The Trans-Pacific Partnership’s far-reaching strategic significance

was my Trade Tripper column in the 10-11 July issue of BusinessWorld:

Several developments happened almost simultaneously in the international trade world, and amusingly they all involve just three letters: T, P and A. US President Barack Obama got his Trade Promotion Authority, albeit with much acrimony, and then accordingly set his sights set on the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP). Around about that time, the Philippines gave the clearest declaration yet that it wants to join the TPP. Naturally, without a word if the United States wants the Philippines.

On record, what needs to be done is the Philippines being able to comply with certain requirements for member countries: rule of law, opening up to foreign ownership of businesses or property, addressing State ownership of certain industries, intellectual property, and the like. The fact that the Philippines is requesting for “flexibilities” in dealing with TPP obligations isn’t also helpful.

But history is also against the Philippines, what with how we reacted in the immediate aftermath of the Cancun World Trade Organization ministerial debacle of 2003. Jubilant about the negotiation’s collapse rather than commiserating with our trade partners, particularly the US, we immediately followed this by quite unsubtly publicly rebuffing US invitations to enter into a trade partnership with it. Expectedly, the US has a long memory regarding insults.

Incidentally, the TPP currently includes as parties Australia, Brunei, Canada, Chile, Japan, Malaysia, Mexico, New Zealand, Peru, Singapore, Vietnam, and the US.

It can’t be denied that the TPP is important, at least as far as Mr. Obama’s foreign policy is concerned. As CNN points out, without the TPP “Obama’s entire Asia pivot strategy is in jeopardy. While Obama has struggled to stamp his authority on the globe, his Asia policy had until now been seen as a bright spot given the fracturing of nations in the Middle East, the rise of extremist groups such as ISIS and the return of Cold War-style hostilities with Russia. His promise to channel power and resources toward Asia was widely welcomed in the region as an antidote to China’s rising might among allies deeply concerned about Beijing’s territorial ambitions on the East and South China seas. Japan, for instance, was deeply appreciative of Obama’s forceful statement in April 2014 that US treaty commitments to its ally were ‘absolute’ amidst rising territorial tensions between Tokyo and Beijing.”

Unfortunately, despite this, the Philippines has absolutely no leverage with the US to gain admission to the TPP. Philippine policy regarding China and the West Philippine Sea, for example, is so obsequiously in line with US interests (some say, more American than the US position) that Mr. Obama would rightly see no point in even considering it. Gratitude has no place in foreign relations and no country in its right mind would pay for something it already has.

The other thing that the Philippines perhaps failed to take into account in its wishing is how dysfunctional ASEAN really is. Milton Friedman’s 1997 remarks was recently quoted in relation to the Greek financial crisis but the words practically apply to our region (just change the word “Europe” for “ASEAN”):

“Europe’s common market exemplifies a situation that is unfavorable to a common currency. It is composed of separate nations, whose residents speak different languages, have different customs, and have far greater loyalty and attachment to their own country than to the common market or to the idea of ‘Europe.’ Despite being a free trade area, goods move less freely than in the United States, and so does capital.”

Hence, why Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen’s lament against the TPP seems spot on. Reported by The Diplomat, he blames “the TPP for leaving half (or, more accurately, six out of 10) ASEAN countries outside of it. ‘We should review again... why the Trans-Pacific Partnership did not include 10 ASEAN members,’ Hun Sen said. “What is the purpose, real intention of establishing [the] Trans-Pacific Partnership... that they include half of ASEAN to be partners... and leaving half of ASEAN outside.”

This is despite the praises that economic commentators (and even Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong) have heaped on the TPP. But Hun Sen’s criticism may ultimately be correct, if not for what he actually said.

The TPP is divisive not because it intentionally excludes certain countries but because, as I alluded above, it offers a divided ASEAN of differing interests an avenue to expand trade individually rather than as one. And the nature of the TPP further exacerbates these differences.

Gone are the days when trade negotiations meant the lowering of tariffs and the ridding of quotas. Right now, these are shallow considerations, and for a country like Singapore already mean nothing. But for countries like the Philippines, these will mean copyright and pharmaceutical-related measures, investment regimes, property ownership, and -- most significantly -- investment disputes. The latter effectively transfers to a foreign body the power to hold back health, sanitary, or environmental measures that the Philippines may deem necessary.

Not to be flippant, but the TPP clearly is not as easy as ABC.

Pope Francis’ charity in truth

was my Trade Tripper column in the 26-27 June issue of BusinessWorld:

Laudato Si, Pope Francis’ “green encyclical,” was released to great commotion last week. Immediately, both sides of the environmental divide were quick to claim the papal pronouncement as supporting their positions. The document, it must be said, is superbly engaging reading and contains insights well worth sharing. But radical it is not.

That is, “radical” in the progressive, liberal sense of the word. Nothing much that is new is said in Laudato Si, and its power as an “encyclical for the ages” (as one commentator puts it) has more to do with its earnest call to arms in putting faith at the center of earthly struggles.

In that context, Laudato Si is essentially the Caritas in Veritate for the environment. Indeed, as the Archbishop of Sao Paolo, Brazil, Cardinal Odilo Pedro Scherer, points out: “In his encyclical, Benedict also officiated in the language of the Magisterium of the Church the concept of ‘human ecology,’ dealing with the correct coexistence of people in society and in relation to the environment.”

It would be wrong to consider Laudato Si frowning upon the market economy. In one particular passage, it even mentions that “to continue providing employment, it is imperative to promote an economy which favors productive diversity and business creativity.”

Undeniably, portions of Laudato Si are quite Pope Benedict XVI’ish: “Stop with the cynicism, secularism and immorality” and “human ecology also implies another profound reality: the relationship between human life and the moral law.”

And then it ups the ante.

Putting environmentalists on the back pedal, Pope Francis unflinchingly declared: “To blame population growth instead of extreme and selective consumerism on the part of some, is one way of refusing to face the issues.” This puts the Church squarely at odds with climate change advocates such as Jeffrey Sachs (who incidentally attended a recent Vatican conference on climate change) who strongly pushed for population control as part of environmental development.

Indeed, Pope Francis was blunt to people that “view men and women and all their interventions as no more than a threat, jeopardizing the global ecosystem, and consequently the presence of human beings on the planet should be reduced and all forms of intervention prohibited.” In other words, he was referring to activists who valued the trees and little snails more than human beings. Hence, “a sense of deep communion with the rest of nature cannot be real if our hearts lack tenderness, compassion and concern for our fellow human beings.”

And as I wrote on June 12 in anticipation of the encyclical (“Climate change and of leaving science to the scientists”): “The Church’s mandate is with moral issues and moves with absolute sure footing when dealing in matters where the natural law and Scripture are clear: abortion, same-sex marriage, contraception. But to give specific empirical measures or remedies relating to the environment, inequality, poverty, immigration? That is better left to people with the established expertise for it.”

Such a point Pope Francis took time to make clear: “On many concrete questions, the Church has no reason to offer a definitive opinion; she knows that honest debate must be encouraged among experts, while respecting divergent views.”

And this is the correct thought. Consensus among scientists is one thing, but to take such as truth is another. One commentator puts it this way: the Pope “has (just as we have) no guarantee of the soundness of the views of any scientist or group of scientists. A view that he adopts based on what a climate-change scientist or group of scientists -- be he or they believers (known to their critics as ‘alarmists’) or skeptics (known to their critics as ‘deniers’) -- say, could be wrong.” Note Laudato Si’s quite off comments on air-conditioning, for example.

Finally, there is Pope Francis’ express criticism of gender theory and transgenderism: “Valuing one’s own body in its femininity or masculinity is necessary if I am going to be able to recognize myself in an encounter with someone who is different. It is not a healthy attitude which would seek ‘to cancel out sexual difference because it no longer knows how to confront it.’”

The foregoing is no mere religious medievalism. The rationale here is that “the principle of the common good is respect for the human person as such, endowed with basic and inalienable rights ordered to his or her integral development.”

All in all, Pope Francis shares nothing whatsoever with progressive environmental activists’ overriding faith in institutions, policies, or human activism but rather a continuation of and consistency with Church teaching: that to care for the environment is connected with respect for all that God created, whether it be in the new life that we see in children, the unborn, and the distinction between men and women.

Indeed, more than any pollutant or corruption, the “culture of relativism is the same disorder which drives one person to take advantage of another.”


Why think when you can just feel?

was my Trade Tripper column in this 19-20 June issue of BusinessWorld:

It’s a scenario that’s become all too familiar and tiresome: “Have you ever had to deal with a female work colleague or family member who, just as the argument got interesting, turned on the tears? Immediately they win. It’s a not-too-subtle form of emotional blackmail. The tears shift the conversation away from reasoning and evidence and you have to stop and feel guilty and compassionate and find the Kleenex and ask if they’re okay and be caring. It’s a neat form of bullying. Most often it is not conscious or intentional, but it still works for all that.”

That was Fr. Dwight Longenecker, writing for Patheos (“The Dictatorship of Sentimentality,” 2012). Lest we get immediate shrieks of sexism, Longenecker immediately notes that “guys have their own emotional blackmail tricks,” usually in the form of rage.

It’s a real problem. Society now is not merely giving license to but actually encourages non-thinking, with emotion (and political correctness and “tolerance”) taking over reason. As Longenecker notes: “In a relativistic age, in which people have neither the skills or time to speak reasonably, sentimentality is used more and more within the political and religious debates.” Which is quite evident in our political discourse of today.

The media must take a lot of the blame for this. Take reality TV: the behavior exhibited by its so-called stars often verge on the bizarre: every little thing results in violent arguments, every opportunity (even the lack thereof) for sexual antics is publicly exhibited, every mundane (actually stupid) opinion is aired out at the highest possible volume. While such over-the-top behavior is understandable from the ratings perspective, it may (alas often does) sadly encourage (consciously or not) similar conduct from its fans.

Then, social media: with Facebook people get to live (at least online) the celebrity that they are in their minds. People who normally would have (and should have) no claim to fame (or even notoriety) have their lack of qualms unrestrained, displaying their faces and their most mundane activities on the Internet. Unread? Sloppy thinker? No familiarity with grammar? No problem. It’s their page and people shouldn’t be judgmental. Just be generous with the “likes.”

And all this is self-reinforcing. Memes flood the Internet with idiocies like “if you can’t accept me at my worst, then you don’t deserve me at my best.”

Or the most mistakenly quoted, most taken out of context statement in the history of the universe: “Don’t judge.” Really. Anytime I hear those words spoken by adults, particularly in public places, I get physically sick.

Mark Judge (writing for the Daily Caller, “America has changed, but God hasn’t,” November 2012) was prescient, describing a country whose decline mirrors ours: “The truth is that America is now a leftist country. It’s Rachel Maddow and Jeremiah Wright’s country. You know that divorced fortysomething female neighbor of yours? The one who’s not half as bright as she thinks she is, and doesn’t know much about Libya or the national debt, but watches Katie Couric’s new show and just kind of didn’t like Romney because she, well, just kind of didn’t like him? America is now her country. It’s Dingbatville.”

Even in matters of faith, there are cafeteria Catholics who insist on their feelings (which they mislabel as “conscience”) rather than Church teachings. But as David Koyzis (“Liberalism and the Church,” First Things, June 2015) points out: “It is common these days to hear people claim to be spiritual but not religious. Mere spirituality leaves the ego in charge, and successful churches try their best to appeal to this ego. On the other hand, religion implies a certain binding (Latin: religare) of the person to a particular path of obedience not set by the person herself.”

And to repeat, this obsession with feelings is not harmless. It is actually hypocritical, with the unspoken objective of ruthlessly shutting down any opposing thought. As Fr. Longenecker accurately describes it: “This sentimental ‘sadness’ is used all the time as a smokescreen for anger. You can tell because as soon as you’re thrown off kilter by the sentimentalism, the gloves come off and the true rage that was beneath the surface kicks in.”

Indeed, by preventing discourse, rational discourse -- that is, composed of facts, reason and logic (as opposed to mere anecdotes and feelings) -- it damages all of us, our community, by preventing people from arriving at and appreciating truths, including how to properly discern and achieve the common good.

However, to clarify, J. Budziszewsk writes: “Feelings are not unimportant. They give charm and energy to our lives, and even the unpleasant and inconvenient ones provide us with information. The problem is that the charm is not self-evaluating, the energy is not self-directing, and the information is not self-interpreting.”

Although, I have to say, we can’t really blame people for indulging in madness if even our presidents, legislators, justices, or their sisters, act like lunatics themselves.

Climate change and of leaving science to the scientists

was my Trade Tripper column in the 12-13 June issue of BusinessWorld:

Last week saw social media filled with references to Pope Francis and his “master’s degree in chemistry.” The reason was Rick Santorum’s widely publicized interview in the The Dom Giordano Show where he urged the Catholic Church (and consequently Pope Francis) to “leave science to the scientists.” This resulted in the automatic smug assertions that Santorum is “stupid” for not knowing that Pope Francis is a scientist.

The only thing is: Rick Santorum was right. And you can bet Pope Francis agrees.

The trouble with discussions on climate change, particularly in today’s politically charged environment, is that nothing is what it seems. Nobody sane would want the environment destroyed. The problem, however, with the climate change debate is that it got exclusively framed on extremist beliefs, mostly of the so-called progressive Left, that the only way to do right by the environment is to hurt businesses. Some even want to completely shut down the commercial system as we know it.

Kevin O’Marah, writing for Forbes, puts it this way: “Some left-leaning liberals would just as soon outlaw fossil fuels, even at the risk of shutting down the whole system.” But “the likes of JosĂ© Lopez, global EVP of Operations of NestlĂ©, Paul Polman, CEO of Unilever, and Bonnie Nixon-Gardiner, formerly of Hewlett-Packard, reinforce my belief that most environmental regulation is just fine, especially for businesses that intend to be around for the long run. They level the playing field, reduce uncertainty in the supply chain, and focus attention on innovation, rather than cost cutting.”

Which makes sense. Because in order to implement environment-friendly measures, one needs money. Which either means that corporations have the funds to apply such environmental measures themselves or have enough income for the government to be able to collect taxes, which in turn the government can use to enforce environmental laws. But this can’t happen if progressives insist in demonizing business. It also makes quite ironic the Left’s hatred for the world’s best income-generating system: open economies.

Hence why Steve Moore, also writing for Forbes, was spot on: “What is the theological case for telling those in the poorest villages of the planet where people still live at subsistence levels, that they have a moral obligation to save the planet by staying poor and using less fossil fuels, less energy and electricity? Cheap and affordable electric power is the most basic antidote to fighting extreme poverty, disease, malnutrition, and human deprivation -- and should by celebrated by all humanitarians.”

“What the Pope should tell the world’s Catholics is this: if climate change is a threat, the best antidote is not to empower heavy-handed and incompetent command and control governments to try to combat it, but rather allow free people to employ their wealth, technology, ingenuity and creativity -- to find ways to head off catastrophe. If, God forbid, the United Nations or Greenpeace is to be our salvation, then we are doomed.”

Unfortunately, a huge amount of confusion is laid out by the media as to Pope Francis’ actual authority. But as George Weigel puts it, “Popes... are not authoritarian figures, who teach what they will and as they will. The Pope is the guardian of an authoritative tradition, of which he is the servant, not the master.”

As for “the environment and the poor, Catholic social doctrine has long taught that we are stewards of creation and that the least of the Lord’s brethren have a moral claim on our solidarity and our charity; the social doctrine leaves open to debate the specific, practical means by which people of good will, and governments, exercise that stewardship, and that solidarity and charity.”

In short, the Church’s mandate is with moral issues and moves with absolute sure footing when dealing in matters where the natural law and Scripture are clear: abortion, same-sex marriage, contraception. But to give specific empirical measures or remedies relating to the environment, inequality, poverty, immigration? That is better left to people with the established expertise for it.

In fact, it was quite laughable that almost at the same period when progressives were building up the Pope’s scientific credentials to speak on the environment, there came a thunderous silence when he then spoke on gender identity issues, declaring that “gender theory is an error of the human mind that leads to so much confusion.”

Those seeking to spin for narrow ideological gains Pope Francis’ upcoming statements on the environment are thus forced to confront his declarations on traditional marriage and the family. Which, of course, they can’t accept, and thus the blindingly obvious inconsistency.

Besides, Pope Francis does not have a master’s degree in chemistry. As his own official biography points out, he was “a chemical technician.” But what he does have are degrees in philosophy and theology.