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Today marks my 10th year contributing economics op-ed pieces for Rappler. How time flies! And what a blast it has been!
My longtime editor, Chay Hofileña, likes to joke about this by saying this is my longest relationship yet. Kidding aside, I’m truly grateful to her for taking a chance on the unsolicited email of a 23-year-old graduate student a decade ago, and liking my style of writing about economic issues.
Since then Ma’am Chay – as well as the other lovely and redoubtable Rappler manangs – showed me the ropes and taught me lots about journalism, which I didn’t really study formally. Now I’d like to think my writing is all the better for it.
To date I’ve written 322 articles for Rappler (including this one), initially appearing in the iSpeak and IMHO sections, then graduating into the Thought Leaders section starting September 10, 2016.
Through my pieces, I’ve captured some pretty big developments and shifts in Philippine economics and politics. Let me share with you 10 pieces that encapsulate that journey.
1. Kasambahay Law: Its unintended consequences (January 31, 2013)
The article that started it all. For one reason or another, I felt strongly about this piece of legislation when it was signed into law by the late former president Benigno Aquino III on January 18, 2013. Applying (rather naively, I admit) basic lessons from microeconomics, I argued that legislating the wages of househelps or kasambahay might lead to some of them becoming unemployed if their employers’ couldn’t afford it.
Unfortunately, years later, the implementation of the Kasambahay Law remains poor. Although there are now help desks in DOLE regional offices catering to househelps specifically, many househelps remain unaware of the benefits they’re entitled to under the law. Many employers are also not complying. Monitoring of househelp remains difficult because of DOLE’s lack of staff, as well as the difficulty of gaining access to many househelps’ areas of work.
Economists’ understanding of the minimum wage has also drastically shifted since then. Whereas before economists were deathly afraid of minimum wage hikes (because they supposedly lead to unemployment), the empirical evidence for that is a lot weaker now. In certain contexts, higher minimum wages may even lead to higher employment.
The lessons: just because a law is approved doesn’t mean it will be implemented, and the feared of unintended consequences will pan out. (Maybe the poor implementation itself is also an unintended consequence?) Also, don’t take textbook economic models and theories too seriously.
2. Marcos years marked ‘golden age’ of PH economy? Look at the data (March 5, 2016)
This piece was inspired by the BusinessWorld piece of my former professor, Dr. Emmanuel de Dios of the UP School of Economics, on the same topic. After reading that, I decided to dig deeper, and that got me obsessed about Martial Law economics. I discovered for myself that there’s a ton of empirical data showing that Martial Law was not the country’s “golden age,” and in this piece I shared some of those data.
At that time, I was elated by the splash this article made. But I overestimated the power of data to change people’s minds about an issue, and underestimated the strength of the Marcoses’ propaganda machine, the social media echo chambers, and the cognitive biases that could lead people to prefer falsehoods to truth.
Since then Martial Law economics has been a key research interest. In February 2023, I will be publishing my first book – False Nostalgia: The Marcos Golden Age Myths and How to Debunk Them – combining 7 years’ worth of research on Martial Law economics. The starting point of that journey was this Rappler piece.
3. Free tuition alone won’t make college any more accessible (March 9, 2017)
Through my pieces, I get to indirectly participate in legislative debates and proposals. One of the memorable pieces of legislation in the past years was the free tuition law, that made college education free in all state universities and colleges, as well as local ones.
Using past research and government data, I showed that the richest fifth of tertiary students are overrepresented vis-à-vis the poorest fifth. So, arguably, the free tuition law stands to give billions worth of subsidies to rich kids who can actually afford to pay for college tuition. What a waste! This subsidy of course posed as a fiscal strain: why should the government subsidize the rich this way?
I remember receiving praise from colleagues saying the original article (there was also a follow-up piece in 2019) was a great use of statistics to argue for sound economics. But I remember receiving a lot of flak as well on Twitter from those from the Left (especially the young ones), saying I should stop spewing such “neoliberal” BS. The attacks were so intense I had to leave Twitter for a few days and let things subside.
As with many legislative proposals, politics and populism trump economics. Former president Rodrigo Duterte signed the free tuition law in August that year.
I realized then that my pieces can be quite triggering for some groups ascribing to certain closely held narratives or ideologies. But so long as I’m using data and evidence to back up my claims, I should be fine.
4. Why is Philippine inflation now the highest in ASEAN? (September 6, 2018)
Discussing macroeconomic statistics and trends is a recurring theme of my Rappler pieces. In fact, macro developments have significantly shifted my teaching and research interests in this direction (vis-à-vis microeconomics).
One of the more memorable trends I wrote about was the spell of high inflation in 2018. That year inflation reached a nine-year high, and was also the highest inflation rate in ASEAN around September and October. I had fun triangulating the reasons for this, with factors ranging from the rice shortage brought about by the Duterte administration, the rising trade deficit, inflation expectations, and the ill timing of the TRAIN law, which raised excise taxes just as world oil prices were rising.
I also rebutted claims by the Duterte economic managers then that rising inflation was “not alarming” and “quite normal in a fast-growing economy.” Such rebuttals have irked the economic managers a number of times, based on reports from my friends in different agencies. Little do those officials know that I receive a lot of positive feedback (even encouragement) as well from many economist colleagues, who are just constrained from speaking out in one way or another.
5. Dengvaxia scare: How rumors caused viral outbreaks (January 16, 2019)
I use my Rappler pieces to show that economics can be related to other fields of study, such as public health.
I particularly liked writing this piece about the ill effects of the Dengvaxia scare perpetrated by certain personalities of the Duterte administration. In a nutshell, disinformation surrounding the new dengue vaccine spilled over to other vaccines, and parents ended up not having their children take basic shots for measles and like diseases. Hence, all sorts of otherwise preventable epidemics spread across the country. The opening sentence captured it rather nicely: “Fake news can kill, and the Dengvaxia scare is a perfect example of it.”
This was a perfect illustration of so-called “negative externalities” in economics. And I remember incorporating this piece in my microeconomics classes back then. Little did we know that the Dengvaxia scare would presage the even greater troubles wrought by the global pandemic just one year later.
6. Dismal PISA rankings: A wake-up call for Filipinos (December 4, 2019)
Education issues have always been close to my heart, and I was particularly devasted by news that we ranked so poorly in the 2018 Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA). Specifically, we ranked dead last in reading, and second to last in math and science.
Later, even more bad news came when we also ranked dead last in the 2019 TIMSS (Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study). Meanwhile, the first ever Southeast Asia Primary Learning Metrics in 2019 also showed that 9 in 10 schoolchildren in the Philippines can’t read basic texts.
Long story short, we’re experiencing a full-blown education crisis – undoubtedly worsened by the pandemic, what with the extremely long school closures and the “learning losses” from online classes.
I argued that all these studies ought to be a wake-up call for Filipinos. But the attitude from education officials has been characterized by denialism and gaslighting. The Department of Education, for instance, complained that they were not consulted for a World Bank education report. After that, the World Bank took down their report from their website. I wrote about this in “8 facts from WB education report they don’t want you to read.”
7. Why Filipinos need to stay at home until June (or even longer) (March 19, 2020)
By far my most viral piece ever (pun unintended). I wrote about this days after Duterte imposed the first COVID lockdown nationwide. At the time, everyone was at a loss about what’s going on, and nobody knew until when Duterte’s strict lockdowns would last.
I saw some analyses on Facebook by experts in biomedical data and biostatistics, showing the exponential rise of COVID-19 cases that necessitates prolonged lockdowns up to at least June that year. This was quite concerning to a lot of people: many people thought the lockdowns would just last days or a few weeks.
But little did we know that the lockdowns would be a lot longer than that, with some form of mobility restrictions lasting up to 2 years or more, with varying degrees of strictness nationwide (I discovered recently that the lockdowns were very severe in places like Camiguin Island). Also, the lockdowns would turn out to be a political tool of the Duterte administration to subjugate people, especially the poor.
COVID would dominate a lot of my Rappler pieces since then: constituting maybe a fourth of all my pieces, ranging from the economics of lockdowns, the health versus economy trade-off, the inadequate and slow distribution of economic aid, the glacial pace of vaccination, the Duterte government’s wrong budget priorities (I collaborated a lot with my friends Zy-za Suzara and Luis Abad on this topic), and pandemic-related corruption (e.g., Pharmally).
Fast-forward to 2023, our lives are normalizing now. But I’m glad to be able to document the economics of the pandemic through Rappler; later I might just write a book about it.
8. 10 Build, Build, Build projects that started in previous admins (June 23, 2021)
My Rappler columns are often a venue to debunk some of the lies and misconceptions said by government officials. And quite a few people look forward to my pieces when it comes to economic mistruths.
The Duterte administration was particularly fond of boasting about its “flagship” economic project, an infrastructure spending spree called “Build, Build, Build” (BBB). However, upon closer inspection, many of projects under BBB were in fact started by previous administrations. My friend Zy-za Suzara, formerly with the Department of Budget and Management, co-wrote this piece with me on the rampant credit-grabbing of the Duterte administration.
Some other pieces I wrote on economic lies include those about the “Duterte Legacy,” the statistics behind the war on drugs, the TRAIN law, and the recurring claim that we would soon be an “upper-middle income country” (we’re still not).
9. Malubha ang state of the nation (July 23, 2021)
Up until the middle of 2021, I’ve been writing almost exclusively in English. But months before the pivotal 2022 elections, there was growing concern about the looming possibility of another Marcos presidency. And I figured I needed to write more in Filipino (if not exclusively in Filipino) to try to reach a wider audience with my economics pieces, especially those that would figure in the electoral debates and discussions. I started with this piece, on the last State of the Nation Address of former president Duterte.
Writing in Filipino was quite liberating for me: I could write quicker, and I could use the nuances of everyday language in a way I couldn’t do with English. For instance, I found myself incorporating more jokes and witticisms, as well as pop culture references. Most of all, I discovered that there was indeed a huge reader base of articles in Filipino: interactions and engagement with my pieces blew up.
I wrote in Filipino until end of 2022, and switched back to English just recently. But I may still put in some Filipino pieces here and there.
10. Budol of the century (May 12, 2022)
Even if my column is primarily about economics, I can’t avoid writing about politics from time to time. This piece was written a few days after the 2022 elections, when the partial and unofficial results showed that another yet Marcos would sit in Malacañang.
Apart from showing some of the election results across the regions, I explored possible reasons for the landslide win of the teamup between Bongbong Marcos and Sara Duterte. These include intense regionalism (which pervades much of everyday life, culture, and politics), “networked disinformation,” historical distortions, and the broken educational system. These are pretty much the same issues that led to the landslide win of administration senators in the 2019 midterm elections, which I also wrote about in “Why is Duterte still so popular?”
All in all, writing for Rappler in the past decade has been an unalloyed boon for me and my career. My writing has made me grow as a writer and economist, and I’ve also made a ton of new friends along the way. (I’ve irked some people, too, from all sides of the political spectrum. But I guess that’s an occupational hazard, and one more measure of the impact of one’s writing.)
Here’s to another 10 years of writing for Rappler! – Rappler.com
JC Punongbayan, PhD is an assistant professor at the UP School of Economics and the author of the forthcoming book, False Nostalgia: The Marcos Golden Age Myths and How to Debunk Them. JC’s views are independent of his affiliations. Follow him on Twitter (@jcpunongbayan) and Usapang Econ Podcast.