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.