Fabellanist economic policy – theory and practice

Say legend has it that there is such a thing as the ‘Dr. Armand Fabella’s approach to economic policy’. In a panel discussion held at UP Faculty Center on 27 November 2010, it is as if in one sleigh of hand – all the giants in the economic world – came down from their own Ivory Towers to share their wisdom. As students of public policy in the same university, we could have been called dwarves, right-thinking dwarves nonetheless.
The whole experience is itself priceless – a great intellectual investment. We heard the valued speakers talking, crying even, joking, and trading sweet-coated insults in the free exchange of ideas that historically characterized what we know as UP Diliman. Dr. Clarita Carlos of the political science department brought with her students under her class as well as Dr. Cory Naz of the public administration college.

That meeting occasioned the launching of the Digital Archive which shall be turned over to the UP Library. Curious if not patronizing minds came to see the economic icons say their piece, one turn at a time. So Cesar Virata, Gerardo Sicat, Placido Mapa, Vicente Valdepenas, Sixto Roxas, and Romeo Bernardo – all came to impart to the revering audience, some their contemporaries if not their juniors, faculty and students their views as woven in the country’s economic history.

In fact, at the end of this panel discussion, each one was given a minute or less to give their advice to P-Noy which turned out to be the most exciting part of the ‘historical reconstruction’ in terms of the economic life of the nation across time – from the Japanese period on to Magsaysay, Macapagal, Marcos and then P-Noy. Down memory line, it appears that not a single soul was heard speak against the man – Armand Fabella.
This meeting could be a stimulus to reading all about Armand Fabella after these ‘oral histories’ have been heard. One may tend to call the entire academic exercise one of ‘personality cult’ since most everyone holds high praises to the man dubbed as possibly ‘radical’ if not ‘irreverent’. It was as if these top honchos of yesteryears travelled down memory lane to reminiscence of the past as if the economic past is they themselves. Indeed perhaps, economists rule governments (if they do).

But I heard a younger generation Fabella who is now doing his dissertation mention his bias for those with background in public policy which it turned out was his masteral at the University of Columbia. As listeners, we get the impression how their expertise as ‘technocrats’ were tapped by presidents to do economic planning, to conduct academic studies, and to arrive at solutions to certain economic issues. Articulate, learned, even suave, each of the guests communicates with ease and facility their thoughts and views to the extent that they even identify the economic worldview that they use.

One thread seems common to all of them., ‘they’ rule the country in the prime of their years – within the inner sanctum of Malacanang – and only to the President can they be held accountable, or so it seems. They all are NEDA guys, presidential guys, Malacanang guys, bureaucrats as they are technocrats – concerned with inflation, foreign exchange rate, growth, import-export functions, capital formation, investment, planning, development, capital output ratios, general equilibrium, surplus, bonds, treasury bills, foreign-equity contribution, et cetera et cetera.

When Dr. Carlos shared her frustrations with how the economists must have bungled the affairs of the State like a ship’s captain who may have lost his fixes or moorings, two souls, namely Paderanga and Valdepenas were quick to serve as wrecking crew. They, the lions in the lion’s den, feast on the remarks made by the political scientist to turn the table around. One will always miss this kind of true-to-life interactive flow of intellectual capital or how much was spent for every unit of empirical idea or thought. It can be very unimaginable how even dramatically opposed ideas soon jel together in the end – like water that seeks its own level, matter-of-factly.

Their oral histories drew the picture of a president who would fire his executive secretary on that ghostly feeling that then might become a threat to the presidency. It would appear that again, a president might look at NEDA people as the ‘great debating society’ or is it little wonder when these technocrats are those honed from UP Diliman if not from the Ivy League?

The words from Cesar Virata, former prime minister are blunt as when he said, “the government bureaucracy is not suited for development”. It is worth noting that there had been a chronic tendency for line departments to create corporations for their implementing arm when in truth they soon turn them into milking cows as what was heard of MWSS, GSIS, SSS and the like.

One of the economists likewise shared his misgivings with how government subsidizes the MRT or LRT to as much as P50 per passenger. Until real costs of operating a train are known, one cannot determine the subsidy that government may have to counterpart.

But after all things are said and done, one goes back to check the reality on the ground. If the economists were the kind of intellectual, technocrats, or experts that they might claim themselves to be, why are we still in this economic rut – across generations, across time, across governments?

Nothing saves, no economist must rule, nor should any other economist steer the ship of State. All these concepts like ‘buying low, selling high’ or ‘buying high, selling low’, ‘free market economy’, ‘project compass’, ‘enlightened patriotism’, ‘general equilibrium analysis’, ‘window dressing’, ‘liberalization’, ‘social contract’, ‘country diagnostics’ – all these can fall on deft ears.

When it was time to hear their 2 cents worth advice, here were some of the things said that P-Noy ought to hear:
1. “P-Noy should read my columns in Philippine Star” – Sicat
2. “P-Noy should be go on but be consistent” – Valdepenas
3. “Budget should be passed before December” – Virata
4. “Move on projects, start with those with immediate results” – Mapa
5. “Uniformity, consistency, and continuity in project implementation” – Roxas
6. “If the program looks familiar, discard it” – (another icon I can’t name)
7. “Jail the smugglers and the tax evaders” – (again, I must fail to name as one seated at their backs)
8. “Find yourself another Armand Fabella” – the lady moderator,
From where I stand, let public policy and their analysts rule the bureaucracy from now on. (no pun intended).