Here we go again. As the Philippines enters 2012, the stage is set for another round of reality TV/courtroom drama to unfold as the trials of former president and now congresswoman (FPANC?) Gloria Arroyo and her minions get underway.
Despite the political, economic and natural disturbances that visited the country last year, President Noynoy Aquino (P-Noy) ended last year cresting on a wave of popularity as evidenced by his public poll figures. Depending on which side of the debate you are on, 2011 proved to be either a very productive or very unproductive year for the country.
For those seeking to go after FPANC Arroyo and her proxies, 2011 yielded a very rich bag of goodies. The body count of former Arroyo allies piled up during the year to include: one former armed forces chief of staff (who fell on his sword), the ombudsman and a junior senator (who both resigned), an anti-insurgent general (on the run and in hiding) and several police officials, and the former Comelec Chair, current Chief Justice, and the former first gentleman himself (who are all awaiting trial). To the faithful, P-Noy promises many more scalps, including some associate justices of the Supreme Court appointed by Mrs Arroyo.
To those looking for a steady hand on the till to manage the economy, 2011 left much to be desired. I won’t go into all the details. One only needs to look at the slowing GDP growth figures. Employment generation may have been robust and inflation might have been under control, but this can be attributed mostly to the prudent handling of monetary policy by the Bangko Sentral, not the administration.
As one of the worst cyclones in living memory devastated northern Mindanao, the president too weathered some criticism over his response to the crisis. Such criticisms however were easily swept away with the torrent of foreign assistance and soft loans offered by the international community in the wake of the incident and the public outpouring of solidarity for the victims during the Christmas season.
Finally, to those seeking for “space” to allow our institutions to recover from the constitutional and legal brinkmanship that occupied the nation’s attention during the nine years of the Arroyo presidency, 2011 provided no respite from the political derby. The current lull in hostilities between the competing forces of the Aquino and Arroyo camps only offers them a chance to brace for the bumpy ride that is about to ensue.
The task of any rational observer of these events is not so much to determine who is right and who is wrong. As Daniel Kahneman, the father of behavioral economics wrote,
Our preferences are about framed problems, and our moral intuitions are about descriptions, not about substance.
Was the government’s treatment of Mrs Arroyo and Chief Justice Corona fair? The answer depends on how you frame the problem. If it is about making her ‘accountable’ for her actions, then the answer would be, ‘yes’. If it is about adhering to the principles of separation of powers and the rule of law, the answer according to many legal peak bodies is ‘no’.
Is the government doing a good job? Again, that depends on the mental frame. If it is about ‘restoring faith and trust’ then, we would have to answer in the affirmative. But if it is about delivering the fruits of development in an experiential manner, then we would have to answer in the negative as far as fiscal spending is concerned.
As for the continued confidence the public expresses through polls in the president, one would have to conclude either they agree with the way he has been running the country or that Filipinos are extremely overconfident and optimistic about his prospects despite a lack of tangible results.
A study by Kahneman and Richard Thaler (the co-author of Nudge, which is the how-to book of applying behavioral economics to public policy) into fairness in economic transactions offers us a clue as to why P-Noy’s number remain above the clouds. As Kahneman explains,
Remarkably, altruistic punishment is accompanied by increased activity in the “pleasure centers” of the brain. It appears that maintaining social order and the rules of fairness in this fashion is its own reward.
What this means is that bringing the Arroyos and their ilk to justice provides just as much utility to a majority of Filipinos as milk and honey. In other words, they are engaged and have decided to go along with P-Noy on the “joyride” down the high road of Daang Matuwid.
The problem is that sacrificing actual bread and butter issues for “mental stimulation” could prove destructive down the road, especially given the length of time that would be required to complete the journey. This is perhaps where the exuberance and overconfidence argument sets in.
Currently, the plan is to impeach not just the chief justice but a majority of his associates on the bench appointed by Mrs Arroyo. With the Supreme Court set to weigh in on whether the articles of impeachment were signed by the congressmen under duress, it seems unlikely whether the trial of the chief justice could be wrapped up in the three to six months originally projected by one senator-juror.
Despite calls for the CJ to go “softly into the night” and rumors of two associates willing to retire early of their own accord, it seems unlikely that they will. Even if the CJ were convicted and the two rumored justices resigned in the coming year, the Arroyo appointees would still hold a majority. Three more justices would have to be impeached to gain a comfortable margin for P-Noy in the high court.
Assuming an average of six months each (an optimistic assumption) to impeach and try the CJ and three other justices along with the heroic assumption that two would go voluntarily in the interim, it would take another 24 months to finish the task. Insert a six month period in between as 2013 is an election year, and that means middle of 2014 would be the soonest possible date for P-Noy to “clear the decks”. That leaves him one year to push his “reforms” as the last twelve months of his presidency from July 2015 to June 2016 is a lame duck period.
According to P-Noy, the Arroyo influenced Supreme Court is standing in its way preventing major “reforms”. Talk of “original sin” has alluded to this. If that is truly the case, then the nation will have to wait until late into the Aquino II presidency before anything gets accomplished. The fact that they have succumbed to a kind of “confidence bias” in predicting when this will be has led them to view P-Noy’s presidency with favor (a case of irrational exuberance?).
Another warning to those entertaining such stroking of the nation’s erogenous zones again comes from Kahneman who tells us that
Other classic studies showed that electrical stimulation of specific areas in the rat brain (and of corresponding areas in the human brain) produce a sensation of intense pleasure, so intense in some cases that rats who can stimulate their brain by pressing a lever will die of starvation without taking a break to feed themselves.
Indeed, taking the need to fulfill some sense of fairness or altruistic justice to the extreme could cause the nation to be mesmerized, intoxicated with the chemicals that stimulate those “pleasure zones” in the brain. At some point, however, either the powerful effect of this stimulant could wear off or millions of our countrymen could follow the trajectory of these lab rats, withering away, unable to wean themselves off the steady drip of anti-Arroyo mania.