Thursday, August 28, 2014

The unbearable lightness of PNoy’s so-called reforms

In his speech marking the celebration of National Heroes’ Day, President Noynoy Aquino put down the growing popular protests against his administration as disruptive of the government reforms he has initiated. Calling them forces against social reforms, the President’s own pro-administration coalition on the other hand has vowed to continue to fight for his “straight path” of governance.
What could yet be his strongest admonition against the popular protest, Aquino branded these protesters as “a few who are determined to bring back the old system of corruption and abuses.”
The popular protests against the Aquino government have been inflamed by the President’s own hints of calling for an amendment of the Constitution to extend his term of office and to restrain judicial overreach of the Supreme Court. Stirred up by public clamor for an end to pork barrel politics through total abolition of discretionary and lump sum funds in the national budget, several progressive groups and civil society organizations have joined forces to enlist 6 million signatures for a people’s initiative to enact these legislative reforms.
Popular protests against the Aquino administration gain momentum as several
progressive groups and civil organizations join  forces to gather 6 million
 signatures to enact legislative reform that will totally scrap pork barrel.
Instead of embracing the protesters’ demands, President Noynoy Aquino has chosen to roll the dice. It’s them versus him, the forces of change against the President’s self-convoluted vision of “daang matuwid.”
But what are these reforms President Aquino is talking about?
He has not achieved much in terms of stimulating the economy except earn some brownie points to upgrade the country’s credit rating. This is a hollow accomplishment since it only means that it is easier for the country to borrow money. Unless public expenditures designed as stimulus translate to more jobs, reduction in poverty and income inequalities, a credit upgrade is nothing but hot air.
Former Comelec Chairman Christian Monsod summed it up correctly when he recently criticized those who support the government’s posturing with Charter Change. “They are looking at the wrong places for sustained inclusive growth. Our social reform programs are dead in the water: housing, agrarian reform, ancestral domain, municipal fishermen. They are the poorest of the poor,” he said.
Delivery of public services and social programs remains slow and inefficient. Traffic in the biggest city in the country is not freely moving and has affected the flow of goods and made life unbearable to the majority of the population who rely on public transit. The government bureaucracy continues to struggle against red tape and incompetence of the civil service.
Public corruption is one of the highest in the region, which brings us to Aquino’s self-proclaimed delusions of “walang korap kung walang mahirap” (there’s no corrupt if there’s no poor) and the “daang matuwid” (straight path).
Aquino was successful in placing his predecessor, former President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo, in jail since 2012 for crimes of graft and corruption and economic plunder. Two years in detention, no trial date has been set for the former president but a number of complaints against her have already been dismissed for lack of evidence.
The chief justice of the Supreme Court was successfully impeached by Congress for violation of public trust for not completely disclosing his statement of assets and net worth. But the impeachment is now tainted by allegations that the President bribed members of Congress through his pork barrel, the Disbursement Acceleration Program or DAP, which has been declared unconstitutional by the high court.
Last July, the 10-billion-peso-pork-barrel scandal imploded. But this was not due to efforts of the Aquino administration to weed out corruption in government. The Napoles-masterminded scheme of channeling pork barrel funds (the Priority Development Assistance Fund) designated for members of Congress to fake NGOs was exposed through whistleblowers and not by zealous government scrutiny. Only after a congressional investigation did the government really stamp its official approval of going after three leading opposition senators and putting them in jail for charges of plunder. Whether the government will be able to successfully prosecute these senators still remains a big question.
The congressional pork barrel known as PDAF has been dismantled when the Supreme Court declared it was unconstitutional; again, not because of the honest efforts of the incumbent administration, but through petitions made by progressive groups and civil society organizations.
The same thing happened to the Aquino administration’s own pork barrel, the DAP, which was also declared unconstitutional by the Supreme Court. If not for several progressive groups and civil society organizations, the pork barrel system of illegal and irregular allocation of government funds to members of Congress and to Aquino’s pet programs and projects would not have been exposed. Thus, even the Aquino government’s priority of keeping the straight path was not accomplished by the President and his staff but by the ever-vigilant public.
Here is the harsh truth: the Aquino government is planning to subvert the high court’s decision in disallowing the PDAF and DAP by insisting on the President’s discretion to keep lump sum allocations in the national budget, and at the same time, dropping hints of amending the Constitution to restrain judicial overreach of the Supreme Court. Minimizing the influence of the judiciary in a government of separation of powers and checks and balances between the three branches of government is only a prelude to an Aquino imperial presidency. With a subservient Congress on his lap, a populist president like Aquino could easily push for dubious reforms that would keep him in power for a long time.

President Noynoy Aquino insists that his administration was right in implementing the
Disbursement Acceleration Program (DAP) despite being declared unconstitutional by
the Supreme Court.
The current political situation in the Philippines may be warped, but this is not because of a fault in the Constitution. There is no provision in the body of the Constitution that needs to be altered or amended to meet current apprehensions. One only needs to give the Constitution one more thorough and careful reading, asking where and how one would alter it. The wisdom of the framers of the current Constitution and the fears of a re-run of the Marcos dictatorship speak clearly for a new vision of democracy in 1987, after more than two decades of authoritarianism and suppression of civil and political liberties.
President Aquino relies heavily on the role of his close advisers who would spin the political issues that beset the government by denial, on one hand, and by offering a better and more palatable version to the public, on the other. For instance, despite the Supreme Court’s decision on the unconstitutionality of the DAP, Aquino and his cabal of advisers still insist on the good faith behind their actions even when the facts of the beneficial effects of the DAP are questionable. When they were unable to influence public opinion, they resorted to a trial balloon of possibly amending the Constitution to amend the President’s term of office and floated around threats to reduce the powers of the judiciary.
Instead of respecting the Supreme Court’s decision, President Aquino keeps slugging the judiciary with a negative and self-serving interpretation of judicial oversight. Rather than welcome the people’s initiative for legislative reforms which Congress will not act upon because of the vested interests of members of the legislature, the Aquino administration dismisses the popular initiative as pushing the government back into what he describes as the “old system of past abuses and corruption.”
The problem with the President’s mindset is that it reinforces a cycle of political vendetta. His party was the last administration’s main political opposition and chances are that next time they will be at the receiving end of the vitriol, or perhaps they may suffer the same fate as their current political enemies who are now in jail.
It is becoming clearer everyday that a six-year term is too long for a bad president. Rotation of leaders is vital to a representative democracy, but the current President and his puppet Congress are willing to destroy this important democratic principle for their own vested and selfish interests.
President Aquino brags of reforms he has initiated but he’s come up empty. All he has accomplished is to promote an empty slogan of corruption-free governance. He talks of the straight path, yet he and the people around him walk the crooked line.
It has been a perplexing period during the political life of this presidency. Some of my liberal friends imagine themselves to be reformers and send their blank check of loyalty to the President in the belief that they are advancing the cause of democracy, even believing that only this President could effectively lead the country out of the doldrums of corruption and economic stagnation.
It will be the greatest distraction and only worsen our political condition if the Constitution or the political institutions it has envisaged as co-equal branches of government are wrongly and ignorantly blamed and subjected to yet more meddling, all because we have a popular president who is imperfectly perceived as incorruptible and worthy of a democratic legacy for which he is totally undeserving.

Saturday, August 2, 2014

An American joker in the country

As I was reading Joe America’s most recent blog, flippantly entitled, “Why discretionary authority is a good thing,” I was struck by his enormous ignorance of the difference between the public and private sectors, and in particular, of both the Philippine and American governments. This transplanted American even has the audacity to tell Filipinos how to run their government, a direct affront to our finer sensibilities. He could be declared persona non grata for abusing our hospitality, but because he made it a point in his blogs to cozy up to those in the higher ups in government, Joe America remains today a very ubiquitous blogger on Philippine social media and is constantly read by thousands of unsuspecting followers, including some influential columnists in the mainstream media.

A representational photo of Joe America from his blog, not his real image.
He started his recent blog by framing the debate about the constitutionally illegal and controversial DAP around two very flawed misconceptions of our own history and culture. If nobody stands up to this guy, he could possibly deconstruct our history as a people and let many believe he is correct.

First, he writes about Filipinos not too trusting of those in authority. Those in authority, Joe America writes, abuse their power and rule autocratically and for their personal gain. They steal money from taxpayers, so Filipinos are rightfully suspicious.

After almost five centuries under foreign colonial rule, it is but natural for Filipinos to become apprehensive of despotic or oppressive government. Filipinos waged a revolution against Spain in 1896, then fought wars of independence against the United States at the turn of the 20th century and Japan during the Second World War, and battled the dictatorial Marcos regime from the early 1970s to the EDSA Revolution of 1986.

The revolution and struggle for independence and democracy by Filipinos were not borne out of simple mistrust of authority. To say so would be to demean their heroism, and gloss over the fact that during those struggles, Filipinos were fighting for true self-determination, a no higher cause for the people to wage.

Second, Joe America blames Filipinos for being emotional by blowing up issues into sensationalist proportions instead of keeping themselves with the facts. He blames the media and the people by feeding on each other, as if the people or general public has equal access and control of newspapers, radio, and television. He fails to see that most of the news are manufactured by a press friendly with government to provide a favourable coverage of the establishment. Absolving the president of his own shortcomings and errors in decision-making, Joe America has nothing to blame but the emotions of the people in portraying the president as another corrupt leader.

Worst of all, Joe America blames dissent and criticism as the principal disruption to a stable leadership necessary to achieve sustainable growth. If the Philippines doesn’t move forward, he has only the people to blame, not President Aquino.

A troubled country like the Philippines, Joe America writes, needs a president who has significant authority and discretionary power. So he concludes that the DAP is a good tool because the president could use it to achieve his objective of sustainable and inclusive economic growth.

When someone does not understand the difference between how a government operates compared to a private corporation, this is the kind of limited thinking process you get. No matter how he prefers the corporate style of management, the government cannot be run simply along profitability lines. Leaders of government are supposed to be representatives of their electors, who by their votes have consented to be governed under a system of laws and a fundamental law called the Constitution. Besides, they are also constrained by their party affiliations, which are necessary in a representative democracy.

Joe America writes: “How does a president succeed if he must subordinate his initiatives to checks and balances from institutions that are divided, filled with political players and incompetents and hostile to change?”

He doesn’t want Congress investigating how the DAP was spent and whether the DAP met its objectives. To him, the Senate cannot substitute the personal views of its members to the decisions of the Executive who would have thought rigorously of the DAP in the first place.

Throw away the Constitution, disregard the laws, or even the ethical behaviour politicians and bureaucrats ought to follow, this seems to be Joe America’s prescription for as long as the results are good. Productivity is all that matters, and to Joe America, this is how Secretary Florencio Abad is exactly running the DBM.

The Philippines should be managed like a corporation—this is Joe America’s prescription for growth. He writes: “There is a clear structure in a corporation, and respect for that structure. There is a big boss and little bosses and a hierarchy of, if not respect, at least obedience. Free speech is tempered by prudence, or the risk of losing promotional opportunities if one offends one of the bosses. It’s not like the chaotic democratic way of open criticism that eventually generates a lack of respect for the leadership and often leads to partisan bickering, turmoil and lack of continuity.”

For all the flaws and warts in his personal views, Joe America credits his growing up in the United States, a nation he says is proud of its values and largely trusting and appreciative of its leaders. He also credits his military service where there are clear lines of authority and discipline, and his long years of experience in a large corporation. “The better part of my life has been spent acceding to the authority of others or delegating and respecting subordinates if they did something differently than I would have done it.”

Would Joe America give the same advice to President Barack Obama and the U.S. Congress on how to run the nation, where adherence to political loyalties and divisions has greatly caused the current gridlock in Washington?

What would Joe America say to the US Congress when it voted recently to sue President Obama for overstepping the powers of the presidency—clearly a show of opposition against discretionary authority of the president?

In his own country, Joe America will probably be dismissed as an ignoramus and a buffoon.

Yes, Joe America is a big joke. Moving to the Philippines in 2005 to live with his Filipino wife and family in the Visayas, he thought he already knew too much about the country and its politicians that he could lecture them on governance. He makes disingenuous assumptions about Filipino culture and the history of our people as if they are correct and grounded on facts.

Listen to Joe America when he writes: “It seems to me Filipinos don’t know how to build a nation. Because they don’t know how to sacrifice. Don’t know how to trust.”

That we don’t know how to sacrifice is a boldface lie. For four hundred years the Spanish colonized us and it took great sacrifices among our revolutionary heroes to fight colonial oppression. Both ways could be interpreted as a sacrifice, that it took us so long to wake up and take arms, and in the process we gave up so many lives not only during the revolution against Spain but also during the wars of independence against the United States and Japan.

On the DAP, Joe America keeps saying it worked and President Aquino was successful in accomplishing his objectives. That “we should get our evaluations right and get rid of emotion and suspicion as a basis for making decisions.”

Infographics on DAP, courtesy of Ibon.
Assessed whether the DAP proved successful in pushing economic growth by investing on high-impact programs and accelerating public spending, one study has shown that the DAP as a whole did not significantly create jobs, nor raise incomes and stimulate local economic activity. According to Ibon Foundation, an independent think-tank organization, “the general pattern of DAP spending is not consistent with a stimulus package designed to address the country’s most urgent socioeconomic problems. If the government wanted to stimulate the economy, it could have prioritized labor-intensive rural infrastructure projects.”

In other words, the much-publicized positive impact of the DAP is not completely accurate as advertised. However, Joe America insists it was a highly successful program, notwithstanding its unconstitutionality for violating the budgetary process.

There are also glaring inconsistencies in Joe America’s points of view—he admits that sometimes he contradicts himself. In one blog, for example, he states that the Philippines is an authoritarian society, yet in his recent blog he advocates that the president be given wide discretionary authority because in his opinion a strong executive is not a dictator.

Just consider the last time a Philippine president hijacked his constitutional powers and ruled with an iron fist. Did becoming more powerful make him an effective leader or executive? Was he able to push the Philippine economy forward and sustain its growth?

Joe America is ignoring the true political situation in the Philippines and making wrong assumptions about our culture. Just to be fair with him, read his blog, Society of Honor by Joe America, and after that, you probably won’t read him anymore.