#DisAPECted

I have been living in a world of disconnect over the APEC holidays when 22 world leaders, one of them an observer, met to continue a 26-year-old conversation. I surmise, given the multi-billion-peso expense and the fact that social, print and broadcast media were quite concerned with hotties and menus, that the main point of the APEC summit is that it has become one of those junkets that travel-weary heads of state actually attend.

Add to that, the inevitable failures (acceptable since such events cannot but have some missteps) that meant genuine hardships for the ordinary citizen (unacceptable that planners generally fail when it comes to respect for the ordinary citizen), and I was feeling a bit grouchy.

However, the criticisms by the anti-Aquino traditional politicians and their broadsheet mouthpieces who would like nothing better than to see APEC fail, did not impress me too. I suspect they think very poorly of  their readers who they think aren’t smart enough to question their self-serving analysis.

The traditional left me unmoved also because I expected they would protest and that they would condemn APEC wholesale as a neoliberal imperialist plot. I could have predicted that one in my sleep. They complained heartily of the inconvenience caused by the traffic and proved their sincerity by adding to the congestion with their rallies. They then called anyone who disagreed with their analysis coopted with special opprobrium reserved for other progressive forces for whom they hold a particular disgust, no matter their claim that these left forces are small, ineffectual and generally not deserving of any attention.

Good work on the culture stuff

Government of course highlighted it all – the glamor, the glitz, the dress and the cuisine. And it pushed some form of discussion around the benefits of trade liberalization and even managed to talk about inclusive growth through SMEs.

I liked the highlighting of our culture and hospitality. Government leaders past and present from Mao to Obama, understand that a lot of international relations is theater. That, in the era of nation-states, swagger and brag are really important tools for a nation without any real army to prove itself worthy on the international stage. Given that a certain amount of sindak (awe) achieved by pasikat (showing off) will help to increase respect for the Philippine passports carried by our OFWs, I have no objection to the extravaganza.

Ordinary people seemed to understand this too. As I already mentioned fashion, cuisine, design and dance were some of the few tropes about the APEC that united new and old media. It was also why calls for haters to stop their rallies and their criticisms while we were entertaining our VIP guests, went viral on social media alongside denunciations of government’s callousness for the public’s inconvenience.

Where’s the profound stuff?

I did not, however, agree with government’s unbalanced picture of the good of neoliberal economics that is the driving force behind APEC. Those statements were as simplistic and self-serving as those of the critics.

This is why I remained calm and unconcerned with the big APEC bash when I normally take it as my sacred citizen’s duty to be involved in whatever big national event is going on.

I suppose if fashion and design and dancing were my passion I might have been sufficiently engaged and patriotically fulfilled. But I am one of those irritating sorts who likes deep economic discussions.

I say we should not let the economists keep all the economic discussions to themselves because these things, like trade liberalization, are complicated. It’s a bit like letting your doctor make decisions for you because physiology is a complicated topic. Much of the advances in patient education and care has resulted from medical malpractice such that a growing number of doctors have now some inkling that they aren’t God.

Given the failure of many economic policies, economists should begin to explain themselves to ordinary folk whose lives they have blighted by these policies.

And since the Philippines remains mired in poverty and much of the world remains in recession, ordinary citizens need to begin to understand the ideas of economists.

For example, studies are less definitive about whether trade liberalization is good or bad.

Despite government’s glowing account, critics are correct in questioning the hard sell. As Rob Vos notes: “Strong opinions about the impact of globalization on poverty are not always backed by robust  factual evidence. As argued in this paper, however, it is not all that easy to lay our hands on ‘robust’  facts. Quantitative analyses of trade liberalization appear highly sensitive to basic modeling and parameter assumptions. Altering these could turn the expectation that, for instance, Africa’s poor stand to gain from further trade opening under the Doha Round into one in which they would stand to  lose. Most studies agree though that trade opening probably adds to aggregate welfare, but gains are small and unevenly distributed.”

But the data does not support the full scale condemnation of the critics either. According to Eddy Lee, “What the preceding discussion has tried to suggest is that there is no basis for a blanket prescription of “big bang” trade liberalization that is applicable to all countries. The relationship between trade liberalization and growth and employment is likely to be “a contingent one, dependent on a host of countries and external characteristics” (Rodriguez and Rodrik, 1999). Differences in country circumstances (such as the level of development or whether a country has comparative advantage in primary commodities or manufactures) are likely to warrant different strategies of trade liberalization.”

It is these strategies that should have been the subject of our national debate about APEC.

In truth, the only time I felt any engagement at all in the APEC issue was when a group of friends who are from the fields of women and development, history and law had a robust discussion about how the Philippines might deal with trade liberalization.

We discussed, for example, whether import substitution (a form of protectionism) was a good strategy and how this might be applied so that it protected only those sectors of our economy that needed to be nurtured while not allowing the rise of inefficient monopolies that are uncompetitive. We talked about ensuring mechanisms of distribution (such as ending the rice cartels) so that price reductions could be passed on to the consumers. We talked about achieving rising employment and stable wages (two factors in the literature shown to take advantage of trade liberalization) by applying correct wage policy and macroeconomic policies like targeted inflation rates.

The reader should note that we were not all economists, of which I am inordinately proud and which, I contend, makes our analysis of great value. I share this to give an indication of the kind of national debate that APEC should have inspired if we are to have a democratic and progressive nation where a well-informed and economically-literate citizenry participates in prescribing economic policy. I wager that had the world seen such spirited exchanges among our citizenry, it could well have added to the pasikat and consequent sindak.

In short, the APEC through various efforts, should have been a period of intense discussions about our nation’s economic development. It wasn’t. And that is why I was disaffected. – Rappler.com