human capital

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Restoring a meritocratic society is the goal of the 99 movement in America. Establishing it for once in the Philippines should be our national ambition.

The Nobel winning economist, Gary Becker, whose work on human capital I deeply admire wrote a piece called Deserving and Undeserving Inequality in the blog which he shares with Richard Posner. In it he distinguishes between good inequality (deserved) and bad inequality (undeserved) saying

The great majority of people in different cultures do not object to someone who has made lots of money when they have superior abilities and talents, and they work hard at producing what are considered useful goods or services.

The meritocratic society with upward and downward social mobility would be in Becker’s view the most acceptable form. In this just society, the cream always rises to the top. He cites actors like Tom Hanks and Jennifer Anniston, entrepreneurs like Bill Gates and Steve Jobs, and skilled professionals like transplant surgeons who have grown rich by applying their exemplary talents and skills.

In contrast, Becker poses the problem society seems to have with hedge fund managers who make use of arbitrage (momentary bargains unnoticed by the market) to make huge sums of money. He lumps them together with speculators, Russian oligarchs and monopolists who enrich themselves through unfair, uncompetitive means (the latter two through government fiat).

Becker of course uses human capital theory as his framework for addressing this issue. Under its framework, individuals who acquire knowledge and skill through education and training (one cannot gain it any other way as it cannot be inherited or passed on) deservedly earn private returns in the form of higher incomes over the remainder of their working lives.

A meritocratic society should in Becker’s view reward the investments made by individuals in themselves and not rely on some other criteria. Elitism, the polar opposite of meritocracy rewards individuals for investing in other things (political patronage, social standing or being raised on the right side of the tracks, marrying into the right family, etc). It all sounds rational and justified, which is why Becker says “the great majority of people in different cultures” accept the legitimacy of a certain form of inequality (I have some reservations which I expressed here).

The Occupy Wall Street protests that have spread all around the world is comprised of a disparate set of individuals, but at its core, it is a protest against what is seen as an illegitimate form of social structure perpetuated by a weak central government unable to constrain the greed of corporate elites.

The breakdown of social cohesion has occurred because of what is perceived to be the breakdown of a meritocratic society where one rule seems to apply to the rich who are becoming a new aristocracy while another set of rules applies to the rest.

The teapartiers detest the privilege accorded to the global capitalists/Wall Street at the expense of local merchants and tradesmen/main street, while OWS expresses their distaste mathematically by stating they represent the 99% who play by the rules but have to bailout the 1% who don’t.

It is curious to see how the OWS protest that began in NY mutates as it travels to each city throughout the world deriving a local “strain” in each place. In the Philippines, which has witnessed a high level of social inequality, there has not been a similar groundswell of support outside the usual suspects of BAYAN MUNA and other groups who coalesce under anti-American imperialist banners.

The reason being I think that the broad sections of our society by and large aspire towards a meritocracy and see their lack of social mobility as either the result of divine providence or misfortune. The masses have not coalesced around a universal sense of rights and entitlements that has taken hold in the West perhaps because they still depend on ties of patronage from local elites.

The state has had a long history of either colluding with or acceeding to our elites. They have given concessions to the “peasantry” whenever popular movements have challenged their ascendancy but withdrawn them when the threats have passed. Charismatic populist leaders like Ramon Magsaysay and Joseph Estrada sought to appease them, not undertake reforms aimed at genuine social restructuring.

The only time when the state sought to weaken the landed elite by expropriating their assets was under Martial Law. Even then there were limits to what it could do as it sought to make its authority legally and constitutionally binding in the eyes of the world. The problem was that once it had weakened any challenge to its authority, nothing prevented the regime from plundering as well.

The lack of accountability under Martial Law made the state susceptible to a new form of super-sized impunity. This was not inevitable though as in the case of East Asia with their benevolent dictators. Had Mr Marcos fostered a new meritocracy in both the bureaucracy and the wider economy, things might have been different.

His wife Imelda widely reviled for her pompous display of wealth had actually promoted a meritocracy in the arts. Through her sponsorship of young scholars and aspiring artists through competitions and venues for the demonstration of their capabilities, she enabled a flowering of talent that was not based on birth or privilege. This is the one legacy for which she can be rightly credited.

If only the same thing had happened in the technology sector where innovation and risk-taking could have been encouraged, instead of the crony capitalism that created a new elite not based on productive but predatory activity, the Marcos years might have come out smelling a bit better.

Contemporaneous with the Marcos era, during the 1970s and 1980s, Brazil and India embarked on a policy of giving birth to technology firms. The state agencies that were engaged in this “midwifery” role were not perfect, but as discussed by Peter Evans in his book Embedded Autonomy, despite their imperfections, at the end of the 1980s they still had something to show for it.

After seeing efforts at producing local operating systems and PC clones flounder, Brazil’s IT sector survived by specializing in financial automation for their banking sector (emblematic of this were companies like Itautec of the Itau Banking group). In India, state investments in skills produced manpower to work in systems integration services combining hardware and software engineering which became their strength. Today some of these Indian firms have successfully expanded their operations overseas (Mahindra Satyam and Tata Consulting Services are prime examples).

Korea which was most successful in fostering growth of this sector focused on the assembly of computers, consumer electronics and semiconductors through concessionary loans and state sponsored and financed research and development. In 1989 Samsung and IBM signed a co-licensing deal allowing them to tap into each other’s portfolio of patents. Today IBM no longer makes PCs, but Samsung is challenging Apple for the handheld tablet market.

Brazil of course was under a military dictatorship during this period. India was except for a brief period in the 70s a rambunctuous democracy like the Philippines is now. Korea was still being ruled by an autocratic president. In other words, the type of political system did not prevent the sorts of policies needed for promoting a meritocracy from emerging in productive sectors.

This was Pres Marcos’s greatest moral failing: neglecting the national development project and engaging in pure predatory behavior. The “Freedom Constitution” that followed his fall sought to put a system of checks and balances in place to restrain the executive has unfortunately not produced a meritocracy either. It simply revived the old aristocracy to power which has picked up where it left off prior to Martial Law by engaging in booty capitalism.

The weakness of the judicial system has served to deny a system of justice to the dispossessed and the poor. So unlike the Occupy Wall Street protesters who camp outside the headquarters of the global elite, our own version of the downtrodden live in slums outside the gated communities of local elites. They are forced to work in the informal sector without legal entitlements such as social security, healthcare or retirement funds, for the most part having acquired very little in the form of human capital.

The present dispensation is beset with many challenges all around which include fostering good governance and promoting economic growth. These projects will take time to bear fruit. While it is seeking to free the poor from local patron-client relationships through social insurance programs, it eventually needs to buckle down to the difficult task of generating employment through industrial promotion strategies and policies.

Having fostered the emergence of the electronics and business process outsourcing industries in the interim, the government faces the more difficult task of expanding the scope of these industries in the international division of labor (what Evans terms the role of “husbandry”) into more value added activities.

It would be good if aside from producing the domestic equivalents of Tom Hanks and Jennifer Anniston (a legacy of our showbiz, pop mentality from the Imeldific years) we could also foster the development of our own Bill Gates or Steve Jobs (the burgeoning industries out of Silicon Valley of course received tremendous government support through the defense industry).

Globalization was meant to usher in a kind of meritocracy among nations in the division of labor. What the experience of emerging countries has shown is that to rise to the top, state involvement in the development of industries is necessary. The ultimate goal should not be to one day attract a greater share of foreign companies to our shores; the national ambition should be to one day join our brothers in emerging markets in buying out foreign companies within their own shores.

Perhaps it is this vision that should occupy our hearts and minds as we look to the future.

Reciprocity: It Should Cut Both Ways

Should we liberalize professional occupations in the country?

I always have to remind freshly arriving compatriots in Australia complaining about certain “discriminating” policies on skills migration of how discriminating the rules are back home in the Philippines.

For instance, if a doctor from the Philippines wishes to practice medicine in Australia, he or she first needs to spend a few years “paying his or her dues” working under the tutelage of a sponsoring hospital and cannot seek employment elsewhere after this period before undergoing certain theoretical and practical tests. Something similar happens for nurses.

These so-called barriers to entry prevent more skilled professionals from coming to countries like Australia. We can call them discriminatory, but consider the rules in the Philippines, where there is an absolute ban on foreign nationals from practicing their profession.

When I gained permanent residency in Australia, I was eligible to work in a state government department although I was not yet a citizen. When I became an Australian citizen, I became eligible to work for the Federal government even though I had maintained my Philippine citizenship. Yet, if I try to work in government in the Philippines, I will first have to renounce my Australian citizenship (which is probably why I have chosen to blog about Philippine affairs instead of actually working in it).

These prohibitions were conceived of by our politicians as a way of protecting and preserving the domestic labour pool from foreign competition because of the large oversupply of skills that existed and still persists today.

Yet these very restrictions might actually prevent many of our countrymen from accessing jobs from abroad being outsourced to the Philippines. When it was written, our present constitution did not take into account the world we would be living in today where technology has allowed business functions such as accounting and law to be practiced across national borders.

The international standards governing these professions make it possible for a lawyer in Delhi to advise clients in New York or for finance professionals in Singapore to do the same. Education and certification of these professionals can also take place across national boundaries now. Ironically, the things that prevent us from signing on to international trade deals to capture a greater chunk of this growing market are the very laws that sought to maximize employment opportunities for our people.

At a time when the pool of college educated unemployed workers is swelling and where the imbalance between graduates supplied by our educational system and the demand for them domestically is rising, our current stock of leaders need to look at re-designing the institutions incorporated in our Constitution. We need as a nation to examine whether they make us well-suited and adapted to the new global environment that we are living in or in fact impede us from excelling.

At the time the nationalist provisions in our Constitution were framed, there was a deep-seated conviction that only an absolute ban would prevent Congress from eroding over time the principles enshrined in it. What we have to realize today is that the very fulfillment of those principles requires us to move away from an absolute ban and towards a regulatory framework that manages the transnational flows of services from human assets just as we have institutions to handle the flow of earnings from financial and intellectual assets.

The very source of our national competitiveness, our human capital, which props up our foreign reserves and domestic economy could become restrained in the future in its ability to compete for thousands of jobs that could be created in the Philippines unless we find a way around such arcane provisions in our legal system.

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