Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Culture of progress

The writer Nick Joaquin, more popularly known as Quijano de Manila, once wrote that Filipinos as a people have a heritage of smallness. To nitpick on small things is so prevalent in our tendency to spotlight shenanigans in government, the perceived or obvious inadequacies of our leaders and their plans and policies, or even to the short fuse of a Supreme Court justice in reacting to an innocent demotion of his pay-grade, or the sad state of physical disrepair of our beloved alma mater’s buildings and facilities.
Not that all these things are not the least important in themselves. But lamenting on them incrementally instead of focusing on the sum total of our displeasures and frustrations also limits our ability to frame a more rational and complete redemption from these little things.  

The Philippine Flag. Click link
to listen to Filipino poet Jess Santiago sing about the social and political realities
in the Philippines.

This heritage of smallness is almost akin to our inability to see the forest preferring to pay attention to individual trees. We could easily highlight, for instance, the problem of poor people squatting on private lands but fail to empathize with the bigger problem of unemployment or homelessness. We bring to light scandals like “sex-for-flight” offers by certain consular officials to female overseas foreign workers supposedly to get them out of harm’s way, but then resort to a knee-jerk solution of exterminating by unusual means those responsible for this wrongdoing. We understand the anger and condemnation, but what has happened to due process or is this how we dispense justice nowadays?
If we react to everything we find not in accord with our expectations, who can daresay when this is going to end? How do we manage our anger and our furies from events that seem to violate our sense of ground rules?
This is not to say that we shouldn’t react. That when it starts raining, we should be thankful for the cold spell instead of fretting about flooding. How we react to frustration is significantly determined by what we think of as normal. For example, we may be frustrated that it is raining but our familiarity with showers means we are unlikely to respond with anger. Our frustrations are essentially tempered by what we understand we can expect, by our existential experience of what it is normal to hope for.
We’re not merely into small things but as a people, Filipinos seem to gripe a lot. There’s nothing happening around us that ever escapes our loathing. We can see evil in almost everything, a positive trait if only it is used for a correct social investigation of the many problems that bedevil our nation as a whole.
Is this heritage of smallness and our infinite capacity to gripe a cultural barrier to our progress and development as a society?
Contrast that with the voluntary self-restraint by the Japanese when Fukushima was hit by a double disaster of earthquake and tsunami. In the wake of adverse circumstances beyond their control, the Japanese showed their natural predisposition to calmness and forbearance, which is called “gaman” in Japanese culture. The Japanese seldom complain about anything which ordinary people like most of us gripe about.
For the Japanese, the ability to “gaman” is a sign of maturity. They learn from childhood that it’s better to suffer in silence, to be able to bear discomfort. To most of us, on the other hand, that would be a great disincentive. If we simply keep quiet, nobody will notice our predicament. We make noise hoping someone will pay attention and do something about it.
Perhaps we will stop complaining and becoming incensed about everything that’s happening in our society—the rains and the flooding, the traffic congestion, the “sex-for-flights scheme,” public squatting, family political dynasties, the President and his men’s obsession with favourable opinion polls, or who the President is dating, etcetera—when we cease to be so hopeful. But this is not going to happen. Being cynical and optimistic at the same time goes hand in hand. It’s our yin and yang.
It is like the Stoic philosopher Seneca’s goddess Fortune inscribed on the back of many Roman coins. Fortune holds a cornucopia in one hand and the rudder in the other. The cornucopia symbolizes Fortune’s power to bestow favours, and the rudder, a symbol of her more sinister power to change destinies. Whether Fortune brings us luck or tribulation, Seneca in his Praemeditatio implores us to “reckon on everything, expect everything.”
Fatalistic as it sounds, it more or less describes who we are as a people. We tend to rely too much on the vagaries of fate. “Bahala na” as we would say in our vernacular. Or “Happen what may,” an attitude that tests the fates, that no matter how often we are besieged by natural calamities or political scandals and upheavals, as a people we will always survive and prevail.
Thus, whatever flaws there are in our culture, there are also countervailing forces that enable us to move on. Sometimes we belittle ourselves to the extent that we lose our faith in our natural capacities. We might not have gaman as the Japanese have, but we have the natural flexibility of the bamboo as frail as it is in enduring the winds and torrents of change.
The tendency to blame our culture as the drawback to our social progress is nothing new. Some economists even write off the relevance of culture at all. Others like Lawrence E. Harrison, author of Underdevelopment is a State of Mind, Who Prospers?, and co-editor, with Samuel Huntington, of Culture Matters: How Values Shape Human Progress, believes that culture is helpful in understanding economic development. In his survey of factors that identify the essential elements of cultures that promote high incomes and growth, Lawrence divides cultures into “progress-prone” and the “progress-resistant.” He explains this classification this way: “In progress-prone societies, for example, people assert ‘I can influence my destiny’. In progress-resistant societies ‘fatalism’ rules. Progress-prone societies have better economic performance.”
But is there really such a thing called “Universal Culture of Progress” as Lawrence would like to call it?
Lawrence's study suggests the existence of a universal culture of progress, the idea that there are the same economic behavior values, whatever their root, which create prosperity in widely different geographic/climate, political, institutional, and indeed cultural settings. He is so optimistic that he finds “no compelling reason why the “universal progress values” should be beyond the reach of any human society.
There are economists who are critical of Lawrence’s argument that culture influences the behaviors that in turn influence political, social, and economic performance. One of his detractors is James A. Robinson, Professor of Government at Harvard University, who argues on the contrary that it’s not culture that determines society’s development.
Responding to Lawrence with regard to why some ethnic or religious minorities do much better than majority populations in some multicultural countries, Robinson pointed out that Ghana’s Nkruma, for example, allowed ethnic minorities to prosper to counterbalance the threat of a wealthy class of Ghanian businessmen who might oppose his own political power. Nkrumah had no love of foreign capitalists but he preferred to encourage them rather than local entrepreneurs whom he wished to restrict. Thus, the Lebanese businessmen prospered and became successful not because Ghana had a “progress-prone culture, but because they received favours from politicians. Robinson also argued that this also true of Indian businessmen in Kenya under the presidency of Daniel Arap Moi and Chinese businessmen in Indonesia during the regime of President Suharto.
We could as well add to the list our very own successful Taipan business class. Chinese Filipino businessmen have done better than the majority of the Filipino population not simply because they are a skillful indigenous entrepreneurial class but because they have been cuddled by Filipino politicians. In turn, this Chinese mercantile class has always thrown its support to whoever controls political power.   
A Filipino community turns trash into cash. Photo by IPS Inter Press Service.
The extent of Chinese control of the Philippine local economy became the undercurrent that forced former President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo to abandon the NBN-ZTE project with Mainland China. It was not the reported widespread corruption that scuttled the proposed bilateral project but the opposition of the Makati Business Club, a powerful interest group in the Philippines, to the threat of growing investments from Mainland China. It was a severe lesson that reminded the Arroyo administration to go slow in opening up the economy to China’s foreign investment.
Whether it was a progress-prone culture that inspired the rise and prominence of the local Chinese business class or the same type of culture that hampered the influx of China’s foreign investments is not very clear. According to Lawrence, cultural factors may not provide the whole explanation, but surely they are relevant.
Alvin Rabushka in The New China argues that there is no adequate evidence to explain that culture plays a leading role in economic development. He writes that economic differences between countries cannot be explained by cultural differences but different economic institutions and public policies, such as whether these countries respect property rights, limit the scope for regulation, and practice free trade. According to Rabushka, “Economic freedom—not the cultural traditions of a people, or the geographic advantages of a country—leads to economic growth and development.”
The difficulty in Rabushka’s economic prescription is that it ignores inherent economic inequities that separate the haves from the have-nots and merely focuses on efficiency of economic institutions. A perfect regime of property rights, for instance, is only possible if ownership is universal and not based on who has access to ownership. Granting that poverty, too, is both a political and economic problem, its alleviation should be an open process and not to be trusted solely to the whims of the market and efficiency of economic institutions.
It depends on our economic planners to fully understand where cultural values and factors intersect with the objectives of progress, and not simply override long-established traditions for the sake of achieving development. Full employment, equalization of economic opportunities, and elimination of poverty are goals that cannot be achieved alone through the market mechanism or a purely private- or profit-oriented process.

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