(Remarks on the retirement of Prof. Benjamin E. Diokno)


In the early 1980s, there was a group of us among the younger faculty who bonded naturally, partly because of age and an absence of real responsibility (none of us held administrative posts), and partly because of the conceited express need to eat a better lunch than was served at the first-floor cafeteria. (This was before the faculty settled down to the regular Aling Ingga lunch and tradition was established.) Instead, we would always eat lunch at an outside venue: the normal choices would be between the PCED hostel’s cafeteria, the PCED’s faculty dining room, or then again the AIT’s cafeteria or sometimes the AIT buffet. If you wanted to get fancy or there was a real occasion, you would go out to a real restaurant, sometimes even those with notorious lunchtime fashion shows. The crowd might be bigger or smaller, but I do recall Ben Diokno was a mainstay of that group; the other regulars were Dante Canlas, Philip Medalla, Eli Remolona, Dondon Paderanga, and Ruping Alonzo. (Occasionally there might be Raul Fabella, and even Pepe Encarnacion.)

But Ben Diokno was a prime mover in all this, partly because he was always ready to put his Opel Manta—a kind of muscle car at the time—at the service of the lunch crowd. He was also one who was in search of the Olympic ideal in food: newer, tastier, and farther. I distinctly remember him suggesting that for lunch we should go to Sto. Tomas, Batangas in order to sample the bulalo that he swore would be worth the drive—and he swore that we would still be in time for a class at 2:30. (As an aside, I think these lofty epicurean ideals have left a legacy: it was evident in the former (late-lamented) Wine Club; our none-too-shabby cocktails after Friday Seminar; the traditional grand dinner after recognition day; and our fastidious care in catering events, which has also rubbed off on many of our colleagues and staff.)

The conversation at lunch would be a heady mix of everything you would expect young males in their prime might discuss: economic theory, politics, and young women—and not necessarily in that order. This was Ben during his carefree days at the School: he had the looks, the smarts, the physique—and the bravura of someone who knew he had the foregoing. There is a Tagalog phrase for this confidence: buo ang loob. The crush ng bayan label also fit him perfectly—with the minor complication that he was already married at the time. But even Dante Canlas—who was no slouch and was a contender for the title himself—would philosophise about the benefits and burdens of Ben Diokno’s “good bone structure”.

Looking back, however, I think this was a fitting preparation for many of us. The events of 1983-1986 would thrust many of us—but especially Ben Diokno—into the public domain, and I venture to say that that expanding and contracting circle of lunch conversations prepared us to think things through, to debate with one another, but to finally work on a consensus that would make sense of the difficult problems besetting the country at the time. This collaboration culminated in putting together the White Paper critique of the Marcos regime, as well as many other public statements that came from the School. Those were exercises in making many of us think on our feet and to stand on a public stage. For many of us, it was enough to have thought things out and written a well-considered opinion, and be gratified if change happened. But Ben—buo ang loob—always wanted to do a bit more, just like going to Sto. Tomas for bulalo and being back in time for class. At about the same time Winnie and Florian joined NEDA, Ben took on the job of Deputy Minister at the Ministry of the Budget under Bert Romulo during President Cory Aquino’s administration. (Knowing Bert’s many talents, you can probably guess who was really minding the ministry’s nuts and bolts.) He has probably served the longest stint in active government service—by which I mean the real work of administration—of any faculty member in School. This includes his return to finally head the budget department during the time of President Estrada, with Philip Medalla in NEDA. Together, the two of them represented the small voice of reason and sanity in that aborted administration. Ben, with his usual thoroughness, familiarised himself with the entire budget process, both technical and political. Today, few people in the country can understand the intricacies of the budget process from a micro- and a macro-perspective than Ben Diokno can. In the process, it must be mentioned, Ben always looked for creative but always legitimate ways to financially help the University and the School, especially through the PCED. I remember Pepe Encarnación verbally expressing this gratitude to Ben on many occasions (and not even in Ben’s presence).

The thing, of course, is that like many of our colleagues, despite his long stints in government, Ben Diokno always found his way back to the School. It’s just like a bulalo trip for lunch—he made it back in time for his 2:30 class.  (OK, maybe his grades were not always submitted in time—that’s like being 15 minutes late for class.)

Besides and on the basis of his stint in government, Ben has carved out for himself a sizeable and authoritative role as a prominent public economist—that means not only one who studies public economics, but a public economist intellectual. His public efforts outside government have been nothing short of amazing: he writes columns twice or thrice weekly, he grants interviews to media (that colourful painting by Blanco in the faculty lounge appears to be his favourite backdrop); he is a highly respected domestic and foreign consultant—all the while teaching grads and undergrads.

In terms of policy battles that we engaged in, two events to me are memorable: first was his advocacy—together with Raul Fabella, Philip Medalla, Dondon Paderanga, and myself—of a competitive peso exchange rate in the early to mid-1990s. That was prescient, and it was a battle we lost, and we had to pick up the pieces of the economy after the Asian Financial Crisis. Jeff Williamson and I argue in our paper that the combination of a strong peso and liberalisation was a major reason that industrialisation faltered in the post-EDSA period. At any rate, it was a noble fight that we lost.

A second memorable policy battle was that over the value-added tax and the efforts to reduce the deficit during the term of President Arroyo. This was one policy debate we won, and even the upgrade by Fitch cites the favourable fiscal trends as dating from that period.

A last significant policy battle is one Ben Diokno did on his own, his heading of the task force to audit oil firms to see whether there was overpricing. This is highly significant public scholarship, since it allayed, through credible means, the public apprehension that they were being gouged and pre-empted mounting political pressure to rollback the de-regulation of the oil industry, a move that would have been disastrous for the economy.

It is because of these events that Ben Diokno, for me is not merely a faculty colleague—he is an intellectual comrade-in-arms, together with Raul Fabella and Philip Medalla, with whom it was always a joy to work side by side. People will not always agree with what he says—and there are times I myself have not agreed—and his is a voice that will seem insistently contrarian. But it is a voice that will always be compelling and authoritative because, first, it is informed, and second, it is imbued with an obvious passion for the country’s welfare and society’s good.

For his services to the School, to the University, to the country, we must all be grateful to Ben Diokno.

Ben, it may have been a long run for bulalo, but we’re always glad to welcome you back.

February 2014