That Vision Thing Redux: Wang-Wang Culture

In tackling wang-wang culture, has the president left something big out?

The president in his new found role as Sociologist in Chief spoke at his second State of the Nation Address about his vision for a nation free of what he described as a culture of wang-wang (blaring sirens symbolic of entitlement and abuse of privilege). His use of vernacular terms since his inaugural address in getting his message across has won him praise from even handed critics all around.

Those familiar with the business of vision building tell us that leaders should be adept at crafting a story or narrative that creates a sense of shared meaning and purpose for their followers. In this case, PNoy was delivering the “red meat” to his core constituents, those that saw in him the moral authority to bring about change to the culture of impunity that prevailed under the former dispensation.

Having recommitted his government to that cause, PNoy entreated his listeners to give him and the government he leads a pat on the proverbial back, to acknowledge its endeavors at fulfilling this corporate dream. That already seems to be the case. In fact as Mahar Mangahas points out, PNoy’s administration is the most popular one since public polling began (the distinction to be made is that this applies to his government as opposed to his person which is receiving the same treatment from the public as presidents past).

While the president’s speech was rightly praised by some for its lofty rhetoric, it has by the same token been criticized for being short on actual policy substance or consistency. When I say “some”, I mean respected commentators like economist Solita Monsod, sociologist Randy David and businessman Roberto De Ocampo to name a few.

Monsod criticized PNoy for failing to at least mention in passing his roadmap for delivering his vision, the Philippine Development Plan and for perhaps unwittingly committing intellectual dishonesty with leaps of logic and faulty use of statistics in attributing many positive developments to his good government agenda.

David goes even further and questions the roadmap itself for following the same orthodoxies and applying new buzzwords such as “inclusive growth” as a mantra without even a slight attempt to tweak these orthodoxies given their dismal record. The absence of the PDP in the president’s speech according to Monsod belies a view either on the part of the president or his men that it will have any impact on our development.

Indeed while the PDP projects a growth rate of 7-8% for the country in the next five years, the actual budget planning follows a lower set of growth assumptions of 5-6% in forecasting its revenue and spending plans. This exposes the roadmap as an aspirational one, where the budget figures show the real picture.

The need for tweaking

A strange quarter to find a critique against the business community came from one of its own in the person of De Ocampo who picked up the cudgels for competition policy given the doubling of locals in the Forbes billionaire club and the risk that such powerful business interests could swamp any attempt by this government to create a level playing field, citing the PPP program as one potential fatality.

If you look at why the government is unable to shore up its finances, it is largely because self-employed entrepreneurs and professionals and large dominant family-based corporations have successfully avoided paying their fair share of taxes. In a previous post, I cited the figures of the BIR and a study performed by finance economist Renato Reside that showed that the combined losses from non-tax compliance and abuse of fiscal incentives as well as watered down sin taxes could easily close the budget deficit of 286 billion this year.

Having trained his guns on the wang-wang mentality in government, particularly at his predecessor who according to Mangahas led the most unpopular government since public polling records were kept, the president went a little too easy on the well-heeled classes when he identified a glaring inaccuracy in their collective tax payments.

In fact this follows his performance at the Makati Business Club while he was still running for the highest office when he vowed to avoid raising taxes. The president appealed to them at his SONA however to take his honest attempts at creating public faith in government as an assurance that their tax payments would be used properly which he hoped would lead them to be more forthcoming in declaring their taxable incomes.

The problem may not lie just in appealing to a sense of common values. It might actually require in De Ocampo’s words “structural adjustments” a fancy word for fundamental changes in policy and approach. For example, the businesses that now avail of incentives from the BOI and PEZA while failing to follow-through on their investment commitments need to have their tax privileges stripped from them.

Tighter policies and enforcement means renovating our economic bureaucracy. A lack of teeth in enforcing the terms of fiscal incentives led to the failure of the import-substitution industrial policies of the 1950s and 60s. Just as an aside, my father who was in the banking industry in those days would later recount to me how he would often see the head of one bank bringing in sacks full of money after auctioning the import licenses issued by the Central Bank to supposed importers of capital goods meant for industrial production. It went instead to importers of finished goods who made a killing by avoiding tariffs on those items.

Today, the same sort of things is undermining our export promotion strategy where supposed exporters in our business parks and economic zones are able to avoid paying taxes, customs and duties while at the same time selling up to 50% of their output to the domestic market. This is outrageous because it creates an unfair advantage for them against smaller and medium sized competitors.

The real righteous road

Instead of taking a half measure by targeting abuse of authority in government alone, the president needs to focus as well on rent-seeking by private interests. Indeed if you stacked up all the alleged stolen wealth uncovered in the last twenty years, this would not hold a flame next to the amount of rents the business elite have been able to extract from the state during that time. Both are two sides of the coin, except that the latter form of wang-wang is legal, while the former is illegal.

At the risk of being lumped together with the “move on” crowd, I have to say that if the president wants to eliminate wang-wang culture in its entirety, he needs to broaden his vision and take the full-measure of targeting this culture wherever it may reside, be it in the corridors of power or the board rooms of our country’s business elite.

This is not about being forgetful of the sins of his predecessors; it is about being mindful that there are even larger sins being committed by powerful interests that are going on unnoticed. These same interests are able to switch allegiances with the changing tide of public opinion in the political arena.

It is easy to flog a dead horse. It is harder to go after the more prevalent and persistent forces that are alive and kicking. The president needs to take his carefully crafted vision of a country rid of wang-wang culture and turn it into a more comprehensive strategy. He will obviously need to take a balanced and considered approach as he doesn’t want to spook the horses so to speak.

The very essence of the social contract or grand bargain is to maintain the sources of growth, but to allow the more productive sectors to contribute an increasing portion of the proceeds of that growth to help the underclasses who lose out of the growth for whatever reason.

Walking the walk

Talking the talk is one thing, but if he wants to walk the walk, he might have to start with his own family interests. The Hacienda Luisita case could turn into a powerful device for demonstrating his commitment to the righteous path if the government is successful in fulfilling the true letter and spirit of the CARPeR law which would mean distributing land titles to the tillers of the Cojuangco estate. This would set PNoy apart as a leader who remained true to his word.

What would bolster his case even more is if he gets rid of his style of dealing with his KKK (classmates, friends and cronies) and instituted a true meritocracy in his team. Finally, he needs to strengthen the economic bureaucracy by instituting reforms in the way it is staffed and resourced.

A developmental state requires lead agencies that are engaged with but at the same time insulated from the influence of powerful business interests to prevent them from abusing the system. It is one thing to name and shame a group of delinquent taxpayers or to announce a policy of monitoring investment commitments, but the agencies concerned need to have sufficient resources to go out and conduct thorough audits on their clients.

A change in the wang-wang culture in all its shapes and forms requires not only a revamping of our moral and spiritual furniture as a nation, it will require a fundamental renovation of our economic strategy and bureaucracy. The president can leverage the cult of his personality to push for solid long-lasting reforms in this regard. That is if he would only recognize where the true wang-wang culture resides.

Revisit the original series: That Vision Thing starting here.

Budget 2012: How it all stacks up

Among the nations in the developed world that follow in the Westminster parliamentary tradition, the most eagerly anticipated policy speech by the government is not the state of the nation address but the budget speech.

The budget tackles not only the spending side, you see, but the tax side as well. On budget night, citizens find out if they are to get some form of tax relief. They also look for any additional spending on things they directly benefit from, like schools, hospitals or infrastructure.

The rich nations that make up the OECD (Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development) have varying levels of taxation. The Scandinavians typically tax more and provide a high degree of social insurance and welfare. The Anglo-American nations of the UK, US and Ireland tend to have lower taxes but provide a smaller safety net for their people.

Australia, the nation I am most familiar with seems to have the best of both worlds, with a tax take much lower compared to the Nordic countries but providing a level of social insurance and welfare comparable to them. That is because its tax and spend policies are some of the most progressive in the world.

Australia spends about 16 per cent of GDP on cash benefits (pensions, unemployment insurance, healthcare and community services) compared to an OECD average of just over 19 per cent. It is able to keep this expenditure down by means-testing benefits enabling it to target spending on those that most need it. Its tax take is about 27 per cent of GDP compared to an OECD average of close to 35 per cent. It is the sixth lowest-taxing country in that group.

Rich country, poor country

It is perhaps in this light that we need to focus on the Philippine tax and spend situation. Most poor countries are able to generate only as much as 20% of GDP from their tax systems. Yet the demand for public service is much higher than in advanced economies. The Philippines is no exception.

In 2012, the government projects it will generate about 1.5 trillion pesos worth of revenue out of a domestic economy that is expected to reach 11 trillion or about 13.6% of GDP. In the current year 2011, the government projects to earn 1.4 trillion out of an economy of 9.9 trillion or 14.2% of GDP. In 2010, the ratio was 13.3% (based on DBM papers).

In 2012, due to its low tax take and with a budget of 1.8 trillion, the government will incur a deficit of 286 Billion (up from the original 260 B) or 2.6% of GDP. That is compared to its projected deficit in 2011 of 300 Billion worth 3% of GDP and 314.5 Billion for 2010 or 3.5% of GDP.

Social services which include education, health, housing and land distribution are programmed to consume 556.2 billion pesos or 30% in 2012. That compares with 529 Billion in the current year equal to 31% of the budget in 2011 and 399.3 billion in 2010 worth 26.2% of that year’s total spend.

Among the social services, education takes the largest share. Next year it will amount to 309 billion or about 2.8% of GDP. This is up slightly from 2011 which was 272 Billion or 2.7% of GDP and from 2010 which was 225 billion or 2.5% of GDP. By contrast, Singapore and Thailand spend anywhere from 3.5-4% of GDP on education. Malaysia spends from 5-6%. If we were to match Thailand’s education to GDP ratio, we would need to spend an additional 70 billion on education.

As for health, next year’s budget includes 59 billion or 0.5% of GDP, up from 48 billion in the current year (0.48%) and 36 billion last year (0.39%). In contrast, Singapore spends about 0.9-1.5% of GDP, while Malaysia spends 1.8%, and Thailand 1.2-3%. If we were to match Singapore’s ratio, we would need to spend about 40 billion more on health.

Finally in housing, the 2012 budget contains 14.5 billion worth of spending or 0.13% of GDP compared to the current year’s 21 billion (0.2%) and 12 billion (0.13%) from 2010. Singapore by contrast spends about 1.8-2.5% on housing. Malaysia spends 0.3-0.6%, and Thailand spends 0.5-1%. If we were to simply match Malaysia, we would need to double our current spend by another 14 billion.

Living within our means

Judging from the magnitudes and ratios alone, we can plainly see that the country will continue to lag behind its neighbors in the region when it comes to providing basic social services for its citizens. As a result, it has much higher levels of poverty and inequality and lower levels of human development among the ASEAN-5.

If you take out the possibility of tax reform, “living within our means” confines the budget department to look for savings and improve the structure or mix of spending to improve the quality of the spend rather than the quantity. Past studies have shown that our education spending is already quite progressive, while that of our health sector tends to be regressive with its focus on the tertiary hospitals in urban centers rather than on primary healthcare in the community.

Certainly, there are opportunities to improve the progressivity of our spending program in health. One problem is that our health system follows the model in the US, Europe and Japan which relies of specific contributions. Those who earn more tend to receive higher reimbursements. While in Australia, health expenditures are financed from income taxes, but then are spent in a more egalitarian way by means-testing recipients so that those who earn more tend to pay more out of pockets than those who earn less.

Can afford more

The orthodoxy of constraining the budget because we have to live within our means can of course be challenged by simply asking the question, can society afford to pay more?

From his State of the Nation Address, the president hinted that we probably could afford to pay more when he cited to his own disbelief the close to two million self-employed entrepreneurs and professionals who declare incomes beneath the minimum wage. The BIR has said subsequently that it believes that the current 10 billion raised from these individuals should actually be about 100 billion.

Aside from professionals and self-employed individuals, the corporate sector might also afford to pay more. That is according to a five year old study by Dr. Renato Reside. His work showed that a very low correlation between investments approved by the BOI and PEZA with actual capital formation in all regions except Regions 4 and 7. He concluded that since investments did not materialize companies were simply using their fiscal incentive privileges to engage in tax avoidance. The recipients of such incentives read like a who’s who of Philippine business elite according to Dr Ben Diokno.

Because companies under this scheme are also allowed to sell as much as 50% of the goods they produce to the domestic market, Dr Reside also believes that much revenue is lost. According to him, back in 2004, we were losing as much as 59 billion pesos from revenues on imported capital goods, 135 billion on imported raw materials, 10.5 billion on the use of domestic capital goods, and 44 billion on income tax holidays provided to these so called exporters. If even half of these were recoverd, it would be an additional 125 billion in revenues.

Another form of tax incentive is provided to sin products because of the non-indexation of taxes imposed on them. It is an incentive because every year the prices of these products go up, but the taxes imposed on them don’t. Government revenues are eroded over time. By gradually increasing the taxes along with the rise of prices in general, the additional revenues from sin products estimated to be as much as 70 billion annually could help beef up our infrastructure which in 2012 will be 270 billion a mere 2.5% of expected GDP.

Indeed, from the combined tax breaks given to entrepreneurs, professionals and corporations, our society could afford to bridge the gap in social as well as economic infrastructure. We could become a more inclusive society. With a combination of better policies and stricter enforcement in revenue and incentive granting agencies, by renovating our economic bureaucracy, we could produce a more progressive tax and spend system.

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