Friday, April 18, 2014

Two Cents on Taxi Drivers

Good Friday, late afternoon.

While watching Martin Scorsese's "Taxi Driver," a friend of mine commented about how life of a cab driver must have been a very arduous one.  

She is right.

I could say it based on the statements from the taxi drivers that I have talked to. Notwithstanding Travis Bickle's (Robert De Niro's character) mental condition to which, I'd assume, was caused by war exhaustion, the 

life of a taxi driver can be tiresome and lonely. Driving around the metropolitan jungle for hours while looking for passengers is not something a college graduate with a patience level of an irate customer would like to have as a job. Long hours would have to be rendered, and daily quotas would have to bet met. Failing to do so would make them have to pay the remaining balance themselves (I forgot how the exact process goes, but you get the idea). 

This is even more grueling in holidays or Saturday evenings, where most people have their days off. Not to mention that they also have to worry about experiencing misfortune at the hands of customers and unwanted elements of society.

One of those things I enjoy doing is taking the cab on late nights where trains and jeepneys would stop operating for the day. Riding a taxi made me realize that commuting in the big city can be a less strenous, if not an enjoyable activity (of course, this also considers the hefty fares). Compared to taking the MRT or the jeepney, I've always felt safe when riding a taxi. If I had lots of dough, I sure as hell would prefer to ride a cab for my "journeys."

Looking back, there were moments where I travel with my father (the most memorable one, was during the stressful enrollment process in my first year in college), and most of them involved taking a taxi. One thing I have always noticed is that he has this habit of talking to cab drivers. In almost all cases, he manages to strike a good conversation with the driver - with topics ranging from mundane affairs (the traffic, weather, those times where Manny Pacquiao is beating the crap out of his opponents, etc) to things of significant importance (politics, economics, education, etc.). 

My father once told me that besides the inherent pleasure obtained from socializing, talking to cab drivers also helps you feel safe and secure. 

For one thing, he said, talking to them instills that sort of trust between you and the driver. He explained that in this way, you condition yourself into thinking that nothing will go wrong. This is considering all the stories we hear from the news about customers getting robbed by cabbies, or raped if their unfortunate victimes happen to be women.

With that said, cab drivers are a very interesting lot. You will be surprised to learn about the things you learn from talking to them, just as you would to a barber.

During one of my "cab episodes," the cab driver shared his experience where he was duped by a customer by paying him counterfeit paper bills. He recounted that the bills looked genuine. It was only found out that they were fake after he handed the earnings to the station. 

Another cabbie shared on how he was tricked by a customer in taking him to places and, at one opportunity, never came back to pay him the fare. To add insult to injury, his cellphone was stolen. He said (with a laugh) that he never told the people at the station about the encounter as it was "too embarrasing" to even be brought up.

Other than sharing their unfortunate experiences, they also have their two cents about the economy and politics. Sometimes, sentiments are aired regarding the government's competence (or lack thereof) in managing the country, with the common denominator being the congestions of roads and the overcrowdiness in trains. 

Another topic of interest would be of home. There are a few instances where I get to talk to a cab driver of Visayan descent ("Bisaya diay ka?"). The conversation would then go on to whether I (or the cab driver) have relatives back at home and if we go home to our respective homes now and then. 

In a serious note, there are also drivers who would tell me how fortunate I am that I was able to finish my education and find work. The stories would vary, but they would revolve around the same theme - their frustrations on not being able to finish college, or them not being able to afford sending their children to school. I would try to be as humble as I can be, and all I could come up with is to either tell them that I was just lucky, or try to change the topic. These are the kinds of conversations in which there never really is a "right" answer. 

There really is something about enjoying a good conversation with cabbies. Sometimes, you just forget about being stuck in traffic, or being stressed out of work, or being stressed about life in general. This made me realize that even for someone who prefers people to mind their own business, there still is value to be obtained in a social exchange. To reiterate, there is a lot you can learn just by talking to them.

What was the price I paid from getting to my desired destination? - A fraction of my salary.

The value I got in return from those conversations? - Priceless.

Sunday, April 13, 2014

The Philippines as the Next Asian Tiger: My Economic Musings

A few weeks ago, a friend of mine invited me to an economic briefing on the Philippines with economist Bernardo Villegas as speaker. Having attended the same seminar a year earlier, it was not much of a surprise hearing of what Mr. Villegas had to say about the country's economic climate. In the years ahead, the Philippines, he said, is going to be Asia's next tiger economy.

For people who are so accustomed to hearing about the country's mishaps, the idea that the Philippines is somehow going to be the next big thing may sound absurd. The poverty incidence has not dipped with the recent episodes of robust growth ("jobless growth"). Add to that the political issues and the Filipinos' "historical amnesia" (as one of my professors would put it), the idea seems far-fetched.

Unlike most economists, Mr. Villegas subscribes to the "population optimism" camp. To him, the Philippines is at its "sweet spot" right now. The favorable macroeconomic conditions, paired with a young population, should enable the country to emerge as one of the strongest economies in the years ahead.

"You are fortunate. You are born at the right time," Mr. Villegas said.

The economist also pointed out that unlike the miracle stories of the tiger economies, the Philippines have enough population to ensure a strong consumer base. What this means, is that the country would not have to depend too much on export-oriented strategies that countries like South Korea, Japan, and Singapore had employed in the post-war years.

I can't help but think if I am, indeed born at the right time. The thing with economics is that, like statistics, everybody can use a metric and come up with different interpretations. Having an average of around 6-8% economic growth may be commendable, but with rising unemployment, underemployment, and the poverty incidence remaining unchanged, I am not so sure of the rosy picture that is being painted.

Another thing to ponder is the unequal development among regions. When I was in high school, I've always heard of the phrase "Imperial Manila." It refers to the development bias towards Metro Manila and its adjacent regions. As of yet, the national capital region (NCR) along with the surrounding regions comprise of around two-thirds of the country's gross domestic product (GDP). It is not much of a surprise considering much of the investments come in this region through rising condominiums, highways, and malls, among others.

And then, you have the environment.

In an article that I wrote in BusinessWorld, the Philippines ranked at the bottom half of the rankings when it comes to environmental performance. Granted that it scored high on mitigating child mortality (as also indicated in the tracking of its Millennium Development Goals or MDGs), much is left to be desired when it comes to other indicators such as preserving forest covers, preserving fishing sites, and limiting air pollution.

There are, however, bright spots as far as economics is concerned.

The country is said to be making progress with providing access to drinking water and sanitation, as indicated in both the international index and the MDGs. The country's financial institutions also seems to be stable, with the Bangko Sentral ng Pilipinas (BSP) being recognized as one of the world's better performing central banks.

Also, the manufacturing sector also looks to be rebounding after years of neglect. Last year, the sector has grown considerably that there might be a "renaissance" to the lagging sector. An increase in manufacturing is said to have a huge multiplier effect, especially when considering that it can employ more workers as compared to the services sector where job requirements are more restricted to those who have a decent educational background (and a good english accent).

I can see why Mr. Villegas is optimistic to the path that the country is in. The economic fundamentals of today are way better than compared to the last few decades of economic and political turmoil. I was having a conversation with one of the audiences in the seminar and told me that indeed, the current generation are lucky. If it would only takes us months, at worst, to go find work - for them, it would take years. Not to mention the technological advances that make finding jobs easier.

So, am I really born at the right time? Time can only tell.

Journal entry #2: Change of routine

Developing a routine, they say, is necessary for success.

And yet, I remember one of my readings in my art studies class way back. I don't recall the essay word for word, but it revolved the subject of being "disinterested" due to being accustomed to a routine. It concluded that a bit of tweaking should be done in order to keep one's sanity.

And so, changing the routine I did.

I decided to contact a distant friend of mine who cross-enrolled to UP Diliman for the summer. I thought anything outside of checking my email, browsing through my news feed, and doing a bit of cleaning would break my mundane weekend routine.

Unlike most meet ups, there was no planning involved. It was an impromptu, out of the blue, proposal to meet up with someone. As I've said, just walking around the campus beats the hell out of staying in my bunk all day.

My friend requested that she tag along her "freshie" (neophytes) friends with us since they also wanted to take a look around Diliman. I don't mind, I said. The more, the merrier.

I arrived at around 11 in the morning and met them along the waiting shed near one of the university's dormitories. The first order of business was to fill our starving bellies (I haven't had breakfast). We decided to go to Area 2, a place known for its various food stalls.

I remember during my sophomore year that Area 2 was a ghost town at night. The area only has two restaurants and a siomai stand. Now, just about every house has a food stall outside. I'm glad that the food choice is a bit varied now. By the time I was about to graduate, almost every stall sold siomai and dumplings, indistinct from one another. There was a time I'd almost vomit seeing a siomai. In econspeak, the "marginal utility" to be gained at consuming one is at the negative.

But as with a thriving "business zone," mendicants also flock around to complete the economic package.

First, it was a boy who requested to hand over our empty bottles. Second, came a woman who approached us for a "donation." She made some hand signals, indicating that she was mute (with added high-pitched gibberish).

A friend of mine offered to give her food but she refused, insisting that we give money. She handed us a paper with the usual solicitation request on it. The one written at the end of the note caught our attention:

".......minimum of P20..."

One of my friends was generous enough to grant her request. As for me, I only had 19 pesos in my pocket. I did not know that they have a threshold for "giving donations" now.

After having a laugh at that episode, we decided to go to the "sunken garden." Needless to say, the freshies ended up disappointed after seeing that it was neither a garden nor it was sunken (it was, in a way... but you get the point).

By that time, it was already 3 pm. We were bored and the two of us decided to go have a drink. Yes... a drink... in the afternoon. Unsurprisingly, the freshies told us that they don't drink alcohol. I'm willing to bet that in time, they will have to indulge in a vice. I just hope it isn't cigarettes and meth.

After a few more hours of playing cards and "sharing cultures," we decided to call it a day. The neophytes bid us farewell and returned to their respective dormitories. As for the two of us, we decided to have another round of alcohol and exchanged a bit of our life stories (only that I did more of the "listening" part). We bought a pair of beer at a convenience store, but was later informed that we can't drink within the premises. I didn't know that there was a city ordinance prohibiting people to drink in public.

Before parting ways, she gave me one of her books, knowing that I am a sucker for history. I promised her that I will give her one of my books in return. I have brought with me a pile after spending around P2,000 for around 10-15 books in a book sale.

They were right, a change of routine can do wonders.