Marcos dictatorship

[ANALYSIS] Undoing ‘false nostalgia’ about the Marcos years

JC Punongbayan

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[ANALYSIS] Undoing ‘false nostalgia’ about the Marcos years
Lies cannot live on forever. But we cannot rest on that fact. We have our work cut out for us.

Today, February 24, the Ateneo de Manila University Press is publishing my first book, False Nostalgia: The Marcos ‘Golden Age’ Myths and How to Debunk Them.

This is the culmination of nearly 7 years’ worth of research on Martial Law economics, starting with my Rappler article back in March 2016, titled “Marcos years marked ‘golden age’ of PH economy? Look at the data.”

Admittedly, it was only then, when I was already doing my PhD, that I paid close attention to the state of the Philippine economy in the 1970s and 1980s. Before that, I had little inkling for economic history, believe it or not.

But I was deeply struck by the huge disconnect between hard facts about the decline of the Philippine economy during Martial Law and the conventional wisdom – or delusion – surrounding it. For instance, in 2016, some people were saying that the Philippines was the “leader of Asia” during Martial Law, that it was “a time when our economy was booming,” and when “life was easier.”

For the longest time, I had a vague notion that the economy was in the doldrums during Martial Law, but when I began poring over the datasets and studies, I didn’t realize how especially injurious that episode of economic history was. 

For instance, we experienced the country’s highest annual inflation rate of 50% in 1984, and a huge debt crisis that resulted in the accumulation of $25 billion throughout the Marcos years from 1965-1985. This snowballed into the country’s worst postwar recession or economic downturn. In 1984 and 1985, the economy shrank by a total of 14%. That’s still larger than the decline owing to the COVID-19 pandemic, which clocked in at less than 10%.

The labor market, too, was in such a dire state that so many Filipinos chose to leave the country to find greener pastures, leaving behind their children and spurring the so-called “OFW phenomenon.” At the same time, poverty spiked from around 50% to 60% in just a few years (now poverty incidence is just about 20% – still high, but a massive improvement from Marcosian times).

Just about every indicator you can think of mirrored the economy’s massive deterioration going into the 1980s. The Marcos years were definitely and objectively not the country’s “golden age.” That much is incontrovertible. But that only makes the spread of the “golden age myths” in the 2010s and 2020s – accelerated by social media algorithms – all the more frustrating. 

Types of myths

From the time Bongbong Marcos ran for vice president in 2016 up to his 2022 presidential bid, we would be inundated with claims of varying levels of inaccuracy and frankly craziness: from the idea that we were the richest country in Asia during Martial Law (false), to claims that no public funds were spent for Imelda’s hospitals (false), to declarations that Marcos Sr. invented Nutribun (false), to assertions that we had the highest literacy rate in Asia (false) – and that nobody was poor (false).

In general, if you listen only to the loyalists and read their posts on social media, you’d easily think that Martial Law was nothing short of a carefree utopia. 

Equally interesting is the body of “golden age” myths claiming that when the Marcoses “left” Malacañang, things deteriorated. Posts on social media would say that Filipinos’ purchasing power fell after EDSA and not before (false), unemployment skyrocketed to 66% because of EDSA (false), the economy tanked after the Marcoses fled (false), and Marcos added just a billion US dollars to the national debt (false). 

All these, of course, are petty efforts to tarnish the legacy of democratization brought about by the EDSA People Power Revolution 37 years ago.

One more interesting category of “golden age” myths try to explain away the purported riches of the Marcoses themselves – what you might call gold-related golden age myths. 

Depending on your source, you might hear that the Marcoses got their riches from hard work and not at all from large-scale corruption (false), that the Marcoses actually fought the oligarchy (false), that they own tons of gold from either Yamashita or Tallano (false), or that they own one quadrillion tons of gold (very false).

Attacking the myths

False Nostalgia is structured from beginning to end around these various myths. Every chapter begins with a series of claims seen on social media about a certain aspect of the Marcos Sr. economy (agriculture, infrastructure, poverty, hunger, corruption, cronyism, etc.), which I quickly debunk at the outset, before diving deep in the general issue. 

I also used the “golden age” myths – even the silliest ones – as springboards to deep dive into certain topics of Martial Law economics. For instance, I use the erroneous claim that Marcos founded IRRI (the International Rice Research Institute), or that Marcos introduced tilapia to the Philippines, to discuss the supposed “golden age” of agriculture. 

All the discussions are thoroughly backed up by a plethora of data sources and past studies that I’ve amassed over the years. I hope students and researchers will find the references an invaluable resource. In the appendix, I also added a table neatly summarizing the Marcos Sr. economy in numbers, as a sort of quick reference. 

But even more than debunking the myths with facts, I try in my book to envelope the statistics in stories and narratives. Study after study has shown that throwing data at people makes them hold on to their preconceived notions and beliefs even more. Stories, on the other hand, make the data a lot more palatable or digestible. 

I also used accessible language as much as possible, pruning the jargon but still peppering the book with graphs to the extent that I think they complement the stories and narratives I tried to weave. For instance, it’s one thing to show statistics about hunger during Martial Law, but another to see the emaciated figure of children victimized by the Negros Island famine in the mid-1980s.

Beyond the books

Amid the plethora of lies, academics and experts are thankfully if belatedly pushing back. 

A myriad anthologies, authored by various scholars, has been published by academic presses of late. Days before False Nostalgia’s launch, for instance, martial law books were being launched on an almost daily basis! I’m just one among many to join the fray.

While writing the book has been immensely gratifying if not cathartic for me, I realize that it’s just a springboard for more and deeper conversations about a proper reckoning of the Marcos dictatorship’s economic record. And certainly, I’m not delusional enough to think that the book, by itself or alongside many others recently published, can combat Marcosian disinformation on a sufficiently large scale.

For that to happen, I think two broken things need to be fixed.

First, the social media platforms – and more generally the online information ecosystem – by which disinformation spreads needs to be fixed. Unless major reforms are implemented in Facebook, YouTube, and TikTok’s algorithms, we’ll forever be trapped in silos and echo chambers, pulling us further apart, not together. In one extreme this can cause countries to descend to illiberal democracy or downright authoritarianism, and the Philippines in this regard is proving to be a global petri dish. This and related issues have been raised by many people, including Nobel Peace Prize Laureate and Rappler CEO Maria Ressa, in various opportunities. 

Second, the way we teach history to kids also needs fixing. Philippine history was removed in high school in the wake of the K-12 basic education reform, but now more and more history teachers and historians are clamoring for its return. For most kids, they encounter Philippine history in elementary, and don’t encounter it again until they get to college. This is a very sad state of affairs that requires understanding and initiative on the part of education policymakers. But are they competent enough to make the necessary reforms asap? Is it in their interest? 

Fact-checking and online literacy is another thing that can possibly stem the spread of disinformation, and inoculate the newer generations from the viral spread of lies and myths. Success stories can be found in countries like Finland, and there’s no reason to believe that “starting them young,” so to speak, won’t work in this part of the world. There are also local success stories, including the way Mona Magno-Veluz (aka “Mighty Magulang”) has been creating content for the youth who populate TikTok. 

But integrating fact-checking and online literacy in the education system requires much initiative and political will. They say it takes a village to raise a child. But it also takes a village to raise a child who will grow up believing pernicious lies and beliefs that they will carry with them all the way to adulthood.

In the end, fighting for the truth in the Philippines is going to be a long, hard slog. But what choice do we have? We can hardly curl up in a ball, however inviting that looks like. Recall that the Marcoses spent decades rehabilitating their image, through years of planning, strategy, and patience. But if they can be diligent and patient, defenders of the truth can be even more so. 

At any rate, lies cannot live on forever. There’s that memorable quote from the HBO miniseries Chernobyl (2020) that stuck with me ever since: “Every lie we tell incurs a debt to the truth. Sooner or later, that debt is paid.” 

But we cannot rest on that fact. We have our work cut out for us. Sooner or later, we’ll have to exact payment for that debt to the truth. –

JC Punongbayan, PhD is an assistant professor at the UP School of Economics and the author of False Nostalgia: The Marcos ‘Golden Age’ Myths and How to Debunk Them (soon available on the Lazada and Shopee stores of Ateneo Press). JC’s views are independent of his affiliations. Follow him on Twitter (@jcpunongbayan) and Usapang Econ Podcast.

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JC Punongbayan

Jan Carlo “JC” Punongbayan, PhD is an assistant professor at the University of the Philippines School of Economics (UPSE). His professional experience includes the Securities and Exchange Commission, the World Bank Office in Manila, the Far Eastern University Public Policy Center, and the National Economic and Development Authority. JC writes a weekly economics column for He is also co-founder of and co-host of Usapang Econ Podcast.