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What does an economist do?

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By Milwida M. Guevara

Milwida M. Guevara

Milwida M. Guevara

Upon reading my immigration form, the young officer looked at me and asked, “What does an economist do?”  A bit flabbergasted, I muttered something senseless.  But up to today, I am still finding the answer to his question.

By some force of habit, I write “economist” as my occupation. I use it as a shield to rationalize why my views are different. “Pasensiya na po kayo.  Ekonomista po kasi ako. (Please bear with me, I am an economist). I must admit that I say it with some haughtiness.  It is as if I belong to a special breed.

But economists are special people. They are trained not to speak unless they are backed up by data and numbers. They see beauty and wonders from looking at numbers, discovering patterns, analyzing trends, and testing relationships. They think of what numbers are telling us and what the numbers are not saying.

I remember how flustered I was when I received my first assignment from NTRC Director Ruben Trinidad. I was to do a regression analysis of the factors that affected revenues of local governments.  Numbers are not my forte since I barely passed Mr. Abola’s class in Econometrics. But with Director Trinidad’s guidance, I found that numbers in public finance have a life of their own. We worked with numbers to analyze relationships. Why do people evade taxes?  What brings about a high tax effort? Why are some societies more corrupt than the others?  We analyzed who bore the tax burden with a sense of wonder and purpose. I became hooked on the importance of fairness and justice. So upon finding out that the inclusion of services into the VAT base would make the tax more progressive, we feverishly pushed for its expansion. And since pictures speak louder than words, we translated numbers into graphs. Then Secretary Bobby de Ocampo, an economist himself, used a simple graph to demonstrate how budgetary deficits can trigger a rise in interest rate, inflation, and weak economic growth. We discovered how to make our spreadsheets sing and the tremendous power that information can bring.  A simple graph was understood by all and started the economic stability program of President FVR.

We then embarked on an endless journey to recommend policy reforms based on numbers.  We used more numbers to prove how evasion hurt government and how a shift from ad valorem to specific taxation can address the problem.  But we were amiss in translating what the numbers meant to the poor. We could have built a reform constituency if we had the gift of translating the numbers into what was meaningful to ordinary citizens.

To this day and moving on to other fields, i.e, education and governance, I still proudly wear my economics hat. I insist on measuring performance and results of our work based on numbers. We have developed scorecards to measure performance of the central and local governments.  But I believe that I have become better.  I temper my theories with the gift of listening and with immersion on what is real. I use my exposure to several disciplines –arts, sociology, religion, music, tradition, and politics, to understand the complexities of development problems. And, I have imbibed the Jesse Robredo culture of participation in designing and implementing programs, and in understanding what can work and what cannot.

I appreciate that the primary responsibility of economists is to help people make better choices on how to use limited resources to satisfy their needs and their wants.  I never fail to echo what Dr. Bernie Villegas taught me.  A resource has alternative uses and there are trade-offs in deciding to use a resource in a particular way.  When we bring up the opportunities that people forego in deciding how to spend their time and resources, they can hopefully make better choices.  Or at the very least, learn the lessons from what are foregone and traded-off.  I should stop here because I realized that some of the lessons from what we continuously give up are just too painful.

mguevara@synergeia.org.ph

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