The budget as instrument for effective governance

my Trade Tripper column in the 15-16 January 2016 issue of BusinessWorld:

The budget for 2016 was signed into law last Dec. 22, 2015 and -- at P3.002 trillion -- it unabashedly is the costliest one for our Republic to date. By practical consideration, this makes the size of our government equal to 25% of our economy (the humongous US government merely hovers around the 20% mark). And all this amidst the fact that our domestic debt is at P3.896 trillion, with external debt at P2.057 trillion (roughly totaling P5.9 trillion as of Nov. 2015).

This column is the first (at least in so many years) to encourage Filipinos to look at the budget as an instrument for pushing a coherent and effective governance philosophy. And, to put it with all the intricate subtlety of a battering ram, our budgets in the past decades have been quite socialistic.

This article will not dwell on the different strands of socialism. I don’t think even socialists themselves agree on what they are. Many don’t probably even realize they’re adhering to socialistic beliefs. So let’s simplify it for now as the thinking that the State should, under the guise of equality and social justice, dictate people’s lives through coercive measures such as high taxes, more regulations, and by an all-powerful government bureaucracy.

But as I pointed out in my article Disconnect: Paying for the Philippines’ New Normal (9-10 October 2015), to adhere to such a policy goes against the philosophy and intent of our Constitution, which seeks to promote a specific idea of the “common good” and “subsidiarity.”

In other words, government was not designed under our Constitution to be the be-all and do all for the people. The running and welfare of the State is actually the responsibility of the people themselves.

Because despite tons of graduate school gibberish and regardless of what Picketty says: socialism doesn’t work and our Constitution was wise to reject it. It caused poverty in Cuba, Greece, much of Europe, even China. And, unless they reverse course, promises to do the same for the US.

Unfortunately, we seemed to have forgotten this little detail and gleefully dumped so many responsibilities on government that we let it bloat to the size it is today, with the logically resulting budget and debt.

Using the 2015 General Appropriations Act as benchmark, 64% are on welfare matters: socialized housing, climate change, social protection such as the Conditional Cash Transfer (CCT), health care, and employment. These are matters better left to the people themselves, exercising personal discretion and self-responsibility.

And yet on the one job our government is supposed to do under the Constitution: “to serve and protect the people,” was met with a pittance of a 4.4% of the budget for 2015.

Fortunately, all that hullaballoo about the Disbursement Acceleration Program (DAP), alongside the noble sacrifice of the SAF 44 in Mamasapano, have led (very much relatively speaking) to an improvement on the budget (from that initially proposed).

Rightly, education was given high priority, with the Department of Education getting P435.8 billion (representing a 15.4% increase from last year). The crucial thing, of course, is in the details.

And gratifyingly, the funds supposed to be spent for possible abortifacients was slashed from the Department of Health’s budget. This was the correct thing to do: RA 10354 (the RH Law) was a Congressional act that could be repealed or amended anytime by another law. And the 2016 GAA was such a law. But it’s ultimately better if the contraceptive provisions of the RH Law be repealed completely.

Unfortunately, despite a laudable Senate attempt to cut the quite misguided, ineffective, and self-entitlement encouraging CCT program by P8 billion, Welfare was able to retain its proposed P64 billion.

But a quite definite improvement was the P117.521 billion allocation for Defense. This represents an increase of P18.6 billion from last year, with bulk of the increase going to modernizing the air force. Having said that, Defense -- in this election year -- is seemingly only 5th in priority for the Aquino government (behind Education, Public Works, Local Government, and Health).

Indeed, while on the subject of defense, the next administration is strongly encouraged to commit thoroughly to reviving the Self-Reliant Defense Posture of the Marcos years, which was “conceptualized and implemented through the enactment of Presidential Decree 415”: “The underlying concept of the program was to produce locally, when feasible, material for our defense forces through partnership between the military and civilian establishments, while importing those that cannot be locally produced with the ultimate objective of acquiring the technology for the production of these material.” (see GlobalSecurity.org)

Put it this way: with China encroaching and Islamic radicals plotting, as well as local thuggish political families and communists desperately seeking to be relevant, the Philippines would be foolish to bet the lives of its citizens solely on mutual defense treaties with foreign governments.

And besides, all this talk of social justice and the rule of law are useless if we can’t even protect what’s ours.

WTO’s Doha Round: Dead and Alive

my Trade Tripper column in the 8-9 January 2016 issue of BusinessWorld:

There’s this marvelous scene in the movie Top Secret where an East German General (played by Jeremy Kemp) waited for news about one of his soldiers shot by Val Kilmer’s Nick Rivers. Answering the phone, the General asks the doctor grimly: “What is the condition of Sergeant Kruger?” A pause, then: “Very well, let me know if there is any change in his condition.” Hanging up, he tells his aide “He’s dead.” Simply one of the funniest moments in cinema.

Which reminds me of the WTO’s Doha Round. People have used many words for it: “catatonic,” “comatose,” “moribund.” But now, is it just “dead?” And if so, will there be any change in its condition?

Hence, why I again completely rue the wasted opportunity of Manila’s recent APEC (Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation) hosting. Attempting so many things but on that one thing most truly important, renewing commitment to multilateral trade and revive the World Trade Organization, it did not do.

Yeah, yeah, the APEC produced the expected Statement on Supporting the Multilateral Trading System and the 10th World Trade Organization (WTO) Ministerial Conference, whereby the members declared that they “are committed to working together for a successful Nairobi Ministerial Meeting that has a balanced set of outcomes, including on the Doha Development Agenda, and provides clear guidance to post-Nairobi work.”

The Statement would have had more punch (despite the bland generalities) had the host country, the Philippines, not spent most of its time pushing for regional trade deals. Particularly, its very public courtship of the Trans-Pacific Partnership.

What could have been done was to pronounce a very specific and categorical “live or die” deadline for the Doha Round (post-Bali) and -- should the deadline be unmet -- to commit to launching a whole new Round with an updated trade agenda.

What happened instead was an energetic rich countries’ call for the Trade Facilitation Agreement (TFA) to be signed and implemented. Utterly ironic considering that the TFA has always obviously been a developed country matter of interest incongruous to a Doha Round of “developmental” aims for developing countries.

And one such interest of developing countries that has been completely set aside due to the bait and switch played by the developed countries is that of agricultural subsidies.

While indeed agreement was reached on banning export subsidies, agricultural subsidies by developed countries in the meantime have increased exponentially and continue to block market access of developing country agricultural exports. And developed countries want to increase the obstacles by pushing for labor and environmental standards alongside the agricultural negotiations.

Ultimately, the acquiescence by developing countries to the TFA in Bali 2013, without demanding that it be locked up with agriculture issues, was a strategic mistake that still affects the WTO today. Interestingly, the Philippines chaired the WTO’s Preparatory Committee on Trade Facilitation.

This has led the developed countries to stick to its guns and deprive developing countries the benefits that a successfully concluded Doha Round could have brought.

And in the end, Doha was eagerly proclaimed dead by Western media, which -- if true -- was death by whimper: the WTO members simply not voting unanimously to “reaffirm” Doha.

It also signaled, at least to the Financial Times (“Trade talks lead to ‘death of Doha and birth of new WTO,’” December 2015), that Doha’s demise “marked a victory for the US and EU (European Union), who alongside other developed economies have argued that clinging to the long-stalled Doha negotiations was making the institution irrelevant in a changing global economy.”

Nevertheless, the continued existence of the multilateralism embodied by the WTO is essential.

As Harvard’s Asia Center’s William Overhold points out (“It’s time to update our thinking on trade,” August 2014), the “WTO remains crucial to a vibrant world economy. Without the WTO’s dispute settlement mechanism, trade wars will ignite everywhere. By allowing the WTO system to decay, and by blaming globalized trade for problems that are unique to the past generation, we risk going back to pre-World War II trade wars. We need a modern, multilateral structure that updates the WTO, not a degeneration of the global trade and investment system based on a failure to recognize the shape of the new world we are entering.”

For now, where to WTO?

German Development Institute’s Clara Brandi (“The Doha Round is dead -- long live the WTO?” December 2015), noting that “the WTO should also be used as a negotiating forum in the future, not least because it is more inclusive than the bilateral and regional forums,” helpfully (actually, hopefully) suggests: “The end of the Doha Round could also serve to inject fresh dynamism into the WTO as more states opt for plurilateral approaches. At the same time, the global trading system is becoming increasingly confusing as the number of bilateral, regional and plurilateral agreements grows. This makes it particularly difficult for smaller enterprises in developing countries to navigate the ever more complex regulatory frameworks. The WTO should use transparency initiatives to bring more light into this jungle.”


The SolGen turns to wizardry

Cristina Montes' and mine's critique on the Solicitor General's submission to the Supreme Court regarding Grace Poe's citizenship (see here).

A copy of the SolGen submission can be found here.

I recommend that our article be read alongside this great article by fr. rannie aquino, examining a legal area that we weren't able to cover (see here).

Thoughts on a double vodka

my Trade Tripper column for the 23 December 2015 issue of BusinessWorld:

Recently got to re-watch the classic movie musical Singin’ in the Rain and interestedly noted how Don (Gene Kelly’s character) kept emphasizing his life rule to be: “Dignity. Always Dignity.” Quite apt actually, for the times we live in.

Not Christmas, of course, for it has it’s own inherent dignity. But more for the political campaign period, which is another way of saying it’s the silly season.

As example: a bunch of Davao City Mayor Rordrigo R. Duterte’s supporters got angry at me when all I did was write that Duterte’s statements and actions carried an internally coherent logic fulfilling the progressive concept of individual autonomy. Makes you wonder what they’d do if someone actually criticized their candidate.

Which takes me to Manuel “Mar” A. Roxas II’s Wharton issue.

It puzzled me why people all of a sudden are so obsessed with a candidate’s academic credentials. I mean, why weren’t we like this in 2010? Back then, the only thing important it seemed was that a candidate had a dead politician as parent.

Somebody asked me: are academic qualifications important? Of course it is. But not in the way most people think.

It doesn’t necessarily mean somebody is smart or able. But the point is that by going through a college or university course, that person now has a record to be scrutinized. The same with a person’s prior work experience.

No sane person will hire someone with practically no record or experience to his/her name to manage a tire vulcanizing shop. And yet we seem determined to do that for someone who literally has life and death powers over the Filipino population, either by police powers or by taking us to war.

The thing is, we don’t vote somebody for president just because that person talks well, has inspiring plans, and “has a good heart” and “makatao.” I know of a taxi driver like that but I won’t vote him for president.

No. We vote someone because he has a consistent record of getting things done, the right way. And we can know that by scrutinizing a person’s record and ignoring inane celebrity endorsements.

And dignity. Always dignity.

For the person we install as president will necessarily represent the country. And we simply cannot have a vulgarian in MalacaƱang. Or a guy who cracks under pressure. Or a foreigner.

Of criminals, yes we can’t have that too. But convicted ones. And these should include those that were convicted of extrajudicial forms of law enforcement, wrongful use of government funds, or deliberate misstatements in sworn public records. Mere allegations should not suffice. Such are just hot air and properly dismissed as part of partisan dirty works.

Speaking of academics, I’ve always suspected malice in some people’s persecution of Ferdinand “Bongbong” R. Marcos, Jr.’s Oxford credential.

Those critics miss the point: the important thing was to be accepted in Oxford. Not many do. Which is actually an understatement.

Royalty has no more chances of getting in than children of store clerks, let alone mere sons of presidents. What matters is personal merit.

Oxford has in recent years received around 17,000 undergraduate applicants worldwide and admitted only 3,200 (for an admissions percentage of 18%). And if it’s Oxford’s famous PPE course (philosophy, politics, and economics), you’re talking of one of the most rigorous courses in the planet, for which a considerable number of any generation’s most brilliant students won’t be able to finish.

That is why many Oxbridge alumni (meaning those who studied in either Oxford or Cambridge) prefer not referring to a year of graduation but instead discreetly indicate that they “read [insert field of study] in Oxford (or Cambridge).” Which is what Marcos practically did and which formulation was used by Oxford representatives in confirming that he did “read for a BA in Philosophy, Politics, and Economics.”

But it’s an indication of how silly things are that I’ve wretchedly descended to defending an Oxonian.

Incidentally, the admissions percentage for Wharton is an even stricter 14%.

Having said that, I’ll be the first to say that diplomas don’t give one class or pedigree. No.

It is “manners maketh man.” Which fittingly was said either by William Horman or William of Wykeham. Either way, both are Oxbridge men. So there.

Finally, why do we insanely insist in having these same oligarchic families rule over the country? UP professor Prospero De Vera (in a 2010 Forbes magazine interview) says insightfully: “In the Philippines it appears that is a crime and it is a sin to become rich.”

But that begs the question: why is it that for many Filipinos it’s a “crime” to be self-made? When the families that ruled this country have been richer for far longer and at the expense of this country?

Anyway, every election is a chance for a fresh start. But as in everything else, there’s a right way of doing things.

And remember: Dignity. Always dignity.

Merry Christmas to all. And a happy new year.

Mocha Uson on Duterte, morality, and hypocrisy

my Trade Tripper column in the 18-19 December 2015 issue of BusinessWorld:

The past few weeks saw an interesting development in popular discourse: rather than the pettiness of who slaps who, it was a practical discussion on the proper role of morality in political debate and of hypocrisy. Interestingly, it was raised by singer/dancer Mocha Uson.

Ms. Uson, it seems, supports Davao City Mayor Rodrigo R. Duterte for president and was defending the latter against charges of immorality raised by some other celebrities. In response, Ms. Uson had this to say:

“Moral standards mean different things to different people according to their belief. What is morally right to you might be morally wrong to me, and what is morally wrong to you might be morally right to me.”

She actually presents an internally coherent argument, which riffs off the secular progressive position of morality being relative to one’s individual circumstances and choices. This places emphasis on the Left’s definition of “freedom” or individual autonomy.

Accordingly, if I, as an individual, believe for example that pre-marital sex or any form of consensual sex or contraception or divorce or gay “marriage” or assisted suicide to be right, then who are you to tell me otherwise?

So as to charges that Mr. Duterte allegedly killed, had adulterous relationships, and so on, Uson puts forward a consistent thought: who are you to say that Duterte was wrong to do what he did, given the circumstances and choices that were specific to him and not to you?

Put another way: if you’re a “progressive” who believes in profanity (as freedom of expression), most forms of consensual sex, contraceptives, gay “marriage”, divorce, abortion, and assisted suicide, then you can’t criticize Duterte for immorality without being a hypocrite.

This is because Duterte is simply and logically following through on the progressive relativistic morality founded on individual autonomy.

The point here is that if the ethic is based on individual choice, then the proscription against killing or adultery becomes ultimately a random thing when set alongside “gay marriage”, divorce, or euthanasia.

Of course, one can say that the people Duterte allegedly killed did not consent to be killed.

But one can counter-argue on two grounds: first, by committing crimes in Davao, then they did consent to be killed (since Duterte allegedly warned them beforehand). And, finally, because many in Davao (and apparently so do many others in the rest of the Philippines) seemingly agree with Duterte’s acts.

So, again, if you’re for profanity, contraceptives, gay “marriage”, divorce, abortion, and euthasia, then what would be your rationale against Duterte’s alleged killings, adulteries, or cussing? Because you say so? But Uson and Duterte think otherwise. Because contraceptives, gay “marriage”, etc., are allegedly accepted by a majority? Well, many apparently agree with Uson and Duterte.

The ethical framework of conservatives and generally religious folk, of course, reject the relativism of progressives.

Morality cannot be anchored on individual autonomy or even by will of majority because such will necessarily be arbitrary or changeable.

Instead, reference is made to a comprehensive and consistent set of objective moral standards independent of human decision based on reason and experience, a “natural law” proceeding from a specific understanding of human nature as being both a physical body and intellect.

As such, Aristotelian thought would then tell us that humans are geared for a purpose: succinctly termed as “eudaimonia” or “happiness” (or “human flourishing”).

Accordingly, certain acts, from the use of contraceptives to extrajudicial killings are deemed “immoral” for being against human goods that ultimately prevent an individual from achieving “human flourishing” and society the “common good.”

Hence, why Duterte -- who says he extrajudicially kills, is for contraception and gay marriage -- should be anathema to conservatives, particularly Christians.

Progressives, on the other hand, except for clear-minded people like Ms. Uson (and there is absolutely no sarcasm here), have painted themselves into a corner -- confronted as they are with the logical conclusion of their thinking that is Duterte (whom many progressives seemingly detest).

Leaving us with Uson’s final point: on the nature of hypocrisy.

Again, she’s right. Albeit, safe to say, inadvertently.

Only a person with moral standards can be called a hypocrite. People without standards can never be hypocrites. Duterte cannot be considered one. For the simple reason that he appears to have no moral standards. Except himself. And that is no standard at all.

Note, however, that those with moral standards will, without exception, by ignorance or weakness, repeatedly fall short. That is why for Christians, as example, to keep up with moral standards is a daily (even hourly) struggle. To stumble or fall is not hypocrisy. That is being human.

Instead, hypocrites are those that uncompassionately demand others to do something that they deliberately and consciously don’t require of themselves.

True hypocrites include “progressives” that preach for a society of ostensible individual freedoms and yet condemn or insult a person for having different beliefs. Or because that person doesn’t come from the right family, school, social class. Or just because.