June 2012

Miriam’s primer for illiterate politicians and critics

Sen. Miriam Santiago called critics of the Bangko Sentral ng Pilipinas’ $1-billion pledged loan to the IMF’s “firewall” program “illiterates”.

Ang dami-daming pinagsasasabi pero hindi naman nagbabasa. (They talk a lot, but they don’t read.) The main problem with some of our politicians is that they are illiterate.”

She was referring to those who denounced the loan for the following reasons:

    1. Why not use that money for infrastructure, education, health, and programs that address the needs of the poor?

    2. Why lend when we have debts to pay? Why not lend the money to the government and earn higher interest at the same time investing in development?

    3. Why was Congress not consulted?

    4. Charity begins at home.

Miriam addressed the criticism in the following manner:

Why is the BSP lending to the IMF, when over 38 percent of the Philippine population are living below the poverty line?

“The answer is that it is the national government and not the BSP which is directly responsible for addressing poverty with resources coming from the budget.”

Why lend when we have debts to pay? Why not lend the money to the government and earn higher interest at the same time investing in development?

“The answer is the legal provision that our international reserves follow an investment guideline mandating that only investment-grade and highly-rated financial instruments of non-residents should qualify. Therefore, the BSP cannot lend part of its reserves to the national government to retire Philippine public debt, and the law prohibits the BSP from engaging in development banking or finance.”

Besides, and this is me, not Miriam, talking: Our debts are at manageable levels so why use our reserves to prepay them ? Better to keep our reserves intact and allow them to grow. It’s always better to have something to fall back on, right?

Why was Congress not consulted?

“At present, there is no such law that requires the President to consult Congress or the Senate. If the Senate wishes to participate in the foreign loan process, then it should pass a bill to that effect.” But Miriam is not in favor of passing a law requiring the president to consult Congress for lending or borrowing money. “We can never tell the magnitude of a financial crisis in the future. Let’s give him enough leeway,” she said.

Charity begins at home.

That is a brickbat that even I can swat away.

The $1 billion pledge is not charity. The BSP is not giving away a single centavo. The pledge is a loan. It will be repaid with interest. The BSP could have bought gold but it chose to place the money in the IMF firewall program because the non-monetary benefits of that transaction cannot be gotten by having gold bars sitting in a vault.

Congress made the central bank autonomous in a rare moment of enlightened thinking. It gave the Bangko Sentral sole authority and power to manage and safeguard our “money, banking, and credit.” It quarantined international reserves and kept it safe from political expediency and the sticky fingers of politicians.

The international reserves, in addition to “preserving the international value of the peso and maintaining its convertibility into other freely convertible currencies”, also serve as our “shit hits the fan” fund. If for some reason, or if another shit happens, and it’s not far-fetched considering the current global financial situation, we will have $76 billion in reserves to help us clean up the mess. Now politicians are using the $1 billion loan to the IMF as a means to get their hands on all of those reserves, to spend on their favorite fetish.

Do you want your $76 billion in the hands of politicians who apparently do not know or care what the reserves are for and whose vision extends only as far as the next election? Are you going to let them blow all of your $76 billion on problems that can be solved in due time or do you want the BSP to grow the reserves so you will have a safety net for when a real emergency occurs?

CBCP joins animal rights advocates

I don’t know why but I think the CBCP, like PETA, misses the point.

    In a letter to the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (Peta), CBCP president Cebu Archbishop Jose Palma said the Church hierarchy was sending its strong support for the retirement of the 36-year-old Mali.

    “Palma said he hoped that Mali would soon be allowed to spend her remaining years in her natural habitat where she could freely take mud baths, pluck fruits and leaves from trees, graze and spend hours swimming and playing in the company of other elephants.

    “It is my ardent wish that this initiative be done at the soonest time possible,” wrote Palma. “She might have a few years to live but these remaining years will be more expressive of man’s compassion towards God’s other creatures.”

Palma added:

    “Thanks to a directive from President Aquino and the work of Peta, a sanctuary could offer Mali a chance to save her from years of boredom and misery and, above all, save her life,” Palma said in his letter.

    “The reason is simple: Elephants are intelligent and social animals, and their needs cannot be met in captivity,” wrote the CBCP president, noting that Manila Zoo’s Mali was currently enduring intense confinement, loneliness, boredom and isolation in an area “a fraction of the size of her natural habitat.”

The modern zoo traces its roots to the private menageries of ancient kings. Exotic animals were captured for the amusement of monarchs. “Retirement” is absurd. There shouldn’t be zoos. Period.

Higher Education Reform

This is a follow-up piece to an earlier post, The Wrong Solution to the Right Problem.

At the start of every academic year, the lenses of the media are trained on the educational system. A lot of focus is paid to the rising cost of tuition particularly at higher education institutions (HEIs) and state universities and colleges (SUCs). Legislators take advantage of this attention often by sponsoring bills that seek to provide scholarships to “poor but deserving students”.

This led me to dig up all the pending senate bills at the 15th Congress where if you visit their website and do a search by using the word “scholarship”, you will find that there are 19 such bills (excluding the latest one, which I picked apart last week). All but four of these bills were filed in the month of July near the start of classes (what a coincidence).

To give you a bird’s eye view of the proposals, I would like to offer the following table which itemizes each bill’s intended beneficiaries, their sources of funding and authors/sponsors:

Scholarships provided for Sponsor: SB# Source of Funding
Top 5% of high school seniors and all graduating students of science high schools Juan Ponce Enrile: 3074 General Appropriations (GAA) augmented by PAGCOR profits
Household helpers Jinggoy Estrada: 2910 GAA
Family members of policemen, soldiers, firemen and jail wardens Jinggoy Estrada: 2907Miriam Santiago: 2648 (for PNP only)

Manny Villar: 1153

Sonny Trillanes: 305

Bong Revilla: 26

Firearms license fees, 15% of fire code fees and 10% of CHED scholarship grants
Agricultural entrepreneurs/farmers Manny Villar: 2712 10% of the Agricultural Competitiveness Enhancement Fund
Public school teachers and their children Miriam Santiago: 2251 None
Top 30% of graduating students enrolled in pre-medical courses Ralph Recto: 2141Lito Lapid: 1000 Contingent fund and savings of Executive Branch
Poor but deserving students enrolled in state colleges and universities Bong Revilla: 1999  Manny Villar: 1259 None
Poor but deserving students in private colleges and universities Manny Villar: 1229 From tuition fee increase
National and local government officials Manny Villar: 1046Lito Lapid: 1001 Existing local scholarship programs of government and savings of agencies
Women Jinggoy Estrada: 794 GAA
Valedictorians and salutatorians of public high schools Chiz Escudero and Sonny Trillanes (jointly): 170 GAA

These bills seek to either meet a lack of qualified trained professionals and workers in some specialized area like science, medicine or agriculture, or provide access to underprivileged constituents. Majority of them are aimed at improving the compensation and benefits package of public sector employees by providing scholarships to either them or their families. Soldiers, police officers, firemen and teachers are singled out by six separate bills for this purpose.

Most of them rely on the executive to provide from the general appropriations or national budget to finance these entitlements. Those that cite specific sources of funding identify already existing sources such as profits from government corporations or fees from services charged to the public. They merely specify where a portion of these revenues are to be spent, as opposed to mandating new sources of income.

Some of them in fact identify savings as their sole source of funding making the grants entirely contingent on such savings being made. Others do not even bother to identify where the money will come from such as the ones mandating state colleges and universities to satisfy a certain quota for scholars from public schools.

In other words, what happens when these measures are signed into law is that the sponsor gets all the credit for creating the new entitlement while the government is left to scrounge around for the money to pay for it, and often gets blamed when it is unable to do so.

Meanwhile at the lower house, the name of the game is the creation of new SUCs to service the province or congressional district of the sponsoring legislator. Look at the General Appropriations Act of 2012, and you will see what I mean. Under section VIII of the GAA, you will find the budget for SUCs broken down by region and province.

Notice that some provinces have more than one SUC. Out of a total budget of 22 billion per year, a quarter of which goes to UP, you have 112 to fund. With the growing number of SUCs, efficiencies of scale are not gained, and a lot is wasted on duplicating functions and programs. With the gerrymandering of congressional districts comes the gerrymandering of SUCs and the dilution of the budget for the existing ones and their students.

The problem

The main problems besetting higher education are therefore a lack of quality, access, appropriateness and funding. The last one, funding, is what solves the first three. Legislators often aim to address a lack of access to please their electorates, but often to the detriment of quality. The executive tries to address quality and funding, but is often limited by a lack of revenue.

Part of the problem when it comes to funding is that Filipinos have a strong preference for college education. Our participation rates at the tertiary level are higher than what our economic standing as a lower middle income nation merit (see chart below). Nearly one out of every three unemployed people in the country is either a college graduate or undergraduate student.

Data from World Bank

This is in part due to the abbreviated basic educational system which only now is being corrected with the K-12 reform. Admitting students with only a Year 10 attainment has meant HEIs and SUCs have had to “dumb-down” their content which accounts for some of the decline in quality. But extending basic education to Year 12 now means that the government has to expand its conditional cash grants to “poor but deserving students” from the current 14 years of age to at least sixteen.

The challenge from here on out is to make tertiary education efficient, equitable and effective in contributing to our goal of national development. One major way the government can drive serious reforms in this sector and hit multiple birds with one stone is to examine the use of its purchasing power. The second is to look at the way students finance the payment of their fees. Allow me to explain how this works.

The solution

Part One: A new funding model

To improve state funding for higher education, we have to look at the twin components of SUC funding which are government subsidies and student fees (we leave donations and non-education related income aside). Forget what the sign says on the gates of the campus, all SUCs derive their main source of income from the national coffers. Any reference to a city, province or region has more to do with location, rather than ownership. Their governing boards are run by national officials or regional officers paid for by the national government.

Thus the entire SUC budget can be treated as one big scholarship fund. All other existing and proposed funds to promote specific students could potentially be pooled and placed under the control of a national governing board which could decide how to dispose of it. Instead of seeing the SUCs as 112 separate entities, they should be viewed as one national system. The sole exception is UP, which has its own charter.

A funding model needs to be set up wherein funding to SUCs is student based. A set of criteria for determining the subsidy rates per head should take into account program specialization, skills shortages, national priorities, and regional inflation. Eventually, the funds could be made contestable so that if students should decide to enrol at a private college, the money should be able to follow them, subject to quality standards of course. This will drive greater efficiency in the system. SUCs will be encouraged to merge and gain synergy to survive in this new environment.

Some might object that this is a little too hard. That it is much simpler to maintain the current system where the government funds teachers, facilities and equipment rather than students. I would counter by referring to the health system, where this model is already in place through PhilHealth where the government subsidizes the treatment of members through accredited health providers. Health is a much more complex environment compared to education, and yet somehow, the government is able to pull it off.

If the first leg of higher education reform is fixing the public subsidy, the second leg is financing private costs. Despite what student activists might say, tertiary education is not a universal right. To engage in it, one must possess either intelligence or resources. What I am trying to say is if a student makes it to college, he or she is already part of a fortunate few. The rest of the population actually subsidizes those that make it.

Part Two: A new financing scheme

How can we then justify poor Juan dela Cruz paying for Isko the scholar’s studies? Social returns to schooling is the answer. Less productive workers benefit from having highly productive ones in their midst. On the other hand, private returns to education, through increased earnings (compared to non-college graduates), is the reason for making the scholar shoulder part of the cost of training. To be fair to the rest of the citizenry who do not attend college, student contributions to the cost should reflect the split of public and private benefits.

In short, it would neither be sustainable nor desirable for the state to abolish student fees. Filipinos already demonstrate a strong preference for higher education anyway. Despite the low return on investment (nearly one in three unemployed Filipinos are either college graduates or undergraduates), the participation rate of the country is already high compared to other countries with similar levels of per capita income.

The second leg of reform should focus on helping those who have the intellectual capacity but lack the financial resources to finance the costs of higher education. We have already witnessed how private credit and insurance markets have sought to address this problem with varying levels of success for upper middle class families. The challenge is doing the same for poor and lower middle income families.

Milton Friedman was the first to propose providing income contingent loans to students of higher education. These loans as their name suggests allow for repayments to be contingent on the borrower reaching a certain level of income. Friedman suggested governments collect repayments through the tax office. The interest rates charged to such loans would be concessionary, not market, rates to reflect the benefits that redound to the state in terms of higher income tax collections.

A case study

To explain how this system would work, let’s look at the example of Isko, a college scholar. He has the option of either paying his fees up front at a discount or deferring them through the new scheme. Even after graduating, he will not have to start repaying this loan until he starts earning a certain level of income expected of a college graduate. Once his personal income reaches this threshold, regular repayments will be deducted from his salary similar to the way withholding taxes work. This continues until his entire loan is fully repaid.

This scheme would only work for institutions that receive government subsidies. As part of the funding model, student fees are to be regulated with a cap that is set annually. Only SUCs at first will be part of this scheme, and later private HEIs that meet quality and other conditions. SUCs and HEIs will be allowed to set their tuition fees within the band prescribed. Isko might have to pay higher fees for particular courses that are more expensive to administer, but there will be a limit to what schools can charge to students as part of this scheme.

The experience of Australia which has had this system in place since the mid-90s is that students are less sensitive to price if they can postpone payment. In fact participation rose after the scheme was introduced despite the growth in fees. The Federal government is now in the process of expanding the scheme to cover vocational education.

Admittedly, the government will still have to put up the initial funds to cover student fees, but it will be creating an asset in the form of loans collectible rather than incurring new expenses. Over time, the funds initially invested will become self-sustaining. In this manner will both the state and the students be able to afford paying for the cost of higher education.

The way forward

The challenge now is to build on the earlier reforms of the Congressional Education Commission headed jointly by Sen. Edgardo Angara and Cong. Carlos Padilla which created the DepEd, TESDA and CHEd, and the Presidential Task Force for Education jointly chaired by Fr. Bienvenido Nebres and Emmanuel Angeles which reformed basic education by introducing the K-12 system.

Reforming the way the tertiary educational system is funded and financed addresses the issues of efficiency, equity, effectiveness and appropriateness. The funding model will drive efficiency among SUCs which will have to compete with each other and with private HEIs after a certain grace period. It will put a premium on courses for which graduates are in short supply, thus making training more appropriate. The financing scheme allows fees to be raised in a more rational manner, thus allowing the system to be more effective in delivering learning at a sufficient quality standard without adverse impact to student participation.

The best time to introduce such a reform would be towards the end of the Aquino administration when a gap will exist in the system as Year 10 completers head for Years 11 and 12 for the first time rather than first year college. Although that is still a few years away, there is a lot of groundwork that has to be covered before then including taking stock of the current situation, designing the new model and consulting with relevant stakeholders.

This reform can be initiated either through the legislative or executive branches of government as shown by past reforms. It is high time that they stop treating the problem of higher education with stop gap and piece meal measures. The problem will not go away simply by ignoring it. It is time to reform higher education and to do so from the ground up.

The Wrong Solution to the Right Problem

The headline read, “Poverty keeps 16% of youth aged 6 to 17 out of school” but the proposed solution was targeted at older college aged students. What’s going on?

The bill proposed by Senator Peter Cayetano seeks to provide scholarships in state universities and colleges to the top ten per cent of each high school’s graduating class. Something sounds amiss here since college students usually are aged 18 and above and the headline talks of younger students dropping out. Here is how the Senator posed the problem, according to Monday’s edition of the Manila Standard newspaper:

Cayetano, citing the Annual Poverty Indicator Survey, said 16 percent of Filipinos age six to 17 are out of school and 28.9 percent of high school graduates could not attend college because it is expensive [emphasis added].

The article seems timed for the opening of classes in the tertiary sector. It has a nice striking headline that reels you in, but reading further, you realize that it is talking about something else. The thing is there are a few factual errors in need of correction.

First off, if one goes to the website of the National Statistics Office, the source of the survey cited, one will find that in 2010 (the last year survey data has been made available) the sixteen per cent quoted by Cayetano actually refers to youth aged six to 24 (by definition, an out-of-school-youth is a family member aged 6 to 17 not attending formal school or aged 18-24 not in school, unemployed and who has not finished a post-secondary school qualification).

Second, the 28.9 per cent that say the “high cost of education” is keeping them away again refers to those aged 6-24 and not high school graduates solely. Although a higher proportion of those aged 16-24 (around 32%) say they are discouraged for this reason, that proportion is off a smaller number (4.6 million 16-24 year olds compared to 6.1 million 6-24 year olds who are OSY).

This means that there are less, about 1.45 million OSYs, who are prevented from studying due to cost, not 1.75 million as originally implied by Cayetano’s statement, and they would not all be high school graduates either or graduates of public schools for that matter as a good proportion come from the middle to upper income brackets.

If the good senator who claims to represent young Filipinos expects us to take his proposal seriously, it would do him well to get the facts straight especially since he has had time to digest them (the survey has been available at the NSO website since November of last year).

Given the inaccuracies in the interpretation of published data, I would hesitate to take the number of recipients targeted by the proposal, which is just under 25 thousand, seriously either. But suppose we were to do so, that would mean that only two per cent of the target group would be affected by the new policy, if at all given that the way the eligibility criteria is constructed, there would likely be unintended recipients receiving benefits.

Again, given the way the problem was posed, one cannot take seriously the claim that the policy will address it. It seems more like a piece of legislation aimed at gaining attention for its sponsor who is seeking re-election in May 2013 rather than a considered policy approach aimed at systematically dealing with the issue at hand.

To address the problem, one has to recognize the scale and complexity of it. First of all, in dealing with the OSY phenomenon, we need to recognize that there are other issues that may be just as important as cost. For every OSY who sees it as a barrier, there is another who disengages due to a “lack of personal interest”. Among the OSYs of primary and secondary school age, there is about a four-to-one and two-to-one ratio respectively of those who find “lack of personal interest” versus those who identify cost as the main barrier. Dealing with the cultural and social factors for this lack of interest would be just as important, if not more so, as dealing with economic factors.

Admittedly, when one goes on to the older age category, those 16 to 24 year olds, the relationship is reversed. Lack of personal interest is only 21% compared to 32% who find school too expensive. Needless to say, influencing personal tastes and preferences might be the low lying fruit that government might seek to exhaust first prior to it turning to the more vexed problem of cost.

Secondly, as cost becomes a major factor the older one gets as only one in ten OSYs aged 6-11 consider cost the main barrier to education compared to three in ten for those aged 16-24, the policy response needs to be measured in relation to the scale. Tuition, incidental and opportunity costs all increase dramatically the higher one goes up the education ladder.

If we can retain students up to Year 12, give them an alternate vocational education track that would entice those with very low personal interest in academics, provide apprenticeships in schools that make them ready for work, then they will have a fighting chance whether they pursue further education at the tertiary level or not. They will be less likely to settle for informal, low skilled, low wage employment. This is why the K-12 reform is very important.

Thirdly, as a corollary to the second point, aside from the K-12 reform, what is needed is an expansion of the coverage of CCT beyond the current band of 0-14 years of age. It is important to keep the older youth engaged in education because as our labor statistics reveal, the bulk of our unemployed are aged 15-24 years old. In 2010, there were roughly 2.9 million unemployed, and roughly 1.5 million of them or 51% were 15-24 year olds (the numbers have hardly changed since).

If these youths had been engaged in full-time study, the unemployment rate of our workforce would have halved. That is why our unemployment problem can be seen largely as a youth unemployment problem. The priority for the government is to get them engaged in full-time study if they cannot find employment.

The challenge now would be to quantify the cost associated with a youth allowance for the OSYs aged 15-24 which would be conditioned upon full-time study. I estimate there to be about five million youths in this category. Assuming that we target a third of this population (roughly the proportion of those belonging to the bottom income quintile or 1.6 million of them) and allow a more generous allowance of 750 pesos per student per month compared to 300 for primary school students (because of the increased cost of higher learning), that amounts to 15 billion pesos more to be added to the CCT budget which will be 45 billion next year. Of course, the inevitable question then becomes where to get the money. That is a topic for another conversation.

Finally, when it comes to the area of university scholarships as a part of the solution to the OSY problem, it is best to consider it within the context of tertiary education funding in general. Creating entitlements for one group of students without providing for the necessary funding inevitably means forcing institutions of higher learning to charge greater fees to the rest of their students. Would that be a fair and equitable thing to do? Again, that discussion opens a whole new can of worms, which is meant for another day.

Let me conclude this by saying that the short-sighted thing to do would be to consider further education purely a cost, without realizing that a more educated, highly skilled workforce in today’s technology driven world is an asset that pays off for society in the long-run. At least in quantifying the problem properly, we are able to see whether any proposed solution would make a dent in it; and clearly, the one put on the table by Senator Peter Cayetano misses the mark.

Letter to Sen. Escudero

Sen. Francis Escudero, the most loquacious member, ever, of the Judicial Bar Council (JBC) expressed misgivings about the wisdom of the minimum age requirement for Chief Justice. 40.

    “Isipin mo, kulang-kulang tatlong dekada uupo ‘yon doon, maliban na lamang kung mamamatay, magkakasakit, o mai-impeach. Ang dapat timbangin ng JBC at ni Pangulong Aquino, gusto ba natin gano’n katagal?”

Oo nga, noh? Hmmm (thinking)…(30 seconds pass)…. scalding hot coffee goes shooting out of my nose.

Hence this short letter to the senator from my hospital bed in the intensive care unit for burn victims in St. Lucky’s Medical Center (SLMC).

Dear Sir Chiz,

Mawalang galang lang poh pero tinimbang na yan tanong ninyo 25 years ago. Everyone agreed way back then that 15 years experience as a judge in a lower court or as a practicing lawyer, in addition to being a natural-born Filipino between the ages of 40 and 70, meets the minimum requirement for membership in the Supreme Court. Sa madaling salita, if you can become an associate justice at age 40, you can also become a Chief Justice at age 40. Peryod na yan sana but now you’re arguing that the age of a candidate for Chief Justice still merits serious consideration.

    “It (age) has advantages and disadvantages, which you really have to consider holistically. If you’re after stability and predictability of decisions of the Court that will last a long time, then perhaps, you might want to go for that [a 40 year old Chief Justice)] if you’re after a new perspective every once in a while and not tie the hands of the next President and be bound by the choice of this President for the next four to five Presidents, that will be subject to the exercise of the President’s wisdom and in a way the discretion of the JBC as well.”

Ang galing mo naman mag-Photoshop. You made stability and predictability, qualities valued by anyone whose horizon extends beyond election cycles, look like chains and you turned flip-flopping or, as you call it, “a new perspective every once in a while”, into a cool glass of reinvigorating freshly-squeezed orange juice.

Let it go, Sir Chiz. Focus on “proven competence, integrity, probity, and independence” and not age. There is no formula to figure out the ideal shelf-life for a Chief Justice anyway. Just deal with the known and the knowable, do not start arguments over the unknowable. Buckle down to the work ahead. You have to go through resumés, do face-to-face interviews, and evaluate inputs from those who have something to say about the nominees.

Your work is very important, don’t trivialize it. President Aquino cannot appoint anyone outside the shortlist of nominees that you will submit to him. Thus, his wisdom is limited by your wisdom, his discretion by your discretion. He cannot rise above your level even if he wants to because it is forbidden by the Constitution. So do your job well or it’s going to be garbage in, garbage out. Kawawa naman kami.

I was going to comment on your proposal that nominees for Chief Justice waive their right to secrecy but Senate President Juan Ponce Enrile beat me to it. He said you’re grandstanding.

    “Masyado naman yatang OA ‘yun. It’s like telling the nominee we do not trust him so he needs to waive his right. It’s like telling would-be public servants we do not trust them.  Maybe it would be better to just dissolve the republic. There is no hope if we do not trust our elected and appointed officials occupying powerful positions.”

Okay, medyo nag over-react din si Enrile. Sobra nga naman yung “just dissolve the republic.” But essentially he’s right. OA ka talaga because we can have transparency without treating those who want to serve as suspects. But I digress. Let’s go back to the top.

Sir Chiz, your job is to submit a short-list to the president. That’s it. Why can’t you do it QUIETLY for crying out loud? Far too many nostrils get scalded every time you open your mouth.

Still having to breathe through my mouth but hugs and kisses anyway,

MB

PS. SLMC will forward my medical bills to your office. Thanks in advance.

How to Become a Philippine Senator

The latest survey covering the 2013 senate race shows that of those ranked among the top twenty five contenders for the thirteen senate seats, eighteen are related to a senator (either incumbent or retired) or official of equal importance. They are:

• Chiz Escudero (son of former MP and agriculture minister Sonny Escudero),

• Peter Cayetano (son of former senator Rene Cayetano),

• Jack Enrile (son of the current senate president Juan Ponce Enrile),

• Mar Roxas (son of a former senator Gerry Roxas and grandson of a former president Manuel Roxas),

• Koko Pimentel (son of former senator Nene Pimentel),

• JV Ejercito (son of former president Erap Estrada),

• Sonny Angara (son of current senator Ed Angara),

• Nancy Binay (daughter of the current vice president Jojo Binay),

• Cynthia Villar (wife of current senator Manny Villar),

• Ruffy Biazon (son of former senator Pong Biazon),

• Joey De Venecia (son of former speaker of the house Jose De Venecia),

• Vilma Santos (wife of current senator Ralph Recto),

• Mark Lapid (son of current senator Lito Lapid),

• Imee Marcos (daughter of former president Ferdinand Marcos),

• Grace Poe (daughter of presidential contender Fernando Poe, Jr whose supporters claim should have won the 2004 elections),

• Lani Mercado-Revilla (wife of current senator Bong Revilla and daughter in law of his father, former senator, Ramon Revilla),

• Risa Hontiveros (a grandchild of Jose Hontiveros, a senator during the American Commonwealth period), and

• Mitos Magsaysay (who married into the clan of former president Ramon Magsaysay).

Of those listed above, three, namely Escudero, Cayetano and Roxas, are seeking re-election to the senate. In this regard, they share similar circumstances with Loren Legarda, Gringo Honasan, Sonny Trillanes, Migz Zubiri, Jamby Madrigal, Dick Gordon and Ernesto Maceda. This means ten of the top twenty five have already had a crack at occupying a seat in the senate. Never before has the power of incumbency been so potent. Never before has the upper house become so incestuous.

Of those who comprise the top tier of candidates who have built their own careers as self-made individuals, two are former military rebels, Honasan and Trillanes, while two gained their fame from the media, Legarda and Santos (in fact one could argue it was the celebrity of Ate Vi that catapulted her husband to the senate, not the other way around). Similarly Madrigal, Zubiri and Escudero benefited greatly from their show biz connections.

One could argue that many of the second or third generation candidates earned their prominence through their own efforts having applied themselves in gaining very respectable academic and professional credentials and careers. That may be true, and no one can argue that they didn’t work hard to attain these, but of course, had they not been born into very prominent families, they probably would not have had the precious life opportunities that were available to them.

If this trend in our electoral politics tells us anything, it is that power is increasingly being concentrated in the hands of a few. To join the exclusive club, one has to either marry or be born into it. Only media personalities and telegenic soldiers covered by the media during adventurist uprisings have been able to enter into this inner sanctum.

Indeed the upper chamber of congress is turning into a house of lords. Although educated and enlightened some of them might be, it does not negate the fact that the gene pool of senators is becoming smaller and smaller as the population of our country gets ever larger. If evidence was needed to show that the Philippines required some form of political reform, then look no further than this.

Or perhaps I am being too harsh. The senate race is after all an open contest open to all. What is going on is just some sort of natural selection where only the fittest survive. In the rough and tumble world of Philippine politics, what we get in these races is what the people decide. To go against their wishes would not be democratic, right? Why shouldn’t we allow this current state of affairs to continue?

Even if the constitution has an anti-dynasty provision, good luck with trying to get an enabling law through the dynastic congress. There is the cultural argument against change. We Filipinos put our trust in families and the personalities behind them, not political parties or institutions. Any attempt at changing the rules of the game would be undermined by this reality.

Even if we changed the way we voted for our executive and legislative branches, from first past the post to say a party-list, proportional, preferential, or some other voting system, nothing would prevent families from dominating the parties vying for elective office as well.

State funding of political parties would be another avenue to approach the strengthening of these institutions, but again the problem is that families do dominate our existing parties. Nothing would prevent them from using the funds for their own campaigns.

What harm will it do if power is concentrated on fewer and fewer families? Who cares if we resemble an oligarchy rather than a meritocracy? Well, we only need to look at the plight of land reform beneficiaries in our country to see what the repercussions are.