Prosperity without growth

The rise in the number of unemployed Filipinos in the midst of economic growth has made our government officials take a serious look at the current economic strategy. This pattern of jobless growth partly explains why the level of mass poverty in our country has remained unchanged even as the economy seems to be growing.

These concerns highlight certain values that have gained slow acceptance over the years.  One, that it is important for people to have meaningful work, because it is by work that a human being realizes his/her potential. Two, that growth is empty unless it is shared or made “inclusive,” to use a term in vogue. To these I would add that we should begin to aim not for growth per se but for prosperity.

The word “prosperity” is not limited to the attainment of material wealth or economic success. Indeed, it connotes a general condition of well-being synonymous to “flourishing” or “thriving.” Hence, it cannot be equated with mere economic growth as measured by the expansion of the gross domestic product.

A country can dramatically increase its GDP by merely extracting more natural resources, like oil or mineral ore, from the ground. It can harvest all the available marine life from its waters using the most sophisticated technology. It can cut its remaining forests and export timber, or lease out its agricultural lands to other countries so the latter can do intensive farming to produce food for their own people. All these will definitely raise the GDP, but we cannot call the result prosperity.

When a nation undermines its capacity to thrive in its own environment over the long term—as when it poisons its rivers, degrades its soil, and pollutes the air—then we can say it is taking the road to misery rather than prosperity. Clearly, there is a sense in which the blind pursuit of
economic growth works against the goal of prosperity.

Economists have characterized our economic growth in the last few years as being mainly consumption-driven. This should not have been an issue were it not for the fact that what is driving consumption is not a corresponding increase in agricultural or industrial production, but the sheer growth in remittances from our overseas workers.

Year after year since the early 1970s, we have been sending out more people to work abroad. The money they earn and regularly remit to their families in the Philippines could fund an industrialization program several times over. Instead, it has gone to paying for the imported goods that fill our gigantic shopping malls.

Indeed, these malls create jobs for a large number of people. But this has put us in a vicious cycle. Today the only way to sustain the business of these malls is by deploying more overseas workers.

We need not refer here to the number of studies that have been done showing the adverse social and psychological effects of migration on families, particularly on the children left behind.

These are treated as social costs, the price that families must pay for the chance to give their children the quality education they need to get out of the cycle of poverty.

It has also been argued that the freedom to work abroad is a concomitant of the right to travel, and that the government has no deliberate policy to push people to find work abroad. That may be true, strictly speaking. But neither has there been any clear and sustained effort on the part of government to create the conditions that would end the export of labor.

We are at the mercy of a culture that has forged a strong nexus between overseas employment and mindless consumerism.

As we drown ourselves in the culture of unbridled consumption, a counterculture is fast taking shape in the developed world. The virtues it promotes are those of frugality and sufficiency. Instead of throwing away things, people are encouraged to repair and recycle them. This has an impact on economic growth.

There will be no more of the kind of growth that was fueled by the sheer expansion of credit. Many people have lost their jobs because of the crisis.

The bright side is that this is forcing them to scale back their lifestyles to what is sufficient and rediscover the benefits of sharing.

To bring this up at this point, when international credit rating agencies are heaping platitudinous praises on our rising economy, may seem like raining on one’s parade. But it is better that we know where most of the countries that are economically in trouble today came from.

Not too long ago, they were the darlings of these same agencies. In their heyday, they attracted large infusions of foreign capital, which in turn set off a cycle of boundless debt-driven consumption and promoted a false sense of prosperity. We must avoid the path they took.

This is what has been largely missing in the campaign for the 2013 elections—a serious debate on desirable strategies for achieving national prosperity.

We have been treated to endless mantras about free public education, stable jobs, lower prices, lower taxes, etc.

I have yet to hear anyone talk about the need for frugality and sharing—in the light of our limited resources and the scandalous disparities in wealth and income that divide our people.

Everyone seems to accept the primacy of economic growth as a national goal, with little regard for the environmental consequences.

Everyone seems to concede that the ultimate goal of every Filipino is to earn as much money as possible to be able to satisfy desires that the market itself incessantly creates.

We talk of the need to radically change our way of life. Elections should be the occasion for discussing what exactly needs changing, why, and how we can all take part in the effort.

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