Has PNoy’s righteous path unintentionally led to more misery?
In 1973, a book co-authored by public policy guru Aaron Wildavsky was published. It had a very verbose title that read: Implementation: How Great Expectations in Washington are Dashed in Oakland; Or Why It’s Amazing that Federal Programs Work At All; This Being a Saga of the Economic Development Administration by Two Sympathetic Observers Who Seek to Build Morals on a Foundation of Ruined Hopes.
The book examined the EDA, an agency that still exists today and is located within the US Department of Commerce to show how policies conceived with the best of intentions at the top, get corrupted and bungled on the way to implementation. It is a cautionary tale on the limits of idealism and noble intentions, a vivid exposition of that oft repeated phrase that the road to hell is paved with good intentions.
There can be no more apt way to depict the manner the PNoy presidency has conducted itself during its first year in office. The Filipino equivalent, which goes, maraming namamatay sa maling akala (or many perish because of false assumptions), also rings true. The president to be sure entered the Palace with nothing but the best of intentions propelled by the highest hopes of the people with a vision for
a re-awakened sense of right and wrong, through the living examples of our highest leaders…a collective belief that doing the right thing does not only make sense morally, but translates into economic value as well (from the Liberal Party’s Social Contract).
The movement that had pushed him to enter the derby wanted a person whose reputation would contrast with the existing field. The election was to be framed as a contest between Good and Evil, Light and Darkness, anchored on the moral superiority of their cause.
When he announced his candidacy, Benigno “Noynoy” Aquino used the words of an admirer to capture the moment, in that “we can finally dare to have hope once more.” He was declared the Philippine equivalent of Barrack Obama, whose book The Audacity of Hope inspired the 2008 presidential campaign slogan, Change We Can Believe In.
At his inaugural, the Benign One pledged that
(t)hrough good governance in the coming years, we will lessen our problems. The destiny of the Filipino will return to its rightful place, and as each year passes, the Filipino’s problems will continue to lessen with the assurance of progress in their lives.
During his first formal address to Congress, the president stated that the nation faced a fork in the road. On the one hand was the quick and easy path that led to destruction, while on the other was the long and arduous one that led to deliverance. He pledged to take the nation straight down the Righteous Path or Daang Matuwid.
In his first budget statement, he fulfilled a campaign pledge to institute a zero-based budgeting approach to weed out anomalous projects and programs. Only those considered necessary and above board would receive funding. On balance it was a frugal budget, less than 2% above the previous year’s before accounting for inflation, which meant that he had effectively shrank the government. This was meant to give himself a fighting chance to fulfill his “no new taxes” pledge to businessmen at the big end of town.
All of this was in keeping with the vision for a country with a new set of morals that would translate into economic value.
At the halfway mark of his first year in December last year, a number of positive trends seemed to indicate a very auspicious start to the president’s term. The growth momentum experienced in the first half of the year seemed to have carried through in the latter half.
Fast forward two quarters to today and all of the indicators seem to be pointing downwards. Not only has investor confidence been a bit more sanguine and consumer confidence turned sour, but poverty and hunger seem to be on the rise along with unemployment. Some of these headwinds are caused by external events like the uprisings in the Middle East and natural disasters in New Zealand and Japan, but could they also be self-inflicted handicaps?
What’s going on?
Well it seems that in their bid to control government waste and corruption, the administration has unintentionally created a situation where much of its programmed spending was held back (up to 20% in the first quarter alone). The massive withholding of spending amounting to close to 70 billion pesos in the first four months of the year (which when we factor in negative multiplier effects is really around 100-150 billion pesos or 1-1.5% of GDP) appears to have had an adverse impact as contractors stopped hiring and in fact layed off more workers.
This occurs at a time of rising cost of living presssures and as a fresh batch of new graduates are about to join the labor market. Despite spending more on conditional cash grants to alleviate the plight of the poor, the actions of the palace seems to have made life much worse for many of them. The government in effect seems to be giving with one hand while taking away with the other.
It seems that in seeking to treat the symptoms of moral degradation and heal the body politic, PNoy forgot the first maxim of the Hyppocratic Oath, which is to do no harm. Indeed as it nears the end of its first year in office, the government of the Benign One appears to have very little to show for its posturing on institution building and bringing about greater economic benefits of a cleaner, moral government: perhaps a case of great expectations dashed once more.