Crossroads (Toward Philippine economic and social progress)
Philippine Star, 20 August 2014


At the last minute, I shelved my finished topic for today. I will discuss instead my new work: Cesar Virata: Life and Times through Four Decades of Philippine Economic History.

Published by the University of the Philippines Press, it will be launched in two stages, first, in Diliman, Quezon City, this week on Friday, the 22nd at the UP President’s Executive House, and, then in Makati, at the Yuchengco Museum, on Wednesday, the 27th.

The UP book launch will have as speakers Dr. Benito F. Legarda Jr. economic historian; Senator Edgardo Angara, former UP president; and regent Magdaleno Albarracin Jr., former dean of the College of Business Administration.

The Makati launch will have as speakers Victor Macalincag, former Finance undersecretary and national treasurer; Washington SyCip, senior business leader, and Alfonso Yuchengco, banker and former ambassador.

How it came to be. One of the least heralded of important national officials in our recent history, Cesar Virata is also one who has done so much for the country during his long years of service. His story had to be told, and I am glad that I have written it.

I worked in the councils of government on economic development issues with Cesar Virata for a period of more than 10 years. After I left government, I spent the next 13 years in Washington D.C. attending to international economic development issues at the World Bank.

Upon my retirement (at the end of 1997), I decided to be my own boss. Retirement highly empowered me with personal choice on what to do. With a steady pension to protect my living standard, I could devote more time to do my own bidding on what to do. I returned to my academic pursuits at the UP School of Economics.

My first task was to revise and update my textbook, Economics, which was published in 1983. I accomplished this task by 2003 with the publication of the revised text. This work helped me refocus elementary economic principles and their applications to the Philippine situation.

Next, I re-immersed myself in the economic discussions of Philippine development problems. This led to works on difficult issues like labor market policies, economic regulation, and constitutional restrictions that merely complicate the workings of the country’s capital and land markets. Readers of this column will appreciate how complicated it is to get economic reform ideas accepted as common wisdom.

Finally, I wanted also to review the last four decades of Philippine economic history – a momentous chapter in our story as a nation. I did not want a traditional approach in telling this history. To link the events to the life of one of the major participants of the period would be a more interesting approach.

Turbulent times: globally, nationally. The times were globally turbulent. Critical economic markets –energy, foreign currencies, and interest rates – were volatile. Such instabilities were transmitted to the local economy and forced their adverse consequences on production, consumption and trade – all on the Philippine work place. They instigated upheavals in policies and in doing things, thus leading toward painful and costly economic adjustments.

The politics of the times was dominated by President Ferdinand Marcos. The second most important personage of the time at least in terms of helping to steer the country’s forward motion, was Cesar Virata. He was close to the levers of reform changes in the economy and social order. In this role, he was assisted by a crew of colleagues.

Political times involved drastic changes as well. Martial law broke the gridlock of reform inaction with the abolition of Congress. Opportunities for economic reforms opened on a wide front. But as time went on, the concentration of political power would also require a test of leadership succession. The reversal of political fortunes would change after the EDSA revolution and thus political fortunes would change.

I hit upon the thought that if I could write the story of Cesar Virata, then I would be able to tell the story of the times much more effectively. I would get to see how that period contributed to the nation’s growth and prosperity. I would further be able to show how we got into some problems that we could have avoided more easily. In this way, perhaps, I would have succeeded in getting a fair deal on the story of the times.

When I asked him if I could write his biography, luckily, he said yes. And he cooperated in telling me his life story. Thus, began my multi-year project. It was my solitary, individual project. Incidentally, he did not pay me to write this biography nor did I secure institutional support to write it. (At least, not until it was almost finished.)

The note on “Biographic, Bibliographic and Other Sources” at the end of the book explains how I approached the writing. It is based in part on my knowledge of events and personalities. But it also depended heavily on individual, focused discussion of issues, events, and developments during the period with a lot of people, not only the subject. Of course, I cross-checked against data, readings, and interviews with a host of individuals, all of which are detailed in the notes and in the references.

Fat book, but several books. The result is a book that might seem too long. I was writing not only for those who want a book loaded with facts and history but also for those who want context and analysis. That is what makes a book useful in the end. And the facts, episodes, and topics were many.

If Cesar Virata had only fewer accomplishments however brilliant, the book would have been short, much shorter. If he had been a traditional secretary of finance as most secretaries have been, the book would indeed be shorter.

This was not the case. He was involved in a wide range of important economic reforms and institutional developments. Even in the traditional fields of finance, his contributions to reforms have been far-reaching. He participated heavily in the overall direction of economic and social reforms.

Yet he also got immersed in the political upheavals of the nation, yielding for him some rewards as well as unexpected consequences.