Thoughts on a double vodka

my last Trade Tripper BusinessWorld column for 2013:

Before anything else, to borrow a line from Jim Carrey: a Christ-y, Christ-y Merry Christmas to all! Of course, Christmas was three days ago but you know what they say, every day should be Christmas Day. On the other hand, 2013 has four days left to go and whatever you may say of it, the year that soon will be was, was never boring.

Many will be greeting the New Year with champagne, which in this country means any wine that has a gas problem. But that’s fine with me, as long as one doesn’t get too haughty with it. I’ll probably greet 2014 with a Gibson in my hand, which is actually just a martini with a little onion in it (and perhaps ice). Which reminds me of my favorite martini quote: one is all right, two are too much, and three are not enough.

Pope Francis was chosen by Time as its Man of the Year. Which doesn’t mean anything really. After all, today’s Time Magazine isn’t exactly The Economist. And one suspects that Pope Francis was chosen because of his alleged "progressive" views. Just ask the New York Times. Which is completely the opposite of reality. If anything, the selection of Pope Francis serves as vindication of Pope Benedict XVI. What with Catholic doctrine on contraception, abortion, same-sex marriage, divorce, and euthanasia already ably defended by PBXVI, what is left for Pope Francis to do is to build on the strong foundations his predecessor left him.

One of my favorite pieces of dialogue is from the "Great Game" episode of Sherlock:

Sherlock: "Just tell me what happened from the beginning."
Barry: "We’ve been to a bar, a nice place, and I was chattin’ with one of the waitresses and Karen weren’t happy with that, so we got back to the hotel and ended up having a bit of a ding dong, didn’t we? She was gettin’ at me, saying I weren’t a real man--"
Sherlock: "Wasn’t."
Barry: "What?"
Sherlock: "It’s not weren’t, it’s wasn’t."
Barry: "Oh..."
Sherlock: "Go on."
Barry: "Well, then I don’t know how it happened but suddenly there’s a knife in my hands. And you know, my old man was a butcher so I know how to handle knives. He learned us how to cut up a piece--"
Sherlock: "Taught."
Barry: "What?"
Sherlock: "Taught you how to cut up a piece."
Barry: "Yeah, well, then I done it."
Sherlock: "Did it."
Barry: "I stabbed her over and over and over and I looked at her and she weren’t-- ... wasn’t movin’ no more. Any more."
Barry: "Hey, you gotta help me, Mr. Holmes! Everyone says you’re the best. Without you... I’ll get hung for this."
Sherlock: "No, no, Mr. Bewick, not at all. Hanged, yes."

Sherlock should be the grammar police on Facebook. That people air their numbingly inane dramas on social media is their right. But that they mangle the English language while doing so violates the human rights of those with a brain.

Speaking of Facebook, one of the funniest memes I saw had this quote: "Why name hurricane fag names like Sandy? Name that shit Hurricane Death Megatron 300 and I guarantee niggas be evacuating like they need to." The guy who wrote this (a black gentleman named Kendrick Lamar) has a point. Seriously. If instead of saying "storm surge," calling it by a non-technical name like (as a friend of mine suggested): "lalamunin kayo ng p*%#^ dagat!" (you will be swallowed up by the son-of-a-bitch sea) could have saved some lives.

Remember Tacloban? The need for recovery, the fact that the people there still need support, and with reports that relief goods being diverted somewhere else, all this took the backseat as people in Manila are bizarrely obsessing over bashing the Binays. I can understand that some people may not like them politically. But some of the hatred is unjustifiable. As far as I know, the Binay family never collaborated with foreign invaders or betrayed the Katipunan, looked down on non-mestizos; they continue to keep Philippine passports, speak fluent Filipino, and keep whatever wealth they have in the country. Frankly, for a Filipino to hurl insults based on skin color, of not being a coño, or being a nouveau riche, against another Filipino is despicable.

2013 is a good year for TV. Breaking Bad ended its run. So did Strike Back. New or relatively new shows hit their stride: Banshee, Dracula, Bates Motel. There are new great talk shows as well and most of them are on Fox. I realized that a lot of people hate Fox News but never actually watched a show. So I recommend The Five (seen currently at 5 p.m. on local cable) and Red Eye (unfortunately in the Philippines available only on the Internet). After all the smugness one gets watching CNN, smart common sense will be a welcome change indeed.

That’s it. Made my word quota for the week. Happy New Year all!


A very significant announcement

my Trade Tripper column in the recent weekend issue of BusinessWorld:

The morning air blazed insistently and the sun seemed to have come out earlier than usual. The young girl stretched her arms and let out a slight yawn. She could hear her mother in the kitchen, her father packing his satchel to go to the temple. Mary sat on the edge of the bed, gathering her thoughts, letting the sleep get out of her head.

Anna, Mary’s mother, pokes her head into the bedroom. "Get up Mary. What’s wrong with you?" Mary lets out an impish grin and lies back again in bed. "Awww... I want to sleep more," she teases. Anna grabs Mary’s arms and playfully pulls her. "No, get up," she says, "I have to go to the market. I want you to fill the vats with water before I get back." Mary follows her mother out of the room. A slice of bread was on the table and she washes her face with water. "Mary, stop splashing water all over the place!" her mother yells. "You clean that up, get more water from the well, and don’t forget to feed the chickens!" Anna continues, stepping out of the house, her words almost muffled by the shawl she wrapped around her. "Buy me figs, Mama!" Mary called out. "Yes," was Anna’s weary reply. Joachim, Mary’s father, rushes out of his study. He kisses Mary on the forehead, gives her a hug, and runs after Anna so they could walk together.

Alone, Mary shuffles around the quiet stone house, munching on her bread, and played a little with her doll by annoying the family cat with it. The cat runs away. Mary shrugs. Just over a year ago her life was vastly different. She worked in the temple and her daily routine alternated between service to the temple elders and study. But there was also lots of playtime with girls her age. It was a good life and Mary had no complaints. She even got to see her father at work every day. And since Nazareth was near the trade routes, there was always interesting news from Egyptian and Mesopotamian travellers who dropped by the temple.

Then she turned 12 years old. "Look here, my favorite daughter," her father teasingly said, as she happened to be Joachim and Anna’s only child, "we’ll have to marry you off." Several suitors immediately turned up. But it was the quiet Joseph, who dealt with good humor a pesky dove who insisted on sitting on Joachim’s head that sealed the deal. Joseph, however, had to go away on business for a year. In the meantime, Mary waited at her parents’ house.

Water and chicken chores done, she decided to cool off a little bit in her bedroom. It was while she was reminiscing over her favorite cousin Elizabeth, elderly but always ready with the jokes and now amazingly pregnant, that it happened.

There was a flash of white light and then there he suddenly was. He looked young, thought Mary of the strange visitor. It took her a while before she decided it was a boy she was talking to, well he seemed like a boy -- very fine features and his hair a bouncy blond. He tightly held a little trumpet. Even so, Mary had to admit feeling a little bit scared of this somewhat adorable, albeit odd, intruder. It was when he spoke, however, that utter shock hit her: Mary, you are to conceive by the Holy Spirit, give birth to the son of God, you shall call him Jesus.

It took a while and a fair bit of frantic cajoling by the youngster, but Mary eventually settled down. She began to think: is this kid for real? He seemed quite detailed, even giving me the baby’s name. But if I get pregnant as he described it my parents would be dishonored. Joseph too and he’d leave me. Who’d take care of me? I’d be disgraced, an outcast; assuming I don’t get stoned to death. And yet ...

Gabriel was, of course, loath to admit it but it was the most nerve-wracking assignment he ever had. And he was used to big jobs: engineering John the Baptist’s birth, supervising the seraphims and cherubims, and he even has the task of declaring the start of the apocalypse. But this, this waiting for the decision of a girl just approaching her teens, was different.

He would later say to Michael and Raphael, "my heart stopped when she was about to open her mouth." They laughed at this but they all knew that the whole of creation also held its breath. And that’s why they couldn’t help but be in awe of God’s cool steady nerves. Put simply, He made the monumentally staggering bet of putting the fate of everything He created upon a single answer of this simple unassuming girl.

Then it came: "I am the Lord’s servant. Be it done." 

(With thanks to various sources for details, particularly to St. Luke and the Blessed Catherine of Emmerich. Originally published BusinessWorld, December 2011)


Packaging Bali

is my Trade Tripper column in this weekend issue of BusinessWorld:

International trade does sometimes come up with surprises. Although the quality of the surprise is another matter. In any event, the 9th Ministerial Conference in Bali, Indonesia of the World Trade Organization (WTO) did try monumentally hard to live up to its hype. Say what you will, those engaged in international trade do have a flair for the dramatic.

With the shadow of past collapses looming, particularly the ghost of Cancun, negotiators agreed at the last minute (is there any other way?) to the "Bali Package." It essentially consists of 10 past agreements made at separate previous Ministerial Conferences and covers the areas of food security, trade facilitation, cotton, and preferential treatment for poorer countries.

The Package also contains provisions on the lowering of tariffs and agricultural subsidies, the inclusion of which nearly derailed the proceedings. In the end, India decided to go along but not after securing certain exemptions for its own agricultural subsidies.

Trade ministers certainly tried to put on optimistic faces regarding Bali’s conclusion. Our own Trade Secretary Greg Domingo, in an interview with local media, said that "overall, the Philippines will benefit from the Bali package. Under the agriculture agreement, developing countries like the Philippines will be able to maintain and expand its public stockholding for food security free from WTO dispute."

But, really, the significance of the Bali Package could only be considered suspect when you have commentators wryly concluding it was "better than nothing." DW’s Rolf Wenkel certainly thinks so, albeit with certain qualifications: "Many observers might see the compromise with India as a bad deal. But on the other hand the compromise is what made the Bali agreement possible and this will bring plenty of advantages in many other fields -- not just for a small number of countries like in regional agreements but for 159 countries around the globe. And that’s not just better than nothing but a historic success in the fight against protectionism."

On the other hand, Bloomberg reportage on the deal makes it appear as merely something to "buy time": "‘A successful Bali buys the WTO time to prove that multilateral trade talks can be productive on a regular basis and in a timely manner,’ said Terence Stewart, a trade lawyer based in Washington, in an e-mail yesterday. ‘The risk is that members will not address the underlying issues that have crippled the organization’s ability to respond to the changing business environment.’"

In short, the Bali Package doesn’t end anything, doesn’t conclude anything, but merely, in keeping with the "bicycle theory" of international trade, keeps the negotiations moving along in the hope something turns up in the future.

But even within that context, the significance of Bali is still dubious. Reuters had occasion to get the comment of Simon Evenett, professor of international trade at the University of St. Gallen in Switzerland, and his assessment was that "beyond papering over a serious dispute on food security, precious little was progress was made at Bali. Dealing with the fracas on food security sucked the oxygen out of the rest of the talks."

Two considerations also need to be made regarding the Bali Package. The first has to do with the fact that the same needs to be approved by each individual WTO member governments before it becomes effective. In that regard, that India has an upcoming general election next year and with US President Barack Obama still without Trade Promotion Authority (and with an upcoming mid-term Congressional elections coming in 2014 that the Republicans are poised to gain advantages in) may even lead to possible delays in any eventual actual application of the Bali Package.

The other is the effect that the Bali Package has on the Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement (and vice-versa). The TPP is an expanded version of the 2005 Trans-Pacific Strategic Economic Partnership Agreement and currently includes as parties or potential parties Australia, Brunei, Chile, Canada, Malaysia, Mexico, New Zealand, Peru, Singapore, the United States, and Vietnam. Japan and China are also considering or being considered for TPP membership.

Australia’s Trade Minister Andrew Robb, although lauding the Bali Package as making it easier for trade in goods due to the trade facilitation provisions of the agreement, nevertheless was quoted by the Financial Review as saying that the WTO deal will "not influence" ongoing negotiations for the TPP.

And there lies whatever significance Bali may have. Because, as the Wall Street Journal pointed out, immediately "after reaching a deal in Bali, several trade officials traveled to Singapore to work on a regional trade pact involving 12 Pacific Rim countries, known as the Trans-Pacific Partnership."

The best way to ensure "developmental" success for developing countries is through multilateralism. But, as your Trade Tripper presciently wrote last week, if the developed countries won’t "practice what they preach, then just expect Bali to be declared a ‘success’ simply because of small agreements like trade facilitation," to the detriment of poorer countries like the Philippines.


WTO to Bali high (or low)

is my Trade Tripper column in this weekend issue of BusinessWorld:

The big news of this week should be the developments and conclusion of the 9th Ministerial Conference of the World Trade Organization at Bali, Indonesia. This article was written just before the ministerial’s start. Quite likely, readers by now will have known its outcome, with the difference being the recovery of the WTO or a decade’s more continuation of its moribund state.

The stakes, of course, are well defined. While the name "Doha" is interestingly no longer mentioned as much, it must be remembered that the reason why Bali is important is precisely because of Doha. And Doha was called the "Developmental Round" for a reason. And one of the best things about Doha (if one would prefer to see the bright side of things) is that it revealed a fundamental flaw of the multilateral trade system that needs to be corrected.

Because what Doha illuminated is the fact that the developed countries precisely are against the Doha Round’s "developmental" aspect. One commentator speaking under anonymity, as reported in Reuters, said it most directly: "A development agenda should never have been introduced into the WTO in 2001. The WTO is about mercantilist interest, and there is no space for philanthropy."

Doha’s unintended importance therefore is its publicly revealing developed country calculations: launch a round with some nice motherhood statements, let the developing countries flounder in their under-resourced and unorganized way through the talks, conclude like Uruguay, and developed rich countries are happy again. Unfortunately, the developing countries were apparently not given copies of the script. Learning from the Uruguay Round and gaining further experiences from Cancun and Hong Kong, poorer countries learned to stand their ground and maintained focus.

Hence, the present tact of the developed countries to break up developing country positions instead through regional or bilateral trade agreements. And here the US has been particularly more successful than the EU in this regard.

Which makes the US’ (or, more specifically, the Obama administration’s) lack of leadership throughout the Doha Round truly unfortunate. As put vividly by Columbia University’s Jagdish Bhagwati (writing for Handelsblatt): "the US killed Doha. Or at least put into Intensive Care ... it was killed by President Obama who had ironically been awarded the Nobel Peace Prize by Norway in the expectation that he would promote multilateralism and turn his back on US unilateralism!" Unfortunately, "the US, not content with killing Doha, is even promoting the regional PTA called the Trans-Pacific Partnership, compounding its folly twice over."

Thus the utter irony with which the US is now scaremongering the developing countries into getting in line with the "Bali Package". US Trade Representative Michael Froman, speaking at the WTO Public Forum 2013, bringing out again Doha’s "development goals", declares that the "loss of the WTO as a negotiating forum of course, would have the greatest impact on the smallest countries and the poorest economies. Big countries will always have options. Fair or unfair, that’s a reality. We all want the WTO to be a vibrant negotiating forum -- but small countries and poor countries would feel the loss the most."

Interestingly, Mr. Froman professes the importance of the WTO but lectures developing countries that "no one should blame the proliferation of bilateral and plurilateral trade negotiations for the state of the WTO today. Bilateral and plurilateral negotiations in or out of the WTO are not the context of our negotiating failure here -- if anything, they are a consequence instead. The main attraction of plurilateral agreements, for many, is that they offer a way forward. Like-minded countries -- the coalition of the working -- can come together to open markets, set high standards and introduce new disciplines for global trade."

This therefore explains the vigor with which the US pursues the TPP and TTIP deals, both -- incidentally -- excluding the Philippines.

But what’s disconcerting is why even the WTO would place upon developing countries like the Philippines the matter of Bali’s (and thus Doha’s) success. WTO Spokesman Keith Rockwell, noting the Philippines’ numerous free trade agreements, declared that "it would benefit the Philippines more if it actively pursues multilateral trading at the WTO considering its top three trading partners are huge players in the WTO, namely the US, Japan and China." This forgets, of course, that the Philippines is part of APEC, JPEPA and ASEAN-China.

Anyway, bottomline, if the developed countries don’t learn to practice what they preach, then just expect Bali to be declared a "success" simply because of small agreements like trade facilitation or customs procedures. Which, it must be remembered, is incredibly ironic as trade facilitation is one of the four "Singapore Issues" that tanked the Cancun Ministerial. Also, how a multilateral trade facilitation agreement will substantially benefit the Philippines is a puzzle, aside from it serving as an added international obligation.

In fine, there’s the likely probability that the WTO remains sidelined. And with that, the interests of developing countries.


Of selfies and dumbing down

is my Trade Tripper column in this weekend issue of BusinessWorld:

Came across this thoughtful article on what may be the most popular activity today: selfies. But, like all things, it does come with a price. As Olympia Nelson wrote ("Dark undercurrents of teenage girls’ selfies," Sydney Morning Herald, 11 July 2013): "If social media only caused narcissism, it wouldn’t be the worst thing. Instagram and Facebook are social networks that not only breed narcissistic tendencies but transform relations into a sexual rat race."

It’s the unoriginality, the lack of any creativity, the impulse to conform (sexually, politically, or whatever) that makes even this simple act of self-indulgence go from bad to worse: "Everyone likes receiving compliments and it makes us feel awesome that our own appearance can provide us with an ego boost. But what kind of photos produce an epidemic of ‘likes?’ Nothing with too much creativity but hip, titty and kiss. It’s the true scourge of the selfie."

In the end, one can’t help but agree with Nelson’s insight of the selfy being "a neurotic impulse, not a happy one." And, we have to note, this narcissism has nothing to do with gender: guys are as apt to engage in this narcissistic, self-indulgent sort of behavior as girls.

This reminds me of three Trade Tripper articles I wrote, noting down the seeming self-obsession of people nowadays. Somehow, it’s convincing me I may be prescient. Or something like it.

The first was written in 2010, "Everybody’s a Rockstar:" "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."

The resulting danger of a culture encouraging (even rewarding) intellectually lazy people is something related to what James Surowiecki wrote about. Interestingly (and ironically), the author of The Wisdom of Crowds, actually discards the idea of an infallible crowd and instead bolsters an idea we all already know: a deliberate and studied decision by an informed people will always be better than one made out of the emotional unthinking actions of the many. Our history is replete with the latter. The tragedy in such situations of "irrational" crowds is that any good, studied, and learned thinking by individuals become lost, discarded, or -- worse -- attacked. In this regard, Andrew Keen’s The Cult of the Amateur: How Today’s Internet Is Killing Our Culture would be good to read.

Which leads to the second article -- "The Anti-Intellectual State:" "But indeed, the reason for this anti-intellectual bias lies with our ‘intellectuals’ themselves. I mean: "do we even have real intellectuals?" After all, "Intellectuals are there to encourage the greater populace to think critically and objectively, to think calmly and methodically, to discuss politely, to like thinking (and learning), and to think for a purpose. Not paralyze people into inaction or scream loads of esoteric data in order to shut them up. In the end, our people have no respect for intellectuals (as well as politicians) because those who pretend to being it are merely into one huge ego trip and treat being an intellectual as a performance for people’s entertainment. They serve no purpose other than as a diversion during coffee breaks or cocktails. Intellectuals should exhort people to unify their actions with their thoughts, demand responsibility and accountability, all rooted in realistic and doable considerations. Above all, intellectuals should practice what they preach. Otherwise, they’re just encouraging the country to be basket cases like them."

The third article I referred to was written just a few months ago, "Me, Myself, and I:" "While indeed the democratization of information, the full utilization of the wisdom of crowds, and the greater participation of the public in the marketplace of ideas is ostensibly beneficial, not so if it leads people to sloppiness in thought.

Writer and Cambridge lecturer (never mind Oxford) Edward de Bono certainly thinks so. In an interview with news.com.au, he said: ‘There is danger on the internet and social media... that you do not have to think to be very dangerous. Social media causes laziness, that we feel will get more information and do not need to have his own ideas. We got the idea from someone else, we do not need to look at the data, we only see what others have to say.’"

In the end, we (specially the parents) either face up to this problem now. Or pay for it later. Of course, it’s easy to dismiss such concerns as being the product of an overly dogmatic mind. But ask yourself this question: would you really think that a child reared on the uncritiqued, unjudged, the "everybody is ok because you feel good" mentality can stand up to the rigors of the real world? I’m sure the parents of our neighboring Asian countries already know the answer to that.


Leaking TPP

was the subject of my Trade Tripper column in the past weekend's issue of BusinessWorld:

One denunciation made (from among the many) about the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) is the alleged secrecy enveloping it. So supposedly secret that even US members of Congress reportedly complained about being in the dark regarding its contents. So secret that purportedly only three persons from each TPP negotiating country has access to the full text of the trade agreement.

Your Trade Tripper found all this clandestineness a bit puzzling ("TPP. RCEP. WTH?? LOL!", 02 August 2013) as US President Barack Obama will eventually need to have the good graces of Congress anyway to have the trade promotion authority to enter the US into the TPP. So, perhaps there was a hint of inevitability about WikiLeaks lifting the cloak surrounding the TPP, releasing 95 pages of the trade agreement’s intellectual property provisions.

It all the more was to be expected because if there was any part in the TPP considered truly contentious then the intellectual property chapter has to be it. This particularly so because of the TPP’s perceived possibly damaging effects on medicine prices, coupled with the criticism that the TPP empowers multinational corporations to sue States directly (thus overriding State immunity). 

International Business Times ("WikiLeaks Releases Draft Chapter For Trans-Pacific Partnership On Intellectual Property, 13 November 2013) reported that the TPP "could create tougher laws on digital copyrights and freedom of speech." Quoting WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange: "If instituted, the TPP’s IP regime would trample over individual rights and free expression, as well as ride roughshod over the intellectual and creative commons." Thus, "if you read, write, publish, think, listen, dance, sing or invent; if you farm or consume food; if you’re ill now or might one day be ill, the TPP has you in its crosshairs."

And building exactly on fears that the enforcement provisions of the TPP could override State sovereignty, the IBT’s article ominously states that: "The section entitled ‘Enforcement’ outlines new policy measures, including a proposal for supranational litigation tribunals to which national courts are expected to defer but which have no human rights safeguards, the press release said. The chapter states that these courts can conduct hearings with secret evidence, and replicates many of the surveillance and enforcement provisions from the shelved SOPA and ACTA treaties."

Even more trenchant is RT.Com’s take (TPP Uncovered: WikiLeaks releases draft of highly-secretive multi-national trade deal; 13 November 13) on the matter: "Public Citizen, a Washington-based consumer advocacy organization, has warned that US Trade Representatives privy to the TPP discussions have demanded provisions that ‘would strengthen, lengthen and broaden pharmaceutical monopolies on cancer, heart disease and HIV/AIDS drugs, among others, in the Asia-Pacific region.’ Indeed, the leaked chapter suggests drug companies could easily extend and widen patents under the TPP, prohibiting other countries from producing life-saving pills and selling them for less. Outside of the world of medicine, though, the implications that could come with new copyright rules agreed upon my essentially half of the world’s economy are likely to affect everyone."

The concerns regarding the TPP cannot be said to be without basis. It’s breadth and scope are truly staggering: the TPP is an expanded version of the 2005 Trans-Pacific Strategic Economic Partnership Agreement and currently includes as parties or potential parties Australia, Brunei, Chile, Canada, Malaysia, Mexico, New Zealand, Peru, Singapore, the United States, and Vietnam. Japan and China are also considering or being considered for TPP membership.

The foregoing is to be contrasted with the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP), which is a proposed FTA between the ASEAN members (Philippines, Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore, Thailand, Brunei, Burma, Cambodia, Laos, Vietnam) and Australia, China, India, Japan, South Korea, and New Zealand. Both the TPP and the RCEP claim to remove the problems that a "noodle bowl" of trade agreements brings. But the more important consideration for the Philippines perhaps lies beyond merely trade but rather the bigger picture: the TPP has the US in it (and perhaps Japan) but not China, while the RCEP has both China and Japan but not the US.

Going back to the leaked documents: although other TPP documents have made their way to public scrutiny, the recent WikiLeaks release is significant for including details of the different country’s negotiating positions.

From Info.Org ("Visualizing Negotiating Positions in the TPP IP Chapter"; 17 November 2013), we see the relative isolation (in negotiating positions) of the US and Japan. More, interesting, however, is how some countries have consistent patterns of similarity in negotiating interests, among which include: Malaysia-Singapore, Malaysia-Vietnam, Brunei-Vietnam, Brunei-Malaysia, Chile-Singapore, Chile-New Zealand; with a negotiating core of New Zealand, Singapore, Chile, and Malaysia. Surprisingly, Australia-New Zealand does not seem to have such high similarity in positions as is generally supposed.

Ultimately, however, the truth about the TPP is likely in the middle. Undeniably, there’s a need to study it from a particularly developing-country perspective. Interested readers are invited to go to https://wikileaks.org/tpp to see for themselves the TPP’s merits or lack thereof.


Killing zombies

is my Trade Tripper column in this weekend issue of BusinessWorld:

Zombies surround us. They’re everywhere. Television, movies, computer games. Jane Austen has co-author credits on a novel about them. There are websites and books dedicated to giving tips on how to survive a zombie apocalypse, including academic papers involving mathematical modeling and tax implications.

Brown University even offered a course, "Zombie as Metaphor," which seeks to "introduce students to recent US intellectual history by examining the changing ‘evils’ as represented by zombies in popular culture." Doing so, "involves not just a critical analysis of zombie films and associated fiction, but also a deeper reflection upon the changing (and challenging) social landscape that gave rise to this genre."

Social commentators and media obviously see in zombies a metaphor of the social condition. Most famously, director George Romero saw zombies as evocative of the effects of consumerism and capitalist consumption gone berserk. Which probably explains why Dawn of the Dead mostly takes place in a mall.

But there are other plausible interpretations as to why zombies strike a nerve in us. My own take is that it’s a subconscious lashing out against the receding of rationality and the imposition of a wrong notion of humanity. Or it’s probably just representative of our secret desire for revenge against all the stupidity surrounding us.

Anyway, to better explain the former, let’s look at the traits that make up a zombie. There are many kinds of zombies, by the way: there are the shuffling zombies of Night of the Living Dead as well as The Walking Dead; then you have the running vicious zombies of Dawn of the Dead or Zombieland; then there are the ultra-slow zombies of Shaun of the Dead; the dancing zombies in "Thriller"; there’s the better not mentioned romantic zombies of Warm Bodies; and, finally, you have the frenzied, incredibly aggressive zombies of 28 Days Later and World War Z (although I’m not really sure if they’re zombies but rather just crazed infected people).

Nevertheless, despite the variety, zombies possess an essential nature, which zombie.wikia described this way: "A Zombie, in its broadest sense, is a person who has lost his or her sense of self-awareness and identity, and cares only for the destruction (and often consumption) of any human around, no matter what the circumstances, or cost to his or her self. They make up for this loss of intelligence in sheer numbers, as the state of zombieism is almost always contagious, and spreads like wildfire. Technically speaking, true zombies are always dead."

Marilla Mulwane, in (the quite ironical) Life Paths 360 Blog, clinically enumerates the known characteristics of zombies as: pale grey skin, unhealed wounds, lack of communication skills (no zombie can carry an intelligent conversation), shuffling when trying to walk, one track mind. Of the last: "Here is the most obvious way to tell if you are dealing with a zombie. They are only interested in one thing: your brains. Zombies will do nothing but shuffle along in the direction that they sense the brains are. They will not be distracted by anything else. They will hunt down the brains even if it means falling over cliffs, into burning buildings, or into someone’s pitchfork. Because of this, zombies are incredibly easy to spot."

An inarticulate unthinking self-indulgent slacker mob going around hating and wanting to destroy anyone with brains? Social media anti-intellectualism right there! But, less flippantly, perhaps the true reason why we’re so gripped by zombies is our inherent abhorrence of the irrational. And zombies, despite their human form, are exclusively geared toward serving its compulsions for which reason (including free will and personal responsibility) plays no part.

Secular progressives and liberals are quick to jump on this mindlessness angle by equating the zombies with religious folks. They are sadly mistaken -- it’s actually the reverse. Liberals miss the point about zombies. It was once asked in Season 3 of The Walking Dead whether or not zombies are human. After all, they have limbs and faces, walk and look like humans. Language or their humanoid form can’t be the dividing line. The main religions will refer to the absence of a soul, with Catholics (following St. Aquinas) adding the utter lack of reason.

On the other hand, as they can’t acknowledge the soul’s existence (for obvious reasons) or concede completely regarding the intellect (as they then would have to admit to free will and personal responsibility), liberals are compelled to rely on David Hume’s idea of passions -- not reason -- being the moving force for humans. Which necessarily leads them to their inability to answer as to what therefore separates humans from zombies.

The point: because of media’s, the academe’s, and even governments’ insistence in marginalizing God and objective morality, people are constantly pressured to embrace the unthinkable idea that our humanity is relative and irrational. The resultant loathing they feel they then project subconsciously on zombies. And thus the glee whenever one gets blown away on TV.


Suits 2.0

is my Trade Tripper column in this weekend issue of BusinessWorld: 

That the rule of law is essential for a dynamic and prosperous society is now widely considered as gospel. It is therefore ironic that the profession directly and primarily entrusted with upholding it is oftentimes treated like a necessary nuisance. But contrary to conventional wisdom, however, the problem is not that we have too many lawyers but rather whether lawyers are adaptable to today’s shifting demands.

Even then, it’s inaccurate to say we have too many lawyers. Wikipedia (citing IBP data) says we presently have 40,000 living lawyers. Assuming that figure correct, we therefore have a “lawyer density” of 2.5 lawyers per 1,000 Filipinos (with an assumed population of 100,000,000). In which case, our lawyer density is well below that of the US (at 3.65 lawyers per 1,000 US citizens, and Spain’s 3.36, but above Italy’s 2.33 and Canada’s 2.20; see The Optimum Number of Lawyers, Stephen P. Magee, November 2010).

But the changed reality of the legal profession today is such that a huge number of those 40,000 lawyers are not into litigation. Most instead successfully parlayed their legal discipline as a more rigorous alternative to a Master’s degree to advance in their careers in corporate management, entrepreneurship, academe, government, or international economic or financial institutions. Thus, the number of lawyers actually providing traditional legal work is relatively small, the short supply probably explaining the country’s high legal costs.

So, it’s how to adapt and improve – not the quantity of – lawyers that’s crucial. Which leads to the matter as to what kind of legal education is most fitting. In 1954, a young man asked US Justice Felix Frankfurter the same exact question. His reply is as insightful now as it was then:

“No one can be a truly competent lawyer unless he is a cultivated man. If I were you I would forget about any technical preparation for the law. The best way to prepare for the law is to be a well-read person. Thus alone can one acquire the capacity to use the English language on paper and in speech and with the habits of clear thinking which only a truly liberal education can give. No less important for a lawyer is the cultivation of the imaginative faculties by reading poetry, seeing great paintings, in the original or in easily available reproductions, and listening to great music. Stock your mind with the deposit of much good reading, and widen and deepen your feelings by experiencing vicariously as much as possible the wonderful mysteries of the universe, and forget about your future career.”

The answer therefore: a humanities oriented, liberal arts education. Doubtless one must pass the Bar exams and one should indeed prepare for it. But a law career goes beyond the Bar, with consequences that will affect society in general due to the lawyer’s responsibilities in developing and upholding the rule of law.

This is why every law school loudly declares its ambition to produce lawyers mindful of the common good. But as one noted educator pointed out: “A desire to work for the common good is not enough. The way to make this desire effective is to form competent men and women who can transmit to others the maturity which they themselves have achieved.”

This “maturity” is achievable in several ways. One is PAREF schools’ highly successful system of “one-on-one mentoring”. Here, each student has a mentor he or she regularly chats with, forming a supportive relationship that develops the student’s personality, character, and over-all potential.

Another is instilling in law students the need for a moral compass, respect for human dignity, self-mastery, and strong faith – all the products of a good liberal education. And the reason is simple. While strictly respecting the freedom of students’ consciences, nevertheless, as the aforementioned educator advised: “A man who lacks religious formation is a man whose education is incomplete. That is why religion should be present in the universities, where it should be taught at the high, scholarly level of good theology. A university from which religion is absent is an incomplete university, it neglects a fundamental facet of human personality.”

Also necessary is for our lawyers to develop an “international” outlook. The constitutional “doctrine of incorporation” made this inevitable, what with international law forming part of the laws of the Philippines. But this globalization of our lawyers’ mindsets must also be based on pragmatic considerations, including particularly our nation’s interests. The decision of some local law schools to favor WTO or ICC courses (or even the EC), for example, has sadly come at the expense of lawyers being completely unfamiliar with the legal systems of our neighboring trading partners in ASEAN and APEC. 

In any event, it’ll be fascinating to see the University of Asia and the Pacific’s School of Law and Governance (slg.uap.asia) make good on its mission of producing cultured, multi-disciplined, ethical lawyers capable of responding ably to society’s altered demands on the legal profession.


Blinded me with science

is my Trade Tripper column in this weekend's issue of BusinessWorld:

Gone are the days when the world’s debates hinged on ideologies, be it communism, socialism, feminism, Marxism, or any other -ism. Pretty much everybody now agrees that a democratic, market-oriented form of governance works best for societies (and particularly the poor). This all the more because socialism and communism, going by empirical evidence, are clearly spectacular failures.

Indeed, any possible source of struggle for the 21st century would likely be from the differences in religions (or the lack thereof). The secular progressives’ response to this is to advance the idea of science as the better alternative to faith-based philosophies. Unfortunately, they presuppose certain things about the nature of science that are not actually correct.

One thing that people may not realize is that the scientist’s ability to function hinges substantially on what ordinarily would be considered as mere beliefs. Secularists would like us to think that science works exclusively on cold data. The fact of the matter, however, is that oftentimes it operates a lot on blind faith. Think about this: how many scientists actually talked to the foreign or past researchers they referred to, how many of them actually bothered or had the time to verify the information contained in the studies, journals, or research they relied on for their own work, or vetted the universities or international organizations they cited (not to mention their source of funding)?

Considerably, all scientific work proceeds from three huge assumptions: that the scientific process was done properly, that the modes of perception upon which the observations were based were optimum, and that the interpretation of what was observed was done objectively.

This fact was actually highlighted by a series of stories The Economist ran last 19 October 2013 (“How science goes wrong”): “A simple idea underpins science: ‘trust, but verify’. Results should always be subject to challenge from experiment. That simple but powerful idea has generated a vast body of knowledge. Since its birth in the 17th century, modern science has changed the world beyond recognition, and overwhelmingly for the better. But success can breed complacency. Modern scientists are doing too much trusting and not enough verifying -- to the detriment of the whole of science, and of humanity.”

Furthermore, the “hallowed process of peer review is not all it is cracked up to be, either. When a prominent medical journal ran research past other experts in the field, it found that most of the reviewers failed to spot mistakes it had deliberately inserted into papers, even after being told they were being tested.”

Finally, in “Trouble at the lab” (The Economist, 19 October 2013): “The idea that the same experiments always get the same results, no matter who performs them, is one of the cornerstones of science’s claim to objective truth. If a systematic campaign of replication does not lead to the same results, then either the original research is flawed (as the replicators claim) or the replications are (as many of the original researchers on priming contend). Either way, something is awry.” All the foregoing “fits with another line of evidence suggesting that a lot of scientific research is poorly thought through, or executed, or both.”

As a political aside, such is probably why even US President Barack Obama (who seems to want to give an image of being a man of facts rather than of faith, unlike his predecessor) himself also considers science a “non-essential” (see “Why isn’t science deemed essential?”, Hank Campbell, USA Today, 15 October 2013).

Despite all that, however, science is indeed important as it provides us an avenue to arrive at absolute truths. As pointed out by philosopher Fr. Cecilio Magsino in his blog Viatores (“The limits of science,” 18 October 2013): “Science does provide us with absolutes, if by absolutes we understand definitive statements. Take the formulas everyone knows: F=ma, E=mc2. Science does give final answers. Doctors know that finally we have cures for certain illnesses. I understand, though, what he is trying to say: that science always moves forward so as to present new theories to better understand the world and nature. That is true. But what we cannot say is that science does not arrive at truths with great certainty.” But there is a caveat: in the end, however, the thing about “science is that its truths are always valid within a context, that in which the conclusions were arrived at.”

So, we’re clearly not belittling science (or scientists). Quite the contrary. But as Fr. Magsino points out: “Science is the great endeavor of the human race and, in a way, it has united the world. But like anything that is the product of human work it needs philosophy or wisdom to make sense out of it.”

Or as Pope John Paul II more poetically described it in his magnificent Fides et Ratio: “Faith and reason are like two wings on which the human spirit rises to the contemplation of truth.”


Of China and unipolar values

is my Trade Tripper column in the last weekend's issue of BusinessWorld:

My column “Flip flopping Asian pivot” (Oct. 11) seems to have struck a chord. Although analysis on President Obama’s no-show at the APEC (Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation) summit is not lacking, nevertheless, despite the contrasting views on the possible effects of his no-show, what can’t be denied really is the uncertainty his absence evoked.

China isn’t exactly shy to exploit the situation. As Tyler Roney reports (“With Obama MIA, China Touts Multipolar World,” The Diplomat, Oct. 8), “Xi Jingping has been the star of the recent talks in Asia, giving the planet a taste of a new ‘multi-polar’ world” and “China’s state media is heralding this switch in attention to a new world order.” Still, Roney was cautious: “This doesn’t exactly stop the pivot to Asia, but it’s an odd signal for Asian nations looking for stability.”

So, the inevitable question: what’s wrong with a “multipolar world?” But, the issue I believe, however, is not whether such is a good idea but rather the values espoused by the possible “multi” parts. Pluralism has been touted as something desirable but that fundamentally presupposes a pluralism based on reason. If, however, the contending countries’ conflicting worldviews are inherently opposed to each other, then the wisdom of encouraging a weakened US in favor of a multipolar world becomes questionable.

The point is better illustrated by Aleteia’s John Burger report on a Chinese activist’s recent remarks (“Forced Abortion Dilutes Sacredness of Human Life, Says Chen Guangcheng,” Oct. 17): “Totalitarian regimes pose the greatest threat to human civilization, and the free world’s number-one priority should be their demise, said Chinese human rights lawyer Chen Guangcheng in a public address at Princeton University on Oct. 16.”

What is important to note here is that Chen’s position is almost exactly aligned with Philippine values on the sanctity of life: innately opposed to coerced “one-child-per-family policy and the forced abortions and sterilizations that have occurred in its enforcement,” as well as the Chinese government’s systematic repression of religious freedom.

And as if to drive the point home: “In an interview afterwards, Chen said the issue of abortion in China is different from the question over its legality in the United States. ‘I want to emphasize the issue of forced abortion. In Chinese society, the negative impact of forced abortion is very clear. Besides causing a problem with an aging population and an imbalanced gender ratio, it’s also an issue of undervaluing life. It is done so frequently that the concept of the importance or sacredness of human life is diluted.’”

The foregoing must be taken alongside the context of our territorial dispute with China. Emphatically, the Philippines stands for the principle of an international rule of law rather than ruthless power politics: “Philippines Foreign Secretary Albert del Rosario, referencing his country’s ongoing territorial dispute with China, reiterated that ‘recourse to judicial settlement of legal disputes should not be considered an unfriendly act between States.’ As with Vietnam, he said that such action ‘is anchored in international law.’” (“Improving Democratic Governance in Asia,” Andrew Billo, The Diplomat, Oct. 13)

On the other hand, to believe the Chinese government would acquiesce to a law oriented dispute settlement is irresponsible. When “Hillary Clinton took the side of Vietnam in mildly pushing back against China’s claims to the South China Sea, Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi could barely contain his anger. Calling the Secretary of State’s remarks ‘an attack on China,’ he lectured that ‘China is a big country and other countries are small countries, and that’s just a fact.’” (“China’s aggressive new diplomacy,” Wall Street Journal, Oct. 1, 2010)

In human rights, China’s duplicity is well recorded (human rights activist Wei Jingsheng’s New York Times article “Don’t Believe China’s Promises,” May 4, 2012, is an example). And China has no qualms backstabbing even religious freedoms: see George Weigel of the Ethics and Public Policy Center declaring: “For some time, a modus vivendi was in place between the Vatican and Beijing on the appointment of bishops. It was never codified, but everyone knew the basic rules of the road: No bishops are to be ordained without the tacit approval of the Holy See. The regime brazenly broke that working agreement late last year, going so far as to drag one elderly Chinese bishop by his hair to an illicit episcopal ordination.”

In questioning the idea of a multipolar world led by China as it presently is, the words of Chen Guangcheng are well worth noting: “When dealing with a government practicing violence and deception, if you don’t try to influence it with your universal values, such as freedom, equality, democracy, and constitutionalism, you are very likely to be affected by the wickedness of this government.

“In an age of information explosion, it is impossible for you, me, or anyone else to stay away from the world. If someone is convicted for defending human dignity and universal values, every one of us has inescapable responsibilities.”


The return of safeguards

is the subject of my Trade Tripper column in this weekend issue of BusinessWorld:

One significant sign that business indeed may be picking up is the presence of trade disputes. Rather than a negative, such disputes actually indicate a healthy trading system, demonstrating the increase of activity as well as trust on the settlement of conflicting trade interests.

On Oct. 9 the Philippine government notified the World Trade Organization (WTO) that it initiated safeguard investigations on imported “galvanized iron and pre-painted sheets and coils.” A safeguard measure forms part of the triumvirate of trade remedies, usually in the form of increased tariffs, which a WTO member is allowed to take against imports allegedly damaging its local industry.

According to the Philippine notification, “Pursuant to Article 12.1 (a) of the WTO Agreement on Safeguards, the Permanent Mission of the Philippines to the WTO hereby notifies the Committee on Safeguards of the initiation of a safeguards investigation on the imports of galvanized iron (GI) and pre-painted galvanized iron (PPGI) sheets and coils from various countries."

"Galvanized Iron (GI) sheets and coils classified under AHTN Codes 7210.4110, 7210.4190, 7210.4990, 7210.6910, 7210.6990, 7212.3019, 7212.3093 and 7212.3099 and Pre-painted Galvanized Iron (PPGI) sheets and coils classified under 7210.7011, 7210.7012, 7210.7030, 7210.7060, 7210.7090, 7210.9840, 7210.9050, 7210.9060, 7210.9090, 7212.4011, 7212.4019, 7212.5012, 7212.5013, 7212.5019 and 7212.5029."

“(i) The investigation was initiated following an evaluation of the petition filed by the domestic industry, represented by Puyat Steel Corporation.
“(ii) (ii) The documents submitted by the petitioner showed that increased imports have caused serious injury to the domestic industry as indicated in their declining market share, production, sales, capacity utilization, productivity, profitability, price suppression and undercutting.”

To get the safeguard measure, a petitioner must be able to establish (quantifiably) the presence of five elements: the fact that the imports are due to WTO commitments, that the imports’ effects were unforeseeable, that the imports’ increase take the form of a “surge” (either in “absolute” or “relative” terms), that the local industry is suffering from “serious injury,” and that the serious injury is due to the increase of imports (the “causality” requirement). The last requirement is oft overlooked but is actually the most crucial: it demands tight economic arguments involving quite particular correlation.

Safeguard measures are different from “anti-dumping measures.” The essence of the differences can be seen in the last three elements. An anti-dumping measure is directed at what’s called an “unfair trade practice.” The measure is directed at “dumped” products: whereby the imported price of the product is lower than the price of the like product in the exporting country. There is therefore considered an element of “cheating” in the act of dumping.

On the other hand, with regard to a safeguard case, there is no cheating by the importer. It essentially means that the foreign exporting companies (from which the importer is sourcing its products) are more efficient than the complaining local industry. Hence, the increased quantities of imports and (perhaps) lower prices compared to that of domestic products.

That the WTO rules allow members’ governments to assist their hurting local industries is really for mostly political reasons (hence the “public interest” clause in RA 8800). This is why the standard for safeguard measures is higher (“serious injury”) than for anti-dumping measures (“material injury”).

Another reason for the greater burden on the part of a safeguards petitioner is that, while anti-dumping measurers are only directed against specific countries engaged in dumping, safeguard measures are directed at all countries from which imports are coming.

As can be seen, safeguard cases are highly complex affairs combining law, politics, and economics all in one sweep. In order to fully understand the intricacies of safeguards cases, one must read Article XIX of GATT 1994 (which is actually GATT 1947 -- don’t ask) and the Agreement on Safeguards, as well as the corpus of rulings made by the WTO Appellate Body. The present case being initiated in the Philippines, it is necessary also that one reads Republic Act No. 8800 (along with the implementing rules and regulations). If the country to be hit by a safeguard measure is part of a free trade agreement, then the safeguards provisions of the pertinent agreement or agreements must be read as well. All in all, we’re talking here easily of at least five or six separate legal instruments, not including the so-called “WTO jurisprudence.”

It is in this very complexity where the dangers lie for both petitioners and respondents of a safeguard case. One of the bigger tragedies played out in the domestic scene relating to international trade was when a local industry got the idea of filing a safeguard measure petition. The problem was that, due to erroneous “expert” advice, the local industry wound up needlessly paying millions in consultancy fees for a safeguards case that wasn’t even necessary to begin with as the product in question wasn’t subject to a “bound” tariff rate. A simple Section 401/402 case would have been sufficient.

Safeguard measures are definitely not your usual legal case.


Flip flopping Asian pivot

is the subject of my Trade Tripper column in the recent weekend issue of BusinessWorld:

Time was when the US was actually faulted for being too certain in its place in the world. Those days are gone. From being the world’s take-charge guy, the US transformed itself to this apologetic and clingy entity, until morphing to its present incarnation of earnest student council “intellectual” preferring to debate rather than act (hell freezing be damned).

Things have certainly changed. Today’s top area of discussion is US President Barack Obama’s cancellation of his Asian tour (which included a four-nation swing, among them the Philippines) and, ultimately, his decision to skip the APEC summit, the East Asia summit, and the first US-ASEAN meet. Admittedly, he had a pretty good excuse in the government shutdown. On the other hand, it does render evidence of his claimed “Asian pivot” rather slim.

The cancellation comes on the heels of what appears to be a reduction of military presence in Asia. Bruce Klingner, writing for Newscom (“Give the Marines a Kabar, Not a FUBAR”; 26 September 2013), states that: “Claims that U.S. forces in the Pacific will be immune from duties elsewhere or budget cuts simply don’t hold water. Despite an increase of 100,000 ground troops during the Iraq and Afghanistan conflicts, U.S. soldiers and Marines were removed from Asia to serve in those wars. Pacific Command forces are already being impacted by funding shortfalls. One in three U.S. Air Force combat aircraft worldwide are already grounded, and two Navy ships in the Pacific-a submarine and a guided missile destroyer-can’t leave port because of a lack of funding.”

The lessening of military strength in Asia should be contrasted with Mr. Obama’s interest in Africa, thus raising suspicions of an “African shift” rather than an “Asian pivot” (see The Atlantic, “Are We Pivoting to Africa Rather Than Asia?”, 6 October 2013). This summer alone, Mr. Obama made trips to Senegal, South Africa, and Tanzania, aside from increasing overall troop presence in the area.

And even the fact of a government shutdown could also be taken as evidence of American vacillation that may have Asian repercussions. As Peter Drysdale (“Asia gets on with it while America’s out of play”, East Asia Forum, 7 October 2013) correctly points out: “If the foundations of a functioning government are compromised at home, as they are so obviously now, America’s allies, friends and opponents alike must naturally question the credibility of its commitments around the world.”

So observers, particularly in Asia, could be forgiven for wondering why Mr. Obama seems to be content in letting go of US dominant status in the Asian region, allowing a China or a North Korea have their unimpeded way.

Although that may not necessarily happen. According to Zachary Keck (“The International Causes of America’s Political Dysfunction”), the US’ seeming absence of direction could be attributed to precisely that lack of competition. As he puts it: “Basically, in the post-Cold War era, America has lacked an international peer competitor to unify around.Social psychologists have long discussed the importance of out-groups in the formation and maintenance of in-group cohesion. We define who we are in no small part by who we are not. All things being equal, the greater the perceived threat from the out-group, the more unified the in-group will be. For a country as large and diverse as the United States, an out-group can be especially important for unity.”

Thus, the possibility that China’s insistence in being the neighborhood bully might be the perfect antidote to US’ lackadaisical Asian stance. Ironically, it is Mr. Obama’s seeming indecisiveness that could actually propel a revival (unfortunately only at the long term) of American attention to the Pacific.That, coupled with Japan’s resurgence.

Which is a distant silver lining of sorts for the Philippines. It really needs US support now, particularly in its territorial problems with an incorrigible China. The Philippines is attempting a brave face, declaring its recent interest in moving forward with a Philippine-European Free Trade Association trade agreement. Even as consolation, however, for our inability to progress with our stated desire to be part of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (which includes the US, not China), the same should also be coupled with the news (reported by this column) of the US allowing Philippine GSP privileges to expire.

Mr. Obama’s no-show thus not only complicates negotiations for the TPP but also pushes the Philippines towards the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (which includes China, but not the US). This leaves the Philippines in the bizarre position of having no deals with a supposed ally (the US) but doing so with a country (China) that seeks to take territory away from us (aside from executing Filipinos on a now regular basis).

So, unless Mr. Obama truly accepts and pushes the idea of American exceptionalism or China suddenly comes to its senses (both highly unlikely), the Philippines needs to brace itself with being alone in foreign policy for the next three years.


Goodbye television

is the subject of my Trade Tripper column in last weekend's issue of BusinessWorld: 

Breaking Bad’s finale this week lived up to the hype, blazing out on an extended 75 minutes of violence, betrayals, one-upmanship. And class. The show may come down as one of the greatest drama series ever shown on television, rivaling (the sadly not shown in the Philippines) The Wire.

There’s something special about final episodes. In a way, it captures what great shows are all about. Unlike lesser shows, they don’t need to feel weepy and self-congratulatory, trying to sweep away past disappointments and mistakes. Rather, great finales tend to do what great shows have always done: give more of the same consistently.

My all-time favorite finale was of Frasier, probably the greatest sitcom ever in the history of television. Well, next to the Simpsons (because it is) and Arrested Development (because the show proclaims itself to be so). Despite the absence of Bulldog, Frasier ended on an incredible high. Anyone moved by Judy Dench’s rendering of Tennyson’s “Ulysses” in Skyfall cannot help choking to Kelsey Grammer saying, with 11 seasons behind him: “that which we are, we are; one equal temper of heroic hearts, made weak by time and fate, but strong in will; to strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.”

Speaking of Frasier, the Cheers closer was also memorable. The 90+ minute episode felt like it should: one last round of drinks. Always welcome but you know it’s time to go. One could only wish that Semisonic’s “Closing Time” played in the background, all the more as its brilliant line “every new beginning comes from some other beginning’s end” would’ve been the perfect set-up for perhaps TV’s most successful spin-off: the abovementioned Frasier.

Compared to that, the final episode of Friends was bit of a letdown. Attempting closure through too many touch feely moments robbed it of what should have been the shows signature: its unmatched ability to mix warmth with sarcasm. The high point was when the friends decided to have coffee one last time together. As they walked away from the apartment (going, as all fans know, to Central Perk), Matthew Perry, with marvelous timing, asked: “uh, where?”

Speaking of letdowns, I’d say the same goes for St. Elsewhere and Newhart. Both giving the viewers the idea that their entire seasons were merely mental constructs: of Dr. Westphall’s autistic child for St. Elsewhere and Bob Newhart’s psychiatrist character in The Bob Newhart Show for Newhart.

On the other hand, The Cosby Show’s finale was sublime. After so many seasons with kids running around the house, Bill Cosby and his wife now have the house to themselves, their adult children off somewhere. Cosby takes his wife’s hand and they dance, dancing all the way up to the set’s edge. And beyond. Eventually walking off behind the studio, past cameramen, producers, and the audience.

I have to include my favorite homicidal place in the world: Midsomer. As I wrote in 2009, I’ve always been amazed that this English county “apparently has around 20 murders a year, with the past decade seeing a total of more than 200 murders, all premeditated. This does not include the assortment of accidental deaths and suicides. This is amazing when you consider that New York averages eight murders a year for every 100,000 individuals. To give an even better idea of the murder rate of Midsomer county, one published account noted that the likelihood of being murdered in London is .007% (per 100,000 people) whereas Midsomer is a shocking 27.4%. To paraphrase a line from Lock, Stock, and Two Smoking Barrels, it’s like Bosnia on a bad day. The body count is simply staggering -- for a place that is not a war zone, it racked up three kills a week for the past 12 years.”

For a moment, there were concerns that DCI Barnaby would be the 250+ victim of Midsomer. However, true to its theme of being a “celebration of the ordinary” (despite the incredibly high body count), it all came to a close after dinner with family and friends. Barnaby announced his cousin to be Midsomer’s next Detective Chief Inspector. Who then promptly gets a call of a murder somewhere (naturally), and he and DI Jones goes out, leaving a somewhat wistful John Nettles (and a relieved Jane Wymark) behind.

It’s oft been discussed that television (and the movies) reflect the world’s zeitgeist. Hence, the disaster movies of the 1970s. Or ’80’s Wall Street. It could explain the endings for St. Elsewhere and Newhart, both happening within two years of each other (1988 and 1990, respectively), plausibly an echoing of the prevailing nihilism of the time. The same could be said of The Sopranos finale, what with its ambiguity, an ending simply cutting to black. Uncertainty in outcome and purpose? And even uncertainty perhaps in the meaning of everything.

In any event, there’s one thing I am certain of: I do not want the Simpsons to say goodbye.


The heresy of Pope Francis

is the subject of my Trade Tripper column in this weekend issue of BusinessWorld:

The newspapers gleefully cackled (on a Sunday no less!) at Pope Francis allegedly slamming the clergy’s “obsession” with homosexuality, abortion, contraception. From the way the media painted it, it was as if Pope Francis had called for the renunciation not only of the teachings of Pope Benedict XVI but also centuries and centuries of Catholic teaching. The truth, as usual, however, is that Pope Francis did no such thing.

I think it was Pat Archbold (“Quotes That Prove The Pope Is A Liberal,” National Catholic Register, Aug. 5) that best described how Pope Francis differs with Pope Benedict XVI:

“The press has been telling us that Pope Francis, in word and deed, is no less than the total renunciation of Pope Benedict’s papacy... I think it is time we face facts. The press is right. The Pope is a liberal and I have the quotes to prove it:

“Encourages Homosexuality: ‘It is deplorable that homosexual persons have been and are the object of violent malice in speech or in action. Such treatment deserves condemnation from the church’s pastors wherever it occurs.’

“He is focused on the poor: ‘Many people today lack hope. They are perplexed by the questions that present themselves ever more urgently in a confusing world, and they are often uncertain which way to turn for answers. They see poverty and injustice and they long to find solutions.' 'Yet if we refuse to share what we have with the hungry and the poor, we make of our possessions a false god. How many voices in our materialist society tell us that happiness is to be found by acquiring as many possessions and luxuries as we can! But this is to make possessions into a false god. Instead of bringing life, they bring death.’

“He is overtly humble and does not embrace his office: ‘The authority of the pope is not unlimited.’ ‘The cardinals have elected me, a simple and humble worker in the Lord’s vineyard. The fact that the Lord can work and act even with insufficient means consoles me, and above all I entrust myself to your prayers.’"

“He makes a point of extolling women and the Church: ‘It is theologically and anthropologically important for woman to be at the center of Christianity. Through Mary, and the other holy women, the feminine element stands at the heart of the Christian religion.’”

Which should pretty much close the argument that Pope Francis, who cares for gays, the poor, and women’s rights is the anti-Benedict. Except for one fact that Archbold points out: “Every quote above is from Pope Benedict. Every one.”

There is no break with established Catholic doctrine (the text of the Pope’s interview can be found here www.americamagazine.org/pope-interview). This is a fact that people, perhaps because technology and media have encouraged them to think in the short-term (particularly as far as gratification of desires are considered), have difficulty in comprehending about an institution that thinks in millenia or even eternity. Pope Francis’ point, as Matthew Schmitz, writing for First Things (firstthings.com, “Pope Francis on How to Talk About Abortion, Gay Marriage, and Contraception,” Sept. 20), insightfully declares is “not to compromise on or back away from truth, but rather to reject its caricature. This is good practical guidance. If it’s what he meant in his broader remarks, then those remarks offer wise advice well worth taking.”

I agree. Both sides of the moral debate indeed need to take a step back. Locally, pro-RH (or “pro-choice” or social “progressive”) Catholics need to accept that the faith does come with demands, that one can’t pick and choose only those doctrines they like from those they don’t. That by doing so they are actually placing themselves as their own god. On the other hand, the anti-RH (and “pro-life”) Catholics need to understand the utter subtleties of the doctrines of the faith, not reducing what essentially are beautiful and textured teachings into something merely as stark black and white, debasing a profound conversation about our shared humanity into a simple “us” vs “them” antagonism.

Thus, Catholic Vote’s Stephen White was correct in his assessment that the “challenge for the Church, as the Pope seems to see it, is not that people are unaware [or refuse to accept that] that the Church considers, for example, abortion, contraception, and homosexual acts to be sinful (everyone knows this); the problem is that they don’t understand why the Church teaches what it does.” The clergy’s problem, locally, for example, is not that they talk too much against contraception but that they don’t talk enough (and competently) about it to place it within the context of the power and beauty of the whole of Church teaching.

So, to sum up, Pope Francis never changed anything doctrine wise. Which is perhaps the real heresy that he may be committing, at least in the eyes of “pick and choose” Catholics and progressives.


Readying for ASEAN integration

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

The big news as far as trade in this region is concerned is the coming ASEAN economic integration, scheduled to occur in 2015. People are understandably excited about this, of course, seeing the ASEAN Economic Community (AEC) as some sort of an Asian European Community, generating visions of cosmopolitanism among the residents of the 10 ASEAN countries, as well as the considerable economic benefits.

The problem is that, although the AEC could bring benefits (though debates on that point has been extensive), the questions that we should be asking are: what benefits the Philippines expects to receive from the AEC and, if there are, are we actually ready to receive them?

It must be remembered that the AEC will be embodied in an international agreement, meaning international obligations that we need to comply with. It’s no accident that, except for the Philippines (which has always been enthusiastic for any new international agreement), the countries most enthusiastic for these things have one thing in common: strong economies that keep getting stronger. The Philippines is not in that league. At least not yet. Note that our utilization of ASEAN-CEPT (Common Effective Preferential Tariff) benefits consistently only amount to around 20% of our trade. This does not provide a pretty picture insofar as our ability to take advantage of international rules considering the fact that we had to concede something in order to qualify for those probable benefits.

Of course, people are also crowing about the fact that Philippine competitiveness levels have improved (slightly). But this improvement cannot really be considered something to boast about, as the Anti-Pinoy Blog (“The Philippines Competitiveness Rankings, Unemployment, and FDI”; Sept. 5, 2013) rightly observed:

“... the Philippines has not reduced unemployment nor attracted substantial foreign direct investments, and still remains greatly less competitive than Singapore, Brunei, Malaysia, Thailand, and Indonesia.

“It is also interesting that the Philippines has a competitiveness footprint similar to Vietnam -- a socialist country although Vietnam still beats the Philippines in terms of attracting FDI and reducing unemployment.

“So yes, it is good that competitiveness has improved -- BUT the improvement is not enough to allow us to catch up with Malaysia, Indonesia, Thailand, and Singapore.”

The Anti-Pinoy Blog does make one suggestion for improving competitiveness: “Opening the economy will allow the Philippines to greatly improve its economy, attract investments, create jobs, and reduce unemployment -- as shown by our ASEAN neighbors and competitors.” It is a suggestion that your Trade Tripper would normally agree with. But now, only with reservations.

The reason has to do with a point made by Asian affairs commentator Sourav Roy (“ASEAN: What’s That and Who Cares? Certainly Not the Common Man in Asia”; Sept. 10, 2013): “...there’s something uber-fake about the pseudo ‘one-ASEAN-one direction’ jingoism that gets my goat. It exists only in the topmost echelons of Southeast Asia’s political, diplomatic, academic and media circles. The common man in almost all its 10-member nations has no clue what ASEAN is about. We’re talking here about millions of illiterate, poor, underprivileged Asians who are in the thick of the situation, happy to progress in life, one day after another.”

And I completely agree with his observation that “most of the educated knew that ASEAN was a regional grouping and nothing more meaningful than that.”

I’ve been in this field long enough to know that, generally, when it comes to trade our (i.e., the government’s and business’) institutional memory, quality, and quantity of knowledge, and capacity for planning has consistently fallen short. That’s why I believe that Philippa Dee’s (“Time to Rethink the Global Rules”, East Asia Forum, Aug. 19, 2013) trenchant observation must be truly pondered upon: “The bigger trade problems are not at the border but behind it.”

Thus my issue with unleashing on our people an agreement that not only has a legal textual intricacy that will make our tax laws seem like grade school work but also a multi-disciplinary (economic, social, political, health) complexity that approaches the metaphysical. Because it must be remembered that, despite the homogeneity of cultures within ASEAN, the Philippines will essentially have to trade and interact heavily with countries whose philosophies on the rule of law, human rights, and democracy are different than ours.

And that has to be related to the fact that the Philippines is essentially a very “nice” country, nice almost to a fault. Which is a problem considering ASEAN’s lack of a credible dispute settlement system that our country could turn to protect its rights. Which is why Joshua Kurlantzick (“ASEAN’s Future and Asian Integration”; November 2012) pointed out: “Most Western leaders and even many of Southeast Asia’s top officials do not consider the organization capable of handling serious economic or security challenges, including disputes in the South China Sea.”

As I said before and I’ll say again: we need to exercise better circumspection regarding ASEAN integration. We might just be leading in the preparation of a feast that only others can enjoy.


Economy and morality

is the subject of my Trade Tripper column in the weekend issue of BusinessWorld:

The reason for the title is because whenever the word “morality” crops up, a substantial number of readers immediately become dismissive, anticipating it leading to boring “moralizing” (pun intended) or just plain garden-variety naíve idealism. Hence my tying up the issue of morals with economics. Because if people can’t be made concerned with the degradation of society, the youth’s sense of entitlement, our adult’s lack of responsibility, the vulgarity of popular culture, then surely (at least) we might show concern for what’s happening to our own wallets.

Nowadays, of course, it’s quite fashionable to complain about corruption and pork barrels. But your friendly Trade Tripper was never much into fashion anyway. And so it was with some gratitude that he heard some much needed sanity into this public debate, this time coming from Cardinal Chito Tagle: “... political solutions only provide a temporary answer to the problem of corruption. This is a cultural problem. It will only be eradicated through moral transformation and behavioral change to be led by parents in their households.”

Spot on. This is what I’ve been pointing out as well through various media. This doesn’t mean that people should be passive politically but rather be more discerning regarding their actions and to focus on what the real problem is that needs to be solved. If people want to make a nuisance of themselves in the streets and dress up in silly costumes, fine. But the ills of our society arise from serious fundamental problems that demand utterly serious thinking from a politically mature and serious people.

Is it then so hard to accept the idea that the problem of corruption, bad governance, absence of national vision, fundamentally lies with our people’s character and morals? That the problems are so deeply ingrained that no amount of angry rallying can solve, as EDSA 1 (which deposed a Marcos for an Aquino) or EDSA 2 (which removed an Estrada for an Arroyo) have shown? And if people are now shrieking about the “crooks in Congress” (or the Executive), shouldn’t the blame fall on those who voted them into office a mere four months ago?

Indeed. All this just goes to prove what we’ve been saying all along: if we want a better economy, leaders, and country, we simply must have better voters. Or to paraphrase from US President Barack Obama: change will not come from Malacañang, change has to come to Malacañang.

Of course, the default excuse is to blame the lack of education for our people’s propensity to vote criminals, plunderers, or traitors into public office. But how can this be when public spending on education constitutes between 15-17% of overall expenditure and when our country’s literacy rate, particularly in the last two decades or so, hovers around the 95% mark?

Inevitably, it’s because public debate on education ignores the fact that education is not limited to the classroom. What the student learns outside it is equally as important, if not actually more so. From there one can now grasp the true significance of the family, media, and the Internet.

So if the family is being rendered unstable (what with promiscuity, same-sex marriage, and divorce all touted as the new normal), and media and the Internet carelessly flouting pornography and the if-it-feels-good-then-do-it mindset, what effect would that have on our people’s overall education, which means the development of our people’s skills, productivity, and integrity, and consequently the economy? Devastating, as Charles Murray (Coming Apart, Crown Forum, 2013) and Mary Eberstadt (How the West Really Lost God, Templeton Press, 2013) amply demonstrated.

As I wrote in a previous article, both convincingly show that the breakdown in people’s religiosity, traditional marriage, and the family lead to “enormous” economic costs. 2012 research reveals that the high US divorce rates “perpetually inhibits growth of the U.S. economy.” This is backed up by Nick Schulze (Home Economics, Aei Press, 2013), he declaring the link between “divorces and out-of-wedlock births in America” and economic wellbeing as indeed substantial.

Which is why the local academe’s, the media’s, and policy makers’ unquestioning over-infatuation with John Rawls, as well as secular progressivism, is utterly baffling.

As JL Liedl wrote for Ethika Politika (“Want a Good Economy? Try Virtue”; 4 September 2013): “The dehumanizing theorems and charts of the economist have done us enough harm already. Their consistent failures and the general increase in global misery under their watchful guidance should be enough to convince us that modern economics has been tried and found wanting. Man does not live by bread alone, a truth that must be acknowledged, perhaps especially acknowledged, when considering how man produces and obtains bread. There is something metaphysical in play here, and it must be observed even when dealing with the nitty-gritty, physical practicalities of capital and labor. Virtue, more than anything else, more than economic theories or fiscal policy, is what a society needs to have a good and just economy.”


For a Philippine competition law

is the subject of my Trade Tripper column in this weekend issue of BusinessWorld:

The country has seen loud calls from the general public to institute reforms, from the PDAF to the FOI. Among these fashionable areas of reform is on competition policy. However, through the years, your Trade Tripper has learned that if there’s a thing that the public (particularly foreign businesses) wants immediately accomplished, with zero fuss, then generally it’s best indeed to make a fuss about it. It’s when people are emotionally (even hysterically) demanding to rush matters that time to study it becomes a necessity.

As BusinessWorld reported (Competition Law Urged, 28 August 2013) on the East Asia Forum on competition law last week, the consensus seemed to be that “a competition policy is considered important for a country to grow and consider itself an advanced economy.” Furthermore, “competition law should also be separated from politically motivated industrial policy as the latter allows the government to choose which industries to champion instead of letting natural competition occur in the market.”

However, there’s an obvious need to examine the assumptions on which such assertions are made. One assumption can be seen from President Noynoy Aquino’s speech during the forum: “As a student of economics, I know that monopolies are incredibly inefficient. It kills innovation. There is zero impetus, in a monopoly, to continually improve your product or your service, simply because you have your market cornered.”

This was disputed by the Anti-Pinoy Blog <http://antipinoy.com/; see Anti-Trust Bill to Improve Competition in Philippine Economy -- Or Otherwise>: “When you remove the rhetoric -- it boils down to the government wanting to increase regulation of the market under the guise of ‘promoting competition.’ Such a policy does not present any benefit to consumers and imposes more harm. More regulations and more agencies will not improve competition in the protected Philippine economy. It has not worked for decades -- it’s not about to work now.”

“The myth peddled to the common tao is that unregulated markets lead to the creation of monopolies. Therefore government has to step in to ensure that companies will not have a coercive market monopoly. The reality is that coercive monopolies cannot exist without government protection, special regulations, exemptions, and subsidies.”

Nonoy Oplas, president of Minimal Government Thinkers, Inc., agrees: “When government intervenes hard to force or pretend to attain social equality, such intervention will naturally result in subsidizing the lazy and irresponsible, while penalizing and over-taxing the efficient and industrious.” For him, “fierce competition is fair competition. Government-managed or protected competition is not fair competition.” And I concur with his assessment that, at least for the present, the “best anti-monopolization regulation that government can do is to have rule of law strictly enforced.”

Indeed, as your Trade Tripper pointed out, no ban (constitutionally) on monopolies definitively exists. Article XII, Section 19 (along with Section 10) of the Constitution merely provide that the “State shall regulate or prohibit monopolies when the public interest so requires. No combinations in restraint of trade or unfair competition shall be allowed.” (italics supplied) This could serve as justification for a company succeeding through merit in an industry that encourages a “natural monopoly,” defined by Wiki (yes, I know) as occurring “when, due to the economies of scale of a particular industry, the maximum efficiency of production and distribution is realized through a single supplier.”

And the idea that “natural monopolies” can be apt for our country, considering the small size of our domestic market, has substantial merit. As such, Filipinos should therefore be supportive of even larger Filipino conglomerates. Take San Miguel Corp., for example, which, despite its size and reach, could not really be considered possessing monopoly power due to the nature and threat presented by global (or regional) competition.

Claims related to predatory pricing also need to be examined. As Anti-Pinoy explains (rightly, in my view): “This assumption can only take place if and only 1) the predator has deep financial resources; and 2) -- if there are very high barriers to entry -- such as special regulations, exemptions, subsidies, and protections by the State.”

Even declarations like “all advanced economies have a competition policy” should be rendered suspect. Simply because we’re not an “advanced economy.” Which should tell you a lot about the wisdom of importing and imposing a regulatory framework tailored for countries whose circumstances are not similar to the Philippines.

What Filipinos should be therefore discerning about are foreign corporations acquiring Filipino companies or influence to the point that monopoly powers are exercised beyond the reach of Philippine jurisdiction. Another is the relationship that competition law has with corruption. Finally, there’s the dire need to constrain the ill-effects of having both political and economic power held by a select number of families in the country.

As your Trade Tripper wrote repeatedly in the past: The issue is not whether we should have a competition law (we should) but rather the kind of competition law that will work effectively for the interests of Filipinos.


On the August 26 rally (updated 3/9/13)

When the US Founding Fathers gathered for the Declaration of Independence against Britain, they made sure they signed their names clearly in the document. The reason? As Benjamin Franklin puts it: 'we must all hang together, or assuredly we shall all hang separately.'

The point was: the British didn't need to find out who were responsible, the US rebels were happy to publicly name themselves and challenge the government. That's courage.

Compare that to the unknown organizers of the August 26 rally, who actually needs PR and political campaign professionals to work up the people. And, more suspiciously for me, insult those who may have just mere questions about it. Since when has a movement about right become a matter of psychological coercion?

What I'm trying to say is this: if the cause is just, then don't hesitate to stand up openly for it. Otherwise, it just raises doubts about the sincerity of its movers.

To those who feel strongly about joining, please do. But be sure to join of your own mind. And with open eyes.

Anyway, here also is a good article from Get Real Philippines! on the matter. Several other good articles, particularly decrying the mob mentality based on utter lack of real evidence can be found here; another article asking what exactly did Napoles commit (see here); and the bigger systemic issue (see here). The Manila Standard Today's editorial on the Philippine government's unravelling, due to it's 'vindictiveness', 'ineptitude', and arrogance is here. Roberto Tiglao here analyses the COA audit on the matter and expresses suspicion of it.


After the event, Marlen Ronquillo of the Manila Times wrote this brilliant article. It about all sums up the real problem of the Philippines. The article is A sad nation of transient rage and short memories. Excerpts:

"Can Janet Lim—Napoles eat lunch in this town again after the fury shall  have passed? And after  the now-screaming newspaper headlines shall have reduced their font sizes? And the  commentators, currently all-worked up in the preaching of right and wrong, shall have moved on to other perceived wrongs in society?

The  answer is yes and those who say otherwise will have to look back at our short memories to see how  short  the shelf lives  of the nation’s past  outrages have been."

"If you think that this is  not a tragic country of transitory rage and  fickle moral arbitration, think again.

Janet Napoles , before her fall,  was one of the favorite ninangs of the young elite doing their vows of marriage . She was a patron saint to retired priests and funded  charitable projects set up by priests identified with the Archdiocese of Manila. Oh,  we even have the unbelievable footage of  priests and the bishops praying over Napoles. She gifted lawmakers with engraved Mont Blanc pens, to be later used in signing those ghastly  documents that ceded their pork to her bogus  NGOs.

She was everybody’s friend, if not a  benefactor. That power status was a long way from remote Basilan  and she probably enjoyed rubbing elbows with the “ dahlings” of Philippine society immensely.

Like Mrs. Marcos, Janet  Napoles , will not be driven out of town  for life . Her disgrace will be at best transitory and fleeting . Her current pariah  status, based on  the Filipinos incapacity to hold deep and lasting grudges , will just have an abbreviated life of a  few years.

Soon, she will be eating lunch in this town again , totally comfortable in a society of superficial grudges and short memories."