Nobody at home (2)

Published by rudy Date posted on May 10, 2011

Last week brought the highly welcome news of the untimely (i.e. long-overdue) demise of Osama bin Laden.

Guided by intelligence obtained from al-Qaeda captives in Guantanamo through the rough interrogation methods sanctioned under George Bush, and using US Navy SEAL warriors run by a special operations command integrated under George Bush, the long arm of Uncle Sam—after a decade-long manhunt—finally plucked Osama from the face of this earth and sent him straight to the infernal regions below, where we hope he will spend the rest of eternity.

The Biblical reference is irresistible in the case of this lunatic, who invoked the writings of one of the three Abrahamic religions in order to instigate or inspire the wholesale murder of innocents belonging, not just to the other two Abrahamic faiths, but even to his own. The internecine slaughter in Iraq, or the fanatical Taliban in Afghanistan, are some examples of how the poison peddled by Osama and the virulent Wahhabi version of his faith have set even his fellow Muslims against each other.

This is a man, dear reader, who would not have hesitated a nanosecond to kill you, your family, and everyone else around you—whoever you are, wherever you are—just for being in his way. Now we can rejoice that he is no longer in human company, thanks to our American friends, Allah’u akbar!

***

Last week we took a look at the “Leadership” section of President Aquino’s Social Contract with the Filipino People and arrived at the depressing conclusion that, so far, nobody’s at home at the Palace. This would help explain why, later that week, the latest SWS poll disclosed a further erosion in his net popularity ratings, from +64 to +46, even as those of many Cabinet members had improved.

Today we go to the “Economics” section, where the first thing that jumps out at us is the ignorance of facts and economics betrayed in both parts of the “from/to” format adopted by the Palace spinmeisters. It’s bad enough that their prescriptives are failing the test of practical execution. It’s even worse if their descriptives are also way off the mark, suggesting that these guys—wittingly or not—aren’t quite in touch with the real world.

To illustrate, here’s promise number six: “From government policies influenced by well-connected private interests, to a leadership that executes all the laws of the land with impartiality and decisiveness.” The problem here is this: If “well-connected private interests” are supposed to be the villains, then you can kiss goodbye to the entire notion of public-private partnerships (PPP), which will never work without private partners who are both well-connected and influential.

This isn’t just a case of unfortunate semantics. It shows a lack of appreciation for the way government and business work together in a modern democracy. And this shallowness is also evidenced by the cavalier attitude of the President to the investors he’s supposed to be wooing. In an earlier piece I mentioned his dismissal of no less than the CEO of Hanjin during the Korean company’s latest new-ship launch in Subic. More recently, Aquino has unceremoniously skipped scheduled appointments with the Chambers of Commerce of Indonesia and Vietnam, for no good reason.

Promise number seven: “From treating the rural economy as just a source of problems, to recognizing farms and rural enterprises as vital to achieving food security and more equitable economic growth, worthy of re-investment for sustained productivity.”

Well. If the President can’t even admit that we have problems in the rural sector, then he won’t be getting anywhere near a solution in our lifetime. By comparison, his predecessor faced those problems head-on and came up with a comprehensive action program that she dubbed “FIELDS” for its key components: fertilizer, irrigation and infrastructure, extension, loans, dryers & other post-harvest facilities, and seeds.

This program wasn’t a state secret. It was simply common sense crafted into a strategy that was made to work well. The President can pick up a lot of valuable insights from its history, if he will just open his mind instead of trying to make us believe that the only problems we have in agriculture are imported rice and the alleged fertilizer fund scam.

***

Promise number eight: “From government anti-poverty programs that instill a dole-out mentality, to well-considered programs that build capacity and create opportunity among the poor and the marginalized in the country.” The ignorance—or bad faith—behind this statement is evident in the way this administration has mongrelized Mrs Arroyo’s conditional cash transfer program into a bloated dole-out scheme, a likely bureaucratic boondoggle, and a potential slush fund for the 2013 elections.

The real intention behind these cash transfers—which Aquino misses entirely—was never to just put money in the pockets of the poor—a mere palliative—but more importantly, to use the promise of that money to persuade the poor to adopt positive behaviors, like sending their kids to school or going for maternity check-ups. But if you double the list of beneficiaries overnight, including families who’re nowhere near a school or a maternity clinic, how can these behaviors be learned by them?

It’s one thing to understand what “capacity” issues mean in practice, and another thing entirely to mindlessly bandy the word about together with the other slogans this administration is in love with.

Promise number nine: “From a government that dampens private initiative and enterprise, to a government that creates conditions conducive to the growth and competitiveness of private businesses, big, medium and small.”

So far the verdict from the investors the President ought to be courting is a discouraging one. As mentioned in an earlier piece, investor confidence—together with consumer confidence—is down, according to surveys done by the Asian Business Advisory Council and our own Bangko Sentral. And here’s what the highly respected business magazine The Economist had to say about Aquino’s hallmark anti-corruption threnody:

“…The president’s approach to fighting corruption… is to punish the sins of the past rather than try to prevent crimes in future. Mr. Aquino has proposed few reforms to the system. His administration’s reasoning is that the institutions for fighting corruption already exist; they just need to be put to work properly… Recent history gives little reason to think his approach will succeed.”

***

And last in Aquino’s litany of promises for the economy, number ten: “From a government that treats its people as an export commodity and a means to earn foreign exchange, disregarding the social cost to Filipino families, to a government that creates jobs at home, so that working abroad will be a choice rather than a necessity; and when its citizens do choose to become migrant workers, their welfare and protection will still be the government’s priority.”

This is a classic example of Presidential triple-speak: castigating the successful policies of his predecessor (i.e. her aggressive training, marketing, and protection of our migrants), while shamelessly grabbing the credit for the benefits she achieved (high remittances, strong currency, consumption-led recovery), but at the same time failing to do his share in bringing forward those same policies (his absence from the side of our workers executed in China, evacuated from natural disaster in Japan, rescued from political unrest in Libya and elsewhere in the Middle East).

As usual, it was government officials on the ground who had to cover up for nobody being at home in the Palace during these crises. And this is happening not only abroad, but right here as well.

The latest example of nobody at home came up during the recent face-off between employers and labor unions over the recurrent issue of raising the minimum wage. Since our wages—no matter how low—are still higher than wages in countries like Thailand, Indonesia, or Vietnam, it should be evident that the real problem here is not low wages, but low productivity that prevents our workers from earning their way up to higher wages. For so long as the productivity-to-wage ratios in our country remain low, investors will refuse to come in, or else pull up stakes and leave. And if there’s anything worse than a low wage, it’s no wage at all.

So how did the President, an economics graduate himself, weigh in on this issue with his usual loquacity? By counseling—not ordering—employers to give in to the unions “because you can afford it anyway”!

This was bad economics. It was also unfair to the employers, who were being asked to concede, not because it was correct, but because it was affordable. Most of all, this was abdicated leadership—the President passing the buck to the employers, so he could tell the unions later, “Don’t blame me, blame the capitalists. I talked to them, but they refused to listen.”

***

Does this remind you of similar cop-outs in the past—on the Luneta hostage crisis, the OFW crises, even the mini-controversy over burying former President Marcos at the Libingan ng mga Bayani—when Aquino tried to protect his own and pass the buck to others?

His spine seems to stiffen only when he’s trying to stick it to Mrs Arroyo and her family. On that score he can be absolutely fearless. In that case, maybe all future affairs of state ought to be presented as anti-Arroyo propositions every time, so that at least we’ll start seeing more leadership from this president.–Gary Olivar, Manila Standard Today

(E-mail gary.olivar@censeisolutions.com)

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