Saturday, May 10, 2008

Joseph Estrada: as stupid as he is corrupt

I recently read on the cover of a major Philippines newspaper (I think the Sun) that Joseph Estrada, the former Philippine president convicted of corruption (and pardoned by current President Gloria Arroyo), is encouraging young Filipino graduates to stay in the country and "rebuild" it, rather than going abroad where they can earn more money. Estrada is one to talk about sacrificing for the sake of one's country – his presidency's corruption rivaled that of Ferdinand and Imelda Marcos. His entire lifestyle was based on what the country could do for him, and it was so egregious that he was facing a possible death sentence.

But even disregarding his hypocrisy, his suggestion is a ludicrous one. The Philippines, like many poor countries, does better when its people are left free to go abroad and earn more money in Western and wealthier Asian countries. Every so often, I read about the shortage (technically a scarcity) of doctors and nurses in the Philippines, because the lucky ones sometimes escape (and that word is no exaggeration) to better lives in other countries. While this may cause an initial "brain drain," it works out economically: domestic wages for medical personnel will necessarily rise, but because the medical personnel who go abroad will earn more and send money home, Filipinos overall will have the money to pay the higher wages. Isn't it amazing how everything sorts itself out for the best if we let people act with freedom according to their own desires?

One of my Pinoy friends once insisted that Filipinos' remittances are important primarily because of the boost to the country's currency reserves. That Keynesian thinking is utter absurdity. Remittances are important because they bring home money for family members who stay behind (which my friend of all people should know, since he spends several months at a time in the U.S., earning money so he can send it "home"). Concern about "reserves" is believing that the government is more important than the people.

Let's say a father and mother have a small farm that barely feeds the family. Should they be so selfish as to want the children to stay on the farm for the rest of their lives, to be poor like their parents for the sake of the "family business"? Or should the parents instead be happy that their children can have the opportunity for better lives, and possibly send money home to help the parents? Perhaps the children would like to stay, depending on how they personally value continuing the family tradition. It should be their choice to stay or go, and no parent should have a say.

Unfortunately, paternalist governments all over the world decide that they know what's best for us, or at least they claim to know. Even if they could afford the costs of travel, it's incredibly hard for Filipinos to get government permission to leave the country, and for good reason – that is, for good reason if you're the "elite" who rule. The rich and powerful of the Philippines control the government, so they control the approval process for people to leave the country. They don't want a lot of Filipinos leaving, because it's how they can maintain a cheap labor pool who will cook their food, clean their houses and babysit their children. When you have a nation of over 80 million people squeezed into a land area roughly the size of Arizona, and people cannot leave, then the price of labor will continually be bid down. My mother and aunt have tried for years to get just tourist visas for their brothers and sisters, so they can at least have a nice visit here, and every time the applications were refused by the Philippine embassy. And this was before post-9/11 security crackdowns!

Liberals talk about how "big business" and money controls the U.S., to which I reply, "Nonsense!" U.S. politics is actually very democratic, which I say to be a bad thing. No matter how noble it seems, democracy exposes how much a people covet each other's possessions: democracy is fundamentally about electing a guy who steals the least from you, and who will give you what is stolen from your neighbors. While Philippine politics might be thought of as democratic, it hardly is, although it has its own equally bad results. Elections are extraordinarily corrupt, with commonplace vote buying, voter intimidation and outright election violence. When my brother-in-law was campaigning for vice mayor last year, the incumbent mayor was ambushed and nearly shot. This is how the ruling class in the Philippines maintained political control after the U.S. "freed" the country from the Spanish, supposedly so Filipinos could start governing themselves.

Estrada is not alone in telling young Filipinos to stay home. But considering his background, I'd attribute his call to sheer stupidity, compared to the "elite" who have well-intentioned reasons for misleading Filipinos into giving up better opportunities for a misguided sense of patriotism.

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