Cory and Collective Action

Sta. Ana is Coordinator of Action for Economic Reforms. This article was published in the BusinessWorld on December 1, 2008, pages S1/4 to S1/5.

Go see Cory, the musical.  It is about the life of Cory Aquino—as wife, mother, Filipino citizen, and hero.

The musical traces Cory’s happy moments as Ninoy’s wife and mother to five children, her adjustments to the rough-and tumble world of Ninoy’s politics, her suffering under the Marcos dictatorship, her trials upon Ninoy’s martyrdom, her dilemmas as de facto leader of the opposition against Marcos and eventually as President of the Philippines.

This is history performed by accomplished singers and thespians—Isay Alvarez (as Cory), Sherwin Sozon (as Ninoy), Robert Seña (as Ferdinand Marcos), Pinky Marquez (as Imelda Marcos), Tommy Abuel (as the reporter), Sheila Parducho, Lou Veloso, Andy Bais, and Rito Asilo. Nestor Torre directs the musical. Lourdes “Bing Pimentel is the musical’s composer and producer.  (I do not wish to describe her merely as the wife of Nene Pimentel, for Mrs. Pimentel is a standout in many respects, but that is a different story.)

The musical is Mrs. Pimentel’s everlasting gift to an ailing Cory—“a tribute to a beloved President from a grateful nation.”

Although the musical is about a turbulent past of our history, it still entertains.  Some songs are angelic and solemn; others are stirring.  Some scenes are plaintive; others are happy and hilarious.  And there are segments in Cory that hint of Cameron Mackintosh’s production of Les Misérables.

For many who attended the gala, the musical brought nostalgia and provoked deep reflection.  The musical’s ending message is that the fight is not over.

To the crowd’s cheering, Cory spoke during the curtain call. What she said in Pilipino was moving—that despite the physical hardship imposed on her by colon cancer, she assured us of her active support in the continuing fight for freedom and democracy.

Which brings me to the problem that we have been trying to crack for a long time: how to stop Gloria Macapagal Arroyo from perpetuating herself in power.  It is a collective-action problem, as our colleague Mike Alba, an economist, is wont to say.

A few days ago, on the day that terrorists razed Mumbai and massacred hundreds of people, we were holed up in a restaurant, discussing the collective-action problem Filipinos face.  Mike presented a draft for a forthcoming volume, which attempts to answer why Philippine economic performance is weak and how this can be overcome.

The Philippines remains an economic laggard in East Asia, and securing long-term growth is far from the horizon.  Long-term growth is determined by the strength and quality of institutions.

Institutions are the rules of the game in society.  But Philippine institutions are corrupted.  The State has become an instrument for plunder. Rules are selectively enforced or violated to serve vested interests.

But non-state institutions are not clean, either. Segments of the media, the religious, and non-governmental organizations have exhibited their crooked and mercenary character.

In the language of Douglass North and company, the wretched state of Philippine institutions is a “limited access order,” although perhaps the mature type.  The tough question with an elusive answer is how we do the transition from the limited access order to the “open access order.”  The open access order is characterized by rules on political and economic competition that bind.  Political and economic competition is the hallmark of the highly developed countries.

Said another way, the question on transition is: How can we move from the structural boom-and-bust pattern to sustained growth and long-term prosperity?

Raul Fabella, reacting to Mike’s paper, said that economics has yet to find the definitive solution to transition problems.  Whoever can clear the path deserves to win the Nobel award for economics.

Part of the transition question is how to address the collective-action problem.  And this is what perplexes Mike and the rest of our group.

Using the social conflict framework of Daron Acemoglu et al. (2004), Mike argues that the Philippine oligarchy has used its political power to shape the country’s economic and political institutions to serve its vested interests.  Since the oligarchs have control over the political institutions and have vast resources at their command, they have been able to carve the direction of economic and political institutions.

The dominant oligarchy now is Macapagal-Arroyo’s faction.  And this faction is changing the rules to consolidate and perpetuate its power, thus shutting out other sections of the elite and other political forces.

It won’t be easy to defeat the  Macapagal-Arroyo faction, which is well-organized, and well-funded because of its exploitation of the State’s resources.  We first need to solve the collective-action problem.

Cory, the musical reminds us how Ninoy’s martyrdom and the fierce, noble resistance of the woman in yellow galvanized the Filipino people to topple the Marcos dictatorship.

Cory, the person, also symbolized the collective action that defeated Fidel Ramos’s plan to extend his term as president and the collective action that forced Joseph Estrada to resign.

But this time, even as we draw inspiration from Cory, we have yet to solve the collective-action problem not only in vanquishing the Macapagal-Arroyo faction but in breaking “the vice-like grip (kapit tuko) of the ruling class” on political power, to quote Mike.  Then our institutions can be reformed, giving us the confidence that long-term prosperity will no longer be an elusive dream.

Cory, the musical will be performed at the Meralco Theater on 1 December 2008, 16 January 2009, and 17 January 2009.

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