conrado de quiros

Lies, Damned Lies and Statistics: Or why De Quiros is a bit of a crank

In his two most recent op-ed pieces published successively in the Inquirer between Monday and Tuesday this week, Conrado De Quiros proves why his writing should be taken with a grain of salt.

Apologist

In Repetitions, Mr De Quiros talks of parallels between the two Aquino administrations and uses the argument that history may be repeating itself against those who despair at the current lackluster performance of PNoy in his freshman year. The implicit parallelism here is between the Marcos and Arroyo loyalists who claim that life deteriorated under their successors.

De Quiros uses a number of “lies, damned lies and statistics” in making his case. These fibs undermine his credibility. He states first of all that

(o)ne year after he came to power, the Gloria Macapagal Arroyo (GMA) loyalists are out saying how things have gotten worse from GMA’s time. Proof of it is that unemployment is rife, prices are higher and the hungry are getting hungrier. And they have the figures to show it.
What they forget to say is that Gloria borrowed more than Tabako (President Fidel V. Ramos) and Erap (President Joseph Estrada) combined in the course of her long, vicious and illegitimate rule from January 2001 to May 2010 which did not keep prices from soaring anyway, and which debt has added immeasurably to an already gigantic one the people are paying during P-Noy’s time and will continue to pay well past P-Noy’s time.

Ok, let us subject the first part of the argument to the Truth-o-meter. What was the level of external debt during the presidencies of Messrs Ramos and Estrada in contrast to Madame Arroyo? The chart below is taken from World Bank data which is hosted on Google Data Explorer.

It shows that the total external debt stock in 1991 prior to the election of Pres Ramos stood at 32.5 billion current US dollars. In 2000, the year before Mrs Arroyo succeeded Mr Estrada in office it rose to 58.3 billion dollars. That is a jump of about 25.8 billion. In 2009, the year before Mrs Arroyo handed power to Mr Aquino, the total external debt stock was 62.9 billion dollars or an increase of a mere 4.6 billion!

So on point one, Mr De Quiros’s claim that GMA had borrowed more than Messrs Ramos and Estrada combined is not only untrue, it misses the truth by a longshot. The growth of debt during the latter was 5.6 times more than under the former.

Let us examine the second part of the argument about price inflation under the Arroyo administration. The chart below shows inflation from the same data source. I am afraid that again in this case, the data conflicts with De Quiros’s claim. It shows that under GMA, inflation was tame. The country experienced some of the lowest price rises that it experienced since the 1970s, much of this is a result of the economic reforms instituted since the mid-80s of course.

So on point two, once again Mr De Quiros is caught fiddling with the truth.

Moving on to the rest of his argument, De Quiros states that

The economy Gloria left to P-Noy is not a rundown restaurant that has been sold to a new owner who with unlimited funds can renovate it and open with the sign, “Under new management.” It is a horse that has been starved and flogged to near-death and bequeathed to an impoverished nephew by a good-for-nothing aunt upon her death. You cannot make that horse spring back to life overnight, especially when it’s all you can do to keep body and soul together. It will take a great deal of nursing to make it so. Along with a great deal of cursing the departed.

You can’t blame everything that is wrong with the economy on Gloria. But you can, and ought to, blame her for a great deal. The people of this country did not start getting unemployed during P-Noy’s time, they started getting unemployed during Gloria’s time. Hell, they started getting hungry—yet another statistic a few months ago said people had gotten hungry of late—during Gloria’s time, as a result of abandoning the farmers completely and relying on importations of rice. And stealing billions of bukols along with the rice.
Gloria is the cause, this is the effect.

So, to verify these claims, let us look first of all at the level of income during Mrs Arroyo’s presidency. The chart here shows that per capita incomes grew quite rapidly and consistently for the most part during her term from $899 in 2001 to $1,752 in 2009, an increase of about 95%.

In a comparable period from 1991 to 2001, GDP per capita only rose from $710 to $899 or an increase of a mere 27%. Again, it seems that calling the economy a rundown hand-me-down does not seem appropriate.

Well, you might say, De Quiros is really talking about the hardships suffered by the most marginal sectors of society getting worse under Mrs Arroyo. So, let us examine the income share of the poorest quintile of the population in the following chart.

We find here that the lowest 20% of the population had a 6.5% share of total income in 1988 and this dropped down to 5.36% in 1997 and remained steady at 5.37% in 2000. From there it rose to 5.6% in 2006 where the time series stops. So it seems that for the greater part of GMA’s term, the decline was arrested. The time series unfortunately ends there, right before the surge of rice importation.

As a sidebar, it is worth noting that the economic liberalization instituted since the mid-80s as prodded by the Washington Consensus may have moderated inflation but failed to provide protection to the most vulnerable. Mrs Arroyo’s rice program was also aimed at limiting the effects of price rises, but may have impacted the farming sector adversely. In that case, it was simply extending the existing policies further.

Revisionist

In Visions and Revisions, the second thesis of De Quiros is a stab at economic revisionism. His very first line exposes him to this charge:

P-noy isn’t making things worse, economically or otherwise, but he’s missing a lot of chances to make things better.

Unfortunately, the first quarter results say otherwise. The latest 4.9% GDP growth figure reported by the National Statistical Coordination Board, while nothing to sneeze at, was at the lower end of the expected range that analysts had predicted of between 4.8% and 5.6%. It was almost half the 8.4% growth registered in the same period of the previous year under Mrs Arroyo and a far cry from the government’s own target of 7-8% for the year. Given the recent tweaking of the way GDP is computed, the growth rate of 4.9% is actually higher than it would have been under the previous method.

PNoy tried to remain upbeat and blame the less than targeted performance on economic headwinds coming from conflicts in the Middle East and North African region as well as natural disasters closer to home. He also sought to paint a favorable picture by comparing it to the milder growth experienced by our ASEAN neighbors.

What he conveniently failed to mention was that the growth could have been higher had his government not contracted spending by 17%. Today’s banner headline of the Businessworld says it all, Underspending Curbs Growth. What this means is that the higher unemployment, hunger and poverty reported during the period is partly the government’s doing.

None other than Budget Sec Buth Abad confirmed that the first quarter was “not regular” in that government spending slowed as a result of project costings being reviewed. While he claims they can play catch up during the remainder of the year, Prof Ben Diokno, a former budget secretary, and Gov Joey Salceda, a former analyst and political advisor to Mrs Arroyo think otherwise.

Unfortunately, not only is “PNoy missing a lot of chances to make things better”, he is also “making things worse, economically”. No amount of economic revisionism can change that fact.

In bolstering his claims, Mr De Quiros needs to steer away from using spurious statistics. He has failed the truth-o-meter on all counts. Such flagrant misrepresentations do not aid his cause one bit. They merely expose the hollowness of his arguments.

Principle or politics?

The policy elite continue to give President Aquino the benefit of the doubt as a stream of bad news regarding the state of the nation hit the headlines in the last couple of weeks.

A series of indicators seemed to point to the deteriorating state of governance in the country. Despite all this, expert commentators continue to give consideration to what they see as the genuine desire of the president to steer the ship of state safely through the rough seas. In the space of a few weeks, a number of surveys uncovered a not too rosy picture of the country. In quick succession the following came up:

To the policy elites, these reports would certainly be disconcerting as the consensus has formed that the actions taken by the Palace have allowed the country to turn a corner. Take for instance the PERC survey. Ateneo economist Cielito Habito asks whether corruption is really worse, stating that the sentiment of domestic investors who possess more complete information regarding the state of affairs in the country counts more than the views of foreign players. Domestic investments have surged under the new administration. He provides a plausible reason for the worsening perception of foreign investors identifying the senate hearings on corruption in the military in the first quarter which may have tarnished the entire government’s overall reputation in the eyes of these executives.

On the fall of the president’s trust ratings, UP economist Solita Monsod countered over the weekend that a number of appointments bode well for the president’s agenda on good governance. These good appointments may be just a fluke as the underlying current that runs through them may be factional infighting among his political supporters, but never mind, she says, as a win is a win.

On the rise of hunger, sociologist Randy David poses one possibility (remote though it seems) that the self-reporting on hunger may have gone up as many of those surveyed mistook the SWS interviewers for public social workers who were reportedly screening households for the conditional cash transfers program that would entitle them to receive monthly allowances. As for the fall in consumer confidence, this was attributed to external factors stemming from the uprising in the Middle East and North Africa affecting prospects of foreign nationals working in the area.

Just a few months back, the president was claiming credit for the decline in poverty incidence saying that his reforms had already borne fruit. Never mind that what was being reported was the effect of reforms instituted by the previous administration.

Now it seems in a bid to counter the negative news, the president has been going out on the offensive running after the people close to his immediate predecessor. The impeachment of Ombudsman Merci Gutierrez has occupied much of the news of late. Her trial in the senate will no doubt hug the headlines in the weeks to come. Never mind that her term is expected to expire anyway.

When the proceeds of the sale of the confiscated property of Lt Gen Ligot was handed over to the government, the palace was quick to claim it as an endorsement of the integrity of the president. Never mind that this was the result of the actions of the lady whom they had just impeached in Congress through their party mates.

The tax fraud case filed against former presidential son Rep Mikey Arroyo is currently capturing media attention with continuing revelations of properties he is alleged to have left out in his tax declarations. While palace officials were quick to deny this move was a form of political harassment, Conrado de Quiros who many regard as a surrogate mouthpiece for the administration provided a reality check by claiming that the former presidential son was indeed targeted for this kind of treatment.

While these sorts of exposes and trials make for good political theater, allowing the administration to score political points, they do come at a cost. The cost is that the legislative agenda of the government will come to a standstill during the impeachment trial. Also there is a tendency to give the rulers a free pass on the more crucial bits of governance that go unnoticed.

Take the rise of poverty (by the proxy measure of hunger) for instance. This could have been a result of the phaseout of the grains program run by the National Food Authority. None of the policy elites want to acknowledge this because they are almost ideologically opposed to it. Yet this would explain why poverty rose in Luzon while it declined slightly in the rest of the country where the conditional cash transfers were mostly targeted.

As food inflation rises resulting from global production shortfalls exacerbated by the price of oil and transport, the timing could not be worse for the government which has withdrawn its support for the grains importation program. It is reported today that a possible rice shortage may be in the offing over the coming months.

At some point, the tendency to blame the administration immediately preceding it will become old hat. The current rulers will have to take ownership for the current state of affairs. While the policy elite might continue to give this president the benefit of the doubt, some time in the future there will be a reckoning. If the negative indicators continue to point down, that moment might come sooner than expected.

What lies beneath the surface is a horrid underbelly of hypocrisy and corruption

The mysterious Mr Jones does it again.

Mr Jones’ latest entry seems in part to have been triggered by a recent column by columnist Conrado de Quiros, referring to the Carandang-Coloma schism and the P200 million budgeted by DBM Sec. Abad to Carandang’s office. He quotes de Quiros:

That is how cronyism starts, with the people in power favoring a few friends, saying they are better than others, they are more capable than others, they are smarter than others. That is how corruption starts, with the people in power proposing that what is good for them is good for the nation, what makes them richer makes the nation richer.

He then calls de Quiros a “moralizing hypocrite” and proceeds to list the US delegation and the staff sent by Carandang (1) and Coloma (27). See Mr Jones’s complete accounting here. It’s not only the number that is worth noting, but the tasks delegated:

The Assistant Secretary for Media Relations, Renato Marfil, took along Susan Esguerra, his secretary, to assist him. …

And then there’s the Presidential News Desk. Francisco Lopez Banos the PNS Editor in Chief took along his editor, Rodrigo Del Agua. … And so the Presidential News Desk had two editors but no reporter. …No wonder that Ishko had no stories to file except a false leak that Mar Roxas used fake credentials to attend the President’s UNGA speech.

The Executive Director took along two Team Leaders/Project Officers. One for New York and one for California. But you got to hand it to them. After all, what will the Executive Director direct if he does not have two underlings and their two underlings.

The group also included two pool cameramen. Pool? One for NY and one for California? If that’s the case, then the question will be what pictures would the California cameraman take when the President is in NY and vice versa? But whoa, there is already one Official cameraman so why take two unofficial cameramen, so they can pool?

As for MARO, Jo Paulo couldn’t do it all so he took along one supervising MARO for New York and one for San Francisco/San Jose. And both officers couldn’t do it all either, so they took along one co-project officer each.

There were, in addition, two editors and one writer. If at all, shouldn’t it be the other way around, two reporters and one editor?

Now look at the technical staff: Teleprompter operator, teleprompter technician, VTR technician, and teleprompter/VTR technician. Paano yan, one plugs the machine while the other one turns it on? And just in case one of them gets sick or dies, they brought a back-up who knows how to plug and turn on both machines?

…Carandang sent one, singular assistant secretary – Ma. Carmen Mislang from the speechwriting team. Everyone else remained in Manila and kept in touch with Mislang via phone and internet.

What do you think, excess or necessary?