Column: The administration’s ‘inattentional blindness’

Published on May 27, 2014.

Apparently there is a scientific term that explains why children engrossed in something—playing a game on the tablet, say, or reading the comics—seem to ignore anyone talking to them at the same time. The word is “inattentional blindness,” reports a BBC piece on a recent experiment, and it describes a familiar phenomenon characterized by “a lack of awareness, especially outside the immediate focus of attention.”

It is related to the development of the primary visual cortex. “The capacity for awareness outside the focus of attention develops with age, so younger children are at higher risk of inattentional blindness,” Prof. Nilli Lavie, of University College London’s Institute of Cognitive Neuroscience, told the BBC. It was Lavie who conducted the recent experiment at the Science Museum in London.

Reading about the concept of inattentional blindness reminded me of the Aquino administration’s approach to the achievements of the administration that preceded it. (Yes, at this point it bears repeating: There  were  achievements, buried under all the corruption scandals and the all-consuming struggle for legitimacy after “Hello, Garci.”) Mr. Aquino’s presidential campaign in 2010 was based on the simple appeal that he was Gloria Arroyo’s opposite. He was not alone in capitalizing on her unpopularity (and that of her husband); depending on how one reads the votes for Manny Villar, as much as 90 percent of the voters who cast their ballots voted “against” Arroyo.

But four years into his term, President Aquino has stuck to the black-or-white reading of recent history that resonated so loudly with voters in 2010. His address before the World Economic Forum on East Asia last Thursday may be usefully thought of as the epitome of that mindset.

After (rightly) reminding his influential audience of “the cancer of tyranny and oppression that characterized martial rule,” he then drew a bleak picture of the Arroyo years (“almost a decade of corruption and impunity—a decade of lost opportunities”) as necessary contrast to his reformist administration.

In a passage that raised the ire of columnist Bobi Tiglao, a close ally of Arroyo’s and the Aquino administration’s most trenchant critic, the President sought to paint a picture of an unstoppable reform momentum in specific colors: “Our efforts were not limited to those in the highest positions; we want to institute integrity throughout the bureaucracy. This is why, through programs called Revenue Integrity Protection Services (RIPS), Run After The Smugglers (RATS), and Run After Tax Evaders (RATE), we have filed a total of 487 cases against those who allegedly committed offenses as of April 15, 2014.”

As Tiglao easily proved, these three programs were started under Arroyo. To be sure, the speechwriters must have known better than to actually claim them as Aquino initiatives. Hence the neutral phrasing in “through programs called” RIPS, RATS, RATE. But the tone of the passage and the use of telltale claims such as “our efforts” and “we have filed” substantiate Tiglao’s case of credit-grabbing.

It was not supposed to be this way. The entire premise of the second Aquino presidency was that the country had found its way back after the morass of the Arroyo years. How can someone from that time “punk” the Aquino administration on a question of reform and governance?

First, because the truth in the passage immediately before the credit-grabbing part has been elided in the criticism. The “highest positions” referred to include the office of chief justice, which Arroyo filled despite a clear constitutional ban. (The ban is clear to everyone, except illiterates and certain Supreme Court justices.)

Second, because in its determined focus on what the Arroyo administration did wrong, the Aquino administration is inattentionally blind to the good that was in fact done.

Does President Aquino accept the fact that some of the policies and programs he inherited were good in themselves and worth continuing? His own address tells us the answer must be yes. He speaks, for instance, of the “large-scale expansion” of the conditional cash transfer program that Arroyo started. “In the span of four years, we have more than quadrupled its budget. The program that we inherited covered just 800,000 families, or roughly around 4 percent of the population; now, we are assisting around 4.3 million families, or about 22 percent of the population and this constitutes the poorest of the poor.”

But, almost as a rule, the Arroyo years get short shrift—even in the most obvious case of all, the continuing growth in the economy. Between January 2001, when Arroyo assumed office, and June 2010, when she grudgingly loosened her grip on power, the economy never stopped growing. The growth was erratic, but it was there. Data curated by the National Statistical Coordination Board show that, at constant 1985 prices, the economy grew roughly by three-fourths under Arroyo: from some P1 trillion to about P1.7 trillion.

The much faster pace of growth in the last few years under Mr. Aquino is praiseworthy, but the fact that the continuity in growth goes all the way back to the start of Arroyo’s presidency must surely help explain why, when the Aquino reforms did kick in, they created a bigger bang.

I realize some critics of the President find it hard to credit him even on the economic front. Perhaps, like him and even a well-meaning administration, they too are guilty of inattentional blindness.

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