Wednesday, November 04, 2009

Paging Mr. Weber

Every time I finish up a trip to Manila I'm left with a puzzle. The population is young, energetic, and friendly. Many have a decent education, speak pretty good English, and have a cultural affinity with the United States. Their country sits astride some of the most important trade routes in Asia. But despite some signs of progress, the Philippines just can't quite seem to break out economically as other Asian countries have done. For every three steps forward they take, it's always seemingly matched by two steps back. Why?

If you went back to 1955 and compared the Philippines and South Korea to try to determine which country would emerge as an economic Asian Tiger fifty years hence, I think most would have bet on the Philippines. South Korea had just been devastated by a civil war that it had barely survived. Its capital city was still within artillery range of an aggressive authoritarian regime that showed nothing but hostile intentions toward it. Meanwhile, the Philippines was ten years removed from World War II. It had strong economic, cultural, and military ties with the United States and was strategically positioned in an emerging area. Yet fifty-five years later, South Korea is an economic powerhouse while the Philippines remains a laggard. Why?

There's probably not one pat answer to the question, but I have to wonder how much of a role religion has played. It's a little unsettling to discuss, but the reality is that countries that have had a strong Catholic influence generally have not historically been strong economic players. In particular, you can see this in countries that have inherited their Catholicity from Spain, as in the case of the Philippines. Look no further than Latin and South America for numerous examples of this trend.

Now, one could question whether it's the Catholic religion specifically or other cultural factors passed on from their Spanish colonizers that have impacted these countries economic development, but it appears indisputable that there is a connection somewhere. I'll leave it to more nimble minds than mine (like Guy Sorman in Economics Does Not Lie) to explore this mystery more thoroughly. It does seem pretty clear that who countries were colonized by continues to play a role in their economies today. While the South Koreans were none too happy to be under the Japanese thumb for most of the first half of the twentieth century, being a Japanese colony likely influenced their ability to build the strong economy they now enjoy.

A few more random thoughts and pictures from a week in Manila:

- I've been told that the Christmas season in the Philippines begins sometime in September. It's always a little bizarre to be sitting in a restaurant or even more so outside at a public park in Manila and hearing Christmas music when it's close to ninety with high humidity. Especially so when the selection of songs seem to all involve snow, ice, cold, or frightful winter weather.

- Usually when I see cops on city streets I feel safer. However, the shotgun-toting security guards that find all over Manila don't exactly inspire the same level of confidence. The first day we were there the newspaper had a front page story of an attempted robbery at a jewelry store in a mall. The thieves were disguised as bomb squad members and packing M-16s. It just so happened that the security detail for a Congressman was at the mall having lunch when this went down and they responded to the scene. A firefight ensued (yes, inside the mall), one of the perps was shot dead, and the others escaped. The paper featured a large color photo of the deceased lying amidst a field of shattered glass. Made you think twice about doing any shopping.

- As did the fact that most mall stores in Manila have a ratio of clerks to customers of about seven to one. Yes, there are usually more employees in the store than customers. I'm not real big on shopping anyway and after about ten minutes of browsing and thirteen lilting sing-song "Hi sirs" from the array of sales associates deployed throughout the store, I was usually more then ready to hit the exit.

- Pictures:

Statue of Benito Aquino in Makati

Parking garage in Makati

Manila Cathedral in Intramuros

Another shot of the Cathedral

Fountain in Fort Santiago

Gate in Fort Santiago

Closeup of gate

Sisyphus Adds:
Benjamin Franklin considered this question in a May 9, 1753 letter to Peter Collinson:
"I have heard it remarked that the Poor in Protestant Countries on the Continent of Europe, are generally more industrious than those of Popish Countries, may not the more numerous foundations in the latter for the relief of the poor have some effect towards rendering them less provident. To relieve the misfortunes of our fellow creatures is concurring with the Deity, 'tis Godlike, but if we provide encouragements for Laziness, and supports for Folly, may it not be found fighting against the order of God and Nature, which perhaps has appointed Want and Misery as the proper Punishments for, and Cautions against as well as necessary consequences of Idleness and Extravagancy."

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