Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Number Crunching, Lying and Arroyo’s SONA

Palace poodle Alex Magno, minutes before yesterday’s SONA predicted the President will make a “very detailed, specific, technical report.” Indeed, the President is counting on most Filipinos not being able to make heads or tails of her laundry list of statistics. After all, these are the numbers she collated from the various departments. Who can dispute official government data?

Others have pored over the coded political messages couched in her hour-long speech. While remaining coy about perpetuating herself in power, Mon Casiple points out that Arroyo is not likely to leave the political scene. Manolo Quezon summed in three brief sentences the President’s core messages:

1. Don’t count me out.
2. Cha-Cha is a go.
3. We will mobilize vs.certain presidential candidates.

Popoy De Vera makes a quick assessment of GMA’s so-called accomplishments. Of eight points: balanced budget, education for all, automated election, transportation and digital infrastructure, terminate hostilities with milf and npa, healing the wounds of EDSA, electricity and water for all, opportunities for livelihood and 10 million jobs, decongest Metro Manila, develop Subic and Clark, only one item is a clear fact. The other are either complete fiction or deserve qualifiers.

While there may be no ‘smoking gun’ to tie the President to the graft and corruption scandals that have plagued her stay in power, Rep. Mong Palatino reminds us of human rights violations and the undisputed (missing) body count of militant and journalist desaparecidos.

Sassy Lawyer makes the obvious point that the President will strive to make her last address optimistic. Why indeed would she talk about her failures? Because the SONA is a highly publicized event it is a good opportunity for the president to legitimize and deodorize her incumbency. Nobody expected an inspirational tale from her. Nobody expected a rallying cry that would capture the Filipino nation’s imagination. So yes, her SONA, like her previous ones, was short on rhetoric and long on numbers and cheap shots at ‘opposition’ players.

Let us go back to the outrageous claims on the economic front. Gloria Arroyo PhD’s number crunching deserves some demystification. Aside from outright lies, they also betray false assumptions that result to her claiming the country’s ‘economic fundamentals’ are sound.

DEBT

Watching her speech yesterday, my eyebrows shot up the roof when she said she had “exorcised” the demon of foreign debt.

Far from Neutral uses IBON data to illustrate that Arroyo said an outright lie when she said that she has “exorcised” Philippine debt. By March 2009, government debt has nearly doubled from P2.17 trillion in 2000 to P4.23 trillion.

In a roundtable discussion organized by the Freedom from Debt Coalition, former Budget Secretary Boncodin presents us more hard data on the government's budget deficit and debt.

Debt owed to domestic lenders rose from P1.06 trillion in 2000 to P2.4 trillion in 2008. Debt owed to foreign lenders rose from P1.09 trillion to 1.8 trillion in 2008. And the President, dear beloved President in pink, has the gall to say she has "exorcised" debt???

FINANCIAL CRISIS

Arroyo also generously gave herself credit for ‘accomplishment’s in which she had no direct hand.
“In 2008 up to the first quarter of 2009 we stood among only a few economies in Asia-Pacific that did not shrink.”
Dr. Josef Yap of PIDS observes the drop in GDP growth rate in 2007 is consistent with the onset of the global financial crisis. And the Philippines is not unique in weathering the financial storm. He credits this to the following:

- the very limited direct exposure of the region to subprime and other related securitized products
- relatively strong bank balance sheets with a return to profitability—as impaired loans from the 1997/98 Asian financial crisis have been worked off
- improvements in risk and liquidity management
- strengthening of supervisory and regulatory systems
- moves by banks into new and profitable domestic business lines such as consumer lending.

The country has escaped the worst of the crisis because of the conservatism (dare I say backwardness?) of local financial markets. This meant financial players preferred to keep capital at home rather than play high stakes in the global casino. This conservatism probably has more to do with hard lessons learned in the 1997 financial crisis than excellent forecasting by Arroyo’s economic team.

In the same FDC roundtable mentioned earlier, another former Budget Secretary, Benjamin Diokno, presents data on falling exports.



He expects these figures to worsen in 2009 as the economies of the top 10 destinations of our exports, accounting for 84 percent of the total, are also expected to weaken.

The President was triumphant in proclaiming yesterday:
Our reforms gave us the resources to protect our people, our financial system and our economy from the worst of shocks that the best in the west failed to anticipate.

Cash handouts give the most immediate relief and produce the widest stimulating effect. Nakikinabang ang 700,000 na pinakamahihirap na pamilya sa programang Pantawid Pamilya.

We prioritize projects with the same stimulus effects plus long-term contributions to progress.
Early in the year the administration announced a P330 billion stimulus package that was supposed to target spending to save the economy. This just means the government (instead of the private sector) will spend money to promote economic activity. For example, if it commissions public work projects - this will create employment and business opportunities for construction workers and contractors.

Since the President makes no mention of the results of her stimulus package, did she plunk all P330 billion in her “Pantawid Pamilya” program?

Former National Treasurer Prof. Briones notes that of the P1.4 trillion 2009 budget, only P10 billion was allocated for the “Economic Stimulus Fund” and the rest were from normal government spending.

So, did all P10 billion go to Arroyo’s “Pantawid Pamilya” program?

POVERTY

Another outright lie is her claim that poverty has gone down during her watch.
“Bumaba ang bilang ng mga nagsasabing mahirap sila sa 47% mula 59%. Maski lumaki ang ating populasyon, nabawasan ng dalawang milyon ang bilang ng mahihirap.”
Not less than the government’s NSCB data disproves her claim! While the data may be dated at 2006 stats, the numbers categorically show a worsening of poverty incidence between 2000 and 2006 and more people now fall under the poverty threshold.

FOREIGN DIRECT INVESTMENTS

The World Economic Forum is a pow-wow of the most powerful business actors in the world. Yearly they compile a report called the “Global Competitiveness Report.” This signals to businesses where they may invest profitably. Last year, the report categorically states that foreign businesses have been avoiding the Philippines like the plague for these reasons:

1. Corruption
2. Inefficient government bureaucracy
3. Inadequate supply of infrastructure
4. Policy instability
5. Government instablity/coups



Somehow, I doubt that Speaker Nograles’ proposal to amend the constitution, supposedly to encourage investments, will attract these businesses. They will have to eliminate themselves first.

MAGICAL GDP GROWTH

Many experts now agree that GDP is not a sufficient measure of a country’s economic welfare. As the adage goes, if you cut trees the GDP goes up. If you have two cars smash into each other on the road, the GDP goes up. This is because GDP accounts for activities that go into producing products (things) and services. It is an ‘amoral’ measure in that it posts a plus for trees cut but cannot measure the costs of the same. Obviously, we all need trees for clean air.

Nevertheless, let us try to unpack the mystery that is Gloria Arroyo’s bullish GDP! Yesterday she happily announced:

“…our economy posted uninterrupted growth for 33 quarters; more than doubled its size from $76 billion to $186 billion. The average GDP growth from 2001 to the first quarter of 2009 is the highest in 43 years.”

Looking at the UPSE Economic Database, the figures seem to confirm a continuous upward increase in GDP from 2001 to 2008. The thing that puzzles though, and what ultimately makes experts scratch their heads, is why the so-called growth does not match other indicators to measure the over-all health of the economy.

This paper written by former NEDA head Felipe Medalla and Karl Robert Jandoc note that while GDP growth rates are on the up and up, other indicators do not go up along with them.
"We ask why is it that if economic growth is being correctly measured, many indicators and data sets are at odds with the supposedly high economic growth. Moreover, we find that Philippine growth patterns—shrinking growth of domestic absorption, exports, and imports accompanying rising output growth—do not fit the pattern in other Asian economies."
Pattern One: GDP went up even as imports contracted. These economists note that the pattern for other Asian countries show that both indicators go up at the same time. It makes sense, if the local economy is making more goods and providing more services, it will need to import materials - the most crucial of which that we lack, I think, is oil.

Pattern Two: GDP went up even as exports also contracted. Among the nine Asian countries surveyed, the Philippines again miraculously bucks the trend! There were more goods and services consumed...but we didn't export any of them?

So if GDP has enjoyed a consistent upward trend since Arroyo took over, and the products and services the economy produced were not exported, this must mean that Filipinos themselves did most of the consumption.

Medalla and Jandoc express serious doubts about the government's statistics on the strength of the Filipino's buying power. They make mention of many other inconsistencies, and here I will only mention that between Gloria's Statistics and the Family Income and Expenditure Survey.
"Now, if the obvious fact that the FIES and the NIA begun to diverge after 2000 is accepted, the question is which data set should given more weight for assessing what happened to the economy after 2000. As already pointed out, the incredibly high growth of food consumption and personal consumption growth that far exceeds the growth of purchasing power as estimated in the NIA itself already casts strong doubt on the claims that the economy has grown the fastest in recent years."
So, the GDP grew even when the Filipino's buying power did not. Allow me then to paraphrase their conclusions without jargon - something is wrong with Gloria's number crunching.

A STRONG ECONOMY BUILT ON WHAT?

After all this the President concludes: “The state of our nation is a strong economy.”

The President is not coy about her administration’s engines of growth. Her castle rests on our young and talented serving BPOs and the export of more of the young and talented to all corners of the world.

Why I do not think this is sustainable and will hardly earn us First World status by 2020, deserves another blog entry.

For now, let me just say, I am not looking for a visionary come 2010. I am looking for one who will at least not lie so audaciously.

Gloria Arroyo's SONA 2009













Monday, July 27, 2009

Returning Gloria's Gaze

Video cameras will be our ‘weapons’ on the day of the SONA, said Metro Manila police director Chief Superintendent Roberto Rosales. What a bizarre turn of phrase, I thought. The police made similar proclamations before the multi-sectoral Anti-Conass mobilization last month. They were to install CCTV cams in Makati.

When authorities make these kinds of announcements, it doesn’t matter whether they’re true or not, whether they have actually installed cameras or not. It is enough that the police have made such an announcement. The threat or promise of the camera’s gaze will be enough to alter the behavior of the observed. It is designed to impose a subtle means of control.

The only way to resist the power of the observer’s gaze is to return it. So today, while we all know Gloria Arroyo will be lying through her teeth, let us all tune in and look right back at her. Watch the SONA, document, take pictures if you are on the field, webcast from your homes, make notes and write.

Saturday, July 25, 2009

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Unpacking Choice and Reproductive Rights

Why is the reproduction of life political?

Fundamentalists rest easy on grounding reality on something solid, eternal, unchanging. There is security in anchoring one’s view of the world on basic principles from which spring beliefs about who we are and what we ought and ought not to do. Once these fundamentals become shaky, it is feared that identities (who we are) and morals that guide us (what we ought and ought not to do) become shaky as well.

The Reproductive Health bill is a landmark policy shift that gives women control over their body’s reproductive functions through state resources. It is revolutionary, and thus feared, on two accounts.

First, should the bill make it through Congress and approved by the Executive, the public domain will have acknowledged that reproduction, i.e. the creation of life, is not a completely private matter between mother and father. Motherhood confers to women a unique bodily function. It is often argued that because we have a uterus – ‘nature’ (i.e. God) has given us an immutable identity – that of bearing children. In other words, because we have a uterus, our biological make-up forever cements us in the mold of reproducing life. True, motherhood is a gift and fertility is revered in many cultures around the world. One then wonders why this matter is intensely political in a large and differentiated society such as ours.

Those opposing the bill have argued that the State should not dictate upon families the number of children they want to bear. Advocates have answered the bill makes no such imposition. Indeed, it does not. The bill, however, gives women a last say on what happens to their bodies. It is revolutionary in that it wrests control over the reproduction of life away from ‘nature’ (i.e. God) and men. The sexual act need not naturally result to pregnancy. This is why anti-RH bill people claim that our society will develop a ‘contraceptive culture’ and that the young will become more ‘promiscuous.’ The image of the ‘loose’ woman offends many. This moral guidepost says women ought not to engage in sexual acts with any man of her choosing in any context. The sexual act is reserved for married heterosexual partners, because, fundamentalists argue, the sole function of sex is procreation. Unpacking this moral guidepost unearths many donts and hidden punishments:

1. Only men and women can have a union blessed by the most powerful institutions in our society – the State and the Church.
2. Marriage confers rights and protection to this coupling that is denied to any other combination (men-men, women-women).
3. Sexual intercourse should occur only in a marital context. To do otherwise paints one, especially women, as immoral and therefore undesirable.
4. Sexual intercourse’s sole purpose is to reproduce life.

Unpacking all that, we get to the heart of the matter – how to control and harness reproductive labor. At the top of this structure of control are the State and Church. Their powers to constrain individual behavior discipline and order human beings in such a way as to benefit both. The State must have a last say on all things public, i.e. what concerns all of us, and the Church on all things moral, i.e. what we should and should not do.

Between these two at the top of the pyramid however, the State is a much more democratic, more participatory and less opaque structure of power. We do not get to elect who mans the Church. We do not get to argue and debate over theological matters. We do not get to negotiate moral matters as per the Catholic hierarchy.

Secondly, the bill is revolutionary (thus feared) because it pierces the sanctity of the ‘family unit.’ The Catholic Church and other fundamentalist organizations jealously guard its sanctity. They often argue that the State (or the public domain) should have no say about reproductive matters. The same argument can also be made for domestic violence. What goes on between husband and wife is a private matter. What goes on between parent and child is also a private matter. But the so-called sanctity of the domestic domain cloaks power hierarchies within the family unit. This traces back to the history of marriage as an institution where the wife is the husband’s property. Parenthood also confers ownership of children. To acknowledge that wives and children have rights independent of the societal unit to which they belong unveils the cloak of the family’s ‘sanctity.’ Women are individuals who are more than the sum of their mammary glands and uterus. Children are individuals who are more than the result of reproductive labor.

This is why the Church and other fundamentalists have fought tooth and nail against the Reproductive Health bill. It unravels the order of the ‘natural,’ that is, it unravels the order of God.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Clarity from the Left

Epistemological rifts, far from the domain of those who make it their business to study how we know, are significant once their implications in the real world become apparent. I do not claim to have any intimate knowledge of these rifts among leftists in the Philippines. Given this caveat, let me explain the utility of asking questions such as those I have asked Kapirasong Kritika.

Like any student, we often frame reality through the lenses of our discipline. The existence of disciplinary myopia is a human limitation we cannot possibly overcome. We are not omniscient. Neither are we omnipresent. The postmodern intervention is useful in this aspect. Let us acknowledge that the things we know and believe are a sum of our own limited human experience.

Now, science is a human endeavor that aims to build knowledge. Scientists have their theories and hypotheses and aim to test them through experiments. Through rigorous methodologies scientists have proven many things we now know to be true. It is absolute truth that gravity exists. It is absolute truth that once we throw a rock up in the air it will fall back to earth. This is true back in Isaac Newton’s time. It was true a thousand years before that. It will be true a thousand years from now, given that the Earth continues to exist.

Now, what is the difference between a piece of rock and Aling Juana, proprietor of a sari-sari store? Well, while Aling Juana’s physical components may not significantly alter in the course of her lifetime, given she does not meet an accident that will deprive her of limbs or any one of her senses, will her attitudes and beliefs remain the same? It is true today that Aling Juana hates mangoes. This is her attitude. There are many reasons why she hates mangoes – all uniquely her own. The consequence of her belief will drive her not to ever purchase mangoes. Theory translated into action. Will she continue to hate mangoes tomorrow? Who knows? In twenty-four hours a thousand things could happen that might change her mind. That is the difference between a rock and Aling Juana. It is the difference between the study of inert, non-sentient objects and the study of human subjects.

I am reticent to accept willy-nilly any body of knowledge claiming to have the answers to problems besetting the human condition. Largely, this comes from my own positioned study of critical political economy. There are many theories to explain why the Philippines is poor compared to, say, the United States. Can any one theory or any one body of knowledge claim to have the absolute truth as an answer? A RESOUNDING YES animated the ideology of a whole generation of decision-makers among the powerful who sought to shape the world. Theirs was the fool-proof answer to the developing world’s poverty. This failed ideology, as Kapirasong Kritika will probably be familiar with, comes from the discipline of economics – a science of human beings that pretended to have the exactness of the most numeral of sciences – physics. Their claim to absolute truth led to the immiseration of millions around the world. The ill effects of this ideology’s prescriptions, KK will agree, can still be felt today.

I think KK will also agree that there are many ways to interpret the unfolding of politics at any level. He will agree that the dominance of one interpretation over one is necessarily a political struggle. A useful postmodern intervention is this acknowledgment. “Theory is always for someone and some purpose” writes political economist Robert Cox. The science of his vaunted predecessor, to which he and a whole generation of other scholars including this one owe much, is bound by its historical specificity. Karl Marx is not omniscient and omnipresent. He sought to uncover ‘laws’ of Capitalism much in the same manner that his contemporaries sought to uncover ‘laws’ explaining the natural world. As I said, a rock is not a human being. A collection of human beings – in a societal unit such as a country for example – will not be forever cemented in one mold. “Classes” in the specific historical context of nineteenth century Britain cannot be made to function as concept in twenty-first century Philippines. It is testament to Marx’s brilliance that much of his contribution to the body of human knowledge has withstood the test of time. A century and half since the publication of his oeuvre Das Kapital, millions upon millions of events have transpired to change the conditions in which Capitalism, his object of study, functions. For this reason, and as good historical materialists, we need to be critical of these changes.

I have written countless times about the depoliticizing tendencies of biting the postmodern apple hook line and sinker. If everything is relative, as postmodernists say, then what can we believe in? And if we believe in nothing, what do we fight for? I believe that there are certain absolute truths pertaining to the human condition that will apply to all human beings regardless of hue, gender or creed. For example, I hold true that all human beings deserve to live in dignity. My politics will stem from a belief in this truth claim. Now this relates to a value system to which Kapirasong Kritika and I can inter-subjectively agree.

Monday, July 13, 2009

ImagiNation

What sorts of beings inhabit a land devoid of imagination? I sometimes fear the burden of reality can be so paralyzing, we are unable to imagine anything else. Here we toil caged in the only possibilities presented by the immediate, the tactile. What of the things to which we aspire that have not yet been made into reality? Have we any expectations of lofty ideals from our country, from ourselves, from each other? Can we not even speak of them because to do so would be an exercise in futility? Duck our heads we must in order to survive. Survival often means slavish preoccupation with what falls within the myopic scope of our vision. To dare to see anything beyond cuts a foolish path down the avenue of crippling frustration. Have we been pacified to accept the inevitability of the daily grind? Suffer in silence we must. Tolerate the suffering of others we must.

What sorts of beings inhabit a land devoid of imagination? I fear the young have not taken up the cudgels of their elders. The old vanguards have or are about to meet their just reward. And who do we have left today? Yes, an individual must take responsibility for her own actions, but a public figure to whom she can look in admiration serves to inspire. Here is a Filipino who continues to burn with passion for things this country should value. But what do we value as a nation? What sorts of things would we fight for? What is freedom? What is justice? What is kindness, passion, love but meaningless abstractions which hold no immediate relevance to our daily subsistence? Is it enough to put food on the table? Is it enough to perhaps save a little something for rainy days? Is this ‘life’ in the Philippines? Is there nothing more?

What sorts of beings inhabit a land devoid of imagination? Automatons going through the motions – we wake up, go to work, perform duties expected of us, eat, shit, sleep, breathe. The comfort, the surety of routine is perhaps the only refuge from what ails all that lies beyond our immediate control. Everyday we are inundated with facts that those who hold power over our lives perpetrate the worst crimes against our people. And here we sit mute, preferring to turn a blind eye. What does it matter if Gloria Arroyo means to stay on past 2010? What does it matter if she means to remain indefinitely, the captain of this sinking ship? It doesn’t if we cannot imagine anyone better.

What sorts of beings inhabit a land devoid of imagination?

Thursday, July 02, 2009

Inequality and Democracy

From Michael Sandel's last Reith lecture, A New Politics of the Common Good, he mentions why inequality poses a danger to the democratic project.
The real problem with inequality lies in the damage it does to the civic project, the common good. Here's why. Too great a gap betwen rich and poor undermines the solidarity that democratic citizenship requires. As inequality deepens, rich and poor live increasingly separate lives. The affluent send their children to private schools...leaving urban public schools to the children of families who have no alternative. A similar trend leads to the withdrawal by the privileged from other other public institutions and facilities...This trend has two bad effects - one fiscal, the other civic.

First, public services deteriorate as those who no longer use them become less willing to support them with their taxes.

Second, public institutions...cease to be places where citizens from different walks of life encounter one another. Institutions that once gathered people together and served as informal schools of civic virtue have become few and far between. The hollowing out of the public realm makes it difficult to cultivate the sense of community that democratic citizenship requires.

On Philippine Democracy, read also:
The Philippines' Low Intensity Democracy
In the Grip of Electoralism
Castrated by Vacuous Argument for the Sake of Vacuous Argument
Simulating Governance

And on the Filipino's withdrawal from the public sphere:
The Depoliticisation of the Filipino and the Marketisation of Everything