Business World, 11 September 2011

“Roadmap”, “blueprint”, “template”, “vision”, “strategy”, “long-term plan”. The clichés may vary but the complaint – sounded by a chorus of politicians, businessmen, columnists, even churchmen – amounts to the same thing: the administration is said to have failed to provide a detailed long-term economic plan for the country.

In response, the administration’s defenders sheepishly point to the government’s Philippine Development Plan (2011-2016), but even this has failed to satisfy. Yes, the critics say, but where is the Grand Vision? Where is the Detailed Blueprint? The Comprehensive Roadmap? The Industrial Strategy? (Note how these words must always properly begin with upper-case letters.)

What they presumably mean is something like Mahathir’s “2020” Vision, Ramos’s “Philippines 2000”, De Venecia’s “747”, Arroyo’s promise to attain “developed-country status by 2020” (huh?), or even better yet, Marcos’s “New Society”. Under Noynoy Aquino, however, it is as if the Hebrews, expecting Moses to descend Sinai bearing the Ten Commandments, had learned instead that all he had brought down were – COA audit reports!

But there may be reasons to be silently thankful that the administration has adopted this prosaic, small-steps approach to economic policy. The Filipinos’ experience with grand visions has, after all, been far from benign. The newfound nostalgia for the New Society overlooks the fact that Marcos’s “vision” led to disastrous failures of expensive industrial projects and Imeldific frivolities that together buried the country under a mountain of debt, all leading to a decade of lost growth and development. And those who pine for “Philippines 2000” conveniently forget that the unrealistically high growth rates projected at the time led to overcapacity in power plants under inflexible take-or-pay contracts. To this day those decisions continue to burden the economy with some of the most expensive power tariffs in Asia and are a major obstacle to industrialisation. As for the other “visions”, they hardly even need to be taken seriously – they were mostly fluff.

Apart from bitter experience, we should be wary of grand visions for at least three other reasons, the first pragmatic, the second somewhat wonkish, and the third a question of principle.

For pragmatic, consider first that the government is still struggling to rein in its debt and deficits, and there is precious little to spare to undertake ambitious industrial priorities. Unless backed by discretionary resources, however, much of “visioning” amounts to just cheap talk. No deep neuroscience is required to see that simply relieving acute mass poverty, extending the most basic services to a burgeoning population, and repairing the decrepit national infrastructure are tasks enough to pre-empt virtually all public funds that will be foreseeably available in the next decade. Indeed, to deviate significantly from such priorities would be almost criminal.

For wonkish, consider that the country is only just emerging from a past of distorted pricing and provisioning. Power rates are still out of kilter owing to costly past decisions; land values and rights are unsettled by agrarian reform and poor settlement planning; true logistics costs are skewed by shoddy infrastructure; and the regulatory structure is poisoned by corruption and judicial overreach. It is folly to think that anyone can glean the country’s true comparative advantage in such distorted circumstances, or that current cost structures can serve as any reliable guide to promising future activities. What valid “visioning” can occur in such conditions? There is nothing wrong with looking up to the stars at night, but it’s probably better to first hoist yourself out of the pit you fell into.

Finally consider principle. Last time I looked, the Philippines was still run primarily on private initiative and enterprise. So the mania and hunger of grown-up business leaders for a Grand Design From On High is somewhat dissonant. It conveys a false sense that government is somehow more omniscient and powerful than it really is (an impression that politicians will enjoy). But if one thinks back, government plans have always been a number of steps behind what private citizens and businesses do, and the government has been unable to foresee most of the new and promising sectors of the economy: massive overseas migration, cellular technology, internet broadband communications, business-process outsourcing, franchising – the list goes on. Not one of these was anticipated by government, say, even five years before they became important. (Indeed government statistics began reporting BPOs value-added only a few years ago.) Such activities were invariably based on private imagination and action. All the government did, at most, was to carve out the legal and regulatory environment that cleared the way for such initiatives, without having to specify their direction or force their pace.

It only remains to call attention to the deep mystery why – in an economy ostensibly run on private initiative – business people feel it is government’s job to lead them by the hand and show them the way. Certainly a different cry from the merchant plea to J.B. Colbert: Laissez-nous faire!  What could account for this?

Is it because we as a people were socialised in the tradition of the Great Leader ever since Quezon’s, nay, Aguinaldo’s caudillismo? (Which would also explain our nostalgia for Marcos.) Is it because our predominantly Catholic upbringing has taught us to look to authority, such as the Pope or the local fraile, to tell right from wrong? (Churchmen are really socialists at heart, anyway.) Is it because most of our leaders are lawyers, who feel the urge to prescribe and can only dimly appreciate the organic richness and uncertainty of economic development? Is it because big business in the Philippines has really only ever been about making sweetheart deals with government, so that a government strategy is good only if it enumerates what is up for grabs and favours one’s particular business? Or, more kindly, is it because corruption and misguided policies are so pervasive and entrenched that business needs a minimal reassurance that government will selectively refrain from being corrupt and possibly restore sanity to policy in some sectors? (But can such a commitment be credible?)

None of these reasons speaks well of the state of Filipino capitalism; all of them indict government and business alike. The fetish for a Grand Design speaks alternatively of a possible failure of imagination, failure of autonomy, of morality, of courage, or maybe all of these. At all events, the result is for civil society and business to want to create an idol (call it the Government Plan) and to ascribe to it the powers that they in fact already possess. The government should not accommodate them. It should instead give them the COA reports and warrants of arrest, in order to demonstrate that government is doing its job, which is to clear the way for business and the citizenry should do theirs.

In the event, the truth was never revealed to the Hebrews as long as they erected and worshipped golden calves. So I can only say, “Roadmap, schmoadmap! Blueprint, schmooprint!”