on wage hikes and ‘math wizardry’

Presidential spokesperson Abigail Valte was of course only doing her job when she once boldly dared lawmakers to pass a bill that would effectively scrap the 12-percent value-added tax on oil products. When informed that such a measure has already been filed by Bayan Muna party-list representative Teodoro Casiño in 2010, she promptly apologized the following day. “Good for you, Congressman Casiño,” she says in an interview over the radio.

One can only admire Valte’s humility and her devotion to her job description as the palace’s mouthpiece. Indeed, in her own words, Malacañang “cannot speak for Congress.” In other words, if the VAT is such an annoyance, legislators have the duty to junk it and save everyone else’s time. Why should President Aquino himself meddle with laws when there are so many other things that require his attention?

Just yesterday, in a press conference, as Valte employed basic math operations to explain why the Palace does not support the P125 wage hike proposed by Congress, we once again witnessed the lady’s astonishing capacity to effectively deliver a familiar message from the President: “My hands are tied. I cannot do anything about it.”

The P125 increase is simply not “practicable” and that employers may not be able to afford it, Valte said. According to Malacañang’s computations, the proposed wage hike would translate to a P42,250 annual increase  in salaries. Multiplied by 38 million workers in the country, the hike would result to about P1.26 trillion  in additional cost for businesses—quite a hefty chunk of the country’s economy valued currently at P8.5 to P9 trillion.

“Instead of being able to help the majority, some people may lose their jobs if the legislated wage increase will be this high,” she said, almost threateningly.

It would be easy to buy this explanation—if one ignores a few errors.

In his column at the Manila Times, Dr. Giovanni Tapang of Agham pointed out that only 54.8 percent of the country’s labor force of 38 million are wage and salary workers. Out of this percentile, 8.2 percent are government workers, 4.6 percent are private household workers, and 41.6 percent (or only 15.56 million) are workers hired by private establishments.

This means that the P125 wage hike, which shall be limited to those who work in private firms, translates, not to P1.26 trillion, but to only around P0.657 trillion.

This slight mistake is enough to make one suspicious, but doesn’t the fact remain that  businesses are hardly making any profit to afford such an increase in wages? Independent thinktank IBON says Philippine employers can handle it—but only if they would agree to a cut in their profits.

In 2009, all private firms in the country had a combined profit of P1.63 billion and 3.94 million employees, according to the 2009 Annual Survey of Philippine Business and Industry of the National Statistics Office. Using these figures, IBON estimates that the total cost of the proposed wage hike will only be P194.9 billion, which translates in turn to only a 12 percent cut in profits.

Beyond these oversights, though, one might forgive Valte for neglecting to do her homework more thoroughly. It must be a very taxing job, speaking for a president perceived by many as… laidback. Look at Elena Bautista-Horn who works for a former president who is currently under arrest and witness some really unfortunate things she has to say to the public.

If anything, the consistency of Malacañang’s press releases amid brewing protests against his economic policies proves something: Aquino might be cautious about bothering businessmen and their take-home money, but he certainly does not get too worked-up about what his real “bosses” want. Neither does he fear the brewing protests of angry people on the streets.

Such coolness under pressure must be admirable in a leader. ▣

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hillary, heckled in manila*

A lot has been said about how a student leader disrupted Hillary Clinton’s forum at the National Museum on Wednesday. Most reactions were angry, largely condescending, and obsessed on the claim that “there are other, more civilized ways to exercise freedom of expression.”

Why did he have to be so rude, when it was an open forum, and anyone can ask questions? Surely, Hillary, so smart and so contained, could address his strong feelings against the Mutual Defense Treaty (MDT)?

Well. Of course, she can. As what GMA News has so amiably touted her, she is a “savvy diplomat.” She is used to events like that thing they decided to call “A Conversation in Manila.” She can deftly answer any question–however cleverly crafted, or however unimaginative. She is her country’s top ambassador to the rest of the world. It’s, like, her fifth sense, or something.

Also, the forum was organized and “packaged” by the US Embassy exactly as a venue for pleasant “conversations” with a celebrity. It was a controlled environment where, as Glenn Diaz puts it in his recent blog post, the burden of civility is yours–in exchange for the privilege to participate.

These are enough reasons why a polite question asked over the microphone was not enough to protest against the Visiting Forces Agreement and the MDT. It would be like requesting an audience with Noynoy Aquino just so you could tell him off about Hacienda Luisita.

A protest is a protest because it’s an expression of indignation, of opposition. A protest gains potency, whenever and especially if it disregards the rules which ban dissent. A protest does not demand an answer or an explanation, it asserts its right to be heard and never apologizes.

Otherwise, a candid question about music preferences would do, and Hillary can leave Manila with the happy, content feeling that Filipinos are such a nice, welcoming bunch, and that here, she can forget about growing all that rhinoceros skin. ▣

* first published as “Bien Venido” at “Chairport

unang sona ni noynoy aquino

Tampok sa kauna-unahang State of the Nation Address ni bagong Pangulong Noynoy Aquino noong Lunes ang mito na kurapsyon ang pangunahing dahilan sa lugmok na kalagayan ngayon ng bansa.

Hindi na ito bago sa mga talumpati ng Pangulo. Noon pa mang nangangampanya pa lamang siya ay ito na ang kanyang pagsusuri: na maraming mahihirap na Pilipino dahil sa pangungurakot at pang-aabuso sa kapangyarihan ng mga nasa puwesto. Ngayong nailuklok nang Pangulo, ito pa rin ang lunsaran ng tangan niyang plataporma.

Hindi maitatanggi na sa kurapsyon mauugat ang marami sa mga suliraning kinakaharap ng Pilipinas. Sa tapat at makabayang pamumuno nakasalalay ang pagtiyak na nagagampanan ng maraming bahagi ng pamahalaan ang kanilang mga tungkulin sa bayan. Magandang halimbawa ang paglikom ng buwis, na hindi maayos na maisasagawa kung may mga bulsang maaaring lagyan upang makatakas sa batas.

Ngunit hindi naman garantiya na sa pagwawakas ng kurapsyon, magkakaroon ng pangmatagalang pagbabago sa kalakaran ng gubyerno. Madalas, nakagapos sa pagkabigo ang mga adhikain ng pamahalaan, hindi sa kurapsyon lamang, kundi sa mismong mga patakarang sinusunod nito at sa mismong mga programang ipinatutupad alinsunod sa mga patakarang ito. Madalas din, nagaganap ang kurapsyon dahil baluktot ang mga patakaran at programa ring ito.

Sa halimbawa pa rin ng paglikom ng buwis, pangunahing dahilan sa pagkabigo ng pamahalaan na makakalap ng sapat na pondo para sa kaban ng bayan ang regressive nitong patakaran sa pagbubuwis. Sa pagpapatupad ng VAT na lamang, walang takas ang masang Pilipino sa mga dagdag na buwis, samantalang walang mahigpit na pagtugis sa mga mayayamang negosyante na kumikita ng malaki. Tuloy, nalilikha ng ganitong sitwasyon ang pagkakataon ng kurapsyon: sa porma ng sistemang “kota-kota” at “tongpats” na parehong kinundena ng Pangulo sa kanyang talumpati. (Hiwalay pa ito sa usaping hindi matalino ang alokasyon at paggamit ng kabuuang naipong kabuwisan para sa pambansang budget. Ngayong taon lamang P276.212 bilyon ang inilaan para sa pambayad utang.)

Ipagpalagay mang tama ang Pangulo, na sa pagsupil ng kurapsyon malulunasan ang karamihan kung hindi man lahat sa mga problemang nagpapahirap sa mga Pilipino, tila wala namang konkretong planong nailahad sa SONA kung paano ito maisasakatuparan. Ito na sana ang pagkakataong maitampok niya ang bagong Freedom of Information Bill na inilunsad muli ni Bayan Muna party-list Rep. Teddy Casino ng Bayan Muna. Kung maisasabatas ang FOI, magkakaroon ng pananagutan ang pamahalaan na maging bukas sa pag-uusisa ng media at ng publiko. Magiging mas malaya ang pagbabantay sa bawat kilos ng mga nasa kapangyarihan.

Mayroon din namang mga tiyak na hakbangin na inilahad ang Pangulo. Iyon lamang ay kamukha rin naman ng mga planong ito ang mga sumemplang nang plano ng mga nakaraang administrasyon. Anong kaibhan ng kanyang mga binabalak na pubic-private enterprises sa mga nakaraang privatization schemes, gaya ng sa MWSS na mas lumala pa ang kalagayan matapos itong paghatian ng dalawang pribadong kumpanya? Hindi ba’t ang NBN-ZTE deal ay nabuo rin dahil sa pagtatambal ng pamahalaan at pribadong sektor?

Mula sa mga ganitong agam-agam nagiging walang saysay ang mga pangako ng Pangulo na magiging matapat siya sa kanyang tungkulin. Magiging walang katuturan ang pagtugis niya sa kurapsyon kung hindi siya magpapatupad ng mga bago at matatalinong programa na papalit sa umiiral na sistema. Magiging baog ang inilulunsad niyang “bagong simula” kung hindi niya matutukoy ang mas malalaking pinagmumulan ng kahirapan—gaya ng sa isyung agraryo, ng monopolyo ng dayuhan sa nga industriya ng bansa, sa edukasyon—mga mahahalagang usapin na marami ang umasang mababanggit niya sa kanyang SONA.

Hindi mahirap magbigay ng tiwala sa alok na “pagbabago” ng Pangulo, lalo pa’t sa bawat pagharap niya sa publiko, katapatan at malinis na paglilingkod sa kanyang mga “amo” ang imaheng lagi niyang ipinamamalas. Ngunit katuwang ng pagtitiwalang ito sa kanyang mga hangarin ang paghamon din na masugid nating susubaybayan ang kanyang bawat hakbang. Patuloy ang ating pagtatasa sa kanyang pamumuno at sa galing ng kanyang pang-unawa sa mga tunay at mas mahahalagang suliranin ng bansa. Hindi ito ang unang SONA na ating napakinggan.

mean dream

Last night, I fell asleep reading Salman Rushdie’s East, West, a collection of short stories faithful to the author’s obsession on the thin line between fiction and reality, the blurred boundary between madness and sanity. Maybe this is why I dreamed of Jeffrey H.* Freud would come up with a different prognosis, of course.

In the dream, I was at Vinzons Hall in Diliman and there was a big crowd of people that there must have been an ongoing mobilization, or else a student forum of some sort. Everyone was wearing black, and because it was a dream, some people were even wearing ridiculous Halloween costumes. I saw him, Jeffrey H, standing alone in the lobby amidst the crowd, wearing one of those Ferragamo spoof shirts. I do not know how old he is in real life, but in the dream, he looked younger than I am.

When he realized that I was staring at him, I registered his panic, the scared look in eyes: he has recognized me. He must have thought I would physically attack him, and that it was my dream, and I could be as strong as I bloody liked. Luckily for him,he did not have to wait any longer for his inevitable doom. I strode across the lobby, grew impossible muscles on the way, and pummeled him until he was nothing but jelly.

But I had better plans. Only when I knew he was already sweating a river did I approach him. I asked him if he was joining the rally. He said yes, in the nervous tone of the hopelessly guilty.

“Which organization are you from?”

He mentioned an obscure group which claims to harbor nationalist tendencies, adding meekly that he was not from UP. He then went into an elaborate story about how a friend coaxed him into joining in the rally from Diliman, and how this particular friend happened to have suddenly vanished from sight.

With a hint of sarcasm and condescension that I would otherwise be incapable of in waking life, I quizzed him on what his group does, their leanings and associations with other progressive cadres, their perception of Noynoy Aquino and his Hacienda Luisita background. Jeffrey H naturally floundered, lost for words, his replies short and vague. I relished the obvious fact that he felt exposed as a pretentious fraud.

I ended the dream right then and there, content with my small victory. When I woke up, a devilish smile was still plastered on my face. I wondered if I could make myself dream the same dream next time. I never knew I could be so heartless.

I stared at the ceiling and made a resolve to make a habit out of reading Rushdie before going to sleep.

* Not his real name.