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Sunday, December 27, 2009

The Making of Washington DC

The holidays have allowed me to catch up on my reading list and for the past few days, this book on the making of Washington DC has got me hooked. It's amazing to read about how a city got built from almost nothing and despite seemingly insurmountable obstacles. Two interesting things I learned:

1. DC had to be built in 10 years. The location was in the woods and if you look at the above picture without labels, you would probably mistake it for a developing country.

2. Politicians had wanted to permanently place the capital in its temporary home in Philidelphia, the cultural, political, and financial center at that time (yes, not NYC). For this reason, Congress did not allot money for the project since they wanted it to fail. DC had to be financed by some scheme of land speculation (that failed multiple times). If not for Jefferson's backdoor deal and Washington's persistence, it would not have been there.

But now it's great to live in such a city that has undergone such a great transformation. It makes me wonder about how Manila was made and what the plans actually were. Was there indeed a plan or was it just careless building of one structure after another? Good readings on this would be much appreciated.

In the meantime, still reading...

Thursday, December 24, 2009

This Year in Ideas 2009

If you haven't already, check out the 9th annual year in ideas by the NYTimes.
My favorites are the ethical robot (pictured above), how random promotions might actually be better than merit based systems, and how cows with names make more milk. Plus, Dean Yang, a filipino economist, got mentioned for his Rainfall Theory of Development.

Thursday, December 3, 2009

Eagle Without Talons? Nation Building and the Ateneo de Manila University

This is taken directly from Leloy Claudio's blog, which I think hits spot on the short-sightedness of Ateneo's approach to nation-building.
The celebration of the sesquicentennial of the Ateneo de Manila University presents an opportunity to celebrate not only the immense contribution the institution has made to Philippine society, but also to consider what more the university can do in light of its frequently articulated goal of building the nation. University President Fr. Bienvenido Nebres outlines his general approach to nation-building which he derives from Dr. Jose Rizal, the Ateneo’s most prominent alumnus. The Rizal that Nebres draws from is not the firebrand who sparked the first nationalist revolution in Asia – the hero who spoke the truth to power amidst massive injustices. His Rizal is the one exiled in Dapitan – the gagged Rizal forced to channel his energies towards community-building projects like the building of schools and the improvement of irrigation systems.

He notes in a speech to the Knights of Rizal: “In his years in Dapitan, we see a Rizal not of the Noli or the Fili or of many letters and poems, but a Rizal who said less and did a lot.” This defanged apolitical Rizal is the bedrock of the nation-building strategy of the university. Instead of criticizing the government for its injustices, Nebres’s approach focuses on addressing immediate and concrete needs like housing and disaster relief. The flagship project of this strategy is Ateneo’s partnership with Gawad Kalinga (GK). To quote the president again: “In Spain and Manila, he [Rizal] wrote and preached against injustices. In Dapitan, he simply worked to create the foundations for a better life for the people. He may well have launched Gawad Kalinga a century ago.”

This Rizal may well be the solution to our country’s problems for, as Nebres argues, today “there is so much talk and so little done.” Indeed, although a lot of Gawad Kalinga’s development approaches have been questioned, it is undeniable that it has contributed to the reduction of slums. Ateneo’s education programs in depressed areas likewise contribute to long-term national development.

But what are the implications of de-emphasizing political criticism in favor of immediate concrete action? Historian Floro Quibuyen argues that the image of an apolitical Rizal was used by the American colonial government to encourage Filipinos to cooperate with them even as they subjugated the country. Reminding Filipinos of the anti-colonial and revolutionary Rizal would have been unwise given their mission of pacification.

Similarly, in the context of the Ateneo, this Rizal and the framework of nation-building that it’s associated with has been used to question and erase the university’s long history of social and political activism. As a former student and now lecturer, I’ve been told many times by students and faculty associated with the university’s official nation-building programs that Marcos-era activism is dead, that the aktibista’s approach of criticizing the national government did not and does not work. More actions and less talk; let’s just build houses. As a student writing about GK in the official university website claims, “the aktibista and makibaka days are long gone.”

This anti-politics atmosphere has made it difficult to forward issues of national concern in the university. I was witness to the lethargy of many students and teachers during the time when mobilizations were being made to protest the NBN-ZTE scandal. I saw how this withdrawal from issues of national concern influenced the moderate stance taken by the Ateneo regarding the issue of whether Arroyo deserved to stay in power. While basketball nemesis La Salle called for resignation, Ateneo called for reflection. An administrator personally rebuked me when I said the university should join the lobby for the Freedom of Information Act since it would allow the public to scrutinize shady deals like the NBN-ZTE. Won’t work, I was told; let’s just lobby for another disaster relief bill. It doesn’t surprise me, then, that in her final State of the Nation Address this country’s most despised president claimed the university and its president as partners in her goal of building a strong republic.

There is one major flaw in the university’s anti-politics framework: the claim that activism with its attendant criticism of national politics does not work. It does. In the 1970s, the “talk” of student activists (many of them Ateneans like Edgard Jopson) conscienticized an entire generation, exposing them to the ills of authoritarianism. It was a slow process - educating and opening people’s eyes takes time – but it worked. When the crowd in EDSA overthrew the dictator, it was a victory for those who fomented dissent. It was the legacy of the makibaka activism that is currently derided in the Ateneo. And lest we think that nothing was gained from EDSA, one should consider that we currently have a free press, participate in regular elections, and have a growing civil society. Political scientist Nathan Quimpo, for instance, claims that grassroots NGOs who engage in legal activities like aiding farmers in land reform cases were few and far between before EDSA. It was the revolution that opened this democratic space. Our system isn’t perfect, but it’s significantly better.

After discussing my critical take on the university’s nation-building programs in my Philippine history class, I was asked by a student, “so are you still proud to be an Atenean?” I did not hesitate to say yes. I am proud of the Ateneo that produced martyrs like Edgar Jopson, Manny Yap, Billy Begg, Evelio Javier, and the revolutionary Rizal.

And I am proud of the Ateneo that can be when we remember these heroes once more

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

What is Seen and What is Not Seen

I stumbled upon this classic by Frederic Bastiat while trying to find writings of older economists to draw inspiration from, as I do my grad school apps. Bastiat summarizes in three paragraphs what social scientists should aspire for, Insight.

In the economic sphere an act, a habit, an institution, a law produces not only one effect, but a series of effects. Of these effects, the first alone is immediate; it appears simultaneously with its cause; it is seen. The other effects emerge only subsequently; they are not seen; we are fortunate if we foresee them.

There is only one difference between a bad economist and a good one: the bad economist confines himself to the visible effect; the good economist takes into account both the effect that can be seen and those effects that must be foreseen.

Yet this difference is tremendous; for it almost always happens that when the immediate consequence is favorable, the later consequences are disastrous, and vice versa. Whence it follows that the bad economist pursues a small present good that will be followed by a great evil to come, while the good economist pursues a great good to come, at the risk of a small present evil.

For a full version of his essay, check out this link.