Thursday, September 27, 2007

Effort, Effortless

* This breaks the flow of the recent essays. Back to habitus.

It is easy to think that self-advancement is only possible through hard work. The reality is that successful self-advancement is possible through a combination of hard work and good strategy with an emphasis on good strategy, rather than hard work.

It is a strange phenomenon, for example, that obtaining a Masters degree in the Philippines is infinitely more difficult than obtaining a Masters degree (anywhere) abroad. I have experienced firsthand and witnessed through the experiences of my friends the difficulty of obtaining a Masters degree in the Philippines. On the other hand, I have heard from my friends and former students that obtaining a Masters degree abroad is easy. I have heard stories of how masteral work abroad is comparable to undergraduate work in the Philippines, theses being the equivalent of long essays submitted in local universities. Of course, it is the getting there that is difficult, which is why those with deep pockets or good connections get further ahead compared to those who only have brilliant minds in terms of being able to enter prestigious universities even if these students who are economically or socially endowed may not possess the sharpest brains in the universe.

And yet despite the fact that local Masteral degrees put you through the wringer while courses abroad are relatively easy, it is the foreign degree that has more economic and social value. Good strategy trumps hard work in this case.

In many fields, hard work is not even to be associated with a demonstration of technical knowledge or technical skill but could take the form of giving a “good performance” (even if that performance has very little substance) or good relations (social capital is after all capital that takes effort to accumulate) or good presentation of the self (which is why people say socially processing their bodies to make themselves “presentable” takes a lot of hard work). All of these investments pay off more than a demonstration of technical knowledge or technical skill not because of the amount of effort put into them but because to begin with, they constitute good strategy.

Next Post: Friday, October 5. Nouveau Riche

Saturday, September 22, 2007

The Social Limits to Equity

Almost 10 years ago I read a book by Fred Hirsch entitled The Social Limits to Growth. My reading of the book is that it is essentially a critique of socialism which, according to some interpretations, strives for equality of all.

Rather than approaching the problem as that of the impossibility of designing a system that will generate economic equality, Hirsch asserts that the true limits to socialism are found in what he calls the social limits which I take to mean is the impossibility of social equality.

Humans have a natural need to distinguish themselves from other humans not merely in the sense of difference but in the sense of hierarchies. In Hirsch's architectonic, humans struggle to distinguish themselves vertically from others, to set themselves apart on another, higher level relative to others.

Therefore, the whole notion of economic equality is bound to fail because people will resist attempts at generating homogeniety by placing everyone on a single level. Such homogeniety can only be enforced through force (and even then, the fact that there are those who control that force and there are those on whom that force is applied already denotes inequality).

Softer approaches call for growth with equity and the most popular form of this is the basic needs approach. The call here is not for equality but for all to have access to certain basic needs. Hirsch's argument here is that this is all fine and dandy but the consequence of ensuring basic needs for all is the need for those who always had their basic needs to feel the need to re-establish some measure of distinction from those who are newly non-poor. An analogy here is that when minimum wages are raised, everybody's wages have to increase because heirarchies have to be maintained. So the consequence of ensuring basic needs or raising minimum wages is that while poverty defined by some “objective” standard is addressed, it will never ever be able to erase the whole notion of some being (relatively) poorer than others.

Next Post: Friday, September 28.

Thursday, September 13, 2007

The Competitive Filipino

Filipinos are a very competitive people but they fail to recognize it. They criticize it in others and even identify a phenomenon for it (the talangka) mentality but they fail to recognize it in themselves.

One phenomenon that has not been adequately explained is the phenomenon of Filipinos doing better in other countries than in their own country. I think this can be accounted for by two things.

First, people in other countries are not ashamed to admit that they are competing, and in fact, people are encouraged to compete. There is no effort wasted on the act of misrecognizing competition. Competition is laid bare for all to see.

Here in the Philippines, relations are never viewed as being competitive (except for the higher levels of competition, ex. for an award, for a promotion). That is why a person who is considered competitive is looked down upon. That is why exhortations are made for the values of pakikisama and pagkakaisa usually by the dominant who try to forestall competition.

But the reality is that the state of competition is everywhere in the Philippines (made more intense by the fact that it is misrecognized). We see it the talangka mentality. We see it in the propensity for backroom gossip and personal commentaries even during work hours. We see it in classroom settings where students who are excellent are considered arrogant/ mayabang. We see it in the competition for space on the road and in public utility vehicles.

Second, there are a great number of competitors in the Philippines, referring not principally to the population size (but of course that also matters) but to the size of the population who are neither “above the competition” (i.e. above a certain level of competition) or who are too weak to compete. In other countries, most people are competing on another level and the Filipinos who enter do not compete on that same level and on the level in which they do compete, there are very few people (ex. nurses, caregivers, maids; occupations which the locals shun). It is also true that within the level they compete, they are ascendant for various reasons (because they know some English and they are maalaga or maybe because their salaries which are relatively smaller than the salary of the locals mean more to them than it means to the locals (who are surprised that Filipinos are willing to work so hard for so little) and so they work harder).

Next Post: Friday, 21 September

Thursday, September 06, 2007

Unconsciously Competitive

There are some people who strike others as being competitive. But among those who are identified as being competitive, there are those who would deny that they are competitive. At first, I thought those who seem competitive but deny that they are competitive are merely projecting themselves in an acceptable way but know they are competing. Now I realize that they really think that they are not competing. Now I realize that they really are competing despite their sincere denials.

To some extent, the old adage, beauty, or in this case, being competitive is in the eyes of the beholder and now I realize it also is. Those who brand others as competitive are competitive themselves, otherwise the branding would be an irrelevant act not worth making. But the competitiveness of the labeler does not detract from the fact that those perceived as being competitive are really competitive.

Those who are competitive (and isn't everyone competitive?), who sincerely think they are not competing believe that they are merely behaving as they think they ought to. They are merely acting out their social position, walking down a path that seems absolutely natural for them to take. Without realizing it, by acting out their social positions and by walking down the path that is laid out for them, they are competing in so far as their actions have consequences on their share of the market for economic capital, social capital and prestige. When others think that the actions of these individuals leads to certain consequences in terms of the market for various resources, then they are branded as competitive.

The natural defense of those labeled as such would of course be to say things like they are just doing their jobs, or they are misunderstood, or they are victims of envy, or they aren't doing anything wrong or any other kind of legitimation except for the naked fact that they are in the market for resources. But for these individuals who misrecognize their actions, their act of taking resources is simply like taking champagne from the tray of a waiter who offers the champagne to them. Reaching for resources (not even struggling for them) is a legitimate act which they would not consider competition.

The real winners in society are those who are acknowledged to deserve the resources that are in fact consider “theirs” for the having (not even for the taking). These individuals are not even seen by others as competing for resources. In their case, the misrecognition that all individuals are competitive is universal, affecting both the person whose entitlements are publicly acknowledged and the public that does the acknowledging.

Next Post: Friday, September 14. The Competitive Filipino