Short quick response to Angsioco article

Here’s a short, suggested response to this nonsense:

> The Church is not rich. By her logic, the Philippines is rich. And yet, why doesn’t she ask that the Philippines, being the 13th largest economy in Asia and the 33rd largest economy in the world by purchasing power parity according to the International Monetary Fund in 2010, with a GDP - purchasing power parity of $373.6 billion in 2010, yet sees 33% of its people under poverty line.

> In fact, by that logic, then we should be demanding that the Philippine government, all the pharmaceutical companies, and even international organizations like the UN and WHO, or even large local companies like ABS-CBN or the Lopez Group of Companies, to dispose of all their assets, buildings, etc. and donate them to the poor. But presumably that would be wrong because these organizations apparently do more good to Filipinos if they are existing and operating. Well, the same could be said for the Church and more. The argument regarding supposed Church wealth is very old and very dumb. It’s not that you own a lot it’s what you do with what you own. And the Church has been more effective than any other institution in dealing with poverty, not merely locally but globally.

> The Catholic Church supports faithful from all over the world. And each Catholic Church is financially independent. The local Catholic Church does not get any financial support from the Vatican or it's own diocese. Rather, it’s the local church that supports the Vatican. Besides, being a 2000 year old institution, it has accumulated assets, including lands or buildings, many through donations, of which many are quite old.

> Even then, these assets are not liquid assets. Most are held in trust for the people of the world to use or simply look at. So when a socialite writer, just for example, wants to go touring Rome and see the valuable paintings at the Sistine Chapel, it must be remembered that the huge upkeep for these treasures are shouldered by the Vatican (with funds from either donations or minimal museum fees; note that there are even days you can visit the museum for free), which in the end is a non-profitable endeavour to it.

> A lot of the physical assets such as cathedrals, chapels, etc. are not built for the benefit or vanity of the priests but because the believers themselves (who are human beings and can be reached through the senses) would hopefully be inspired to see through their surroundings and by it seek to know more and be closer to the One who created all. The same reasoning goes for museums, they are done in such a way to provoke interest (even inspiration) for history. And this has to be emphasized again: Church property is not so much owned but rather is held in trust by the present for those faithful to come in the future.

> Any profit (or any asset, in fact) that the Church owns is utilized for the costs needed by the faithful the world over. Aside from the upkeep for maintaining churches, masses, priests, etc., it must be emphasized that the Catholic Church is the leading charity in the world. It has, at any given time, donated more money, effort, goods, than any other multinational organization, charitable organization, or even governments.

> This bears worth emphasizing: no pharmaceutical company or international org or government has done more than the Catholic Church in terms of charity, education, health and hospital care, scientific research, poverty alleviation. Bill Gates can actually learn from the Church on how to conduct charity.

> In the US alone (simply because these are the easily available figures), the Catholic Church educates 2.6 million students everyday at no cost to taxpayers. But this does cost the Church 10 billion US dollars. Note that enrollment in all of these schools is open to all religious faiths. It also operates in the US 637 hospitals which account for hospital treatment of 1 out of every 5 people not just Catholics in the United States today, all shouldered by the Church.

Now clearly the foregoing was merely scribbled hastily and is obviously not meant to be an authoritative source on the charitable and beneficial works of the Church. But what it does at least demonstrate is that there is a very apparent and real benefit that the Church gives to the world’s poor. Note that the social, material realm is not even the primary focus of the Church, its overriding purpose is to save souls. Poverty alleviation and social development is primarily the duty of governments. It is significant, however, that even in this aspect it is the Church that leads the way.

Nevertheless, I have no illusions as to the effect of this blog entry. Proverbs 23:9 is most instructive:
"Don't waste your breath on fools, for they will despise the wisest advice." At the least, should this blog entry help fellow believers and defenders of the faith, then all is well.

(Addendum: note from my friend Ipe Salvosa of BusinessWorld. This is merely from Caritas Manila financial report for 2009, it does not include the rest of the activities of the Church in the Philippines: "A total of 146,139 families affected by tropical cyclones Ondoy and Pepeng were given relief assistance. It was made possible by the outpouring of cash and in-kind donations from domestic donors and from other countries and the thousands of volunteers that participated. Caritas Damay Kapanalig typhoon program for Ondoy and Pepeng raised over PhP 57 million (Cash = PhP 39,336,757.91 and in-kind = PhP24,099,285.52)."

"And although 2009’s highlight was the Caritas Damay Kapanalig Ondoy and Pepeng relief and rehabilitation efforts, throughout the course of the year Caritas Manila continued with its highly committed social services and development efforts. 5,463 scholars were maintained under the Youth Servant Leadership and Education Program or YSLEP. 98,552 patients were attended to through the different Caritas charity clinics in Mega Manila. Under preventive health care, 58,118 patients were given health counselling. 12,180 children were fed and monitored under the Caritas Hapag-Asa Feeding Program. 107 inmates were released through paralegal assistance under the Caritas Restorative Justice Program or Caritas RJ. These are just some of the notable accomplishments for 2009.")


A legal disobedience

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

To everything, a reasonable basis is needed. One just can’t act like a spoiled brat and do or say anything because he felt like saying it. And the basis must have a logical connection to the action done or contemplated. All of which is founded on law. Because we are supposedly a society of laws and not caprice. Because, simply put, that is what a sane society does and should be.

Calling for civil disobedience, for example in relation to the RH Bill, may be said to be justified under constitutional law. Not to mention history. The most probable legal rationale for which can be found in the Constitution’s Articles II and III. There is also the Supreme Court ruling validating the Cory Aquino government. Following the 1986 People Power uprising (a good example of civil disobedience which, incidentally, was first called by the Catholic Church), the Supreme Court recognized in Lawyers League vs. Aquino that the new government is indeed de jure rather than merely de facto.

In fact, threatening imprisonment against those organizing civil disobedience could be tantamount to the "chilling effect" that is frowned upon by our laws. The case of Chavez vs. Gonzales is but one recent legal basis for this, as well as the "overbreadth doctrine" and the "freedom from subsequent punishment principle."

Civil disobedience could possibly also find eloquent basis in Estrada vs. Escritor, which tolerated non-application of the law on the basis of "sincere religious belief." The ruling recognizes the "religious nature of Filipinos" and the "elevating influence of religion in society." Considering the highly dubious necessity of the RH Bill, this ruling arguably provides the basis for refusing to pay taxes due to religious conviction. As the Supreme Court declared: "man stands accountable to an authority higher than the State." After all, if civil disobedience calling for a change in government (as Cory Aquino did in 1986) could be legally acceptable, then all the more should civil disobedience in the mere form of non-payment of taxes.

An interesting aside is Fr. James Reuter’s call for those teaching in a Catholic school to leave if they are preaching support for the RH Bill. Indeed, it’s quite insane to insist in teaching in a Catholic institution while publicly going against the doctrines of that institution. This is covered under Article XIV of the Constitution. Also in Supreme Court rulings such as Miriam College vs. CA, Camacho vs. Coresis, and UP vs. CSC, as well as guiding foreign opinions such as Sweezy vs. New Hampshire (cited by Supreme Court Justice Antonio Nachura in his Political Law Reviewer). It is the academic institution’s prerogative to decide "who may teach [and who may continue to teach], what may be taught, how it shall be taught, and who may be admitted to study."

For Catholics, the foregoing should definitely not be construed as restricting academic freedom. This point has been addressed in Ex Corde Ecclesiae. As superbly explained by then Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger: "As you see with, a medical faculty, you have complete academic freedom, but the discipline is such that the obligation of what medicine is determines the exercise of this freedom. As a medical person, you cannot do what you will ... Catholic theology is not individual reflection but thinking with the faith of the church. If you will do other things and have other ideas of what God could be or could not be, there is the freedom of the person to do it, clearly. But one should not say this is Catholic theology."

Of course, there’s that weird argument that Catholic teaching proscribing contraception is not an infallible but rather "reformable" Church teaching. Whoever said that need to consult more knowledgeable theologians. Giovanni Montini, Karol Wojtyla, Joseph Ratzinger, George Weigel, Steve Ray, John Murray, John Hardon, William Most, Jimmy Akin, Scott Hahn, Janet Smith, Mike Aquilina, Roberto Latorre, Mark Shea, Charles Chaput -- one cannot get a better set of theologians than that and all uphold that the doctrine against contraception is an ordinary "universal" Magisterium of the Church. One can see this clearly from Humanae Vitae, Theology of the Body lectures, the Catechism of the Catholic Church, and Caritas in Veritate.

Finally, the authority of priests to refuse to give Communion to anyone deemed unqualified is protected by Article III of the Constitution, elaborated upon by the Supreme Court in cases such as Austria vs. NLRC and Taruc vs. Bishop De la Cruz. Accordingly, matters relating to doctrine or enforcement thereof are left to the discretion of the bishops or priests. Canon 915 of the Code of Canon Law also affirms the priests’ authority to refuse Communion to those publicly disagreeing with Church teaching.

In any event, to have "Communion" means to be at "one" with the Church. I don’t see the logic of one publicly and obstinately going against Church teaching and then wanting to have Communion. That’s just plain childish. And stupid.


Some comments to Fr. Bernas’ stand on the RH Bill

Here’s a good article e-mailed to me by a friend that I’d like to share. It’s by Fr. Julio Penacoba of Sampaloc, Manila:

I will limit myself to the issue of the Bill promoting contraception. This is presented mostly in points First and Second of Fr Bernas article.

As I understand it, Fr Bernas attempts to explain why it would be possible to accept the teachings of the Church (that says that contraception is wrong) and yet to support the RH Bill that promotes contraception.

His line of argument may be put like this: The rules of the Church apply to Catholics but should not be imposed on others.In my understanding that line of argument is very valid for religious issues that is, for matters related to faith and worship. For example, the Church has rules coming from his worship such as the obligation of attending Sunday Mass, or the prohibition of eating meat on Ash Wednesday, or the obligation to follow canon law provisions regarding marriage. The Church should not demand that the State impose those obligations to non Catholics.

However, Fr Bernas line of argument is not applicable on ethical issues. On those matters, the Church does not have ethical rules for Catholics only but declarations of the ethical values inherent to the dignity of any human person. Thus, when the Church speaks against corruption, bigamy or drunkenness she is not stating rules for Catholics only. Neither is she imposing limitations on the goods of others. She is simply offering a moral evaluation of certain behaviors for all men of good will who mind the dignity of the whole person including his ethical dignity.

In my perception, Fr Bernas position seems to treat contraception as it were a religious issue (a Church’s rule) rather than an ethical issue. For example, the first quotation that he cites in his Second point (Compendium of Social Doctrine, n.423) belongs to the section entitled Religious Freedom and not about morality or ethical issues. Any intelligent reader can see that it is talking of rights and privileges on the area of practicing ones religion --clearly not applicable to ethical issues. Regarding the second quotation from the same Compendium (n. 169); it belongs to a discussion on how the State should seek the effective good of all and not only of the majority but of the minorities as well. To apply that text to the discussion on contraception would assume that everybody agrees that contraception is an ethical good and therefore it should be given not only to the majority but to the minorities as well.

Since both quotes are from the Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church, may I quote now from the section (n.234) where that document refers directly to the debate going on.

All programmes of economic assistance aimed at financing campaigns of sterilization and contraception, as well as the subordination of economic assistance to such campaigns, are to be morally condemned as affronts to the dignity of the person and the family
. The answer to questions connected with population growth must instead by sought in simultaneous respect both of sexual morals and of social ethics, promoting greater justice and authentic solidarity so that dignity is given to life in all circumstances, starting with economic, social and cultural conditions. [[italics in the original, the emphasis is mine]]


Why the “population debate” will continue to be a debate

Here’s a very informative and well thought through article by my good friend Luis Dumlao, which, although appearing in the 27 October 2008 issue of BusinessWorld, is still highly relevant for analyzing the RH Bill issue:

There are basically three fronts in the debate, whether high population growth drags economic development (the position of the “pros” henceforth) or the opposite (the position of the “cons” henceforth). These are theory, evidence and policy sense.

Let’s go to theory. The most classical model that attempts to explain the negative effect of population on developing economies is the Malthusian population trap model, named after English professor of political economy and demographer Thomas R. Malthus (1766-1834). Accordingly, the economy has three possible equilibriums: the poverty trap equilibrium or the Malthusian population trap, the unstable threshold equilibrium and the high per capita income equilibrium. The pros would argue that the Philippines is in the Malthusian population trap. As soon as the economy booms, population grows rapidly to offset the boom, keeping it trapped in poverty. Metaphorically, the increase of limited food to share is offset by the increase of people who would share the food. The solution is to control the increase of people so that the share of each will be bigger. The recommendation therefore is population control policy that the pros relentlessly support. Does it mean that the pros win? The answer depends on the evidence.

A more recent theoretical model that pros use to establish their position is the neoclassical growth model. The theory is that increase of population while everything else is held constant causes an increase of output. The availability of more workers obviously improves the economy’s ability to produce. But because of the congestion and other consequential inefficiencies of having too many people, the increase of output is not able to catch up with the increase of people to feed – thus calling for population control policy.

The pros’ argument however is too focused on the short term and neglects the long run implication of the theory. In the long run, it is not just population that grows, for capital and productivity also grow. As such, the cons would argue that the pros are “barking up the wrong tree.” Population growth is irrelevant. The more relevant issue is why capital and productivity are not able to outpace population.

A more recent, elegant and mathematical theory that goes beyond the neoclassical theory is the endogenous growth model. A two-hour mathematical lecture to doctoral students in economics would do to show the dragging effect of population. But extending the lecture to three hours of mathematics would show otherwise; that population growth actually boosts national output. Does it mean that the cons win the debate? Of course not! It only shows that three hours of mathematics would support the cons’ position, but four hours would probably support the pros’ position. The contest is no longer a population debate, but a contest of who has better mathematics. So in theory, the population debate is not settled and remains a debate.

Let’s go to evidence. If the economy is stuck in the Malthusian population trap, the debate would strongly support the pros’ position of adopting a population control policy. But whether the Philippines is actually on the poverty trap equilibrium is not clear. If the economy is in the trap, an increase of income should result in increase of population growth to cause an offset. But that has not been the case. As a first example, per capita income grew faster in the 1970s because average income growth was extremely higher and not because population growth was low. As the second example, per capita income grew slower in the 1980s because average income growth was extremely lower and not because population growth was higher. As third example, in the boom years from 1993 to 1996, population growth rate remained relatively the same. If anything, the data only reveal that population growth rate does not change with economic booms and busts.

Perhaps the most used evidence that the pros use would be cross-comparisons. In cross country-comparisons , the most developed economies tend to have the lowest population growths while the poorest economies tend to have the opposite. In cross-income group comparisons, the more affluent families tend to have less children while poorer families tend to have more. The problem with this evidence is that it is evidence of correlation and not of causality. One cannot automatically assume that population growth causes lack of development; lack of development might just be the reason why population growth is high. One cannot just say that having more children makes one poorer; poverty and lack of education may be the reason why poor families have more children.

Consider another angle. If a couple is irresponsible, there is a good chance that they are jobless and poor. If a couple is irresponsible, there is also a good chance that they do not family plan. Irresponsibility and poverty have causal relation because the former ultimately leads to the latter. Irresponsibility and number of children may have causal relation because the former may lead to the latter. Poverty and number of children have correlation, but one does not cause the other and vice-versa. So in this given example, it does not make sense to support the pros’ policy recommendation.

We can look at another angle. Over 500 years before the 1970s, population growth had coincided with economic prosperity. Compare population growth in the glory postwar years of the US up to the 1960s compared to Europe . The same goes for the US’s and Britain ’s population growth in the industrial revolution of the late 1800s compared to the population growth for rest of the world. In the colonial period, compare the population growth rates of “mother” countries to the growth rates of the colonies. There are countless comparisons and all show that low population growth had historically coincided with poverty and stagnation. Does this mean that population growth was the key to economic prosperity? Does the cross-country evidencesof the past 40 years justify the claim that population control policy is needed for development? The answers to these questions are debatable.

Let’s go to policy sense. Assume for the sake of argument that indeed population growth drags economic development and population control programs would fulfill their intended outcomes. Is it really optimal to put, say PhP1 billion a year, in population control programs? Alternatively, is it more optimal to put that same PhP1 billion a year in public school education, social services and other health programs? Hypothetically, putting PhP1 billion in population control programs would fulfill the program intentions. But putting the same in education and others might fulfill numerous other intentions. These include improved productivity, economic self reliance, self esteem and responsibility, knowledge for the sake of knowledge, and even population management. So where should government spend that PhP1 billion a year? Now that is truly debatable.

(Luis F. Dumlao, PhD, is Associate Professor at the Ateneo de Manila University; after studying in Cambridge University, he is also a Post- Doctoral Fellow of Fordham University, New York.)


Killing Bin Laden

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

One problem with public discussions is that it’s filled with so-called analyses that actually were warped by the commentator’s ideology, insecurity, or bias. Objectivity is usually thrown away, and logic and common sense along with it. The problem is further compounded when those proffering their opinions have no idea of what they’re talking about. The alleged analysis by the Pro-RH (and liberation theology) crowd is a good example. Another is that unquestionably condemning the illegality of Osama bin Laden’s killing.

One crucial factor that must be considered in determining whether Bin Laden’s killing was legal is the nature of international law itself. Public international law is a very misunderstood field, innately nebulous and complex, quite different from domestic law. International law is highly fluid, demanding that one makes various considerations from several disciplines within a conjectured context and time. Domestic law, comparatively, is simple as one is normally provided with a basic starting point: what the law is on a specific case. It then becomes a mere task of determining under what law a defined set of facts fall.

International law works far differently. Not only are we uncertain what’s the actual law, we have to construct that law from various sources while identifying prevailing relevant conditions. For example, what’s written in a treaty is only binding upon states party to that treaty and what’s contained in that treaty may not necessarily be what international law really is. This becomes important particularly when determining what the law is then between those states not party to the treaty. Not only that but the law could and does change through time, without any apparent or clear benchmark indicating that a change (or even a new international law) has actually occurred.

Ironically, another thing that distinguishes international law from domestic law, despite it having a sinuous, even ambiguous nature, is the incredible degree of precision analysis that it requires. To get a remote feel of what I’m talking about, try reading a foreign published article by Florentino Feliciano, James Crawford, or Ian Brownlie. Nowhere else will you find a field of law that contains such a superb balance of broad synthesis and minutely fine delineation of concepts and ideas.

That is why, for me, anybody prone to making blanket conclusions on matters involving international law either does not (despite foreign schooling) actually "get" international law, or is letting his peculiar ideological bias screw his analysis, or is simply out to get popularity by posturing before the media. Such are all constituting a disservice to the public and leads them to being unfortunately misinformed.

Which leads me back to this question: Is the killing of Osama bin Laden legal? An obvious point that must be made is that none of us making a public discourse on the matter was actually there when it happened and a substantial amount of facts will most likely be kept secret by the US for national security reasons. This alone puts an automatic crutch on the analysis. But proceeding from the scarce information we do have, an argument could be made -- contrary to what has been published in other local newspapers -- that such is legal.

Legal from the viewpoint of US domestic law. Any local prohibition there may be regarding assassinations under Executive Order 122333 could be argued as inapplicable. Bin Laden has been consistently labeled by the US as an enemy combatant during an armed conflict. This puts him within the ambit of the US’ 2001 Authorization to Use Military Force Act.

Under international law, the same could still be argued as legal. And again, it could be maintained that this is not an "assassination." Taking the argument that the "War on Terror" is a case of armed conflict (and who can conclusively argue that it isn’t when several countries aside from the US have consistently maintained that it is and remembering the nature of international law?), then the killing of an enemy combatant is clearly permitted. Did it matter he was unarmed? No, because he was in a state of combat (that’s Bin Laden’s problem considering he was promising further attacks on the US). What if he tried to surrender? There were no indications that he wanted to. Didn’t this attack violate Pakistan’s sovereignty? Well, Pakistan apparently went along with it (either before or after the attack, the effect is the same). But didn’t an Israeli court rule that assassinations are illegal? So what? Very basic international law tells us that rulings of domestic tribunals are not binding at the international law level. And, again, this is not an assassination but the killing of an enemy combatant during armed conflict.

The point I’m making is not that we should conclude Bin Laden’s killing was legal but that valid arguments for both sides could be reasonably made. While it would be fun to play crusading lawyer before the public, frankly, I’ll take clear-headed thinking anytime.


The rule of law

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

Everybody talks about the need for the rule of law. But I doubt if anyone actually understands what it means. And if people do begin to realize the implications of the rule of law then would they still want to have it? Because, in the end, the rule of law simply represents two things that seem to contradict the national character: the need to abide by a standard and the discipline to enforce that standard.

Whether this could be had is, frankly, doubtful. When you have our own head of state wanting to teach our public prosecutors how to shoot their way out of troubles or when a public official down South is publicly lauded for his brand of vigilante justice, the problem is obvious. Indeed, the intentions of the two afore-cited examples may be laudable, but, as they say, the road to hell is paved, gilded, and furnished with good intentions.

The dilemma, however, also comes down to the proper definition of what the "rule of law" is. Clearly, any person with half a brain who managed to finagle funding from his rich family for foreign schooling could pick up a foreign textbook and say that the rule of law is: "a principle of governance in which all persons, institutions and entities, public and private, including the State itself, are accountable to laws that are publicly promulgated, equally enforced and independently adjudicated, and which are consistent with international human rights norms and standards."

That definition is from a former secretary-general of the United Nations. The question now is: how appropriate is that definition for the Philippines, with its Asian context, multiple invaded and colonized background, and strange amalgam of democratic and personalistic/paternalistic type of politics? However, it would be quite sloppy to immediately come to the conclusion that compliance with the rule of law is weak in this part of the world. Wikipedia itself is evidence for and source of this type of analysis. A member of the Asian Human Rights Commission, for example, was quoted regarding his assessment on the "weak or nonexistent" application of the rule of law in Asia.

But if one applies Western standards on a culture that is removed from the same, the probability of Asian countries falling short on the matter is obvious. As an intellectual exercise, it would be quite interesting to pick at random any strongly identified Asian norm and see how Western countries match up. The findings would most likely be unsurprising.

The subjectivity or bias with regard to adopting the most appropriate definition of the rule of law can be seen with regard to the reception of Lord Bingham’s famous discussion on the same. According to Lord Bingham (who wrote a widely received book on the subject and who died last year), the rule of law should contain the following features: "[1] the law must be accessible and so far as possible intelligible, clear and predictable; [2] questions of legal right and liability should ordinarily be resolved by application of the law and not the exercise of discretion; [3] the laws of the land should apply equally to all, save to the extent that objective differences justify differentiation; [4] the law must afford adequate protection of fundamental human rights; [5] means must be provided for resolving, without prohibitive cost or inordinate delay, bona fide civil disputes which the parties themselves are unable to resolve; [6] ministers and public officers at all levels must exercise the powers conferred on them reasonably, in good faith, for the purpose for which the powers were conferred and without exceeding the limits of such powers; [7] adjudicative procedures provided by the state should be fair; [8] compliance by the state with its obligations in international law."

Admittedly, Lord Bingham is a brilliant jurist, but how much of the receptivity to his ideas stem from his objection to the invasion of Iraq? Frankly, my objection to Lord Bingham’s thesis precisely stems from the eighth feature, particularly as it fails to appreciate the ambiguous and fluid nature of international law. This point becomes all the more apparent when one sees how much of the international law on human rights is based on "soft" (as opposed to "hard") law.

In any event, the need for a more sincere and considered Philippine definition of the rule of law is certain. The capacity and willingness to enforce that definition should be internalized as well. Otherwise, let’s just stop fooling ourselves that we long for a society based on the rule of law when, in the end, our manner of deliberating and deciding issues depends on whether you come from a particular family or school. Obviously, that system has damaged the country but at least let’s accept that we’d rather really want it that way. It’s less hypocritical and doesn’t waste anybody’s time of having people go through the charade that the law (and learning about it) is important.


Coffee with Jose Almonte

Recently had coffee with General Jose Almonte, the former National Security Adviser during President Fidel V. Ramos’ time. This reminded me of an article I wrote about him way in 2008, which I’m reproducing below and, I believe, still well worth pondering upon:

I arrived at General Jose Almonte’s apartment on the dot, as befits a meeting with a military man. It was 13:00 and the General courtly escorted me to the dining table. His assistant, Edna Co, was there and helped serve coffee and pizza. The apartment cum office was modestly furnished but lined with numerous shelves filled with biographies, books on politics and current events. Interestingly, a number of religious books were there as well. After all, this is the guy who once declared: “I have only one hero - Jesus Christ.”

Gen. Almonte is a bulky man, with a voice to match his build. His face was lined and he had a weary air about him. He immediately went to business: “So, what is it that you want to talk about?”

The conversation, of course, focused on an area that he knew so well: that of Philippine development and the role the oligarchy plays in hindering it. One comment I’ve heard is that the oligarchy isn’t what it used to be, having diversified their businesses from mere landholdings and are now into telecommunications, manufacturing, and IT. The point is that, so the argument goes, the oligarchy isn’t the same and as pervasive as it once was. Almonte would have none of this thinking, saying that such is “misleading”. “Our economy is supposed to be a free market, but it is controlled by politics … not designed to serve the national interest, but certain families,” he says.

And therein lies the problem. For although every country has an elite, the Philippines has a significant problem with its local version as “the politics that has evolved [in our country] has no capacity to serve the nation as a whole; it only serves the oligarchy, or rather the party that serves the oligarchy.” For Almonte, it is the elite’s undeserved domination of economic and political power that is the primary cause of Philippine problems.

This observation, it must be observed, is not radical. Nor is it new. Political scientists from 1965 such as Dante Simbulan (who wrote The Modern Principalia), to politicians such as Ferdinand Marcos (Today’s Revolution: Democracy), to the writers of Anarchy of Families, and today’s journalists who reported in the book The Rulemakers, almost unanimously say the same thing. A recent book (Asian Godfathers by Joe Studwell) describes our elite as “the most selfish and self-serving in the region.” It is General Almonte, however, who provides the most colorful description: “You give Rizal to our oligarchy, they’ll shoot him.”

General Almonte is reminded of a passage in his book “We Must Level the Playing Field”, where then Commissioner William Cameron Forbes recounts that: “’[Sergio Osmena and Manuel Quezon] practically admitted to me that [the demand for immediate independence] was really a catch way of getting votes; that what they wanted was office, not independence’”. General Almonte notes dryly that “the skills that get a Filipino politician elected President are often the opposite of those qualities required for the decisive and upright administration of the state.”

General Almonte is a very charming speaker. And forceful as well. He observed that I was not touching the pizza. Hearing that from a Brigadier General who infiltrated the Viet Cong and who almost led the assault on Malacanang in 1986 with an AK-47 rifle brought home from Vietnam, I was eating in a millisecond.

Continuing on the subject, General Almonte is of the firm belief that the country doesn’t need geniuses or high intelligence in a leader. “You can get experts to make the studies and the policies”. What is needed, he says, is “a leader who will have the courage to implement the policies and with no attachment to the oligarchy and other such parties with vested interests.” Or, in the colorful Almonte-speak, “even a monkey could lead this country a whole lot better than a genius affiliated with the oligarchy.” Assuming, of course, the monkey is not attached to the elite.

“The secret to nation building is simple: just inspire the people. For a president, that is the one important thing he or she should do.” The problem is, how do you inspire the people when opportunities are closed to them by the oligarchy?

The discussion had gone on longer than expected, the General being quite generous with his time. I murmured my leave and he courteously rose to escort me out of his apartment and into the elevator. You know, he says, “a leader unattached to the oligarchy would do this country a whole lot of good. A leader with vision, values, and conviction.”

The elevator opened. Before I stepped in, the old warrior shook my hand. “Take care of our people. Our people are good and they deserve better.” It was a goosebump inducing moment. After all, he is right: our people do deserve better.


Reasons against RH

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

A funny thought entered my mind during the beatification of Pope John Paul II last Sunday: how many pro-RH advocates got excited or teary eyed while watching the same? The reason is because some Catholics should be reminded that Pope John Paul II gave us the Theology of the Body Lectures, which categorically proscribed the use of contraceptives. This says a lot about the pro-RH crowd’s consistency of thought (or lack of it). However, this article is not about the theological reasons against contraceptives but on some secular grounds why the RH Bill should not pass.

A fellow lawyer-columnist recently posted in his blog that President Aquino was right to support the RH Bill because he is president not only of Catholic Filipinos but of all Filipinos. The problem with this argument is that it misses the point about the function of the presidency and the nature of the RH Bill. While the statement that President Aquino is the president of all Filipinos is obvious enough, nevertheless, he still must execute laws that are for the general interest and do not constitute grave abuse of discretion, while at the same time remaining true to his conscience.

How the RH Bill could serve the common good is beyond me. There is simply no reason why the RH Bill should be passed. Economically, no direct correlation has been made between growth and population. Studies also do not support the contention that our population size is unsustainable. In fact, our birth rates are staying at quite manageable levels. And economists have pointed out that our demographics support domestic consumption, propel our service industry, and make our relatively young citizenry competitive vis-a-vis the ageing economies of Europe, Japan, and Singapore. Finally, studies have shown that poverty here is traceable not to population size (incidentally, not to corruption also) but to the continuing unequal distribution of wealth, with most of it held by our stupid elite.

Medically, the RH Bill introduces risks to female health, as international studies, among them by the International Agency for Research on Cancer, research arm of the World Health Organization) and medical journals (such as Lancet) already attributed (particularly to oral contraceptives) dangers such as cancer (specifically breast cancer). Former Health Secretary Cabral recently publicly acknowledged this. Research has also shown that countries (such as the US and Thailand) resorting to contraceptives (condoms in particular) have actually resulted in the increase of AIDS, unwanted pregnancies, or abortions. The reason is simple: condoms, which fail at least 5% of the time, give a false sense of security, encouraging the illusion of "safe sex."

The RH Bill also violates human rights, particularly as to non-discrimination regarding one’s religion. It was argued by a lawyer-columnist that taxes cannot be argued against the RH Bill as government funds have a general (i.e., non-religious) character. But this again misses the point: Catholics are knowingly being forced to pay for a measure (designed to provide subsidies for contraceptives reportedly costing Five Billion Pesos a year) that is against not their mere opinion but their constitutionally protected religious beliefs.

Note that Catholics cannot be rightly accused of imposing their beliefs on others, as contraceptives are legally and widely available. Instead, the RH Bill is being imposed on Catholics: can’t government come up with other programs to spend money on (such as medicines against cancer or heart disease, maternal care, education, fuel subsidies) that is less divisive and does not trample on their strongly held religious beliefs? This has to be emphasized: no religion is discriminated against by the use of tax money for other purposes should the RH Bill be rejected (as no religion is insane enough to require condom use, at most other religions merely condone it) but such would not be true the other way around.

Which also leads to this point: why should government and Catholic taxpayers be made to bear the burdens of a measure that is controversial, divisive, ineffective, and discriminates against a religion? As multinational pharmaceutical companies aren’t greedy, why not ask them to lower their prices? Why not have NGOs, instead of pouring all that money into lobbying and advertising campaigns, subsidize contraceptives themselves or, even better, donate the money to the poor?

Finally, same lawyer-columnist argues that the proscription against contraception is merely a Catholic thing. That is downright wrong. The reasons against contraception (aside from those above) are based on natural law. This law applies whether or not you are Catholic. Natural law, which seeks to protect human dignity, is the foundation of our Bill of Rights. President Aquino, coming from a school that has St. Thomas More as one of its patron saints, must know that his actions are to be guided by his conscience, with such conscience anchored on natural law. With all due respect, our lawyer-columnist friend should know this. More so, if he’s also a priest.