Business World, 24 April 2011

Jorge Luis Borges’s famous list from an apocryphal Chinese encyclopedia divides animals into the following: (a) those that belong to the Emperor; (b) embalmed ones; (c) those that are trained; (d) suckling pigs; (e) mermaids; (f) fabulous ones; (g) stray dogs; (h) those included in the present classification; (i) those that tremble as if they were mad; (j) innumerable ones; (k) those drawn with a very fine camelhair brush;  (l) others; (m) those that have just broken a flower vase; and (n) those that from a long way off look like flies.

This list is highly amusing. But also profoundly ingenious in that it manages to be completely useless. Foucault writes that it “shatters all the familiar landmarks of thought”. For it studiously violates the two important characteristics of an ideal list. The first is comprehensiveness: a list must include the entire universe of objects it purports to classify. Secondly, the categories of a list must not overlap. An object in a list must belong to one and only one category. In topological terms, the categories must be a “partition” of the space.

Filipinos, however, should find nothing strange in Borges’s list. They confront such lists all the time: lists that are not complete and lists whose classifications overlap.

The publication late last year of the “top taxpayers of the Philippines”, for example, was met by incredulity and derision because the list included none of the well-known captains of industry and finance. But wait, so the explanation went, that was because the list referred only to payers of the personal income tax and therefore excluded the taxes people paid on real estate, stock market gains, interest earned, etc., etc. Is there ever a chance that a really complete list of taxes people pay on their all their wealth and income might be compiled? (After all, the BIR commissioner herself revealed that the agency itself could in principle assemble records of such taxes withheld.) If not, then what was the use of publicising such a list to begin with? Wala lang. (Suckling pigs!)

But it’s not only the government that compiles silly lists. The private sector has for years been putting out separate telephone directories for different phone providers. This presumes PLDT subscribers are not interested in calling Bayantel subscribers, or vice versa. Or that a Bayantel customer will only ever want to patronise a business with another Bayantel phone. Must the public wait for PLDT to gobble up all other telcos before it enjoys a unified list of phone numbers? (Stray dogs!)

New institutional economics tells us what comprehensive and connected lists could do – lower information costs and create more efficient markets. Still government and the private sector put out many useless lists, while those that could actually do some good are either not compiled or not made public.

One useful list which actually exists, but which for some reason is kept secret, is the record of passing rates of graduates of both public and private universities in various board, bar, and licensure exams. Such statistics are obvious measures of educational quality that could guide school choice. Combine this with a list that shows the tuition and other fees per unit in each college, and the market itself would probably solve much of the problem of substandard colleges and diploma mills, a problem that has unnecessarily exercised the political will of CHED.

As another example, suppose we had an enumeration of students who graduated from college every year and suppose this could be matched with their subsequent places of work or addresses beyond graduation. (This would be helped along if students were assigned SSS or GSIS numbers even before they graduated.) Then a large market for student loans could open up, since the certainty of repayment, say through agreements for automatic salary-deductions would be better assured.

Another telecoms example. A comprehensive classified list of professionals and skilled workers and their respective contact numbers would obviously expand the markets for their services. But self-employed masons, plumbers, carpenters, and dance-instructors use mostly cell phones, and the fact that there are no cell-phone listings is a major hindrance to their offering their services to a wider market. If such listings existed, however, they could be made even more powerful when combined with a list of which skilled workers have had formal skills-training (e.g., merging this with lists from TESDA or various voc-tech institutes).

Merging lists could also lower transactions costs and improve mobility. Simply merging the ID number systems of the SSS and the GSIS would make it easier to change employment from the private sector to government and vice versa. Using that common number SSS-GSIS number to pay taxes would make the BIR’s tax identification number redundant.

A registry of existing owners of real property culled from official records would bolster confidence among homebuyers. A publicly accessible list of registered car owners would help the second-hand car market. In the same spirit, a list of employers who failed to promptly remit social-insurance deductions and taxes withheld would raise labour-market standards. Analogous effects can be expected if we had the lists of firms with labour-safety violations; bus and shipping firms with the worst accident records; blacklists of drivers with the most traffic violations. In much of this, the point is simply to allow the consumer, worker, or employer to make better-informed choices.

The Sumerians made lists even before they invented writing. Eight millennia after, it’s about time we learned to use them. National ID system, anyone?