Shadow of doubt, Built on rock

is my Trade Tripper column for this Friday-Saturday issue of BusinessWorld:

Somebody once said that "with integrity nothing else matters, without integrity nothing else matters." Two books came out recently that illustrate those truths.Who a person is — as a friend, co-worker, or family member — has a bearing on how he would be as a public official. People have long been misled to believe that personal lives have no bearing on his public acts, and this has led to disastrous results. These two books, one indirectly and the other directly, tell us that if a person cannot have coherent unity in his public and private life, what results is a perversion of either or both.

The first is Marites Vitug’s Shadow of Doubt (available at Popular Bookstore or at the Newsbreak office). With all the law books that are churned out yearly, it’s surprising how rare (and necessary) a book such as this is (and written by a non-lawyer at that). There is, of course, Justice Isagani Cruz’s Res Gestae, which gives a comprehensive history of the Supreme Court from the moment of its inception up to the Narvasa Court. Res Gestae is a great book (one of my favorites, in fact; giving quite interesting glimpses of the personalities that made up the highest court of the land), but due to its breadth (covering almost 100 years of judicial history) had to make sacrifices in terms of depth. Ms. Vitug’s book, limiting its explorations to almost a single decade, goes significantly deeper in revealing the workings of a famously reticent institution.

Florentino P. Feliciano, addressing the 28th Judicial Orientation Program in the Supreme Court, gave a classic description of the "qualities of a good judge": humility, learning, sensitivity to the social values in the law, and personal morality and integrity. Of the latter, Justice Feliciano relates it "to the fact that our community requires very high standards of personal morality and integrity from judges. x x x The quality of justice a judge renders is necessarily reflective of the quality of the judge as a moral person, as a principled man." However, as Ms. Vitug alleges, she was surprised to learn (analyzing cases such as PP 1017, Curata vs. PPA, and the matter of the Judicial Development Fund) that the Supreme Court was "a place that is tolerant of men and women who take integrity lightly."

Which reminds me of a Newsbreak article (in 2007), "Inside the Secret World of the Judiciary," which is composed of excerpts from former Supreme Court Justice Jose Campos, Jr.’s memoir From the Academe to the Supreme Court. As Justice Campos writes: "As I went over the list of applicants for the Regional Trial Courts, reading their curriculum vitae as required by the JBC, I noticed the following: one, a majority of the applicants had barely passed the bar; two, 90% had a bar rating below 80%; three, the former President [Corazon Aquino] had appointed several judges while completely ignoring the fact that they had failed the bar exam not once, but twice, even three or four times."

The point is, the little things matter. If somebody can’t do the little things well, there’s no way that person can be trusted with the big things. That is why people have to really recognize this unavoidable fact: how a person studies in school, comports himself with his colleagues or subordinates, the consistency of his positions, the integrity and honesty with which he does his work even if he knows nobody will notice, his flaws and virtues, all will be magnified if that person is given power.

Which leads me to the second book and this one directly looks at unity of life by discussing the practical applications of the daily gospel to our ordinary work and relationships. Built on Rock (available at Paulines Bookstore) is by Fr. Roberto Latorre, who holds a Doctorate in Sacred Theology from the University of Navarre. This book serves a very useful purpose: it contains reflections on the gospel read during Mass for a specific day and then gives common sense suggestions on how to act upon the lessons learned from the gospel. The reflections are arranged quite cleverly, being made to correspond to the gospel (cited under the usual format of Evangelist’s name, chapter, and verse) as provided for under the liturgical season (and covers liturgical cycles A, B, and C). The result is that, unlike other daily devotionals that are valid only for a year, this is a book that’s meant to be read forever.

For Easter (as well as the coming elections), therefore, do yourself and your loved ones a favor: get these two books. Filipinos right now clearly need a moral compass within which to provide direction and unity to our lives (that thereafter affect how we address business, politics, and various social issues). The first book illustrates how important having such a compass is, the second gives practical reflections on how to get that compass.


Awww, the baby wants a condom!

. . . is the topic of my Trade Tripper article in this Friday-Saturday issue of BusinessWorld:

A priest once asked: "Have you ever bothered to think how absurd it is to leave one’s Catholicism aside on entering a university, or a professional association, or a scholarly meeting, or Congress, as if you were checking your hat at the door?"

The question is relevant. I’ve heard fellow lawyers, government officials, policymakers, and even from so-called "civil society" (oftentimes not very civil) say that while they have personal beliefs on the matter, they set it aside because of certain professional or political reasons. And that, in a nutshell, is what’s wrong (or at least one of the things wrong) with this country: people have compartmentalized their lives so much that there no longer exists in them a working internal compass other than self-gratification.

They say they’re nationalistic but are contemptuous of the Filipino poor. Business leaders claim to fight for domestic industries, but everything about them, from the cuisines they prefer to the shoes they wear, scream "foreign is better." And they loudly proclaim being Catholics but think nothing of bashing the Church or the pope.

Ironically, in today’s Philippines of instant gratification, of a supposedly empowered youth that resents being taught by their elders, and an IPod culture that celebrates individual freedom way above the welfare of the country, it’s the Church that is made to seem archaic and out of touch.

Frankly, there is no going around the demands of faith. The clergy, even if it wants to, simply cannot conform to the changing fashions of thought or beliefs. The Catholic faith does place demands on its followers, a lot of which are admittedly quite hard. But what people have to remember is that it’s not the priests or the pope that imposes these demands. It is Jesus Christ himself.

Some people make the mistake of considering Jesus merely as a wise and free-spirited man who preached love but whose message got twisted by the Church. Anybody who actually read the Bible would know how far that is from the truth. Yes, Jesus did preach love but the overshadowing priority of that love is for God. Love for fellow man comes second. And Jesus was no long-haired disheveled slacker saying a soft "peace dude." The guy was an uncompromising disciplinarian. And many of the things Jesus was saying are downright nutty (i.e., slice off a body part rather than sin, to be first one has to be last, no to divorce, love your enemies, that a piece of bread and a cup of wine is His body and blood and we should eat and drink it, etc.). Nutty, that is, if taken outside the context of His hugely outrageous claim that got Him crucified in the first place: that He, an uneducated promdi carpenter without any discernible source of income, is the son of God.

Truly, there is no middle ground in this. It’s either you believe in what He is saying or you don’t. If the latter, you have to dismiss him as some crazy person who just stayed too long under the sun. In which case, perhaps one would be justified in doing whatever one feels like doing. But if you believe that He is the son of God, then what becomes ridiculous now is not following Him. So, when He demands that we should (because He says we can) control our hormone-filled bodies and "be perfect," you have to believe He knows what He’s talking about (because He’s God). And since you believe He’s God, then you have to recognize that the Church He founded He authorized to guide us with fundamental truths that not even science, marketing campaigns, popular actors or columnists, can change. Otherwise, reject him as a mere repressed celibate jerk. What you can’t do is proclaim you’re for Christ and then insult Him by waving condoms at His earthly representatives. It’s childish, flaky, and inane.

Some people insist that we should be directed by our individual consciences. But remember that we are always capable of self-deception. And fickle-mindedness depending on one’s current emotion or desire (or in the case of some "presidentiables," an absence of conviction: flip-flopping from support for the RH Bill to a suddenly "nuanced" view on the matter). That is why our consciences have to be guided by the truths pronounced in the Bible, by the Church, and by holy tradition.

Finally, some people blame the Church for today’s immoral society. The Church is not at fault. We are. What the Church can only do is show us the way and it has been doing so consistently, responsibly, and bravely. It is up to us to take that way or not. Unfortunately, a lot of Filipinos now seem to think that bratty disobedience is a virtue. Perhaps people should take time to consider that a little bit of humility and growing up might be in order. It may even do this country good.


Lighting up at the WTO (hopefully)

. . . is the topic of my latest Trade Tripper column in this Friday-Saturday issue of BusinessWorld:

As reported in the newspapers last month, expect the report of the WTO panel on the case formally entitled "Thailand -- Customs and Fiscal Measures on Cigarettes from the Philippines" (docketed as DS371) to come out soon. The dispute is quite important considering that the livelihood of hundreds, if not thousands, of Filipino farmers is at stake. One thing should also be remembered: counting from the eight previous cases we’ve been a party to, we’ve never won yet at the WTO.

The request for consultations for this case was initiated way back on Feb. 7, 2008. Some commentators have referred to the Philippine complaint as Thai Cigarettes II (a landmark trade case during the GATT days relating to health measures), as well as containing elements of the Korea -- Beef case. The latter case deals with the validity of dual retail requirements. Indeed, the Philippine complaint does allege that "Thailand requires that tobacco and/or cigarette retailers hold separate licenses to sell domestic and imported cigarettes, respectively. The Philippines understands that the measure in which these discriminatory requirements are contained include the Excise Department Announcement by the Director-General of Excise, dated 12 September 1991, issued pursuant to Article 4, Ministerial Regulation No. 17 B.E. 2534 (1991) under the Tobacco Act B.E. 2509 (1966), and any amendments, implementing measures or other related measures."

The dispute, as a whole, covers the areas of customs valuation, excise taxes, health and TV tax, VAT, and dual licensing requirements. Specifically, it involves the provisions of Articles 1 and 4 of the Understanding on Rules and Procedures Governing the Settlement of Disputes ("DSU"), Article XXII:1 of the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade 1994 (the "GATT 1994," which is actually GATT 1947. Confused?), and Article 19 of the Agreement on Implementation of Article VII of the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade 1994 (the "Customs Valuation Agreement"). The question, therefore, is how the dual licensing requirement leads to discriminatory treatment against the imported cigarettes and thus a violation of Article III.4 of the GATT.

Following procedure, the panel should issue an interim report to the parties, including both the descriptive sections and the panel’s findings and conclusions. A party may submit a written request for the panel to review precise aspects of the interim report and to hold a further meeting with the parties on the issues identified in the written comments. If no comments are received from any party within the comment period, the interim report shall be considered the final panel report and circulated promptly to the members.

The 153-member Dispute Settlement Body of the WTO shall then have 20 days to "adopt" the report. A WTO member having objections to a panel report shall give written reasons to explain their objections and circulated 10 days prior to the DSB meeting at which the panel report is to be considered. Within 60 days after the date of circulation of a panel report to the members, the report shall be adopted at a DSB meeting unless a party to the dispute formally notifies the DSB of its decision to appeal. If an appeal is made, it shall be before the Appellate Body, which may then uphold, modify or reverse the legal findings and conclusions of the panel. The appeal shall be limited to issues of law covered in the panel report and legal interpretations developed by the panel.

Once the report becomes truly final, the same would normally contain a statement (which is what we’re hoping for) that the subject law or measure is inconsistent with the WTO Agreements and shall recommend that the member concerned bring the measure into conformity with the said agreements. In addition to its recommendations, the panel or Appellate Body may suggest ways in which the member concerned could implement the recommendations (and prompt compliance with recommendations or rulings of the DSB is essential). It must be said, however, that damages are rarely, very rarely, awarded at a WTO dispute.

Hopefully, this is the case that the Philippines finally gets its way in the WTO. As Chris Nelson of Philip Morris Philippines said in an earlier newspaper interview: "The issue is predictability. The [cost] differential is a financial burden. But we are hopeful that the panel agrees with the Philippine government which has put forward a strong case." There are pretty good reasons to think the Philippines may have something to celebrate. Recent research findings, most notably Andrew Guzman’s of the University of California, Berkeley, in his paper "The Political Economy of Litigation and Settlement at the WTO" (corroborated in recent empirical analysis by Juscelino Colares of Syracuse University), showed that complainant countries in WTO disputes win cases almost 90% of the time.

Hopefully, we don’t fall into that 10% exception. And for which, a nice cigarette (or cigar) break would be welcome indeed. After that, the question then becomes if a celebratory drink would be in order as well.


It's the inequality, stupid!

. . . is the topic of my latest Trade Tripper column in this Friday-Saturday issue of BusinessWorld:

The poet Charles Baudelaire once wrote: "The greatest trick the devil ever pulled was convincing mankind he didn’t exist." A lie worthy of the devil is that currently being peddled — that corruption (and not the existence of our incompetent elite) is to blame for this country’s problems.

Indeed, corruption is a problem. But it’s not the cause of our nation’s ills. It is a symptom. To focus our measures to address a symptom won’t result in a proper cure. The cause of our problems is our antiquated, incompetent, malevolent, and maladroit elite that is hell-bent on keeping their status at the expense of the country.

As we repeatedly keep saying, around 10% of the population owns around 80% of the nation’s wealth and this has remained true through the decades. By adding to this the fact that somewhere around 30-40% of the country’s 80 million citizens are under the poverty line, then one can see how obscene a 10% wealthy figure is. So, does an oligarchy exist here in the Philippines? Yes. And any economist or policymaker worth his salt knows what it is and who they are, although these oligarchs have diversified such that it becomes more difficult to pinpoint the base of their power. As John J. Caroll, S.J. pointed out: "Philippine society is one in which wealth and other forms of power are concentrated in the hands of a relatively small number of individuals and families. x x x Philippine democracy has continued to be elite democracy."

In any event, a mere cursory reading of our history would show that the same names in government and business appear over and over and over and over again. Thus, you have the same names, the same families, that would side with the Spanish against the Katipunan, whisper to Aguinaldo against Mabini, collaborate with the Americans against the First Republic, collaborate with the Japanese, then see their kind give pardon to the collaborators, preside over ever increasing corruption and stagnation in the Third Republic, and then exploit (either in government or in opposition) the Marcos era, People Power, and Edsa Dos.

Joe Studwell, in his Asian Godfathers, made an analysis on the Philippines that is particularly relevant: "The old political elite, restored by godfather progeny Corazon Aquino after Marcos’ departure in 1986, appears as entrenched as ever. x x x Faith in the political process is falling, communist insurgency is present in most provinces, and the local elite remains the most selfish and self-serving in the region. The Philippines’ best known living author, Francisco Sionil Jose, lamented in the Far Eastern Economic Review in December 2004: ‘We are poor because our elites have no sense of nation. They collaborate with whoever rules — the Spaniards, the Japanese, the Americans.’" (emphasis supplied)

That is why the idea being peddled by most of the political class (which, it must be remembered, also constitutes the wealthy end of our social spectrum) pointing to corruption as the problem is misleading at best. It’s the elite who are the problem. Commentators from apparently different ends of the globalization debate converge on this point: from Walden Bello (The Anti-development State) to Federico Macaranas and Scott Thompson (Democracy and Discipline), other books by different authors (The Rulemakers, Booty Capitalism, Sugar and the Origins of Modern Philippine Society, Malolos: The Crisis of the Republic, and Anarchy of Families), to ADB and World Bank studies.

In Why Globalization Works, Martin Wolf, a commentator at the Financial Times, posits:

"A significant subset of such corruption is state capture by private interests. x x x Where the economic elite is competing for favors, the impact will be to corrupt policy-makers and bureaucracy. x x x The economic effects of such capture are powerfully negative, since this elite is interested in favors for itself and not in an impartial rule of law. Only a wide business community of competing producers has an interest in the rule of law."

Corruption, by itself, is not the fundamental problem. Again, it is merely a symptom but not the cause. And we are not definitely a damaged culture. The cause of our problems is the oligarchy. They are the cancer, the rot that is causing the decline in our country’s life. It is the removal of their continuing bungling hold on power, not charter change or people power, that will bring on a better Philippines.

We therefore need to focus on developing a society possessed of greater social mobility and equal access to opportunities. If our electorate has not matured, it’s precisely because the economic circumstances of our citizens did not allow such maturity to happen and the elite, by maintaining protectionist attitudes and patronage system in business and politics, ensures that such maturity did not happen.

So, to that presidential candidate we say: it’s the inequality, stupid! And that is why: Tama na, sobra na, palitan na iyang mga lumang pamilya.