Domingo Lee

The 800-Pound Gorilla

What are the blind-spots that the administration is ignoring?

image from be-the-bear.blogspot.com

Those who chide us for telling the President not to lose sight of the economy in the hunt for Mrs Arroyo might remember the experiment conducted by Daniel Simon and Christopher Chabris.

In this famous study looking into visual perception and selective attention, participants were told to view a short video clip depicting two groups passing balls around, one group wearing black shirts and the other wearing white. They were told to count the number of times a ball was passed between those in white. Here is the video for those unfamiliar with it.

At the end, most participants were able to provide the correct number of passes made between white shirted people. But then, when asked if they had noticed the gorilla in the room, about half said they did not. As it turns out, the act of focusing too much attention on the ball prevented many from even noticing something as glaringly out of place as a person in a gorilla suit walking right into the middle of the set and thumping his chest, even when it was staring them in the face!

To those supportive of the president’s actions against his predecessor, Mrs Gloria Arroyo, she represents the eight hundred pound gorilla in the room. Any other concern such as the economy even during a deteriorating global economic crisis is a mere distraction to the task of bringing her to justice. They would rather have the president focus his energy and attention on the task of ending her ‘monkey business’ than worry about sustaining the growth of the Philippines and along with that the job security of present and future workers.

Of course in an ideal world, the president and his cabinet would be able to do more than one thing at a time, but that is not what the evidence suggests. Witness the latest downgrade by the ADB of the Philippines’ growth prospects. It demonstrates how the government has not kept its ‘eye on the ball’, so to speak by failing to prime the economy with public capital expenditures.

Ok, some would say. So, perhaps aside from keeping track of the ball, the president could also monitor the gorilla, but then as this next study shows, something else could be happening. When respondents were told about the gorilla after viewing the first clip, they were then asked to view a second one, which is shown below.

This time around, everyone noticed the movement of the gorilla, since they had by this time been primed for it. However, not everyone noticed the color of the curtain changing or that one of the players in a black shirt exited the frame. This again should be of concern to those who feel confident of the government’s cognitive abilities.

Even if say next year, P-Noy’s team were to start putting a greater emphasis on ensuring that his government did its job to prop up demand in the economy by spending its budget for public construction (a task it performed miserably this year), while prosecuting the Arroyos, what other crisis could catch it off guard? A power crisis for instance is already looming on the horizon. Presumably a temporary downturn will reduce demand for power, but decisions with regard to its future supply have to be taken years in advance. Remember how the Cory government failed to address this issue?

It was former president Fidel Ramos who likened the presidency to a juggling act which is performed by someone on a unicycle on a high tension wire several hundred feet off the ground wearing a blind-fold with one hand tied behind the back and no safety net. A simple distraction or loss of concentration could spell disaster. It appears that the president is already too emotionally involved not only with Mrs Arroyo’s case but with delegitimizing the Chief Justice as well. The rage he expressed recently could blind him and his administration from pursuing important reforms.

Already several balls seemed to have fallen to the ground (or slipped off the radar) such as the RH bill and revising the EPIRA law (only 3.25 of the 33 priority measures have been passed so far, which at that rate will take ten years for all of them to succeed), such as appointing competent ambassadors (yes, I am referring to that confirmation hearing of Domingo Lee which was lampooned here), and the like.

Personally, my take on this is that the ball represents the president’s poll numbers. His handlers are so keen on tracking them and on focusing on what would drive them up or down (prosecuting the Arroyos for instance and railing against the Chief Justice) that they have perhaps lost sight of their own short-comings and failings which they dare not speak to the president about lest he get upset with them for ‘distracting’ him.

Witness the justice department’s conduct in investigating the former president, now congresswoman Arroyo which did not square with the norms and institutions of the judicial system making it appear more like a witch hunt than a proper legal proceeding. The president’s transference of blame to the Chief Justice and the Supreme Court does not excuse the shameless way he went about seeking to detain Mrs Arroyo which was reminiscent of her own extra-constitutional and extra-legal antics. This dangerous precedent of the executive undermining the judiciary is something more hazardous to the survival of our fragile democracy than just this case alone can pose.

But the president seems dead-set on playing the biggest trump card up his sleeve, his massive popularity, in order to impose his will on the high court. These ‘animal spirits’ once unleashed could lead to disastrous consequences. The country now sits on the precipice of further decay. Waiting for just a slight nudge from the president which could plunge it into a downward spiral of political instability and risk uncertainty in the coming years which will dissipate any investor confidence that had been returning.

Many will balk at this characterization of the situation saying that what is going on is nothing out of the ordinary for the Philippines. But that is exactly my point–the country was well-poised to become a more mature, more stable democracy. Apparently not now by the looks of it. Was it too much to ask for the elite to rise above their familial squabbling? They seem so focused on who gets the ball and how it changes hands, keeping track and keeping score of each player that they ignore the wider context and how their actions affect the country’s progress. Ignoring in the process, the 800 lb gorilla in the room.

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