Simple

The philosopher Father Roque Ferriols once spoke slightingly of the pedagogical value of debates. He wondered aloud (or so I remember; it happened a quarter of a century ago, in a classroom at the Loyola School of Theology) about requiring debaters to defend a position chosen by flipping a coin; how can this method help one find the truth, he asked.

Well, I don’t know about that, but I can think of one more limitation: debates, especially the kind conducted in writing, have the tendency to simplify, well, most everything: the issues, even the arguments.

Consider my latest attempt to engage Manolo in our cult-of-the-market/myth-of-the-state debate. I started out with many good intentions: I wanted to define terms even more tightly, talk about common ground, dispute certain assertions that were made based on a different reading of points I had raised, and so on and so forth. Instead, I ended up merely substantiating my original thesis, that Filipinos are in fact not yet market-oriented enough, with two examples.

Oh, well.

I’m including the post in its entirety here, because the WordPress format Inquirer Current uses seems to be asleep. It is well past midnight.

Oil and water

I’m glad Manolo brought up the example of the Oil Prize Stabilization Fund. With deregulation now in place, the consuming public (a phrase I hated on sight, when I was editing copy in an economics think tank, but which even I must admit has its uses) has learned to contend, or at least to accept, “market forces” at work. Yes, as Manolo pointed out, some subsidies are still part of the mix, but by and large it’s the market that now dictates pump prices in the Philippines.

But does this partial success —- and I think it must be considered a success, because the government no longer needs to run up an enormous bill merely to cushion the public from oil price fluctuations —- mean that the public no longer sees a role for the government in oil price setting?

Last Saturday, I saw the usual man-on-the-street interviews the TV networks run when presenting an economic story; in this instance, the story was about a new increase (an average of 50 centavos) in oil prices. The various people interviewed for their reaction had the usual things to say: a number of them, however, complained that there was no adequate advance notice. The increase took them by surprise, they said; they should have been warned in advance.

Their answer struck me (and this was hours before I wrote my first response to Manolo’s thesis in “Cult of the Market”): It seemed to me that, instead of market-savvy consumers, the “men” on the street the TV reporter spoke to were still government’s co-dependents, under the influence of what I have called, perhaps inappropriately, the “Myth of the State.”

Advance notice? For some reason, I cannot imagine that the various interviewees were referring to the oil companies; I seem to remember that the companies have on more than one occasion given several hours’ warning. What I heard them saying, and what I responded to when I saw the news report, was an indirect appeal to the government to sound the alarm, to advice the public, to, well, do something.

Of course, this was only one set of consumers, and their testimony amounts to nothing more than anecdotal evidence. But then, and correct me if I’m wrong, Manolo’s original thesis was based on anecdotal evidence too. My own thesis, that in fact Filipinos are still insufficiently market-oriented (CVJ has an excellent summary of our positions, as well as a provocative take on the issue; Jemy Gatdula has raised similarly compelling points) is itself based on anecdotal evidence.

What the news report (called an MOS, in producer-speak) seems to indicate, at least to me, is that the Filipino’s understanding of the market at work, even in a matter as practical, as regular, as oil price fluctuations, is still seen through government-issue glasses.

Some of the anecdotal evidence I have found intriguing, over the last several years, involve policy stands taken by leftist spokesmen. A quick search for something relatively recent led me back to Bayan Muna party-list Rep. Teddy Casino’s privilege speech last February on the P200 security fee levied by the Manila International Airport Authority.

I have no quarrel with his conclusions; some of his premises, however, strike me as either deliberately or subconsciously founded on the Myth of the (paternalistic) State.

The third paragraph of his speech begins:

It is primarily the government’s duty to provide modern facilities and accessible services for public use that include our country’s airports, both domestic and international.

Is it, in fact, primarily the government’s duty to do exactly that? I suppose that the universal right to travel imposes on the government some obligation to enable its citizens to practice the right. I also suppose that, given the state of business and tourism in our part of the world, the government is under some obligation to provide “modern facilities.” But is it in fact the government’s duty to do so? To put it another way, if for some reason or another the Arroyo administration failed in the last six years to construct a modern airport or improve an existing one, is it therefore derelict in its duties?

Casino also says:

This Representation holds the view that the MIAA is the government agency that should continue to shoulder the burden of financing the security needs of the airports, not the airplane riding public who already pay so many fees for the upkeep and development of the said State facilities.

While in practice this is something devoutly to be wished, in theory this view is unnecessarily constricting and somewhat dangerous. Does this mean that, say, a road user’s tax will never be a general policy in the country, because it imposes an additional burden on the motoring public?

I think this view leads to many problems; I also think it is quite representative of what many Filipinos actually think.

The government as Big Brother? More like Big Daddy.

PS1. The public’s growing dependence on the largesse of media (encouraged, unfortunately, by my colleagues in the biggest TV networks) is the exception that proves the rule: Those who need immediate medical attention but cannot afford it, those with complaints against neighbors or public officials, or those who simply want to be heard, run to ABS-CBN or GMA —- precisely because they’ve already tried asking for help from the government, or believe government help is a dead end. The media, then, as Big Momma.

PS2. CVJ and Jemy offer excellent arguments, pro or con. My response, in my next post.

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8 Comments

Filed under Spiral Notebook

8 responses to “Simple

  1. Very dangerous indeed, John.

    It perpetuates the states of learned helplessness on the one hand, and calculated opportunism on the other towards government, which, from experience, simply cannot be the end-all and be-all to our lives.

    Take public education, for example. It is supposed to be free, but 90% of what the national government allocates goes to salaries, the rest to physical infra, and a pittance to operating expenses of public schools.

    The ironic is, local politicians compete to become the “big daddy” during elections — offering scholarships left and right — only to disappear when it is all over.

  2. John, mlq3 and cvj my share is here. Thanks.

  3. Gej

    Interesting ideas.

    The term that comes to my mind, reading the different takes on the topic, is “a sense of entitlement”, this learned helplessness, as mentioned by Mr. Prilles, that believes that hope resides outside oneself, not within. Unfortunately, this attitude is encouraged by several sectors in society, specially the politicians – one motive obviously is to convince people that they are the necessary, and perhaps the only, solution. So please vote for them. The current campaign provides too many examples.

    When I remember how some media personailties would interview victims of some incident or calamity, and would exclaim that the governemnt should take care of this and anticipate that, then they too foster this attitude.

    Unfortunately, this sense of entitlement, this feeling that someone else owes you, and thus one must either wait and demand for what is due you,instead of moving on your own, can never lead to progress.

    Still I am encouraged to see the in the many inititatives that have sprung up (mostly private-led) a new attitude espoused, one of taking charge of one’s own life, not depending on government, both on the individual and community level. Some initiatives that come to mind are Gawad Kalinga and the Focolare Movement’s Bukas Palad. The current interest in entrepreneurship is perhaps another sign of this shift in attitude.

    Still, government, if it takes on its support role properly, can do much to spur development. An example that comes to mind is how the Ministry of Trade of Japan had guided their automotive industry eventually to its present state through a combination of proper policy-making and intervention.
    Our own CITEM can take credit for similar achievements though on a lesser scale than the Japanese.

    As an aside, I just hope, that less dependence on government would also be reflected in the tax system.

  4. tonyFL

    Gej… Gawad Kalinga is sending the message “… just wait… someone else will give you a house.”

  5. Gej

    I am hardly the person to talk about the programs of GK, nor obout the philosophy behind their approach.

    I am sure though that an approach that is aimed at uplifting the “poorest of the poor”,that really large sector that the GK and groups like Focolare’s Bukas Palad are reaching out to, certainly needs creativity and wisdom beyond the usual livelihood programs that have failed in the past.

    Their approach too, one that I would say has a richness not found in many other efforts, does not stop after building houses, but grows into many other innovative programs. Time wil tell how effective GK will be but personally, I am optimistic that the results will show that GK is much much more than a program to just donate houses to the poor.

  6. Hi John, Thanks for the provocative comment about the consuming public’s running to the networks for those basic services that the government fails to provide — justice, medicines, a willing ear, etc.

    While that does reflect government shortcomings, it also shows how the networks are responding to the market. A public dependence on the “largesse of media” means a bigger audience for those networks, and thus higher ratings and ad revenues. That’s just market forces in action.

    On the other hand, we can also say the mass market is dictating that nearly all the prime time hours be devoted to entertainment, and educational programming such as public affairs shows be relegated to late or marginal viewing times.

    However, nearly everyone with a college education seems to be telling us — through fora, email, and other forms of feedback — that these programming priorities are wrong and do a disservice to the public and the nation.

    Can we conclude then that this is an example of a market failure? That what the market is telling us to do is not in the best interest of the public? (I think if you did a survey, many drivers would say they would prefer not to wear seatbelts, but that’s not in their best interest)

    If this is the case, would this be an area where the state should consider policy intervention, like what they do in Europe where certain TV-viewing hours are reserved for discussions of public issues? Just a thought…

  7. As per TonyFL’s question.. it’s a good one, however I think it is a misconception.

    The GK Model is about empowerment, each person who owns the house works hard for it.. they help build their neighbors houses. It is about sweat equity and allows them to value what they have worked hard for.
    The poor do not have the option of simply waiting around for someone to give them a house.

    It also makes us, who are able to give so much more accountable to help others.

    I hope that the fruits of the work of GK will be great and many…. and truly it has done it’s part in changing many lives.

    If anyone reading is interested… Just go to a GK site and build with the poor. They speak for themselves. You’ve done your part in giving them back dignity.

    This blog is too intelligent for me, but awesome thoughts fellas. So many brilliant filipinos. We’ve got hope yet.

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