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When exploitation goes too far

 


When exploitation goes too far was also published by The Manila Times on 31 January 2024. Photo credits: Manila Times cartoon and PCIJ.org

The ballyhoo over the ongoing drive to either revise or amend the constitution through people’s initiative (PI) echoes the continuing exploitation of the governed by those who govern.

To use the people as tool to legitimize the exercise of power has for a long time been a fixture of Philippine political landscape.

To cite John Carroll, SJ, my late and former boss at the Institute on Church and Social Issues (now John Carroll Institute on Church and Social Issues), a research non-government organization based at the Ateneo de Manila University, in an article titled “The Philippines: Forgiving or Forgetting?”:  

In the year 1900, following the Spanish-American War and the American occupation of the Philippines, William Howard Taft arrived in Manila as the head of the US Government's Philippine Commission which was to decide the future of these islands. The story is told that he was met by a delegation of prominent Filipinos, ilustrados, who pressed for immediate independence. Their argument was that for a people to be self-governing all that was required was a minority capable of ruling and a majority willing to be ruled, both of which the Philippines had. Whether or not the story is historically accurate, it does reflect the elitist mentality of the cosmopolitan and educated Filipino upper class of the time, and perhaps today as well.

Today, 124 years later, our decision-making processes as a nation remains largely reliant on structures being controlled by the minority that also remains exclusively composed of modern-day ilustrados. At the foot of these structures is a flawed system of representation and a metastasized version of democracy. Our democratic system regurgitates rubbish: we continue to elect to public office members of the elite and traditional politicians, even those who had been publicly shown to have compromised their integrity. In a book published in 1997, Frank Golay commented on the kind of exclusive unity among traditional politicians (compromised or not) since the post-independence period: “The coherence of the elite was not surprising, for their mandate to rule had been repeatedly renewed by the Filipino people.”  

It is easy to turn our eyes to the average voter for this social malady. However, the problem must be understood correctly. Unlike the learned few, the average voter has limited access to information that empowers analytical thinking and liberates from inaction and ignorance. Instead, the average voter is exposed through mainstream and social media to the constant pounding of manipulative information.

Yet the problem is not solely about most voters not having access to quality information. (Otherwise an effective system of representation where elected politicians work for the interests of the majority would suffice to address it.) Rather the problem is about people who manipulate the truth to control other people. At the hands of politicians, powered by wealth and patronage, manipulation is a tool to exploit the basic weakness of the people—which is their collective inability to make sense of open paths to reforms due to lack of liberating information.

The 1987 constitution promised a way to break the stranglehold of political power by the elite which, in a twist of wonder and irony, now risks being re-written by way of a PI.

That promise is far from being realized, however, as decades of trying to implement its liberating and people-centered reform provisions are at best enacted into laws in their most feeble of forms, or, at worst, remain untouched, doomed to be trashed and sadly oblivion-bound. These reform paths include agrarian reform, anti-dynasty provisions, and participatory governance.

While Congress has passed an agrarian reform law, it did not provide for adequate measures to ensure its positive impact. Worse, the executive arm of government has nothing much to show for success in implementing that law in terms of, for example, the number of farming families that have been lifted from poverty. It is easy to see that the system of representation is conflicted, as many members of Congress and political appointees in government are landowners who would be adversely affected by a genuine land reform program.    

The anti-dynasty provisions promise to democratize the opportunities for public service through the electoral process by levelling the arena for contending political candidates. The prospect of inviting competition hurts the interests of established players of the game, who are thus justified to never seriously consider this constitutional lobby.

Probably emboldened by how “people power” had ended a dictatorship, the framers of the 1987 constitution must have deemed it uplifting to promote people participation in running the government. Novel approaches to promote participatory governance include local autonomy, a party-list mechanism, and legislation through PI. 

A local government code was enacted in 1991 (one of a few redeeming achievements of Congress in the post-Marcos1 era), but its powerful tools that aimed to promote inclusive and participatory governance through institutionalization of broad-based local councils and community-driven processes remain largely unharnessed.

The party-list system is a mess. Initially intended to bring the basic sectors from the margins of society to the elite-dominated center, the party-list representatives in congress are now mostly dominated not by the marginalized sectors but by the same crop of traditional business and partisan interests.

The enactment of laws through PI has been a practical impossibility—perhaps until now. Behind an organized ploy by yet unknown but suspected powerful politicians, the hyped-up charter change drive through PI appears to be gaining traction, despite protestations from certain sectors, notably a number of sitting senators. The Commission on Elections, which is tasked with verifying the signatures in a PI process, has reportedly received several copies of those signatures already.

Like the party-list system, the PI route is being highjacked by powerful vested interests. Previous attempts to fiddle with the constitution failed largely because of distrust in the ulterior motives of politicians. It seems there is now a shift in strategy. Some politicians hide behind the PI to make it look like there is public ownership of constitutional issues. Politicians in general win the vote by exploiting our messed-up political culture; and now they seem poised to win even more. Exploitation has gone overdrive, from winning the vote to possibly perpetuating themselves in power.

Ferdinand Marcos Sr. tried to perpetuate himself in power. The government that supplanted “Bagong Lipunan” facilitated the writing of a new constitution that would have made it harder for succeeding administrations to perpetuate themselves in power. But another Marcos with his “Bagong Pilipinas” battle cry is now up in arms, rallying his troops of no less than 31 million voters to fight for his cause. Filial duty suggests that Bongbong Marcos should undo the remnants of what undid his father. Would the ends of the PI suit him? Is he the one behind it?     

         

If the constitution must be re-written or amended, the aim must be to correct its failed promises. We need to make authentic participatory governance work and ensure that the task of policy making is not left exclusively to the control of traditionally elected representatives of the people in government.

A review: From Beat Down to Back Up and Beyond: How A Suicidal Addict Achieved Success Against All the Odds (And How You Can Too... by James Neville-Taylor

 


Going over James Neville-Taylor’s book "From Beat Down to Back Up and Beyond: How A Suicidal Addict Achieved Success Against All the Odds (And How You Can Too...)” gives one the opportunity to harvest nuggets of wisdom from many authors who wrote before him about winning. He identified several books that helped him steady his path toward success. But clearly, I could easily pick up priceless gems from him; I think they glitter even solely from his context. Examples:

1.       On page 57, he cautions us not to fall in love too much with the comforts of home (like the eaglet who could not overcome the fear of flying):

"The problem for most people is that they can go back to comfort, or at least a more comfortable scenario than what they have now. Unless you are incredibly strong-willed, you will quit when times get tough if you have something to fall back on. When you have no other option, you don't give up when it gets hard or uncomfortable or someone tells you to start being realistic and get a 'normal' job. You battle it through to the end and keep attacking it until you start to see the results you want. That is what winners do, and that grit is the only thing that separates the winners from the quitters."

This resonates with me because, despite trying to earn from affiliate marketing since 2008 (if I am not mistaken), I kept returning to my regular job whenever I get disappointed over dismal results from my paid ads. The regular job has been my refuge. Not knowing any better, that is where I find security and relatively comfortable living.

Like James when he realized he needed to change course and turn his fate around, I invested in information materials and tools (those that I could afford at least). The single-space, A4 size paper print-out of my purchases from Warrior+, JVZOO and Clickbank, for example, could easily consist of 20 pages. But nothing much came from those misdirected investments. Thanks to this book, I have never felt as confident as now.

2.       On page 66, I guess many people, not only entrepreneurs who strive to deliver the perfect product or service to their customers or clients, should derive assurance from these lines:  

"People are too concerned about how they are coming across to worry about what you're doing. You will focus on your own mistakes far more and far longer than anyone else and be your own worst critic. Try and be your own best cheerleader instead."

3.       On page 80, he challenges the readers what is holding them back, or what keeps them from achieving more.

"If you're consistently worrying about consequences and falling down, you will never go for it and get anything done. I got to the point where I could constantly attack things, which meant I got ten times more done than someone who wondered and worried about the consequences. It was a hard lesson to learn after being so harshly punished for my mistakes growing up."

4.       Then on page 87, he warned even more against the comfort bubble trap.   

"Stepping out into the unknown, allowing yourself to be vulnerable, and pushing out of your comfort zone is one of the hardest things to do, but it's also the most rewarding. Outside your comfort zone is the growth zone. If you never venture out of your comfort bubble, then you never grow as a person. You stay the same, never reaching your full potential, and that's a tragic waste."

Yet the most riveting part of the book is the gradual unwrapping of his life story. This makes the book unique, a generational story of snatching victory from the jaws of defeat, as it were, in ways that one wonders if the mightiest of AI programs could have weaved its plot together and venture at the same ending.

For ordinary mortals like me, James' transformation from a hopeless case to a messenger of hope to countless souls was beyond ordinary. The notion of him being able to overcome the recurring humps the way he did, occasioned by flash backs of his cruel past and struggles under the weight of his emotional baggage, matches the tales that happen only in the movies.     

Indeed, this book must be worthy of a Hollywood run or a Netflix series. I would be glad to offer doing its script, LOL! (Modesty aside, I also sell titles on Amazon, if that implies anything, but the point is that not a few would do anything just to be associated with his name.)

At the beginning James says his purpose in writing the book would have been achieved if he could "just reach that one person and inspire them to greatness" ... for who knows "how many millions of lives will be affected for the better because of that one person and the ripple effect they'll create?"

A movie based on his true to life story is sure to move millions to greatness. Its core message of "not giving up" and keeping the drive to do more can make believers out of spectators. Those who have been associated with his programs (e.g. Rapid Profit Machine and Massive Affiliate Blueprint) can be expected to follow his lead, to grind it out no matter how the going gets tough and be successful affiliate marketers themselves over the long run.

Although he acknowledges the guiding hand of a higher being on the day he fortuitously checked his airline booking for an event in Italy, many believers would perhaps agree with me with the observation that "Someone or Something" must have looked over him--like He/She/It has looked over all of us--from the time he started to suffer verbal and physical abuses at just 5 years old. Even long before he decided to end it all as a young adult, he was just a slip away from morbid consequences.

One final inconsequential note: I wish to let James know that I'm from the Philippines and am sorry to know he outsourced virtual assistants from my country who not only performed poorly but even tried to steal money from him. I understand outsourcing VAs from the Philippines is widely talked about as an option for the big dawgs, figuratively speaking. I vaguely recall (and I am not even 50 percent sure) Russell Brunson (of Clickfunnels) said in one of his books that VAs from either India or the Philippines are relatively cheap for such a high quality of work they produce. This evidently is not true in his case, and I wish I had the standing to apologize on behalf of my kind.


Public debt: politician’s gain, taxpayer’s pain?

 

Photo credit: The Manila Times cartoon.

Public debt: politician’s gain, taxpayer’s pain? was also published by The Manila Times on 24 January 2024.

Yesterday, 23 January 2024, national government debt increased by Php15 billion through a Treasury bills (T-bills) auction. The auction will be repeated every seven days until God knows when. Then today, 24 January 2024, Treasury bonds (T-bonds) worth Php 30 billion await the winning bidders. This weekly awarding of billions of pesos to bidders (investors, from the perspective of financial institutions, or lenders from the perspective of taxpayers) has been regularly conducted electronically since 1996. We borrow billions today to pay billions we borrowed as recently as three months ago. While this makes the investors richer, this leaves the taxpayers with hardly a time to catch their breath. 

Both T-bills and T-bonds are securities (or debt-investment instruments) issued by the national government to investors who lend money to the government for the latter’s use. They guarantee repayment of principal (face value of the bond) plus interest to investors at maturity date. The Bureau of the Treasury (BTr) principally manages national government debt—organizing the auctions; managing reputational and operational risks; keeping the records, and validating as well as analyzing debt data; marketing the debt instruments (creating their demand and making them sound more like investment opportunities rather than a necessary burden to be lifted by taxpayers); coordinating with other government agencies on debt strategies and setting the debt calendar; engaging the private financial sector to help develop the local capital market, etc.  

The BTr started posting online the schedule and results of T-bills and T-bonds offering in 2012. For January 11, 2012, the combined (all tenors) offering for T-bills was Php 9 billion, for January 5, 2012, the combined offering for T-bonds was Php 18 billion. From 2012 to the first quarter of 2024, the absolute volume of offering has increased by an annual average of 3 percent for T-bills, and 7 percent for T-bonds. The combined T-bills that are being offered on the table for each of the 13 auction days in the first quarter of 2024 are Php 15 billion; for T-bonds, Php 120 billion.

Maturity dates (or tenor) vary. The tenor of T-bills (91 days, 182 days, and 364 days) is shorter than that of T-bonds (5 years, 7 years, or 10 years). The calendar sets the auction for T-bills every Monday and for T-bonds every Tuesday. There are exceptions, such as this week or when either of those days fall on a holiday, or during times of calamities such as when there is typhoon or massive flooding. Occasionally, the government also issues special bonds, such as Retail Treasury Bond (RTB), Premyo Bond and, recently, Sukuk (Islamic) bond.   

Investors generally prefer the shorter-term T-bills over T-bonds (1 peso in one’s pocket today is of greater value than 2 pesos that is yet to be collected tomorrow?). On the other hand, the government prefers T-bonds over T-bills (allowing the incumbent administration to pass the task of collecting taxes by which to repay the borrowing to the next administration?) and offers bigger returns to sell them.

At yesterday’s auction, annual interest averaged at 5.306 percent for the 91-day (3 months) debt paper, 5.766 percent for the 182-day (6 months) debt instrument, and 6.037 percent for the 364-day (1 year) issuance. The longer the maturity, the costlier the borrowing would be to the taxpayer. In any case, the average interest rate at 5.64 for 2024 borrowings (assuming the full offering in the amount of Php 780 billion for the year is fully awarded) would be Php 35.2 billion (net of 20 percent tax). For past, present, and future generations, it has become a fact of life that taxpayers are paying interest today for T-bills issued three months ago, six months ago, or a year ago.   

Interest rates (the taxpayers’ burden) increased across the board in seven days. In last week’s T-bills auction, on 17 January 2024, the 91-day instrument cost the taxpayers an annual average interest rate of 5.226; 5.685 percent for the 182-day instrument; and 5.999 percent for the 364-day instrument.   

One wonders why there is a need for T-bills, among other short-term securities (these issuances are patterned after the credit instruments of advanced countries). What are their proceeds imputed for? (Money is fungible, they say, so in the end it does not matter which fund source supports what.) It is unlikely they are meant to augment unfunded emergency expenses of government, given that the Marawi rehabilitation, for example, has taken years to even get started, or the emergency shelter assistance for super typhoon Yolanda victims that has taken up to three years to be distributed. It seems the easier way to explain it is that they are meant to stabilize cash flow positions in a regime where debt servicing and guaranteed contingencies have become a constant strain.   

T-bonds, on the other hand, appear to address the budget deficit of the national government. For 2024, total proceeds from these bonds are projected to hit Php 1.8 trillion. The national government budget for this year is Php 5.768 trillion pesos, which is heavier (from the taxpayer’s perspective) by 9.5 percent than the 2023 budget. The projected deficit is Php 1.4 trillion.

Credit must be given to the bureaucrats in government, and to the BTr in particular, for having helped develop a robust local capital market over the years. This strategic, yet tsimis-sensitive, fund source has helped keep everybody happy: the financial institutions who make relatively modest money from risk-free investments in government securities, the politicians who get their pet projects funded, and the voters who keep the same crop of crafty politicians elected to office in every election.

Domestic borrowing, apart from foreign borrowing, has become handy for the national government to fund the budget deficit, and for the politicians (starting with the president) and the political appointees who continue to dream big with their innovative schemes to best serve the country. These evolving schemes include, among the notable ones: winning the peace by increasing their confidential funds at a dizzying rate every year; intensifying the seduction of foreign investments by doubling the budget for foreign travels, also every year; by arousing countryside development through staggering amounts of congressional allocations to favored partisan allies; and promoting inclusive yet discretionary governance by institutionalizing unprogrammed, pork barrel, funds.

Each year’s budget is unprecedented for the weight of the burden it imposes on the taxpayer and for the rate at which it grows its pork belly fat. 


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When exploitation goes too far

  When exploitation goes too far was also published by The Manila Times on 31 January 2024. Photo credits: Manila Times cartoon and PCIJ.o...