Mancur Olson

The Post-PNoy era

A Broad Tent
A big tent?
The Million People March at Ayala called for unity in diversity, but did it achieve this goal?

The election of a genuinely pro-reform candidate like President Aquino or PNoy in 2010 happens only once in a generation. Dissatisfied with anything that falls short of their ideal, some are now calling for an end to his presidency, but others are more conscious of the fact that time is running out to enact bold reform before he steps down.

Mortality has a funny way of focusing the mind. Whether it be the end of one’s life or term of office, contemplating one’s demise allows us to transcend the present day-to-day battles, take stock of the remaining time we have left, and attend to doing the things that we want to be remembered for after we are gone.

So it goes for the budding reform movement that first catapulted President Aquino into the presidency and has now morphed into a cause to abolish the pork barrel system. The fast-approaching conclusion of PNoy’s presidency, less than three years away, and the uncertain fate of his reform program, has put into sharp focus the need to double up efforts and ensure that enough protections are in place to keep whoever succeeds him on the straight and narrow path.

Recent revelations of anomalies in the administration’s Disbursement Acceleration Program (DAP) have reminded citizens of the possibility for abuse that still exists when you combine congressional earmarks with executive privilege in the budget process. The supposed unconstitutionality of such a program has wedged supporters of the cause on the issue of whether to turn on President Aquino who takes full responsibility for authorising the DAP.

While it was easier to make that leap under the presidency of Gloria Arroyo, especially after the Hello Garci incident, when the reform movement abandoned her, the personification of evil has not yet reached the same fever pitch under President Aquino. Internecine conflict has broken out in the wake of the [email protected] rally on 4 October which attracted far fewer numbers than the August 26 Luneta rally. The warring factions are making two competing claims:

  • One side claims that the protest action was “hijacked” by anti-PNoy groups, incited by the opposition, whose senators are being investigated for fraud in relation to the original pork barrel scam. They view calls for the president to resign or be impeached as a distraction to the ongoing investigation into congressional abuse of pork.
  • The other side maintains that PNoy’s supporters are seeking to weaken or undermine their cause to protect the president from prosecution.

It is a classic case of purists vs pragmatists. The purist/idealist camp (anti-PNoy supporters) seeks nothing short of absolute adherence to its core principles of prosecuting all those involved in pork (which includes DAP), while the pragmatists/realist camp (pro-PNoy supporters) see that such adherence, although desirable is not practical, and possibly counter-productive, at this stage.

The debate has quickly descended into an uncivilised tone with pejorative name-calling serving only to weaken the overall reputation and efficacy of the movement. A silent majority consisting of pro-reform supporters are perhaps willing to suspend judgement and cut the president some slack. They probably shied away from Friday’s mass action for fear of being lumped together with anti-PNoy protesters.

This split in the reform movement was something that the [email protected] organisers, the Scrap Pork network had hoped to avoid with their pronouncements on unity prior to the rally. Now that the two camps are in open conflict with each other does not bode well for the movement. That is of course unless it is able to quickly pivot towards forming an agenda for change that goes beyond mere slogans.

The reform constituency needs to be broad enough to encompass both pro- and anti-PNoy supporters. This can be achieved by focusing on policy goals rather than personality-centred partisanship. Just as the RH campaign brought disparate groups together around a common policy theme, the reform movement needs to coalesce around a set of policies to push for as PNoy’s presidency comes to a close, and beyond.

How can we do that?

The problem faced by ordinary citizens who compete with very powerful vested interests in waging a campaign to affect public policy was first posed by Mancur Olson in The Logic of Collective Action. The book in a way tries to answer the question why special interests are better able to capture state regulators and policymakers, as well as fund slick media campaigns to influence public opinion, than ordinary citizens who outnumber them.

The fact that the benefits of collective action are shared by the public at large, while the cost is borne by a select few, gives rise to the free rider problem where people wait for the first movers to bear the cost of organising before jumping in. Special interest groups don’t suffer from this, since the incidence of costs and benefits falls on a concentrated group of players. The logic of collective action eventually results in what economists call the tragedy of the commons where policies that serve the public interest are disproportionately underrepresented.

In the face of very powerful and concentrated interests which would want to stall and roll-back the reform process, how can the diffuse, inchoate masses that comprise the reform constituency mobilise support for a reform agenda? A new book Strength in Numbers by Gunnar Trumbull which challenges Olson’s thesis might hold a clue. The following is how Jonathan Rauch from the American Enterprise Institute summarised the key insights from the book

In fact, weak, diffuse groups have a paradoxical political advantage: precisely because they are weak and diffuse, the public sees them as less self-interested and thus comparatively trustworthy. Second, Olson also underestimates the power of ideological motivation, rather than just money and concentration, to spur activism. Third, “diffuse interests can be represented without mobilization,” thanks to activism by politicians and government officials who take up their cause. (FDR started a federal pension program at a time when “retirees,” as a self-identified social class, did not yet exist. The program created the constituency, rather than the other way around.) Fourth, weak or diffuse interests can link up with concentrated groups to amplify their effectiveness, as when consumers align with exporters to oppose trade protections or when free-speech advocates join with political parties to oppose campaign-finance limits.

A number of past cases in the Philippines would in fact fit well with the Strength in Numbers hypothesis. Legislation supporting clean air, cheap medicine and reproductive health were passed in the face of stiff opposition from very powerful business and special interest groups in society. Why? Because they had a combination of factors working in their favour: a champion in Congress, a constituency rallying behind it, motivated at times by an ideology or simply altruistic motives.

David Bollier, co-editor of the book The Wealth of the Commons, suggests that the internet has significantly reduced the costs of organising common people behind collective action. The following is how Bollier put it

In our times … (t)he rise of the World Wide Web since 1994 — and since then social networking, wikis, and countless other innovations — has made it ridiculously easy for people to find each other and organize to publicly advance their shared interests. That’s one reason that the commons is so robust today – the coordination and communication barriers among people have virtually disappeared in online spaces.

The strength of the MPM/Scrap Pork network is the fact that it is seen as a neutral group, less interested in the personalities of partisan politics. Its ability to organise mass actions through social media in the middle of a work day is gold. All this infighting simply undermines that and makes it appear that there are hidden operators with their own agenda trying to sway the cause one way or another. The fact that the network has hewn strictly towards the middle between pro- and anti-PNoy activists, in their pronouncements at least, was a good outcome.

To spur this movement forward requires us to harness all the energy and ideas of its constituents towards a reform agenda. To simply chant slogans is not enough. What we need are practical policy tools that would make the scrapping of pork, the accounting of public funds, and the prosecution of the corrupt a lot easier regardless of who sits in Malacañang or the Batasan.

We can either swim against the tide or make the tide shift in our favour through structural reforms. It is not a distraction to focus the conversation on policy reforms that could be adopted over the coming years, when all these investigations and prosecutions of pork cases will unfold. As the cases of alleged corruption are investigated and cases filed, there will be cause to mount protest actions to carry them to their logical conclusions.

The problem is if we think that removing pork from the diet of congress and the president, and punishing a number of senior elected and appointed officials will solve the problem of corruption in high places, we would be seriously mistaken. A lot of off-budget transactions have taken place in the past, and they will continue to do so in the future. Wily and entrepreneurial backroom operators such as Janet Napoles will always find a way of conducting shady deals when the public are looking away.

The incentive to cheat under our current system is simply too great because whoever is in power has the ability to maneuver using off-budget transactions. It is time that groups like MPM and Scrap Pork take their advocacy to a whole new level by taking advantage of the free space afforded by the digital commons to make their case for far-sighted reforms to address them. This might involve:

  • sponsoring and curating a combination of online forums where various experts put forth their ideas for policy change through discussion papers or presentations and where viewers participate by posting questions, comments and suggestions.
  • seeking champions for their cause in Congress or the administration to adopt their draft bills and proposals.
  • organising mass actions through social media during important dates when proposals are deliberated and voted on in Congress. The case of the Magna Carta of the Philippines for Internet Freedom could be used as a template to push for a number of reform measures.

Finally, if the reform constituency remains intact, and succeeds in pushing not only for administrative reforms through executive action, but political reforms through changes in law that would make it easier for reform-minded politicians to advance in our democratic system, then they will guarantee a better and brighter future for all of us as we move into the post-PNoy era.

Note: The hashtag #postPNoy has been started by the author on Twitter to foster a conversation on concrete reform proposals.  Anyone can participate in this discussion by following it and posting comments and suggestions.

Pork is the new GMA

The organizers of the Million People March know what they are doing.

They know that for their protest movement to attract the broadest base of support and have the greatest impact, it would have to limit its concerns to as few as possible. This basic insight into the inner workings of interest groups was first highlighted in the Logic of Collective Action, a book by Mancur Olson. Although his findings from the 1960s have recently been weakened by more recent studies, the core of the thesis still holds.

Why do groups like the NRA (National Rifle Association) and the Tea Party movement in the US wield so much power and influence over governments in driving policy debates? It is all due to the specific nature of the issues they have in mind. For the NRA it is the freedom to own guns, for the tea party it is to lower government debt and deficit. The greater the level of specificity, the greater the potency.

Having too long a laundry list of demands and positions would simply cause their adherents to splinter and their message to get diluted or hijacked. This is perhaps what happened to the Occupy movement. While it raged on for a while, the inchoate nature of the protest action and the wide disparity of calls among its adherents eventually caused its energy to dissipate.

That is clearly something that the MPM wants to avoid.For this reason their emphasis on unity and limiting the number of demands to just three–to abolish pork, account for pork, and prosecute pork abusers–is important. That’s it. Just scrap pork. Anything else beyond that is a distraction, as far as they are concerned.

It is not that they don’t see other policy prescriptions as valid. Their statement acknowledges the need for a broader conversation later down the track to determine what would replace pork, but for the time being, people’s attention and energy have to be focused on the single task at hand, which is to rid the national government’s budget of different forms of lump sum, discretionary spending, which is how they have defined pork.

But even with the three points that they have outlined, there apparently was still room for confusion. Shortly after releasing their unity statement, the MPM organisers had to issue a clarification that they were not supporting calls for the president to resign or be impeached over the release of the DAP (Disbursement Acceleration Program), a stimulus package initiated in late-2011, which the Palace had put together from its underspent budgetary allotments earlier in the year.

Because legal and fiscal luminaries had claimed that the DAP had violated provisions of the constitution over how savings could be re-aligned and spent, and because some of it had been channeled to legislators as Priority Development Assistance Funds (aka pork), many had construed the MPM’s earlier remarks as potentially supporting calls for impeaching the president. To prevent its message from being hijacked, the Scrap Pork network had to make it clear that they were not going to use their rally in Makati as a staging ground for ousting Mr Aquino.

The president for his part has tried to lay the blame back on Mrs Arroyo claiming she had raided the Malampaya Fund to the tune of close to one trillion pesos and had directed some of that amount to Ms Janet Napoles, who is now facing charges of plunder for her role in the whole conspiracy. This staggering amount that was allegedly misappropriated, only serves to remind protesters of the potential for fraud and plunder in the future.

This is why the MPM and Scrap Pork Network cannot fathom why the Palace insists on the appropriateness of the DAP and of maintaining budget rules around off-budget funds like that of Malampaya. While the president keeps acting like it is 2005 when the anti-Gloria movement raged, he has to recognise the fact that pork is the new GMA, and that people have moved on and are tired of him blaming her all the time.

If he does not do so, then he risks alienating protesters and losing legitimacy and public trust in his administration. He will be increasingly seen as part of the problem rather than part of the solution. At the moment, the MPM and Scrap Pork network haven’t turned on him, but they could easily do so, especially if new revelations emerge of other questionable dealings. Already, his aunt, Tingting Cojuangco has alleged poll fraud in 2013 that involved military and palace officials with his tacit approval.

Though President Aquino may be trying to draw lines of distinction between him and his predecessor, such allegations are slowly blurring those lines. Though they may later be proven to be unfounded, allegations of fraud have a way of unsettling voters and investors. Just as the country has gained the trifecta of investment status upgrades from the three major credit rating agencies, and when the need to drive deeper reforms is becoming urgent in the final years of his presidency, Malacañang cannot afford to have such destabilising forces at play.