wage boards

In defence of P-Noy

image taken from bloggers.com

He became a noun (“Aquinomics”), he became an -ism (“noynoyism”), but now he has become a verb (“noynoying”), and it is pretty, well how shall we say it? “An-noying.”

Just like the president’s love life, which he says he would like to keep off limits to the media, but which he himself cannot stop talking about, the phenomenon known as “noynoying” he says is not worth our attention, and yet the very act of saying so draws our focus to it.

Militant groups that hopped on to the “planking” phenomenon to paralyse traffic in the streets have shown just how savy they are propaganda-wise by adapting this into a new posture, that of noynoying, which is a form of idling, pensively sitting around doing nothing while propping one’s chin with one arm as a mutant strain of the “occupy” protest movement. This they say symbolizes the president’s passivity in the wake of repeated oil price hikes.

The palace’s ill-advised release of photos showing the president behind his desk working in earnest only seemed to fan the flames and breathe life into the story. This played into the hands of the left-leaning propagandists who took to social media decrying the government’s response as all spin and no substance.

Wittingly or unwittingly, this seems to dovetail nicely with the narrative coming from the Arroyo camp that the president dropped the ball last year on the economy allowing it to slip into a slower growth rate while sitting idly by. Similarly, in the case of Hacienda Luisita, the impeached Chief Justice wants to make it all about the Hacienda Luisita estate owned by the president’s relatives rather than himself and has garnered support from the representatives of farmers and progressive groups like Bayan Muna.

I find it rather amusing that anyone with a gripe or an axe to grind often falls into the trap of jumping on the bandwagon when a popular phenomenon sprouts up, just as in the case of noynoying. Those frustrated with the delayed passage of the reproductive health or freedom of information bills for instance, have flirted if not readily embraced this form of protest without distinguishing the issues involved.

It is so easy to mindlessly follow social networking trends these days without taking a considered view in my opinion. It is at this point that I would like to say a few things in defence of the president. Some might think this is “out of character” on my part, since lately I have been accused of being an Arroyo sympathizer and branded a Corona acolyte for my criticisms of the way President Aquino has handled many things in office: from his unintended fiscal austerity program to his overzealous pursuit “in the hunt” for Mrs Arroyo and her proxies.

So now that I am about to say something in defence of Mr Aquino, I expect to be labelled something else. Perhaps a flip-flop, or a “balimbing”. What my critics fail to appreciate is that I simply call things the way I see them regardless of which side of politics I offend. As a policy analyst, it is my duty I believe to speak the truth to power, to advise without fear or favour. So this is how I see this issue…

First of all, PNoy is not the only head of state who has had to grapple with this issue and responded to it in the way that he has. President Obama has also said that there is very little his government could do to affect oil prices. Now, the difference of course between the Philippines and the United States is that the latter at least has massive oil reserves and untapped resources. But, as President Obama has shown, even if he were to authorize drilling to occur even in the national reserves to go full steam ahead, the effect on the price of oil would be quite minuscule (about one percent).

Ironically, it has been conservatives on the right like Rush Limbaugh (not leftists) who have faulted President Obama for taking a laissez-faire approach. Republican Mitt Romney has recently called on Obama’s energy team to resign over their inability to influence gas prices. The public for their part do not seem to be swayed by such populist rhetoric. They seem to accept Obama’s premise that there is little he can do. For his part, Obama has faulted speculators for manipulating futures prices of oil for profit.

My point here is that if the leader of the free world, the most powerful man on the planet says there is nothing much even he can do, then what more can the leader of a developing economy like the Philippines do?

Secondly, just as in the case of the oil price stabilisation fund before it, the fuel subsidy to transport operators was in fact applied, but as we can see, there is really so much that government can afford to do. Unlike the situation in the 90s when gas prices spiked then returned to their normal levels, high oil prices today will become the “new normal”. This may be because we have reached “peak oil“, or it may be due to the rising demand from emerging economies thirsty for fuel and energy resources. Either way, we simply have to adapt to this new reality rather than try to artificially recreate the old one.

There is no such thing as an entitlement to cheap oil. It is not embedded in the Constitution as one of our human rights. Yet,  militant groups would have you believe that it is the role of the state–to guarantee the affordability of crude oil. That simply is a myth.

Thirdly, what the government ought to do in easing us into a new state of affairs, it is already doing with its energy policies focused on encouraging renewable sources of power and fuel. The distribution of electric public utility vehicles along with the auctioning of rights to build power plants which harness wind, natural gas, solar and wave technology is already progressing.

So as far as this goes, the government is not standing “idly by”. It has a considered program in place that seeks to guide our economy to a smaller carbon footprint and less dependency on oil. If anything, it is even being pro-active in pushing this agenda forward.

Of course the objection from transport groups will be that these programs don’t address their problems. Their position is understandable. They are indeed caught between a rock and a hard place, with the fares they charge to commuters regulated, while the cost of fuel is liberalized. This I think is the crux of the matter. At some point, their requests for rate increases need to be heard by an impartial body. The problem will be to contain the flow on effect this will have on wages.

But the thing is, regional wage boards will deal with that issue when the time comes. Their role is similar to that of transport regulators in that they have to weigh the interests of various stakeholders and temper the impact of any adjustment to society at large. The mechanisms for dealing with oil prices and wages are there and have been in place for quite some time.

Whenever the country is caught in the currents of global events, it sometimes takes all the energy of the man in charge  to maintain a level head and not directly intervene. There is in fact a time when “doing nothing” is the appropriate response, when the alternatives which may make him popular would be even more damaging.

That time I believe is now. In defence of the president, I believe he has seized it.