The national buffet

The View from Taft


August 22, 2013

I enjoy social events with buffets. It’s a joy to explore the variety of dishes available and the interesting ways they’re presented. I like chatting up the chefs and servers about particular dishes, even asking them how some of the more exotic dishes are made. But mostly, I enjoy having the chance to eat what I like, in the amount I like and at the pace I like. Freedom and opportunity make for a great buffet.

But buffets can be disappointing, too. Some dishes run out because the caterers didn’t prepare enough food for everyone. But quite often, dishes run out because those closest to the buffet table get more than their share. Some of them build architectural wonders on their plates, piling them with so much food while being oblivious to the others who also need to eat. I admit I’ve gone overboard myself a few times when I was nearest the buffet table, getting too much leche flan because I like it so much and then looking guiltily from my seat as other guests discover that their share of the sweet dessert is gone.

I have even managed to be given a container of the dessert to take home by one of the servers I had befriended. I took advantage of my relationship with the server to bring home shares of the dessert to my family.

This is why buffet organizers now call guests by table and assign servers to apportion the food for each guest. Guests from the farthest tables are therefore guaranteed a filling share of the food. These practices cramp my freedom but I cooperate for the sake of a fairer buffet.

The reason for this rather lengthy buffet discussion is to draw a useful analogy: for most Filipinos, our country is one terribly unfair buffet. Not only do the privileged have more access to the country’s opportunities, they often take a lion’s share of the benefits from these opportunities. Worse, their connections to the powers-that-be guarantee for them even higher shares through time. The poor can only look on helplessly as they struggle to eke out a decent life.

Why is our national buffet so unfair? Why are opportunities so bountiful for a few who take advantage of such while the rest can barely make ends meet? And why do we keep discovering that the very people selected to serve the people end up favoring the more privileged, leading to a worsening transfer of wealth from the poor to the rich? Delano Villanueva, former economist at the International Monetary Fund and author of Macroeconomic Policies for Stable Growth, described this situation aptly as “social extraction” – a process where the elite get politicians on its side to increase the returns on its already substantial capital advantage while underpaying workers, most of whom are the poor. Villanueva further explained that “throughout Philippine economic history the successful attempts by the rich minority to raise its income share had resulted in a more unequal distribution of income and wealth ….”

But the system of exclusion doesn’t stop here. Ifzal Ali and Hyun Son, economists at the Asian Development Bank and authors of Measuring Inclusive Growth, reported that in the early 2000s, the country’s secondary educational system had been increasingly benefiting children from richer households more than poorer ones. They also reported that the richer had higher access to clinics and hospitals where better quality healthcare was available. Since the poor mainly depend on their labor for their income, improving the returns on such labor through education and healthcare is essential. The relative lack of access to education and healthcare eventually lead to less productive and remunerative work for the poor, further reinforcing the poverty cycle.

Can inclusive growth ever be achieved in our country? The government seems to be moving in the right direction in terms of accelerating land reform and making better education and healthcare more accessible for the poor. More businesses are changing their behaviors to help uplift external stakeholders. But these actions will take some time to yield results. Meanwhile, the lack of controls on large business groups and monopolies enable the elite to amass even more assets. It is definitely time for an anti-trust law to open elite businesses to more competition. On the part of big business, it is always best to give labor its rightful share of the fruits of business activity.

If our government can lessen social extraction by being vigilant organizers of the national buffet then, with the cooperation of the business elite, every Filipino family will finally have its just deserts.

Dr. Benito Teehankee is chairman and associate professor in the Management and Organization Department of the Ramon V. del Rosario College of Business at De La Salle University. He may be emailed at