Our mad lunatic insanity

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

This election campaign reminds me of the climactic scene in The Bridge Over The River Kwai. After foiling the attempts of his countrymen to destroy the bridge he constructed for the enemy, Alec Guinness’s character suddenly comes to a realization of his folly and whispers, "What have I done?" At which point he gets hit by a mortar and dies, but not before stumbling over a detonator, triggering an explosion that ultimately destroys the bridge. A shocked James Donald, the only surviving character in the movie, seeing the carnage and the waste, despairingly mutters to himself, "Madness! ... Madness!"

Because this election campaign has taken the ridiculousness of our politics to a whole new level of insanity that one could actually consider it sublime. If only the consequences weren’t so tragic.

Albert Einstein was supposed to have said that "insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results." Well, that insanity is what’s prevailing over the country now. How can it be possible for a select number of families to actually side with the Spanish against the Katipunan, intrigue against Apolinario 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, and still play a part in our nation’s affairs? The last two and a half decades alone have seen continuous blackouts, the nose-diving of our economy, increase of robberies and kidnappings, the sinking of the Doña Paz, the massacre of farmers in Mendiola, bungled land reform, of Roppongi, Big Bird, and missing sequestered assets, and the dismemberment (almost) of our Republic’s territory. It’s the same people and families. And yet, a lot of Filipinos seemingly have no qualms in keeping them in power. That is insanity.

And hypocrisy as well. Never before has the double standard in our society been made so evident as in this election campaign. Does it really matter if Manny Villar was previously just poor or very poor? Because no matter how you put it, Villar could never be sanely argued as growing up with the same or half or a fourth of the comforts and privileges that the elite families had or still has. Even assuming that Villar overstated his poverty (which I doubt), who among us (including all the other presidential candidates) have not exaggerated their resumes or accomplishments when applying for a job? People make much of Villar’s alleged wheelings and dealings and yet no single case has been filed, much less won, in court against him. This is truly the height of double standard and hypocrisy: if it’s the old rich who does it, it’s pragmatic and clever business; if it’s the poor or from the poor who does it, it’s corruption.

And yet if indeed corruption is the root of our nation’s ills (which I seriously question), then the focus of our examination should be on the corruption by the elite. After all, how much corruption can the poor do? Petty corruption for purposes of "processing" papers in a government office? This is nothing compared to the large-scale methodical corruption done by the alleged elite in our society and that is what truly damaged our country: the reported embezzlement of the Katipunan’s funds, war profiteering during the Japanese occupation, corruption over the US Army surplus, the selling out of the country through treaties and agreements with foreigners, currency manipulation and corrupting the import licensing scheme, behest loans, and government coddling of favored companies or "kamaganaks." And remember all the scandals that happened in the past few decades? Those weren’t corruption done by the poor or of the poor. They were instigated by the elite, the purported "de buena familias." Read the newspapers and then read our history textbooks: it’s the same people and families screwing the country over and over and over again. And this coming election they want to be given the opportunity to screw the country some more. And Filipinos are willing to give that to them? That’s insanity.

What would’ve been so funny if it weren’t so pathetic is how shameless and unapologetic this so-called elite of ours is. It was only nine years ago that Villar was applauded by these people for passing (as speaker of the House) the articles of impeachment against Estrada. These people, the elite and their middle-class wannabes (collectively called the "un-civil society"), would go on to disrupt the Senate impeachment proceedings, hysterically rally in the streets, kick Estrada out, and install Gloria Arroyo as president. Now these very same people want us to forget that it was they who put GMA into power and that we should again believe them when they now say that Noynoy is the savior of our country?

That’s insanity.


Meanwhile, back on the trade front ...

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

Nothing much is happening. One can see this in the fact that significant players in international trade have been trying to drum up interest on the subject and trying to convince people how significant trade is in the lives of the global population. No debate there really, but one can only do so much and right now the times seem to be pointing toward a need for greater reflection within countries as to their commitment and view with regard to trade.

While Doha sleeps, trade itself, nevertheless, is on the upswing. After reaching record lows, 2010 expects global trade growth at 9.5%. Developed country exports should increase in volume by 7.5%, while developing country exports should grow by 11%. There seems to be reason for optimism on the local front, as well. BusinessWorld did report that Philippine manufactured goods exports rose by a healthy 42.3% (year-on-year) last February (with a slight .4% contraction month-on-month, though). This marked a fourth consecutive month of growth. Translated in cash terms, the exported goods amounted to $3.57 billion. Japan, US, and Singapore are our top export destinations.

Interestingly enough, nevertheless, WTO Director-General Pascal Lamy felt the need to proclaim that the theory of "comparative advantage" is still alive and well. One would think that the experience of the past 24 months actually proclaim vindication of that theory and the continuing importance of trade to global stability. Speaking before the Paris School of Economics last April 12, 2010, Mr. Lamy stated: "There are those who now call into question Ricardo’s theory that differences in relative productivity between countries lead to their specialization in production and to trade. Doubt has arisen that this specialization based on comparative advantage results in higher total output, with all countries benefiting from the increased production. x x x [Nevertheless, recent] analysis by Jagdish Bhagwati, Arvind Panagariya, and T. N. Srinivasan contradicted this view. In that paper, starting from autarky, China and the United States open up to trade and experience the usual gains based on comparative advantage. In the following part of the paper, Samuelson considers how technological improvements in China will affect the United States. In the case where China experiences a productivity gain in its export sector, both countries benefit. China gains from the higher standard of living brought about by the increase in productivity while the United States gains from an improvement in its terms of trade. In the case where China experiences a productivity gain in its import sector, there is a narrowing of the productivity differences between the countries which reduces trade; and as trade declines, so too do the gains from trade."

In fine, Mr. Lamy concludes that "[what Paul] Samuelson has showed is not that trade along lines of comparative advantage no longer produces gains for countries. Instead, what he has shown is that sometimes, a productivity gain abroad can benefit both trading countries; but at other times, a productivity gain in one country only benefits that country, while permanently reducing the gains from trade that are possible between the two countries. The reduction in benefit does not come from too much trade, but from diminishing trade. x x x [Hence,] the analysis by Bhagwati, Panagariya and Srinivasan should convince us that the principle of comparative advantage, and more generally, the principle that trade is mutually beneficial, remains valid in the 21st century."

Trade indeed remains a potent force for the mitigation of poverty. As the book Naked Economics put it: "trade paves the way for poor countries to get richer. x x x Is there an example in modern history of a single country successfully developing without trading and integrating with the global economy? No, there is not. Which is why Tom Friedman has suggested that the antiglobalization coalition ought to be known as ’The Coalition to Keep the World’s Poor People Poor." That was stated half a decade ago and the point remains valid up to now, surviving even the onslaught of a global recession.

Mr. Lamy talked about other areas, including trade finance, job generation, social effects of trade, and the necessity of regulation within a liberalized market environment. All of this would be familiar to followers of this column, having been discussed at various times through the years. However, one area that Mr. Lamy briefly touched upon is quite relevant particularly for Filipinos now caught in the middle of an election year: "if the economics of trade policy are clear, the politics of trade are highly complex. Trade policy, like so many other areas of policy, has ramifications on how resources are distributed, and this inevitably creates competing interest groups within society. Pressures exerted by such groups mean governments must balance these interests in ways that do not necessarily conform to what economic analysis might prescribe."

Just another reason for Filipinos to select an experienced, capable (and psychologically stable) president in the coming elections.


On kicking God out of government

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

One of the more contentious, emotionally charged, albeit mostly misunderstood, provisions of the Constitution is that on the separation of Church and State. This has been employed to bolstering arguments from advocating for the RH Bill and government support of contraceptive use, to silencing critics with regard to any human rights abuses. The line of thinking seems to be that with regard to anything that involves government or national policy, religion should not be allowed into the equation. Nothing, however, could be more wrong.

Article III, Section 5 of the Constitution states that "No law shall be made respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof. The free exercise and enjoyment of religious profession and worship, without discrimination or preference, shall forever be allowed. No religious test shall be required for the exercise of civil or political rights." This proceeds from the principles declared in Article II, Section 6 which declares that "The separation of Church and State shall be inviolable." Read the two provisions carefully. There is nothing there that says citizens (including government officials) shouldn’t be guided by the tenets of their faith. The Constitution, rather than discouraging religions, actually supports religions by mandating tolerance for all religions. Hence the prohibition on discriminatory treatment against or preference for any single religion. One reason the RH Bill is offensive is that it forces Catholics to support (through the duty to pay taxes) something that they believe is immoral. Note that there is no law banning the private use of contraceptives.

Indeed, contrary to what most people think, religion (and the role that God has in governmental affairs) strongly runs through the vein of the Constitution and the operation of our Republic. While focus is on Articles II and III of the Constitution, it must also be remembered that the very first sentence of our Constitution actually contains a fervent appeal to our Creator: "We, the sovereign Filipino people, imploring the aid of Almighty God ..." The Constitution goes on to enumerate instances of adherence to natural law: from "truth," the proscription against aggressive war, the preservation of the family, to taking care of the environment.

The Constitution’s reliance on natural law is most strongly seen in the Bill of Rights. Contrary to popular belief, the rights contained therein are not given by the Constitution. Those rights (e.g., to life, liberty, and property, etc.) exist independent of the Constitution because such are considered inalienable and inherent ("natural") to man. There are instances perhaps when State interests may require the temporary modification or suspension of such rights. The Bill of Rights merely serves as a limitation or framework within which that modification or suspension could be made.Now one of those rights considered inalienable and inherent (including those enumerated above) is the freedom to exercise one’s religion.

One component of that freedom to exercise one’s religion is the "right to proselytize" (American Bible Society vs. Manila), meaning that one has the right to advocate one’s religious views or disseminate information regarding the same. The Constitution also bars the government from interfering in the conduct of purely religious affairs. Thus, in Austria vs. NLRC, the Supreme Court stated that the government cannot intervene in matters relating to the "administration of sacraments" (such as the refusal to give communion). Nevertheless, in order to ensure religious tolerance and the peaceful exercise of one’s religion, Article 133 of the Revised Penal Code punishes acts of blasphemy or those offensive to the feelings of the faithful (such as offering condoms to priests during Mass).

Are government officials required to do away with their religion while in government service? Of course not. From the very first day of their service, our laws recognize that public officials, elected or appointed, could indeed adhere to their religious beliefs while working in government. The president of our Republic, for example, upon taking his oath of office asks for the help of God in the fulfillment of his duties. This plea for divine help is contained in the oaths of practically all government officials (including private citizens in the performance of public functions, such as testifying in court). The Supreme Court, in Estrada vs. Escritor, even went to the extent of recognizing that people stand "accountable to an authority higher than the State."

So religion does play a part in public affairs. To deny that is to make people schizophrenic: allowing them to be sincere believers in church or in the mosque and then demanding they ignore their beliefs while in government or during public discussions. That’s silly and irrational. In A Man For All Seasons, Thomas More was made to say that "when statesmen forsake their own private conscience for the sake of their public duties they lead their country by a short route to chaos." For Catholics, it must be remembered, consciences should be guided by the Bible, Holy Tradition, and the Church.


Everybody is a rockstar

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

One thing I noticed, though it took a while to find out why I find it disturbing, is how seemingly ordinary people in an ordinary place in an ordinary situation would suddenly perk up upon having a camera thrust in his or her face. You see it everywhere, people just moseying along, bored expression on their faces, and then suddenly somebody takes a camera out and people just switch on and start posing and projecting like mad.

Everybody’s a rockstar nowadays. People that normally would have no claim to fame (or notoriety) would find their faces (and complete range of poses) on the Internet. Being ill informed, unread, or without any semblance of writing skills? Doesn’t stop them from airing their views extensively on Facebook.

Some people believe that this could only be a good thing. The democratization of information, the full utilization of the wisdom of crowds, and the greater participation of the public in the marketplace of ideas. In a particular sense, that would be correct: the Internet does give quicker and more varied information, and more aggressively than the traditional media. Where else would we have found out that Baby James is for Villar? But on the whole, we should be wary of the effect this has on the country.

We have a country composed of 7,100 islands (depending, according to textbooks, whether it’s high tide or low tide *sheeesh!), of different dialects, and varied religions and cultures. Academics talk about the need of finding a unifying idea that binds our peoples so as to encourage the notion of nationhood. If such be true, then a further fragmentation of our culture, whereby individuality is so celebrated to such a degree unprecedented in our history, could only be deleterious to that effort.

The sense of commonality that we had previously, whereby people watch the same channels, listen to the same music, read almost the same newspapers, and rely on the same newscasters, practically no longer exists. Granted, the Internet (and IPod, cable, etc.) all gave us choices that were not there before. But when you look at the benefit that all these new choices give us and place it within the context of a people that still seems to be struggling with finding its national identity, then this fragmentation of our likes and dislikes, of emphasizing everybody’s individuality instead of what binds us together, then this phenomena should be guarded against and even restrained (God knows how). But something has to be done. Add to the fact (although this could be just my imagination), that there seems to be an explosion with regard to the increasing number of gated communities or subdivisions, and of exclusive and guarded high-rise condominiums. Instead of Filipinos getting more and more together, as one national community, we seem to be fragmenting more and more (and within the country at that!). Either through IPods, cable TV, or by our subdivision gates, we seem intent on walling off people away from us.

The only thing we all seem to be doing in common nowadays is supporting Manny Pacquiao when he fights in the ring and professing by the Catholic faith. And even in the latter, a number of Filipinos seem happy to be cafeteria Catholics, choosing only those parts they find convenient. Worse, some automatically side with foreigners and the Western media in attacking the Church and the pope.

Finally, what effect does this instant celebrity (or whatever it is) have on our youth? Without the need to acquire the skills and patience garnered from the constant supervision by one’s superior, the burden of redoing repeatedly a piece of work until it’s properly done, without the need of researching and looking up on and the verification on the credibility of sources, the constant nagging by an elder whether a work has logic and methodical train of thought, how does that affect the development of their character? When all they have to do, by way of example, is copy and paste obscure articles from the internet, Google and Wiki their way through research, then publish their works for the admiration of their peers who wouldn’t know any better because they can’t be bothered anymore to seek better? What’s the point of hard work and a demanding experienced mentor if one can be an instant star on the Internet anyway?

Makes me miss the days when you have guys like Michael Jordan (although there’s still Kobe Bryant). Guys who listen to their coach (even when they don’t like what they’re hearing), guys who became great not because they were creative but because they repeatedly did (without complaining) the simple basic stuff over and over and over again until they got it right. And, most importantly, guys who understand that they are part of a team or institution, with a history and tradition, which are far more important than their individual sense of self, ego, or feelings.