Three books for Christmas

my Trade Tripper column in this 4-5 December 2015 issue of BusinessWorld:

Christmas is nearing and with it the dreaded season of giving. There are three books that I recommend as help and for a couple of reasons: they make good reading and provide great insights, which is certainly a plus to the one you’re gifting it to. But they would be also be a boost to national discourse, as these books offer an unvarnished, frank look at what it takes for a society to better itself.

The first is Calixto V. Chikiamco’s The Way Forward: The Path To Inclusive Growth. Currently the president of the Foundation For Economic Freedom (FEF; of which I am a Fellow), Toti (as he is called by friends) is the foremost -- and certainly the most active -- exponent in the Philippines of “incrementalism” as a way towards development. It’s something that up to now I still am trying to grasp, particularly in terms of it being a realistic methodology to achieving actual change.

But Toti certainly believes it can and many a smart person agrees with him. My fellow Fellow at the FEF (and colleague at BusinessWorld) Romy Bernardo wrote of Toti as being a “synergy between public intellectual and grounded entrepreneur.”

From my own field, which is international economic law, The Way Forward asks an interesting question: “it’s a wonder why Economics hadn’t invaded the field of Law earlier.” It’s a question I’ve oft asked myself and certainly the discipline can only be enhanced if a more qualitative and quantitative rationale can be made of why civil damages and penal laws are constructed the way they are.

For a slim book of 183 pages, The Way Forward covers a lot of ground. And if one can’t find value inherent already in its content, then the fact that many of our politicians and policy makers are reading it (Romy reports that Speaker Feliciano “Sonny” Belmonte purchased 300 copies to be distributed to members of the House) is an added motivation to get the book.

The Way Forward (2015) is available at Powerbooks.

While The Way Forward purports to look, well, forward, Chris Pforr’s Dangerous Waters: A Whirlwind Tour of the Philippine Economy Since Independence tells us where we are and came from. And despite the ambition, coming in at a mere 98 pages, it does pull it off.

Mind you, the book’s main service is as an introduction but it does it superbly. Other local books purportedly try to analyze Philippine economic history but end up as mere hagiography.

But not Dangerous Waters, which relishes the non-mincing of words. I particularly find interesting that Pforr partially absolves Ferdinand Marcos of the economic malaise at the end of his term and instead declares that a “more substantial reason was the 20 years of neoliberal policies which had been imposed by the US and the World Bank,” which he alleges “pushed the Philippines into deeper debt-based so-called ‘development’ just when the global economy entered the worst crisis since World War II.”

Read that alongside his point that the “first four years” of the presidency of President Benigno S. C. Aquino III had “been a constant parade of scandals involving Cabinet officials, lawmakers, members of the judiciary, military officers, local government officials, and non-government organizations.”

Interestingly, Chikiamco does declare in The Way Forward that Aquino’s “biggest failure is his failure to apply Daang Matuwid to all public officials, whether they are political opponents or friends, party mates, family or allies.”

Pforr notes the controversies surrounding the Priority Development Assistance Fund and the Disbursement Acceleration Program, and the curious fact that, despite President Aquino “gloats about the economic performance of his administration,” the number of people considered poor hovers around “55%” (quoting a Social Weather Stations second-half of 2013 survey) amidst a 2014 Forbes Asia report that the “wealth of the 50 richest people in the Philippines reached $74 billion.”

This makes Pforr ask, quite reasonably indeed, if the “huge wealth disparity” is actually the “biggest national financial scandal of all?”

Dangerous Waters (2015) is available at Popular Bookstore (in Quezon City).

Finally, a book I haven’t read yet but I do hope would be a good Christmas gift to myself: The Thriving Society: On the Social Conditions of Human Flourishing.

For those of us who think that the Philippines is headed in the wrong direction, well, many Americans think the same of their country. And according to Witherspoon Institute’s James Stoner and Harold James, The Thriving Society collects the thoughts of some of the US’ most distinguished scholars, with the “aim to help the public understand what elements make up a society where people can flourish. They also point out the reasons for some of the problems we currently experience and indicate several avenues for reform.”

The core of the book is Robert P. George’s essay, “Five Pillars of a Decent and Dynamic Society.” According to him, these five pillars are the person, the family, the law and government, the university, and the market.

The Thriving Society (2015) is available through the Witherspoon Institute.