Column: “Bangkarote”

Published on April 20, 2010. The first paragraph, written at about the time the “Noy-Bi” campaign took off, now reads like it was composed in another country, or another time.

I THOUGHT Christian Monsod’s heavily nuanced presentation at last week’s Inquirer Briefing was tonic for the battered Filipino spirit. Essentially, he located several sources of hope for the generally successful conduct of the country’s first nationwide computerized vote on May 10, including the improbability of a multi-party conspiracy to engineer a general failure of elections. One aside of his got my particular attention: He raised the possibility that the vice president-elect could be proclaimed first, ahead of the next president, and in a matter of days. This would stop the succession problem in its tracks.

* * *

Aside from Monsod, political management expert Malou Tiquia and columnist Manolo Quezon also spoke at the briefing. Asked to share their “fearless forecasts” about the elections, Malou declined to hazard a guess but provided an insightful reading of current campaign trends, while Manolo risked a provocative forecast about the “meaning” of the elections. My take on that one possible consequence is different from colleague Rina David’s, as she expressed it in her column yesterday, and from Monsod’s response, which he expressed during the open forum.

I found Manolo’s sketch of a possibly diminished presidency that the next chief executive will inherit to be reasonable and plausible. With President Macapagal-Arroyo having institutionalized non-legislative pork barrel elsewhere in government and positioned herself and a core group of loyalists to serve as a counterweight to the presidency in Congress, the next president may find himself facing unusual limits on his scope of influence.

This reading, of course, depends on the next president’s capacity for, and willingness to risk, political leadership.

* * *

Joseph Estrada began his presidency by infamously declaring that the government he had inherited was bankrupt. I may be wrong, but I associate this extreme reading of the situation with Estrada’s resident economists, including his budget secretary, Benjamin Diokno of the UP School of Economics.

In his 1998 State of the Nation Address, Estrada said: “Malubha ang lagay ng ating ekonomiya, at namimiligro ang kabang-yaman ng bansa. Hindi kayang pamunuan ng pamahalaan ang kakulangan ng ekonomiya. Sa madaling salita, bangkarote ang gobyerno.”

Estrada’s first Sona had obviously caught the so-called Asian flu of 1997 – and a nasty case of politicized rhetoric too. (Note that the first three premises contained in the first two sentences do not, in fact, add up to the sweeping sound bite in the third sentence.)

I was reminded of this theatrical announcement when I read a news report last week quoting Diokno’s dire reading of the Philippine economy and the government’s fiscal position that the next president will confront. “The next president will inherit a system that is nearing fiscal collapse,” Diokno said at an Ayala Corp.-sponsored forum.

I am not an economist (not that, to borrow the famous line from Seinfeld, there’s anything wrong with that), but I find Diokno’s apocalyptic reading somewhat suspect.

Two weeks ago, I shared the stage with Emmanuel de Dios, dean of the UP School of Economics, at a forum on the Millennium Development Goals sponsored by the National Academy of Science and Technology. (I spoke on media’s role, and I can sum up my thoughts in one depressing reality-based line: we should not expect any institutional commitment from media organizations to help in the attainment of the MDGs; instead, we should look to individual commitments of gatekeeper-journalists.)

But it was Noel de Dios’ stylish and heavily nuanced presentation that demands greater public notice. He said: “The picture of an unchanging and stagnant economy is facile and may even be a good way to score political points, particularly in an election year. Yet it flies in the face of facts and history … The next president will inherit an economy significantly different from that overseen by his predecessors in 1986, 1992, 1998 and 2001, and our first task is to lay down the stylised facts of the changed situation.” (I note that the choice of English rather than American usage is De Dios’ own.)

“The first new characteristic we must confront is the current economy’s highly resilient external position – this is an historical first. Neither the current global recession (since 2008), nor the succession of sharp political and legitimacy crises hounding the Arroyo administration, nor the global spike in commodity prices (petroleum and rice in 2008), has managed to precipitate capital flight, unsustainable deficits, credit cuts or stiff premiums on foreign debt that are significant enough to provoke a payments crisis.”

At this point, my notebook records De Dios ad-libbing, as follows: It seems “not even Gloria could topple the economy!”

He gave other characteristics of the newly resilient economy, but the main thing of course are the remittances driving it. In his words: “It is well-understood by now that the crucial element in this phenomenon has been current transfers from overseas workers.” De Dios’ principal thrust was to suggest that the next administration use this “Indian summer” of the economy to “fix infrastructure” and “fix education.” But the extra elbow room he described as the next president’s singular advantage (he proposes, for instance, that the next government can afford as much as P70 billion per year in conditional cash transfers) seems to me to run directly counter to Diokno’s dire forecast. To this non-economist, that one seemed to be more dismal, less science.

Next week: One on one with Noynoy

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