Distinguished officers of the UP, Colleagues at the School, Parents, Guardians, and Graduates:

I am honored to be invited to address your commencement program.

For the members of the graduating class, commencement represents an initiation to the next step in life. Often that step is to earn a living. That is the case except for those whose aim is to go for a special discipline which requires further formal study. For the parents, other family members and friends who have given their support and hopes to the graduates, this day belongs to them as well. It is an occasion of gladness and anticipation for all present – and of relief from financial and other burdens for some.

The next step is not a smooth path. Finding the right kind of job is not often one of easy choice. It might require a search, one of trial and error. There are traps, uncertainties, and perhaps disappointments. Probably for this reason, you asked me to provide a talk that is keyed to my own experience as an economist.

You asked me a lot about my own road toward being a practitioner in the subject, hoping to understand that there may be lessons to be learned from my experience.

Before I delve on this main topic, I want to congratulate all the graduates for their singular achievement. I also extend this congratulation to all proud and happy parents and guardians.

I also want to congratulate the winners of the G. P. Sicat Awards for the best undergraduate papers in Economics. You join 221 winners of this prize since the first time it was awarded in 1973. It is now 45 years since this award has been given. Thus the award is just a few years younger than the School as an institution in the University.

By 2017, twenty-seven single-authored papers have been recognized along with ninety-seven papers written by collaborating senior students. All in all, this meant 194 students receiving the writing prize.

During each recognition ceremony on graduation, a cash award is given for the outstanding undergraduate papers. As a faculty member, I had taught Economics 198, the research writing course. The course challenged the student to integrate the learning process from all the formal subjects taken while enrolled in the School. I encountered some outstanding research papers submitted in compliance with the course. To raise further the quality of output among students, what better vehicle would be than announce the best papers, supplemented by a a financial reward?

The awards had their origin when I suggested to the Dean of the School, Dr. Jose Encarnacion, that I was willing to fund a prize to incentivize the writing of the undergraduate paper. I was then already in the government as the director general of the NEDA (Minister of Economic Planning). I offered to provide the prize reward on a yearly basis from honoraria that I received which had augmented my salary. Later after I had left government, I wrote my Economics textbook which had a wide circulation then. I donated the royalty moneys received from the book to provide a more permanent fund. Gradually this fund grew to provide sufficient resources to finance the awards, even including a graduate scholarship per year to support needy scholars of the School.

After initially recognizing only papers by single authors, the faculty realized the value of papers written by students who formed a team of two to work on their papers. The faculty’s reasoning was that a teamwork of students could also produce good value and synergy in effort. Isn’t the preparation of reports in real life often a collaborative enterprise of dedicated workers? The faculty of the School had control over policies in guiding the use of the School’s prize for economic writing, which was the GPS award.

I know of no other student prize in UP with the sustained record of achievement over time, in which the graduating class and faculty participated enthusiastically. Part of its success is the way the faculty embraced the idea in supporting it and encouraging students to do their best.

Some of the winners of the prize have gone on to better times in their lives and professions. As examples, the second winner of the prize, Elizabeth King, who wrote on foreign direct investments in industry, eventually went to work at the World Bank where she spent a distinguished career. The winner of 1982, Nestor Espenilla, on how to address Manila’s traffic problems with fiscal instruments, is today the governor of the Central Bank. The varieties of topics written by the students were often indications of the fashions and problems of the times in the economics profession.

The letter that asked me to speak on this occasion suggested great curiosity about my career, focused on my personal experience as an economist who also served the School, an institution we both cherish. You therefore wanted me to elaborate on how my life in Economics evolved as a career, splashed a bit with the history of the institution that enabled your education and mine. Finally, you asked how I view the relevance of Economics to nation-building. From this experience, you think of finding some magical story or inspiration perhaps. I am happy to oblige.

Let me begin by saying there is no magic, fate or destiny in my case. There is hard work. There is trying effort to be relevant in one’s obligations to the institutions that we serve contractually. There is also rigorous and faithful application of one’s learning to serve in one’s chosen career. There is also luck – some kind of lucky break. But, believe me, it is more of the hard work supplemented by confident knowledge rather than happenstance and luck.

The first question asked in your guide was, what obstacles did you have to encounter on your way to your chosen career?

That is a loaded question for me. It brings up visions of how in the first place I ever got to be enrolled in the UP in 1953. I came from a public school (Manila’s public school, Arellano High) class section that was highly motivated to excel, for I graduated with honors along with a very bright set of classmates. In those days, that was enough for automatic admission into the UP, welcome even as entrance scholars, with free tuition. It was an occasion that made my parents very proud and happy to support me for my studies in the country’s premier institution of higher learning.

But more important, as I reminisce on this point, was the great question about inclusiveness in education and the opportunities to rise from poverty in our country. Ask any economist today, for instance Dr. Arsenio Balisacan, who had studied poverty in our country most extensively, or any of the many distinguished economics professors of the UP which include Drs. Raul Fabella and Emmanuel de Dios, what chance would parents of very limited education have to be able to send their children to enroll at the UP?

My father finished only the first year of high school and my mother not even the second year of primary grade. What chance did they have to get their children to study at UP? Of the eight siblings that I had, three of us finished a UP schooling, and the rest went and studied in other private universities.

The profile of my parents does not match that of UP graduates of today, nor even when I entered college in 1953. My remarkable father who died at age fifty (the year I arrived home back from my Ph.D. studies from the US) probably had a modicum of entrepreneurial talent to learn enough about economic and business survival. And my mother who died at age ninety-five a few years ago (in San Jose, California, the parent of ordinarily successful Filipino immigrants from my family’s female sibling branch) continued on and learned a lot from his efforts, despite a poorer business ability. But by the time I was in late high school, I had exceeded their formal knowledge. Imagine the advantage that students with well-educated parents have in teaching their children with the rudiments of speech and the pathways to more difficult subjects over those who could only rely on their own learning instincts because their parents could not be of assistance.

It is not difficult to understand then that my young years were therefore an experience of a different sort. The difficulties of the Japanese war of occupation in Manila where we migrated and lived added unimaginable hardships to our family. Before I entered high school, I had a kaleidoscopic experience of having once been a jack of all kinds of selling and services trades – as sidewalk vendor with my elder sister selling food, as cigarette vendor around movie houses now turned vaudeville-live performance theatres [the Paramount and State theatres along Rizal Avenue], as push-cart worker in the moving business [my young legs could not take up to the rigor and I had to quit after a few tries], as bootblack to GI soldiers soon after liberation [that earned me some quick bucks], as traveling vendor from door to door of tailor shops selling thimbles [a profitable endeavor with speedy diminishing returns as demand got saturated], and as seller of newspapers in moving jeeps and buses [along Doroteo Jose St. and Rizal Avenue, a frustrating, low income endeavor]. And when my father ventured into the production side of the garments business, I became a kind of teenage helper as messenger, bill collector, sometimes delivery boy.

Under these circumstances, it was easy to see that I grew up in a family where food was not in abundance and any feasting that I had experienced within the family happened only on the rarest of important occasions.

My undergraduate study at UP was lost in its directions. First, I enrolled in pre-medicine. Then I drifted into the social sciences, not that I was bad in the physical sciences. My bachelor’s degree was in foreign service, not even in economics. This course program was a good mix of politics, history, international relations, economics and modern languages. However, I tried to learn as much economics beyond those required in my course.

Some of you are destined for special study of the law, aspects of business, or other allied professions after this graduation. But most of you would want to look for a good job after your studies. For most, the ultimate formal education is the bachelor’s degree. But even beyond that, if you seek employment in any major enterprise – be it a large corporation, a bank, or a government agency or your own pursuit of your private business – your will find out that your current education however good is not adequate. Further learning – sponsored at work or just learning enough by doing – implies a continuous learning process. Also, if you are not to stagnate in your occupation, you will find out that you would need to continue learning, whether it is your company that sponsors it or it is your own innate desire to be better in your occupation. Sometimes, too, it is not only learning a craft being done better. It is simply to improve your capacity to communicate properly in your job or to learn how to become a good team worker. You have to learn not to be a jerk at work. You have to learn to be accepted as a useful and important contributor to the productivity of your team or company.

In my case, when I could not find a promising job after graduation, I simply decided to study some more. I felt that I could not lose from additional study, even if I had to labor at a low-paying job while doing so. Also, you have to seize the opportunities available at the moment, such as linking study objectives with one’s current work. I made full use of that in quickening my study pace by attuning my work to the requirements of my studies.

In five years of study and despite the confused lack of direction of my undergraduate years which was almost a comedic drama, I finished three degrees, including an MA in Economics. In doing so, I wiped out the delayed schooling that I had as a result of circumstances of relative poverty and the war. I finished my MA degree before I was 23 years old.

Finishing my MA in Economics was my big break. Dr. Amado Castro offered me a place in the faculty of the Department of Economics. That was a big opportunity for me. Not only did I enter the world of the possible in a young institution with big promises. It emboldened me to propose marriage to my girl friend, Loretta Makasiar, who herself was a highly motivated person. If I were to be given a chance for PhD study on a faculty development grant, I wanted to have her by my side if I studied abroad on a scholarship that included family. That became a fact, with the generosity of Rockefeller Foundation funds that supported my graduate study at MIT. [At a later stage, Loretta herself would get her PhD from MIT, supported through similar but separate routes via scholarship!]

Your invitation also asked me to share with you my experience as an economist. For the first seven years of my career after returning with my PhD I was fully with the School of Economics, participating in its development as faculty member.

From the very first time I joined the faculty, I made efforts to busy myself – in addition to the teaching and occasional administrative duties assigned to me – to the task of undertaking research that I thought was useful in helping to solve the country’s economic problems. As a result, I was immersed not only in my duties as professor but also in economic studies that addressed the nation’s problems. I sought research resources and was awarded support to undertake what I wanted to do. I helped in fostering economic seminars within the School. I also helped to bring up the level of teaching materials used in the elementary economics course taught to the ordinary undergraduate.

Those were very rapid years of personal growth for me. It was also a period when the UP School of Economics made its mark in the university as part of its constellation of important colleges. They were defining years when the School was born (1965) from its earlier institutions, the Department of Economics and the Institute of Economic Development and Research. In a growing institution, there is a large scope for personal growth if one participates actively, seriously and wholeheartedly. My own professional growth came along, immersed in the challenges of research, teaching and increasing relevance within the national community in which the School was thriving. I suppose personal temperament, an effort to be part of one’s team (that is, being a good colleague), and luck (through the networks that one gains professionally) are all important in professional growth. During this time, there were also opportunities for outside consulting, as when I became part of a major economic mission that the ADB sent to Thailand that led to its first loan to a member country. Such activities broadened my reach and relevance as well as the opportunities available to my career. I discovered during this time that if one worked hard enough contributing to the common effort, recognition would come. And such recognition comes from the objective outcomes that one encounters in life. I discovered that being in the UP faculty offered many opportunities for me. It might have been the accident that I was part of a growing unit of the university that was making big waves in serving the nation. Not only was there a vibrant community of professors supported by the inflows of foreign talent that helped to teach the young in the school. There was a steady influx of visiting economics professors and researchers who served in the School, thanks to programs supported by the Rockefeller and Ford Foundation. With these programs, we could also rely on broader contacts with the international development community. I also had a group of leaders who helped to distribute the burden of work among the UP resident professors and allowed them to flourish on their own efforts. Being a UP professor was a ticket to using one’s abilities not only to partake in the teaching load but also to being engaged with the world of economic development problems that the nation faced. This was made available to me through the research challenges that I had participated in, including the occasional involvement in analyzing the economic tensions that the nation faced through the opportunity to write on economic development issues in the country. Those types of involvements helped to play a role in parlaying our thoughts and judgments to the wider world through writings and through interactions with other public figures. Those challenges brought me closer to the discussion of important development issues facing the nation even while simply remaining in the faculty.

Others observe what you do, what you contribute, and what you might be capable of contributing. That is how you could be co-opted to work with other groups of problem solvers: your participation might be considered useful. That is also exactly how one grows in a career. It is not simply you alone, but the world in which you work that observes your overall contribution to the effort.

Thus, I discovered that the fate of the UP professor was far from simply being relegated to the groves of academe. If one worked hard enough then there is another world out there ready that could bring you toward a wider panorama of challenge and experience. By being immersed in the debate and thinking about important issues – including those national issues that the nation wants to solve – one’s ideas could get noticed if they carry any weight.

The culmination of my personal experience led to service in the government and after government, to an even broader frontier of work and geography, that of development economics at the global stage. At that point in my life I had before me many exciting directions that were open to me. I could have continued in my work at the university. I could have joined another development institution. I could have taken a foreign assignment. But my own fortune or opportunity was that at a stage of my life and under some interesting and unexpected commingling of events, I found myself given the opportunity of serving the country that was aligned to the preparations that I was always making professionally.

Back to the time when I was invited to join the government in 1970 to head the nation’s economic planning body. To accept it, I had to give up an appointment that would have led me to a different path, to join Yale University’s Economic Growth Center. I found myself in the government, at a level of work that I even did not expect to encounter then at my age. I found myself in high circles of government trying to help solve some of the country’s biggest economic problems at the time.

Let me cite a few examples about how I tried to link my work in the government with the opportunities that I could utilize to use economic talent available to me and the country. It meant going back in part to the economists and students being trained in our country and utilizing the School of Economics as a fulcrum to create leverage.

When I was new in the government, at the National Economic Council (the country’s cabinet office in charge of economic policy review and economic planning), I discovered that the chairman could undertake the appointment of personnel from a fund that could appoint many consultants. The fund was off-national-budget. It was a peso special budget from foreign aid support. I looked at how this was used before and found out a great incidence of what one could call useless consultants, who came to the government to collect their checks on payday and did little in-between, because there was no tracer of what they were doing nor what they had accomplished. (Have you heard of ghost employees in many government departments?)

I found immediate use for this fund. I hired many of the graduate students in economics of the young School of Economics, paid them decent and competitive wages for newly recruited talent from college in the private sector. The recruits were bright. They were raw but they were competent and they helped to backstop my work as cabinet official, as economic adviser, and as economic planner. They provided liaison and support to NEC’s main and much more experienced but older staff. They worked day-to-day, providing me support. As a result of this, I became more effective in my work.

This experience led me to more challenges in using personnel more effectively. The best of appointments to a job is when you are organizing a new institution. I have had opportunities to do this. In early 1973, I was appointed to become the founding director general of the National Economic and Development Authority. NEDA had been established to reorganize the government’s national economic planning machinery and I had the opportunity to appoint all the personnel who worked with me from that start. I had the opportunity to pick the best of the lot of both the PES and the NEC and all the consultants I had picked from the UP in that consultants’ group I talked about and integrated them into the plantilla. I retired all the NEC staff that I could not use. And yet I lacked for more competent people.

I asked for the use of additional budget to train the best recruits in government that I could get from the cream of the crop of graduate years in 1974-1976 – two consecutive years of trainees. I got the newly constituted personnel group at NEDA to harness the best graduates of those two school years – from UP of course, and from Ateneo, LaSalle, UST, and other schools – to apply for scholarships that would put them through a one-year grind in learning development economics under the watchful guidance and training of the UP School of Economics-Wisconsin Training Program in Development Economics. There were fifty such trainees, twenty-five for each year. They were paid them good fellowship support as scholars and were promised integration into the NEDA once they were finished with a one-year study program conditioned on good performance. These trainees provided the bulk of class of trainees in the UP program for those two years. They were mixed with other government officials who were chosen to study under that program by their offices and agencies.

The trainees were all integrated into the government, mainly in NEDA. This was probably one of the most effective quick recruitment programs in the government of that time. I don’t know if there ever existed a similar program ever since. The flexibility of martial law enabled us to make a highly selective program for talent and provided for the government, in the space of one year, a new cadre of government workers. That explained to some extent the effectiveness of staff support at NEDA during those early years as a source of government coordination of economic work. Later, these recruits would fill up the roster of some critical sector departments of the government: the Budget, Finance, Foreign Affairs, Agriculture, Public Works and other major agencies created during the time. Many of these recruits brought the level of expertise and leadership in the NEDA in the government for years.

Remember this. In real life, luck seldom visits you. “Luck is only a qualified possibility.” We know that the grand sweepstakes winners are so very, very few compared to the many who wager their money. The millions of small wagers gather the money that finances the winner’s pool.

In general, luck happens to those who have been self-selected, those who had prepared themselves to join the lot of people who exerted immense efforts to improve their work and performance. We can make gains only if we incur sacrifice in terms of effort. This is the pain-gain principle, the investment-output reward, the practice-practice principle in athletics and sports. “Sacrifice in terms of effort is the principle behind success in life, however qualified that success is.” To attain the maximum effort that you are capable of, you train yourself to develop the response mechanism that you can develop naturally as your capability level.
Let me demonstrate this in terms of those who won the writing prize in Economics during this recognition ceremony. A necessary condition of their win was that they belonged to the set of those who qualified to write their undergraduate papers as senior students in the School. Efforts to be able to graduate in the School of Economics was not luck but self-inflicted determination and work as students. Luck did not play much of a role in their winning as outstanding papers. It was the combination of learning the subject of their study and how to present it in literary (plus some scientific manner of) presentation that did the trick . Judgement of other people [the professors] also played in that selection, because they were those who had the ability to judge the quality of work being presented for approval.

Let me also demonstrate from my life way back in 1955-1956. As an undergraduate and because of my relatively good scholastic performance, I was chosen by traditional political groups in student council politics to run as part of their party ticket the UP Student Council. I was then a shy person, but the campaign for office changed me, and I became aggressive in campaigning in my own behalf as candidate. In 1955, the tribes of Father John Delaney’s UPSCA (UP Student Catholic Action group) swept the College of Liberal Arts (now the former College of Arts and Sciences, which are also split colleges today). Out of a slate of about 10 candidate representatives to the Student Council from my political group, only the pretty and popular UP Dramatic Club actress, Maureen Tiongco, won, and she was among the last of the winners. But I nearly won because I was next to her in votes for my group. In 1956, the same UPSCA sweep happened and our political group was victim again. But I survived that onslaught and I won, the only one from my group to win. That’s how I became a minor student politician in the UP Student Council in my senior year. But lo and behold, in that year, too, luck had it that President Ramon Magsaysay decided to send a group of student leaders to make a tour of countries in the East Asia region – a learning and student encounter mission of goodwill (all expenses paid for). From UP, four were sent. The student mission went to Japan, Taiwan, Hong Kong and countries that are today part of ASEAN – Indonesia, Thailand, Singapore and Malaysia, Cambodia and Vietnam.* (refer to Crossroads article, on this.) I was one of the four student delegates from UP chosen, the bulk of that group of around ten student leaders from the Philippines chosen from around six universities. This experience was my first direct foreign travel. In that piece of personal luck, I was able to experience first-hand impressions and personal contacts with the development problems of the countries in our immediate neighborhood.

You also asked me to talk about the relevance of Economics to our national affairs. You can judge from my talk how important the subject is, and for that reason, graduates of economics can understand better the big problems that our nation faces. You can be more conversant with the major decision problems we face as a nation if we are to succeed.

There are only a few major principles that you need to remember to guide you properly as you go about being a practitioner in Economics. If you apply them diligently and wisely, you would not go far off course. Let me simply list a few of them. As you go along, you may add more major principles.

One, supply and demand conditions in an economy thrive mainly when competition and competitive markets are allowed to exist. Be confident about the nation’s direction when competition and competitive markets are the basis of our policies. Be more afraid when such institutions are being trampled upon.

Two, trade is better than no trade. Trade is welfare enhancing in general to the participants. If some people want to restrict trade to enable something to get done, be wary that some interests are promoting their own welfare at the expense of the general public. So, be wary double-time.

Three, social and economic redistribution of the fruits of production works best under conditions of growth. When applied during times of crises, the situation could be a revolutionary situation that is quite dangerous for many. So, use your judgment to support improvements in economic policies when the conditions for growth are happening.

Fourth, a condition of promoting effort and competition is better than protection. This follows from the earlier principle and is redundant.

Fifth, reward for effort is the keystone of local (“micro”) and human behavior. Instill in our economic policies the importance of sacrifice and reward.

Finally, you wanted me to give some ideas about the nature of success within a profession.

Success is relative. To aim for the highest goal is often what we seek. Most of us will not achieve all of that. But we are successful nonetheless in some limited standard of success that we should personally be comfortable with. In my case, personally, I believe I have not achieved enough success in my work. Even then, I could ask myself, should one not be happy enough in his own lifetime? No one toward the end of life can say I have achieved all that I had wanted to achieve. There are prideful moments and outcomes. There are also doleful regrets for what we know we have missed or could have done better. In the final accounting, though, we might say at least that we have done our best in those moments when we were challenged or have avoided the worst possible outcomes.

But let me add one more final thought. Perhaps this is the formula for long life which many of us desire.

It is not only doing what is needed to be done in one’s professional work that we try to achieve success. We have to see to it that we work also to achieve a healthy body – our own physical body – to do our job right. Sometimes, poor health results due to negligence, not heredity or bad karma. Much depends on what you do to keep yourself healthy.

Remember that we are human beings and that our body needs care as well maintenance, like any machine. We might give it food, but prudence, balance and moderation are critical virtues in approaching one’s body. Then this gives you insight into the need to take care of your body and not abuse it. We have to have time to make it work out and improve its capacity for repair. Taking care of your health is prolonging one’s life, reducing the cost of doctors and medicine but enlarging that part of life which leads to its fuller enjoyment in good physical and hopefully mental including professional health.

That goes along with the enjoyment of the gifts of life. That mostly depends on what you do with yourself and your work, what you have cultivated during your lifetime to extend your personal abilities and to make life more enjoyable to live it well physically. So take up hobbies, sports, passions, and sound personal relationships with others while you have the time and youth.

Thank you.