Column: The $20-hotdog: thinking about pork

Published on October 15, 2013.

Some thoughts on the pork barrel scandal as it now stands, but first a short anecdote.

Last Thursday, on a busy street corner in midtown Manhattan, I stopped to buy a Sabrett hotdog. I paid for my $3-lunch with a $5-bill. When the vendor gave me my change, it was a sheaf of bills—considerably more than the $2 I was expecting. I gave the bills back to him, and said, “Thanks, but I only gave you five.” He gave me a quizzical look, then handed me two singles.

I stepped off the curb, feeling pleased. I headed straight for my next meeting, eating the hotdog along the way. (It was as good as I remembered.)

Later that day, on the way back to my hotel, I started doing the day’s totals in my head: How much in cash I started the day with, how much I spent for breakfast, and so on. (The arithmetic of the cash advance.) That’s when I realized something was wrong with my numbers.

After some effort, I remembered that I had received $38 in change after paying for breakfast: a twenty, a ten, a five and then three singles. But I also remembered that I had made sure to check my wallet before paying for the hotdog, and saw the $5-bill in it. I walked as fast as I could, and as soon as I reached my hotel room, I opened my wallet. No twenty, no ten (I had used that to buy subway tickets); just a couple of $1-bills and, pushed halfway down the wallet, the recalcitrant five.

As it turned out, I had mistakenly used the $20-bill to pay for the hotdog; the sheaf of $1-bills the vendor attempted to give me must have added up to $17. I had thought that the look on his face when I returned the money was the visual equivalent of “I can’t believe I made a mistake.” Turns out it was probably closer to the thought bubble, “Suit yourself, buster.”

The point of all this is not that we make mistakes; we all do, all the time. Rather, it is that a sense of certainty can be based on a misappreciation of the facts. In other words, even false certainty can seem true.

* * *

In an effort to help myself think through the pork barrel controversy, especially as it has evolved over the last three or four weeks, I have begun compiling a list of theses about the issue—not so much guidelines as working distinctions, reminders to myself that while the issue is absolutely vital and urgent, it is also more than merely black or white. I realize, however, that the same spirit of felt certainty, genuine but possibly erroneous, may in fact describe my list.

* * *

1. The pork barrel system is fatally prone to corruption and fundamentally contrary to the separation of powers; the use of political resources, however, cannot all be reduced to pork.

2. The system must be dismantled, even though there is “good” pork and “bad” pork.

3. Good pork means a politician’s use of his pork barrel allocation is legitimate: lawful and to good purpose. Bad means it was used to line the politician’s pockets, and those of his partners in corruption.

4. The pork barrel scam associated with the controversial businesswoman Janet Lim-Napoles is extraordinarily bad pork; it represents the perfection of corruption. Funds are released, but nothing gets built.

5. The best reference to make a distinction between good and bad pork is not someone like Senate President Franklin Drilon, even though his commitment to building Iloilo’s infrastructure is evident and his classroom-building with Filipino-Chinese businessmen exemplary. Rather, it is someone like Teddy Casiño, the former Bayan Muna party-list representative who has defended his own use of the pork barrel—and wants the entire system abolished.

6. Bayan Muna is not the only party or political force which put pork barrel funds to legitimate use.

7. All the same, public anger has changed the equation; when it comes to the use of the pork barrel, the burden of proof now lies with the politicians involved in the process, rather than on any accuser.

8. The same thing with the Disbursement Acceleration Program. As I understand it, it is not a pork barrel-like fund; but the participation of lawmakers in endorsing certain projects, thought uncontroversial in 2011, gives the DAP the aspect of pork. This means that its uses since 2011 should be deemed suspect until or unless proven otherwise.

9. I cannot place too much significance on the legal interpretation of someone like Fr. Ranhilio Aquino—because he has never read a law or a bill or an initiative in any way that can be construed as favorable to the Aquino administration. I do not mean to say he is always wrong (or always right), just that he is never neutral. The same cannot be said, however, about Fr. Joaquin Bernas (in legal matters, quite literally the Inquirer’s esteemed Monday-morning quarterback).

10. I believe not only in the integrity but also in the competence of Butch Abad, and first welcomed the news about the DAP precisely as an inspired innovation, the clever use of political resources in the exercise of a clear political mandate.

* * *

Headlines and column titles can be misleading. The hotdog did not in fact cost $20; since I got $2 in change, the real cost was $18. It took me some time to realize that too.


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Filed under Newsstand: Column, Readings in Politics

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