• Boosting economy first requires change in attitudes

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    foto Ben KritzThis past Thursday I attended an event marking the formal approval by the Energy Regulatory Commission (ERC) of the implementation of Xen Energy System’s Kuryentxt Prepaid Electricity service for customers of the Boheco II and Batelec I electric cooperatives in Bohol and Batangas. Regular readers of this column will recognize the prepaid electric concept as a favorite subject, but for those who are unfamiliar with it, the Kuryentxt service is an easy way for customers to manage their electric bills on a “pay as you go” basis, and has been in place on a limited scale in a number of locations around the country. The event earlier this week was to announce the ERC’s final approval of the system; until now, the regulator’s approval has had a “provisional” status.

    The prepaid electric service, or specifically, Xen Energy’s Kuryentxt system (the scheme remains a distant wish for the long-suffering customers of the Manila Electric Co., the nation’s largest and most expensive distributor of electricity), is just one of several ambitious, positive growth developments that have been introduced in the past couple of years. While we criticize the Aquino administration and its agencies for badly managing the economy—or perhaps more accurately, not managing it at all—it would be a disservice to the public and to the innovative few not to acknowledge the real or potential advances that are being made, despite the unfavorable and in some ways hostile business regulatory environment that characterizes the Aquino term.

    Along with the implementation of prepaid electricity, other fairly large-scale projects that have the potential to have long-term positive effects far beyond their original scope include the electric E-Tricycle program of the Asian Development Bank and the Department of Energy; the Automated Guideway Transit system developed by the Department of Science and Technology and currently undergoing test operation on the University of the Philippines-Diliman, Quezon City campus; the Manila Goldcoast reclamation project; the proposed development of a new international airport off Cavite’s Sangley Point; and in less physically tangible but no less significant moves, the recent enactment of the Kasambahay Law, which will normalize employment for thousands of domestic helpers, and Republic Act 10574, which invites more foreign equity that may help to stabilize the Philippines’ sketchy rural banking sector and improve access to formal banking for low-income customers.

    None of these initiatives are perfect or without risks. None of them are a silver bullet for the Philippines’ extensive, chronic economic difficulties. And it is true that for every one of these ideas, there are probably a few dozen depressingly dysfunctional issues for which no solutions have been conceived yet. All of these initiatives, however, are steps in the right direction toward building a more sustainable economy and a better quality of life. But the impression one gets is that quite the opposite is true from the volume of dissent from the media, and especially from the chattering classes in social media like Twitter and Facebook.

    For all the Filipino claims to being one of the most cheerful and friendliest peoples on Earth, the Filipino personality has a discouragingly wide streak of mean-spirited selfishness to it. A certain architect who was rumored to have submitted designs for the Manila Goldcoast Project that were rejected becomes a leader of the “Save the Bay” protest “movement,” whose entire thesis is that the project will “spoil the view” of what is, by any objective assessment, a large open sewer. The proposed Sangley Point airport project is protested by one or more agitprop groups masquerading as social activists, because “26,000 fishing families” will be displaced—never mind that not one in 1,000 of those families are not squatters, and all are over-fishing a body of water from which the harvest is probably not actually safe for human consumption, thanks in large part to the pollution created by these persecuted families’ own “informal settlements.” The Kasambahay Law is decried because of the “hardship” it will impose on Filipino families, whose needs for comfort are apparently considered superior to the right of anyone else to be compensated equitably for their labor—never mind that in the more-developed societies the Philippines’ domestic employer class, whether they realize it or not, are trying to emulate, cooking one’s own meals and knowing one’s way around the washing machine and the vacuum cleaner is the norm, not the exception.

    As uncomplimentary as these attitudes are, they are probably not intentional; the matron expositing at length on her Facebook timeline about how “unfair” the Kasambahay Law is to her family most likely does not mean to treat her maids like second-class citizens, but comes across as though she does because that sort of selfishness is the only way most people can express their fear of change. The Philippines’ extreme degree of risk aversion is a very Asian component of its cultural makeup, and one of its least helpful. It leads people to, for example, settle for living in a filthy hovel at the water’s edge and struggle to subsist on what they can harvest from a polluted bay, because that at least is a familiar situation; telling those people that moving on from that place for the sake of allowing much greater progress could not possibly be a downgrade is futile, because the fear of change is so overwhelming.

    Making the effort to overcome the inertia of risk aversion is difficult, because it will almost always result in some kind of sacrifice—if nothing else, the peace of mind that comes from certainty, no matter how undesirable that certainty might actually be, will have to be surrendered. But in its place imagination can flourish, and imagination, oddly enough, improves objectivity: If one is able to think of “what might happen” if an action or an idea in the present is carried through into the future (instead of the default reaction, “that will never work”), one suddenly has a much better understanding of what is possible and what is not, and of where leaders are making good decisions and where they are not, and what is wrong or what is right about present circumstances. Changing things for the better means changing attitudes—not by becoming more positive or accepting of things, necessarily, but simply by being willing to reach beyond our comfort zones.

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