Thursday, 21 January 2010

On being a columnist

John Mangun
Outside the Box
Business Mirror

It is said that you read what you want to hear; that is, you listen to the commentaries that support the opinion that you already hold.

I suppose then that you might read my words because overall, perhaps I tend to see the Philippines a little more positively and optimistically than other columnists in the local newspapers. And, of course, all pundits will swear on a stack of Bibles that we are not biased but are only relaying the truth, backed by our brilliant, thoughtful wisdom. But it is the truth as we see it, filtered through our own personal bias, whether we will admit it or not.

I do not have problems reading a prejudiced opinion which displays complete partiality. In fact, sometimes it is sort of fun when a columnist declares that his/her political choice can nearly walk on water. You know where the heart lies, emphasis on the word “lies.” Besides you can always find some other opinion that will assure you that the candidate in question is obviously the tool of the devil.

You might think that talking about the economy and business would be free of opinion and center only on “the facts.” Nothing could be farther from the truth. In fact, opinions on “the economy” are probably filled with as much intrigue, half-lies, and false gossip as any show-biz column.

You also might think that economic numbers are just numbers and, therefore, should always be factual. The fact is that the gross domestic product (GDP) numbers from every country are right up there on the truth scale with political advertisements and weight-loss remedies. Every government plays with the GDP numbers to its political advantage. We never know the truth until several months and several revisions after the first estimates are released.

But the moment the data are revealed, everyone jumps to give his opinion of what the inaccurate numbers mean. And I am as guilty of that as the next person.

Yet often, there is not a lot of intellectual honesty in the opinion columns because of that old technique of telling half-truths. The other day a respected “expert” whose predictions for the Philippines in 2009 were almost 100-percent wrong, ventured that poverty had dramatically increased during the Arroyo administration. That is certainly true in terms of absolute numbers as the population naturally grows. What is more important is the percentage of the population living in the poverty category and the definition of poverty change too often as the political winds blow one way or the other.

Grant for a moment that there are more people living in poverty in the Philippines since 2000 and also grant that the percentage of the poor has increased. But what is an accurate measure of “poverty”? Income? Stored wealth? Possessions?

The factors that you use to measure something like “poverty” can support almost any conclusion. For example: Using the data of the respectable World Resources Institute (WRI), poverty has decreased in the Philippines by 23 percent since 1990. Do you believe that? Allow me to “prove” it to you.

Based on the minimum daily calorie intake necessary to keep a person from being undernourished, 21 percent of Filipinos were underfed in 1990. That number dropped to 16 percent by 2005 and is probably lower now. That is a drop of over 20 percent in 15 years, proof positive that the government’s poverty-reduction programs are working.

And look at this fact to show poverty has dropped. Per-capita consumption of beef, higher priced than chicken, pork, or fish, is up over 50 percent since 1992. Obviously that could not happen unless overall poverty is down. Or not.

We all, writers and readers, tend to take information, solid, reliable information and make conclusions that cannot be properly taken from that information even though it seems to make sense. Take this, for example: The United Nations 2010 Education for All Global Monitoring Report says that in the Philippines, there is a four-year education gap between the richest and poorest households. The gap in India is seven years, meaning rich households study seven years longer. That is a fact.

From the Times of India: “India had over 300,000 call agents in 2007 when the Philippines had just half of that. Today, India and the Philippines have an equal strength of 350,000 people in voice BPO. Raman Roy, regarded as the father of India’s BPO business, says that ‘Quality suffers because of the lack of proper educational and training platforms.’”

What conclusions can we make? One columnist degraded the Philippines outsourcing business by saying that the rise of BPO shows that call-center agents come from the “richer” families having more education, therefore, BPO does not help the “average” Filipino. Another says that our rise in the BPO business, which requires basic English, shows how our educational system is failing in that if you were smarter, you would not work in a call center. Yet another says that we are smarter but settling for lower-quality employment in the call centers.

Commentators about the economy tend to speak as if their analyses were science. Not a chance. The information we use is biased and frequently faulty. Our opinions are often just as agenda-driven as any political opinion. Our conclusions are regularly what we want to believe and not what actually is.

A journalism student recently asked me about being a columnist and what a potential journalist should avoid. I replied that the day the columnist believes his words and ideas are more important and better than anyone else’s is the day he begins writing editorial fiction and propaganda.

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