal spirits inhabit the rocky hills and salt water crocodiles infest some of the streams where tourists occasionally dip a toe. My guide lived in the area, and I could tell he was nervous about getting too close to the muddy waters where the creatures lurked. The hair on the back of my neck would rise as we neared the places where the ravenous reptiles hid.

The thing is, I see few animal rights activists whose homes rest at the edge of the waters where monsters prowl. They opine from afar, instructing residents whose kids walk to school that the crocodile is more important than their kids are. I'm afraid I don't buy it. Now if the activists want to show up with a huge truck and several thousand dollars, I'd say "take the beast, but put it some place where people don't reside. YOU take responsibility for disposing of the beast and reimburse us for our economic loss."

Crocodile Trap
The world is changing, rapidly. It always has. New species come, old ones go. The great pine forests of America are a recent growth, animport that drove out the native trees. Sabre tooth cats used to prowl in the same neighborhood where I prowled, off Wilshire Boulevard at La Brea, Los Angeles, California, USA. The evidence is right there amongst the high rise office buildings and high-end automobiles that congest the West Side of LA:  bones pulled from the muck of the La Brea tar pits.

Let me assure you that the office buildings and cars are a vast improvement over gigantic, slobbering carnivorous cats with teeth a foot long.

I feel no sense of loss at the absence of these creatures. I feel a sense of awe at wondering what they would have been like. But they are history and I am not. Shit happens.

I also don't miss the typewriter that is now evolved into a keyboard.

Change happens.

Deal with it.

And if the locals want to turn that huge beast into shoes, or an amusement park with a ride no one will take, that is hunky dory by me. Go get the rest of the man-eaters out of there, too.

I have fonder feelings for little Jose who is on his way to school.

I'd also rather see an economy there than crocodiles.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

The Rocket Club

Back at the keyboard. I enjoyed the inputs left on-site during my brief absence. I'm pleased that free thinking and humor are alive and well amongst the richest Filipinos (speaking of inner being of course; the oligarchs are not known to reside within my readership).

1DC drew me back to my childhood with his reflections a while back on some of the more creative and less animal-kind ways he wielded fireworks. Ah, boy hood. The good old days. I remember the day my brother got a BB gun and went out and summarily shot 12 sparrows off the fence. I remember when he and I pumped about 200 BB's into a raccoon we had treed. 

Men are from a warlike Mars I guess. We love our weapons and our power to destroy.

Conquest is a fine driver. The best. It gives explorers the strength to go where none has gone before. It gives military commanders and the soldiers in the trench the steely, disciplined minds to face death in pursuit of victory. It gives scientists the motivation to find new secrets, to claim the power of a new discovery. To claim ownership of a new piece of life.

A kid with a firecracker is simply learning about power and control and going where he has not gone before. Into the realm of risk and destruction  and, yes . . . death. A kid with a BB gun is learning to aim.

I was once a member of a short-lived rocket club when I was 13 years old. It was a wholly manly undertaking.

The President of the club - Robert S - was one of those brainy kids, the dweebs that girls ignore because they can't pass a football. He wore baggy pants that were cinched too tight around his skinny waist, leaving about a foot of belt flapping off one side of his pants. His slide rule flopped off the other side. He work thick-rimmed glasses, of course.

The other members of the club were the two Rogers -Roger B and Roger M - my best friends. And me. Roger B was a cut-up who a few years later married young to a gorgeous girl and went off to work at a tire factory. Roger M was even more of a cut-up who went off to war in Viet Nam and earned his Purple Hearts by repeatedly getting blown out of his armored personnel carrier.

But way back then, we were just explorers. Explosives were the cutting edge of our explorations.

A rocket motor is nothing more than a controlled explosion.

The trick is how to control it.

We used solid fuel because we could make it in an electric fry pan in Robert's room in the back of his house. The ingredients were simple: (1) Potassium nitrate, which we could get with no trouble at the pet store because it was commonly used to tame a male horse's sexual urge (popularly called "salt peter"). (2) Sugar, which we could get at the supermarket. And (3) water, which we could get out of the faucet.

If we wanted the fuel to really stink, we'd add sulfur from a wayward chemistry set. Of course, then it was not rocket fuel, it was a stink bomb. But we couldn't tell our parents we were in a stink bomb club.

If we wanted a flashier burn, we'd add iron filings.

I think the mix was 60 parts potassium nitrate and 40 parts sugar, but it could have been the other way around. You dissolve the mix in water and then slowly, slowly over low heat cook the water off. That is the dangerous part, for if you cook it too hot, you burn the house down when it blows up on the stove.

When the mix gets good and gooey, you stuff it in your rocket motor, which is generally any strong, seamless pipe or tube with a tapered outlet. Look around. You can find them. Then you let it dry.

At least theoretically, that's what you do.

We never got to the engine stuffing point. One day we cooked up a big batch of fuel and let it dry overnight. We convened the club at Robert's place to test the potency of our new batch of fuel. Robert put a big ball of it on a fence post out back, stuck a fuse in it, and lit it. We ran and hid behind the rocks in back of his place, along the river bank.

The horror! The horror! The fuel blew up and shot about 20 burning wads of rocket fuel high into the sky, into the neighbors' yards and onto the roof of Robert's house, and onto us. I ran and fell into the river, bruising my knee and shoulder. Robert screamed, and ran to his house, grabbed a hose and started spraying down all the little fires, especially the one sizzling intensely on his house roof.

The cut-up Rogers died laughing.

The fuel was obviously more potent than we had anticipated.

Robert's parents forthwith dissolved our club and I had to sneak back into my own house with wet clothes and bruises, but exhilarated from the adventure of it all.

That, good reader, is how guys discover their natural born killer instincts.

I wonder when President Aquino will discover his killer instinct, get tough, and propose some dramatic, legislation that changes the foundation of the nation, the way it acts, the values it holds.

Like an equal employment opportunity bill that removes favoritism as the foundation of commerce and government, and as the behavior that underpins corruption, and supplants it with ambition and productivity.

. . .  and you were probably wondering as to the relevance of this post.

Thursday, September 15, 2011

A Pause

I will be taking time off to rest my smokin' keyboard. Back in October. Read a good book, eh?

Monday, September 12, 2011

Career Capital

One of the shortcomings of President Aquino's anti-corruption campaign is his administration's failure to recognize that corruption is not simply a function of a few good guys gone bad. It is more pervasive than that. Corruption is unlikely to be eliminated by loud pursuit of popular cases. When the entire nation believes that under-the-table payments represent a legitimate form of trade, waving Ms. or Mr. Arroyo's alleged misdeeds about will not do much to change things.

The Ombudsman can continue to pursue her thousands of cases slowly and with modest success, and the courts can continue to sit on a backlogged morass of 300,000 cases and fail to attach immediate punishment to misdeeds, and everything will stay the same.  Simply urging people not to cheat is likely to ring hollow in the ears of people who are paid a pittance and have no way to improve their stead.

Face it, the risks to a worker are so small that it is worth trading favors. It is worth supplementing a miserable government wage with P100 here and there. No one goes to jail. No one is fined. No one loses a job. P100 is a nice tip for a favor granted.

Well, not "no one", exactly. But most.

To end corruption the societal mechanisms that allow it to thrive need to be reconfigured. This is done by removing "favor" as a legitimate currency. It is also donebroadly by having normal people correct misdeeds, not the police or courts or Ombudsman.

The leadership minds in the legislature cannot seem to grasp the construct that the arena they play in, one of favors and appointments of friends, family and favorites to powerful jobs, is the bedrock of corruption. It sets the scene, a warped scene where honesty and what one can accomplish is less important than one's stock of favors granted and received. The clear delineation of right and wrong gets muddled up in the trade of favors.

I can imagine the blustering legislators, so many Chicken Littles running for cover, when confronted by the idea that they have to change in order to get their nation to change. It's just too much for them to grasp. "Others have to change; not me! I'll appoint my cousin to a good job if I want to."

The legislature could, for example, pass a law that bans hirings and promotions for any reason but capability and achievement. Call it an "Equal Employment Opportunity Act" perhaps.

What does that have to do with corruption, you ask?

Hiring for capability allows workers to set their sights on promotions and salary increases as a way to grow richer. It allows workers to build "career capital" with each promotion and each increase in responsibility.  It supplants quick and easy gain with the greater value of long term gain.  It allows workers to train up and to pursue larger responsibilities and new opportunities. It gives workers the right to dream, and to plan and work for a better life.

Give a worker an upward path based on opportunity and achievement and three things happen: (1) he works more productively, (2) his performance is evaluated by his boss, not the Ombudsman, and (3)he refuses bribes. The longer he works within the system, the greater is his "investment" and the less likely he is to trade his career away for a P100 "favor". It is this investment in the future that I refer to as "career capital". It is a form of wealth much more substantial than an under the table payment.

Indeed, President Aquino could mandate that his executive departments hire and promote only on the basis of capability today. Right now, with an executive order. Formal reviews. Career paths. Appointments from within. The corporate model. He needs no legislative authorization to do this. He just needs to set aside the culture of favors within which he has lived for so many years.

He should stop appointing his own friends and family to important positions and let competent people aspire to these positions based on what they have done on their own jobs. Staffers in the same departments should be promoted up if they have demonstrated their professionalism.

What is this peculiar blindness in the Philippines that prevents its leaders from seeing the underpinnings of corruption in the way that they, themselves, behave? That can't see the problem is an entire system that functions on favors, not a bunch of independent cases, not a bunch of individuals gone bad.

No, the entire system has gone bad.

The infrastructure that supports corruption needs to be done away with. The trade of favors needs to be replaced with a trade of honest and honorable values. Where "career capital" makes corruption unattractive.  Where opportunity for advancement is deemed more important than P100 under the table. Where bosses police ethical behavior rather than the Ombudsman. Where productivity is king and capability is God.

Saturday, September 10, 2011

Bugs and Other Philippine Wildlife

I grew up a mile high, just outside Denver, Colorado USA. It was cold in the winter, and bugs were limited to those which could survive freezing weather. Many can, the most troublesome of which to me were red fire ants, black widow spiders and tomato worms.

Fire ants are bigger than most ants that inhabit the Philippines, and nastier. When they bite it feels like . . . yes, fire . . . for several days. They are red and the biggest are maybe a centimeter long. They hide out underground during the winter then emerge in the spring from huge hills about a meter across, running all over the place to forage for food. They are carnivorous and eat about any living creature. If they detect a threat, they don't flee. They attack. Our revenge was to pour gasoline down their nests and fire it up. Or huge M-80 fire crackers, little sticks of dynamite. You couldn't kill many that way, but you could assure they would be hard of hearing for a few days.

Black widow spiders are deadly poisonous. They live through the winter by hiding out in dark, warm places, like the garage. It is wise to look carefully beneath anything you pick up. That big round body, shiny and black about the size of a pea, would scare the bejesus out of me. They define creepy, in color and ominous shape and reputation and the way they move, as if stalking, across the underside of things. My father got bit on the neck once and his head swelled to the size of a basketball. Black widows helped me develop one of my two main phobias. One is arachnophobia.  The other, claustrophobia, a tale for a different telling.

Tomato Worm
Tomato worms are not poisonous. They don't even bite. But they are huge and green and have a habit of roosting right where you can catch hold of them whilst reaching for a tomato. I suppose they survive the winter by being an egg or something. I dunno. But they have legs like a caterpillar, are about an inch thick and five inches long, and their insides are green, rather like guacamole, a ground up avocado. I know, because after jumping 18 feet into the air and shrieking like a howler monkey in heat, I would stomp on them, and what you get is what you get.

Now the Philippines has a much more robust population of bugs. And they are bigger. And more of them are poisonous.

There are so many ants that I have stopped trying to avoid them. They crawl all over me as I wander amongst the bamboo, where the larger black ones live, and I flick them off if they tickle or do their minor biting thing. There are spiders everywhere, big gray-brown long-legged ones. In the bathroom, on the screen, under rocks, in the bamboo. I've had them on my arms and legs and they are teaching me that they don't really like me either. So my arachnophobia is actually easing.

Let's see. Cockroaches you can ride. Centipedes that really ruin your day. Big hairy tarantula-like spiders and wee little hopping spiders. The hoppers seem to like my computer desk, and nibbling on my elbow. Huge worms that look like centipedes to me; but my wife says they are harmless.

Anything with 2,000 legs is NOT harmless.

Beetles large enough to form a rock band. Praying mantises; Catholics, I am sure. Caterpillars that can devour a huge plant in a day or two; I presume their poops have nutrients. All kinds of nameless, faceless things flying this way and that. A cute orange bug with black spots that looks like an overgrown lady bug on steroids. But it bites.

So it is no wonder the reptile population also thrives. With that much gourmet food on the wing and ground, the lizards grow fat and happy. The snakes, which dine on the lizards, also grow fat and happy.  The frogs are here one day and gone the next. I suppose also cuisine for the snakes. Every once in a while I will stumble across a huge frog, about a foot in length, brown, just like the ground I am walking on. Too big for a snake to eat. So I am developing frogophobia, because that is just not right, to be that invisible and that hideously huge and ugly.

But you can tell they are Philippine creatures, because they show up inside the house anytime, without invitation.

One frog was even trying on my shoe for size. I think he wanted to borrow it.


Have a jolly good day!

Coco Nuts

I caught an article that disturbed me the other day during my morning speed-read news briefing.

The gist of the article was that Philippine coconut farms are aging. Many trees are 50 years old so the trees are heading into decline. Little replanting has taken place. When the trees get old they produce as few as 10 coconuts a year, versus the more robust normal production of 50 to 75 coconuts per year.

The link to the article is HERE.

This is a matter of great concern because global demand for coconut products is expected to continue to build, and it is the nation's number one agricultural export. It provides a lot of jobs. The whole crop is vulnerable to aging. The industry is vulnerable to loss of jobs.

Government officials are perplexed that private farmers are not replanting. They aren't sure of the reason. The article points out that farmers have received government subsidies in the past, and you can draw your own conclusions from that.

I don't know what to make of it. It seems to me there are three possible circumstances in play here:

  1. Coconut farmers are not making any money and are simply milking their product for all they can get. They accept that their farms won't produce much income, so they don't care about production any more.
  2. The farmers are waiting for government money, refusing to plant anew until they get funding for it.
  3. The farmers are stupid.

Well, to me, if they engaged in (2), they are also stupid, for they are not taking care of their own livelihood. So the only non-stupid reason would seem to be they expect to fail anyhow, and are just living with the current plantings.

But even that makes no sense. The effort to replant is so small. All you do is take one coconut every 20 years and cram it in the ground to root and grow as a replacement tree. That is one coconut out of 1,000-to-1,500 dedicated to keeping the farm fresh.


They can cover the cost of the replanting by selling the old tree for wood.

"Holy crocodiledung, Batman."

I have argued in other blogs that the Philippines does not actually engage in agribusiness, but, as with transportation, promotes the farming industry as employment for the indigent. Free land given to non--expert farmers. No equipment. Small farms, none of which is large enough to gain efficiency from large-scale planting and harvesting.

The case of the aging coconut trees rather proves the point, eh?

Like buildings that are built with no maintenance budget, or like trucks purchased for a business with no regard for maintenance cost, coconut farms with no re-growth plan are setting themselves for a direct line to dilapidation. Like so much in the Philippines now. Second rate instead of world class. Worn out instead of fresh. Tired instead of modern.

And I have an opinion about that.

Man, let these farmers fail.

If they can't understand the concept of fresh, strong trees, or can't accept responsibility for re-planting without government handouts, just let them frickin' fail. Let them go broke. Let them starve, I don't care. Then  people with brains can buy the farms for a song and run them for profit.

I'm glad I have reformed and am no longer as outspoken as I used to be. Otherwise I would call them beggar farmers. Whining, excuse-ridden beggar farmers.

But I won't.

I will only say this makes no sense at all to the western mind. Why would you intentionally proceed down a sure path to failure? Why would you not be forever focused on how to maximize yields over the long term.

Friday, September 9, 2011

Taxes: Without Reason

President Aquino has been criticized for not setting forth a comprehensive vision for development of the Philippines. What seems to be happening is that his administration has numerous constructive initiatives underway, and from the haphazard collection of these achievements, a well-organized SONA can be articulated. That SONA reads as if all had been done under a brilliant master plan.

But no one has seen that plan.

To me, this smacks of the traditional lack of organization that is seen everywhere in the Philippines. Activities are reactive and transactional rather than proactive and strategic.

For example, Philippine tax policy is bizarrely erratic.

Tax policy is apparently made by royal decree rather than economic logic. It is driven by an extension of the royal thinking of kings that the peasants must pay taxes into the castle even if it drives the reign bankrupt. There are few value-based principles that say taxes should be levied where wealth is created, or that taxes should be higher for rich people and lower for poor people.

Taxes are levied simply because "I need money and have the power to grab it."

Many taxes are levied in the form of government fees. Customs duties. Court fees. School exam fees. They are not called taxes, but they have the same goal: get money from the public to pay for government services. And in many cases, it would seem they are little more than ways for individuals to skim extra money for themselves. I read about the blatant abuses from Customs agents, and see the charges assessed against my inbound shipments, and am just stunned at the disregard for value: P1,200 custom fee levied for sandals purchased for US equivalent of P1,200. And, just the other day, I paid P548 to Customs to receive tax documents from the US government via DHL international mail. Documents. Paper. Already printed. Zero resale value.

P548 is a day's wages for a paid staffer. It took Customs a day to open the package and inspect the documents?

These fee taxes destroy value rather than create it. It is like the royal robberies of old feudal days. But it is 2011, way past several enlightenment ages that evidently forgot to shine in the Philippines.

Customs duties suppress international trade. Court fees block access to the courts. School exam fees push the poorest students out of the educational system.

These are taxes that destroy value. They are royal taxes. Feudal taxes. Unenlightened taxes.

Indeed, the charter for Customs is to raise money, not promote robust, safe trade. It is one of the main sources of taxes for government operations, contributing something like 22% of all revenue.

Never mind that the Philippines, once the thriving heart of Asian Trade, maintains a shipping infrastructure that languishes as an old, broken-down collection of rusting ports that are used mainly for smuggling. Red tape and fees suffocate earnest effort that could build a vibrant trade economy.

Never mind that Philippine courts cannot be used as a corrective force against corruption because poor people cannot afford to file cases. So redress of harm is limited to those with money. And, to top it off, some judges are corrupt. People who are addressed as "your Honor" have none. People who swear an oath to take care of the public well-being instead take care of themselves.

Honor has a strange definition hereabouts.

And never mind that some children, wholly innocent of any misdeed or political leaning, are denied the opportunity to have their intellect nourished. They go to work at age 11 because their parents can't afford the exam fees or uniform costs to keep them in school.

I find interesting that, in the Philippines, there is a clear awareness of the importance of road infrastructure. Infrastructure is the foundation upon which commerce is built, and convenience and hypothetically safety for travelers. Missing is the follow through. Enforcement of traffic regulations is almost non-existent, so public safety is not what it might be.

Similarly, regarding taxation, it is recognized as important for funding this expense or that. But what is missing is the principle as to WHY taxes are levied. In the US, the principle is that if value is created, a portion should go to the public good. Thus, taxes are levied on income, property and sales. Government fees are generally small in relation to these value-based taxes. And the fees are properly scaled to value. The cost of auto registration is small in relation to the value of having a car.

In the Philippines, it seems that there is no concept of value-based taxation, or taxes that are small in relation to value.  Rather, taxes are levied because officials have the power to assess them.  And the levies become perverse.

  • Taxing the kids away from education.

  • Taxing people away from justice.

  • Taxing to undermine trade rather than promote it.

The solutions, of course, are to make education free, to make court access free, and to change the charter of Customs away from being a taxation agency and toward promoting the safety and global competitiveness of Philippine importers and exporters.

And to be disciplined in the assessment and collection of value-based taxes.

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

"The Cardinal of the Kremlin"

This is my favorite Tom Clancy novel for entertainment value. It was published in 1988.

Tom Clancy is not always the easiest writer to follow. For one thing, he is a military techie, so his novels are wrapped up in scheming strategy, strewing layer upon layer of complexity, that upside down soon becomes inside out. It takes some wading.

This one lacks such intense military strategizing, focusing instead on spywork. I find it simply fun to read. Clear. Crisp. A plot that is complex, but can be tracked. Indeed, not tracked. It takes over the pages, which somehow flip by faster than a hypersonic torpedo.

The story is set during the waning era of the Soviet Union, when those within the Soviet power hierarchy had their doubts as to the legitimacy of their history and heroes, and the integrity of their own institutions.

The Soviets and the Americans are trying to negotiate down the insane number of nuclear missiles in their respective arsenals. Mucking things up are initiatives by both countries to develop laser defensive weapons: satellite killers and missile killers. The Americans are spying on Soviets to figure out how the Russians can generate so much power with so little electricity. And Russians are crawling all over American soil to find out why the Americans can aim their lasers better.

The focal point of the American spy network in Russia is a former war hero who works high up in the Defense department. He has been passing the Americans secrets for 30 years. The reader gets inside his mind to understand how a man who is so intensely patriotic can work against the interests of his own country. He is the "Cardinal"

At this same time, the Russians are losing a war of attrition in Afghanistan and we find ourselves rooting for the same Afghan guerrilla fighters who operate today under the banner of "terrorists".

Perspective is where you find it, historically.

The story is 8/10 plot. It is 1/10 moralizing and 1/10 technology. The latter part of the book is fantastic as no fewer than four conflicts must get resolved: (1) the Soviet kidnapping of an American laser expert, (2) extracting the "Cardinal" from Russia, (3) an Afghan attack on the laser development complex in Southern Russia, and (4) extracting two women from Russia by submarine (I won't reveal their identities so that I won't spoil a fine surprise in the reading).

We meet the standard players in Clancy's Jack Ryan series: Jack Ryan, Admiral Greer, antagonist Bob Ritter, the Foleys, a husband and wife super-spy team who get burned in Russia; the strong silent special forces solo man Clark, submarine Captain Mancuso and even a return visit from "Red October" Captain Marko Ramius, who in my mind looks and acts a lot like Sean Connery. We discover a Russian hero in Colonel Bondarenko, who must defend the Soviet laser complex against another of our heroes, "The Archer", an Afghan Muslim who can sling a stinger missile with the aptitude of William Tell.

So if you are having one of those days when you are not doing anything, tell your friends to leave a message at the tone, and grab this book.

It's really great.

Monday, September 5, 2011

The Context of a Civilized Nation

One of the enlightenments of "crossing over" from one culture to another is awareness of the blindness culture imposes on its people. Outsiders have perspectives that insiders generally discount as irrelevant. There is a natural defensiveness, an insecurity, about outside views. I am not talking only about Filipinos here. This is as true for me defending being American. Or try telling the French about the deficiencies in their culture if you want to get slapped down good.

Because we are used to doing things the way we do them, we don't see any other way. And don't really WANT to see any other way. As much as we claim a superior brainpower over lesser animals, we prove daily how constrained our own thinking can be. And how fragile our sense of self can be, that we need to defend it so.

This sounds a little nebulous, I'm sure. Let me work on crystallizing it as much as I can.

First, let's start with the framework, our reason for being.

Now, it may be that our personal reason for being is to have fun, or it may be to accumulate wealth, or to achieve wide-ranging experiences, or enjoy the thrills of risk, or raise a robust family, or become more knowledgeable, or acquire power, or dedicate ourselves to our God. Maybe a mix of these.

Or maybe there is no real reason, and that is why we can concoct so many.  Each an artificial excuse for being here.

Our delusional brains give us the power to rationalize anything. It gives honorable US Republicans the ability to rationalize that a very capable president is a "destructive force" for America, and the head of the Federal Reserve commits treasonous acts; never mind that those acts saved the global economy from ruin. It gives an NPA gangster the ability to justify blackmailing people for their "own protection", or a Muslim fanatic to blow up 50 innocent people, mothers and babies among them; for God. It gives killers authorization to murder and rapists approval to abuse women. It gives the religious confidence that their God is the right one.

Rationalizations justify the insecure us, the ignorant us, the delusional us.

Perhaps . . . just maybe . . . there is absolutely  no reason for life. Perhaps we are no more than complex reeds, blowing in the wind. Here to occupy space and time, then gone.

For sure, we move from birth to death without pause. Like a plant. Relentlessly. Physically, we grow bigger and stronger and more aware, then we hit the prime of life and thrive in good health, then we start to decline. We grow smaller and weaker and, often, less aware. Then we become nothing. Or maybe a spiritual something, but we don't really know what that means. I tend to "worst case" it, and figure there is just a big black nothing at the end.

And along this path, we can only know what we know. What we experience and what we learn from reading and listening. We can't know what we don't know.

And what we don't know is a lot. Most likely, we don't know how to program a computer or splice a gene or compose a Shakespearian sonnet or play jazz on a saxophone. We don't know what the other gender feels during hormonal cycles, or what it is like being homosexual. We don't know what it is like to live in the International Space Station or in a cardboard box on 4th Street in Los Angeles. We don't know how to make a chocolate mousse or how to get a bill on the table in the Senate. We don't know the forces at play on the cables of the Golden Gate Bridge. We don't know what Lady Gaga had for breakfast or what Barak Obama does whilst sitting on the toilet. Does he hum or read or scratch? We don't know what Koreans eat or Mongolians wear. We don't know the definition of "panache".

We only know what we know; and it is virtually impossible to break out into a more expansive view of things. Our context defines who we are. We are molded. We are wax figures, really, or puppets that move within the confines of the context that surrounds us. Within the limits of what we know.

It is amazing, considering how little we know, how robust our personal arrogance is, how we delude ourselves into thinking we are all-knowing. I suppose our overbearing self-confidence exists to keep us from going insane, for if we were to become bluntly aware of all our shortcomings, we would shrivel up into an emotional fetal wad of helpless, hopelessness sobbing putty.

So we live our delusions:

  • That there is a reason for living.

  • That we are somehow whole and knowledgeable.

What is the purpose of nationhood?

I suggest it is a banding together of individuals within a geographical context to protect ourselves against the delusions of others, and of ourselves. It provides a very real reason for being, to band together to live safer, and live longer.

Let me repeat that. Banding together, as a nation, gives us a reason for being. And the reason for being is TO TAKE CARE OF THE COLLECTIVE, to take care of the nation. Survival of the fittest as a band of brothers.

What are laws?

They are rules of behavior that prevent us from harming one another. They force us to behave in a way that is "civilized". If we were whole, we wouldn't need laws. We would understand how wrong behavior hurts people. But we are not whole, and if we were left to our own devices, the human world would be quite animalistic. Survival of the ruthless.

Laws permit survival of the weak, and the fit.

Is the Philippines civilized?

Not very.

Laws are written and ignored. People do what they will, regardless of the harm caused others. They pollute their neighbor's space with smoke and sound and trash, drive without license or consideration of what "right of way" means, allow their dogs to kill motorcyclists and defecate where children play, steal money from the public coffers or any gullible foreigner, shoot journalists or suspected drug dealers or political opponents. It is the Wild, Wild East.

What will it take to become more civilized?

A context that prizes taking care of others. That understands a nation is built on what its people give, not on what they take.

Civilized behavior requires a better understanding of the importance of courtesy, and compassion, and honesty. And achievement.

Acts that represent a reason for being.

Right now, the Philippines is just a plant, blowing in the wind. It is not a strong nation, in my sense of things, because so few give to the collective. People take what they can. They do undisciplined, lazy things. They don't comprehend why laws that constrain are actually beneficial. They don't comprehend that discipline is the second highest form of civilized behavior, and caretaking of others is the highest.

The Philippines might just as well volunteer to join the great Chinese Empire, where civilization is on the rise.

US civilization, I regret to report, is on the decline, so there is nothing there but torment. America is a nation that thrives on deceits, on manipulative sound bites, on spin. It cannot take care of its own when it is so busy tearing down rather than building up.

There is a third option for the Philippines, too.

Climb all over that baby, Option 3. That is to shape up. To start actively caring about other Filipinos. With a sense of passion, a sense of urgency, a sense of direction.

From that, productive acts will emerge.

It is a high-value context, this caring for the collective. It is civilized.