Friday, March 07, 2008

Are We Poor Because We're Lazy?

It hurts when you hear something that rings true. Last week a Dutch national was banned from the country for saying "unkind" remarks in the NAIA.
NAIA-BI officials reported that Kalka allegedly refused to answer routine questions from immigration officer Fortunato Manahan who was on duty at the NAIA-BI counter. He asked her purpose in coming to the Philippines and after being politely advised to fill up the disembarkation form, she refused to do so.
Probably feeling harassed, she retaliated by saying "You Filipinos are fucking lazy! That is why you are poor."

I have given this some thought, and wonder at its validity. Is there a direct causal relation between laziness and poverty? That is, are we poor because we're lazy? Or are we lazy because we're poor? These are value-laden words, emotive words. They are both pejorative - words that trigger bad, distasteful things in our heads. Poor (distasteful). Lazy (distasteful). So in a single retort of a harassed hollandaise who dared venture in our little corner of the Third World, she labelled us with two distasteful adjectives.

But before we go on with this essai, do we know what we mean when we say "poor" and "lazy"?

Poverty is relative. It means lack of wealth. It only acquires meaning when it is compared with presence of wealth. Wealth is measurable by its physical manifestation - the presence of objects with value. Poverty, lack of wealth, then becomes visible. Because poverty is relative and only makes sense when compared with others' lack or possession of objects, then poverty is social.

Before the birth of capitalism five centuries back, economic historians estimate that roughly everyone in the world had the same level of per capita income. Therefore, everyone was equally poor. Or equally rich. I'm not sure how they measured poverty back then. I'm assuming they could measure it by making estimates of not only to the capacities of various societies in wealth generation (producing valuable objects), but also the quality of life - people's lifespans, birthrates, mortality rates, etc.

Today, while the world has tremendous wealth, this wealth only makes sense because there is also tremendous poverty. In the Philippines, possession of 1 motor vehicle is a sign of wealth. In Australia, it does not mean wealth. In Australia, not having enough money to purchase a car is poverty. In the Philippines, skipping a meal is poverty. If everyone in the Philippines had to skip a meal a day, then there would be no poverty (in the Philippines).

But then we know that in other societies, people live in what is judged to be better living conditions, so again poverty rears its head because there is another basis of comparison. We become envious and strive to approximate those living conditions. We know that we are poor because the Netherlands, from whence Ms. Kalka came, is rich.

Given the definition above, then poverty will never go away. A recent study released by the statistics bureau said poverty rose between the years 2003 and 2006. Then you read something like this:
National growth measured in GNP increased 11 times for the Philippines from 1960 to 2000. Compared to 39 times for Malaysia, 48 times for Thailand and 172 times for Hong Kong . The distribution of this anemic growth has not become more equitable either. The richer half of families took 82% of total income in 1961. This ratio remains the same in 2000.
So, in comparison with our neighbours which were poorer some years back, our poverty has worsened, only because they became richer. What is wrong then, that our society cannot generate the same wealth as others?

Certainly, our corrupt public institutions create poverty rather than wealth. Our officials steal public funds meant to be invested in social capital. Most societies value public spending on education, infrastructure and health care among others because they know that the private sector, which operates on principles of profit by assuring private consumption, could not possibly provide private access to roads for example. Education and health care are a society's investments in its own people. So, when our public institutions steal resources which came from us (taxes) and are meant to be spent on us, this creates poverty.

How do bad infrastructure create poverty? Time is gold, they say. Time is money. In capitalist wealth creation, everything is subject to the discipline of time. You need to get to your office at 9:00 am, so you can do X amount of work at X amount of time to generate X amount of "productivity" on behalf of your company. Barring personal impediments, the only thing preventing you from getting to work on time is traffic caused by poor urban planning, congestion (among others). So two hours on the road, on a bus, in a jeepney doing nothing (that generates wealth) has prevented you from reporting to work on time, lessening your "productivity" and your company's profits.

A business' reason for being is to generate profit. If it does not do so, it is not a business. Paramount to business decisions are costs. Labour and inputs (materials needed to create commodities or services) are expected costs.

Traffic (due to bad infrastructure among others) is a cost that could be eliminated. A location that exacts costs such as traffic is not conducive to maximising wealth creation (in this instance through a unit such as a business). A business will try to cut costs by a number of means - trying to find cheaper inputs, relocating to an area where there is less traffic (but relocation in itself is costly), or investing in new technologies (again this is costly). So a business, as a unit of wealth generation, will cut costs in areas of least resistance. This usually means making its people work harder.

I say this with absolutely no ideological malice. That is how the cookie crumbles. This just highlights that poverty and wealth are two sides of the same coin. More than just statistics, they are symptoms of how we as human beings relate to each other.

So, going back to traffic. If we eliminate traffic as a cost - this will improve our productivity as participants in wealth creation.

How does poor health and education spending contribute to poverty? That should be self-explanatory.

Poverty is a symptom. Poverty is a symptom that the ingredients with which we create wealth - raw materials, people, technologies (know-how/ways of doing), public policies - are arranged in such a manner that does not maximise wealth creation.

Poverty is a symptom of waste. Wasted people, wasted abilities, wasted energies, wasted lives, social costs. We are a country of 85 million potential talents. How much of these potentials are wasted?

We go back to the question then, of why we are poor. Are we poor because we're lazy? Or lazy because we're poor?

Laziness is time spent not working. Like poverty/wealth, laziness only acquires meaning when defined against work. If all of us were stop "working" all at once, then we would eliminate laziness.

Our bureaucracy is notoriously lazy. This is probably because there exist public posts that are redundant - they exist because in developing countries, governments are still one of the major sources of employment. Again this behooves us the urgency for the creation of other industries to absorb and harness people's labour and talents.

We have all been to government offices haven't we? We are all witnesses to laziness in the public sector. Going to the LTO (for whatever reason) on East Avenue is a prime example of wasted time and wasted lives. I am not surprised that the hollandaise's contact with our bureaucracy has left a sour taste in her mouth.

Well, what about laziness in the private sector? Are you lazy? Am I lazy? Are you not working? Am I not working? The answer will probably no. We all work, some very hard indeed (depends on how we qualify "hard.") Traditional, non-mechanised farming is back-breaking hard work, no qualifications needed. All that labour...and for what?

I have mentioned before Mang Tom, our newspaper (old)boy back home. That is an example of a man who works very hard indeed. But for what?

I know there exist people who have absolutely no incentive to work - thus they laze. What little income they get they spend on non-wealth generating activities. One might say, they engage in rabid consumption - of alcohol and nicotine, gambling and entertainment (not coincidentally the more robust industries in our country). Some engage in criminal activities because in doing so their "talents" yield greater wealth. There are public criminals and there are private ones. Evidently, public criminality is the best means to accumulate wealth in our society.

But we can't all be public criminals.

Again I ask the question, are we poor because we're "fucking" lazy? Or poor because the ways in which our society generates wealth is inefficient? That is, wasteful (of resources, time, money, talents)?

If we are going to play the capitalist game full on then we might as well do it good. Let's talk serious wealth creation first. Wealth redistribution can come when there is wealth to redistribute.

Where do we start? All examples point to a strong set of public institutions (i.e. State) which are relatively free from non-public interests. Institutions which will strategise to create social arrangements for maximum wealth creation and redistribution on behalf of the public. Social arrangements which will efficiently harness people's labour and safeguard social justice (however we choose to define that).

Damn, this blog post is meandering bordering on senseless. Also circular. I need to start my research on Iran.


erasmusa said...

good points there. it's hard to generalize. we are not poor because of laziness. this charge has been used by colonizers in every territory they occupy. (perhaps the mindset of the dutch as ex-colonizers remains?) however, some people react to poverty negatively. they feel that they cannot get out of their situation, they become "lazy" (that is, content to survive) instead of striving to improve their lives. therefore, there is no way for them to be better off economically other than winning the lotto. but that's just some people :)

cathy said...

Great post! You should read Guns, Germs and Steel. For me this book provided a good explanation for why some countries are poorer than others without going on a "racist" route.

Michael said...

This video explain it all. :)

Jericho B. del Puerto said...

It works and affects both ways. Laziness can lead to poverty, while poverty can also lead to laziness (for lack of things to do).

Bringing the topic apart from the viewpoint of colonizers and all, I think the greatest factor behind the two (laziness and poverty) lies with the mentality and the values that the people has acquired.

On poverty, think about what you've learned when you were young. Where do you hear the words "blessed are the poor for they shall enter the kingdom of God"?

On laziness, whoever said Juan Tamad was lazy when he was lying under a tree? It was the Spaniards/Americans! They didn't realize that Juan was taking a rest after waking up very early in order to farm. During noon time, farmers like Juan take a rest after hard labor and to avoid the searing heat of the sun. The colonizers didn't get it, nor did the Filipino colonial dogs.

Taken all together, the question lies not whether there is a causality of poverty and laziness; rather, whether our minds have been honed to accept such crap!

The Furies - Minerva said...

Ahahay, some Westerners are just so lazy themselves. They cannot even fill up a disembarkation card. Seriously, it is not laziness but as you put it, inefficiency. Western Europe has perhaps more lazy people than the entire Philippine population due to welfare benefits. Fortunately for them, their economies are efficient. Unfortunately, ours is not.

DJB Rizalist said...

We are poor because we are happy the way we are. No one truly unhappy with her state can be kept from her fortune because as ofws prove everyday, what happens to you really does depend on you most of the time.

sparks said...


Your reasoning explains laziness from a metaphysical point of view. I am not. I suppose you can say I am looking at the "culture of laziness" from a materalist point of view.

As I have explained, laziness in this context only exists if there is "work." And it isn't just ordinary work, but work that is "disciplined" by capitalism. We all "work" to make money to survive.

If we lived on a deserted island and hunted, fished and constructed our nipa huts all day long, that is NOT "work."

Like I said, I say this matter-of-factly. This is how we live today. For most of us, we work very hard and it yields little wealth. Why is that? And for those who have, as I said, no incentive to participate in "legimitate" (i.e. not deemed criminal) economic activities, they choose not to work. In their reasoning, what's the point?

sparks said...


Precisely. Australians are PROUD to call themselves "lazy" in that they value so much their leisure time. Time away from "work." Shops here close at 5pm! In my company, nobody wants to work on weekends. And my bosses have a hard time hiring people who will.

But Australia (and Europe) is obviously in a different stage of development already. Their societies can AFFORD not to work.

sparks said...

We are poor because we are happy the way we are.

Oh come on DJB. From my peers back home, all I hear are complaints. But instead of wanting to find solutions, they feel the only way out of misery is to go abroad. We can't possibly export everyone. We can't all export our women to take care of other people.

Capital infusion from our migrant labour is a temporary solution. We better find long-term ones pretty soon.

Anonymous said...

We are poor because we waste our time and money reading stupid blogs like Brian Gorrell's. It's time we have our priorities in life checked.