Tuesday, July 29, 2008

GMA's SONA Largely Ignored the Middle Class

This year's SONA was definitely not among GMA's best. It could even be her worst. Her speech contained no policy surprises (the only surprise was the mayor in bahag but it was more shocking than surprising really), it was short on programs, it lacked coherence and was totally uninspiring. The gist of GMA's speech to me was this:

"Our country is (once again) in a crisis. High fuel and food prices will, in all probability, be here to stay so we all need to tighten our belts a little more. There's nothing your government can do because these are global developments. But your government will try to 'cushion' the effects but only for the poor. You rich and middle class Filipinos I will leave to your own devices."

What struck me more was not what GMA said but what she didn't say in her speech. I was hoping that President Arroyo will scrap the EVAT on oil or at least peg it at say P55 per liter. I was also hoping that she would alter her stance on population management. There was hardly a mention on job generation programs, increasing investments, improving the tourism climate - traditionally middle class issues - in her speech. At least she asked Congress to approve ASAP the Panay Relief Fund which is a good thing. But by and large, this year's SONA was focused more on pandering to the poor. She spent the better part of her speech detailing her pro-poor social programs and defending the EVAT (which she firmly insisted she needs to fund her "pantawid" programs for the poor). I find this quite ironic because while she was delivering her speech, the same people whom she professed to care most about (the poor) were outside Batasan loudly condemning her administration while the people she largely ignored in her speech (the middle class) were in their workplaces silently going about their productive lives and earning a living.

It is the working middle class, not the poor, who is being hit hardest by the current food/fuel crisis. The poor do not use gasoline or LPG (40% of our population still use firewood/uling for cooking), they do not pay income tax and they generally buy non-VATable items. The city-based tambay rarely leaves his neighborhood and ride a bus or a jeep. The only VAT-able item a farmer usually buys is cooking oil because he usually just picks his food around his farm. It is the professional wage earner which rides a car or takes the bus to work everyday and he is the one na nakakaramdam each time the oil companies raise their prices every weekend.

The president largely ignored the plight of the middle class despite the fact that it is the middle class who pay the taxes which subsidize her government. GMA won the 2004 elections because the middle class abandoned Roco and Villanueva and rallied behind her to prevent an FPJ presidency. The middle class made her political career. No wonder her already dismal popularity ratings plummeted further. She has lost the support of the only demographic that believed in her. The poor, no matter what she does for them, will always be for Erap while the rich - well, the rich will always play all sides of the political spectrum.

The middle class in this country by and large take care of themselves. During elections they don't wait for the last minute to vote in the hope that ward leaders will come to them with P500 in exchange for choosing a certain candidate, unlike the poor. After elections you will not see them going to their mayor's office soliciting personal favors, unlike the rich. The middle class don't send their children to public schools, don't avail of Philhealth, don't line up to buy NFA rice, etc. In fact, the only social program I know of that they sort of "embraced" is the senior citizens card and that is more for the retired members of their class. They are "low maintenance" so to speak.

There have been many attempts in the past to define and differentiate the Filipino middle class from the poor and the very rich. Quantifying what makes a person middle class is helpful but to me, being middle class depends not so much on one's income but rather on one's attitude to life. I believe that one is middle class if he doesn't rely on government to solve his problems. This "do not rely on government" attitude is the core of the middle class ethos. At best, the middle class attitude towards government is this - "we don't expect any dole-outs from you but at least get out of our way and allow us to work or do business in peace." Fuel prices are sky high but you do not see them clamoring for government to scrap the EVAT on oil. At best, the middle class are willing to take the hit if this would mean helping their less fortunate countrymen.

Historically, the Filipino middle class has always found a way to weather any crisis. For example, when the Philippines was suffering from an economic crisis in the 1980s and there was not enough well-paying jobs in the country, the middle class found a solution by simply going abroad, in the process proving the "doom-and-gloom" economists wrong. Our government didn't collapse and our economy continues to thrive today because of OFW dollars and this was not due to government's conscious effort to push overseas employment but by the collective decision on the part of the middle income sector. Even the current BPO/call center boom was not due to any government policy. Foreign investors saw that our middle class speak good English and grabbed the opportunity to utilize cheap quality labor. The middle class is always ahead of government in finding ways to solve the problem. Government almost always only reacts, the middle class almost always shows the way.

I have nothing against helping the poor. They in fact need government's help the most. But what gets my gall is that GMA seems to be mollycoddling the poor by telling them that we will help you and moreover, it's OK for you to continue producing more babies. By sticking with the Church line on natural family planning (which statistics show is only effective 40% of the time), GMA in effect refused to see the reality that the problem with the poor is that they produce more babies that they can afford. I believe in helping the poor but I also would like to insist that they do their part to deserve help. Instead of using the P80 billion EVAT collection to give token "pantawid gutom" assistance to the poor, why not allocate a part of it to help them improve their lives for good? For instance, government could use P40 billion of said fund for its social programs while the remaining P40 billion could be used for vasectomy and ligation operations. Anyone who agrees to undergo ligation/vasectomy gets P40,000 from the government. At P40 billion that's around 4 million Filipinos. No more condom condom, no more rythym rythym. I think that would put a stop to our overpopulation problem overnight.

Consider these facts: In 1799, the Philippines only had a population of 1.5 million people. By 1948 the country had 19 million Filipinos. In 2007 the census indicated that our population stands at 88 million and it is projected to hit 111 million by 2020. From 1.5 million, it took us 200 years for our population to reach 19 million. But due to improved living conditions and technology,
it took us less than 50 years to quadruple our population from 19 million in 1948 to 88 million today. In other words, we are not only multiplying but multiplying very rapidly - faster than our government and environment can accommodate sufficiently. This administration, the next administration and all the succeeding generations of politicians will try their best to convince you that they will make your life easier for you. But unless they address the root cause of the problem, they will all fail.

Friday, July 25, 2008

Managing Expectations

The population issue is once again in the news with the Catholic Church dishing out its usual criticism of the population management bill pending in Congress. Our good Archbishop Lagdameo, the CBCP president, is leading efforts against the bill and even staged a well-attended rally in Iloilo City yesterday. It has sort of become an annual event, this debate on whether or not government should adopt a more aggressive and pro-active stance on population management. The problem is, the Catholic leadership is not even willing to concede that the Philippines has a "population problem" arguing that it is mismanagement and corruption that keeps our people poor and citing that the countries with zero growth rate are now experiencing problems with their health care and social security systems. But let me cite a line from the book "Earth in the Balance" authored by former U.S. Vice President Al Gore:

"From the emergence of modern humans 200,000 years ago until Julius Caesar's time, fewer than 250 million people walked on the face of the earth. When Christopher Columbus set sail for the New World 1,500 years later, there were approximately 500 million people on earth. By the time Thomas Jefferson wrote the Declaration of Independence in 1776, the number had doubled again, to 1 billion. By midway through this century, at the end of World War II, the number had risen to just above 2 billion people.

In other words, from the beginning of humanity's appearance on earth to 1945, it took more than ten thousand generations to reach a world population of 2 billion people. Now, in the course of one human lifetime, the world population will increase from 2 billion to more than 9 billion, and it is already more than halfway there."

Given the facts and figures, the Church's stand could best be described as "willful ignorance." Not only is the world population increasing but it is increasing very very rapidly. Moreover, the present generation (which has since been dubbed the "Me Generation") have acquired a sense of entitlement and attachment to all things material. A typical individual today requires more resources to "survive" than his ancestors. Overpopulation and the "consumerist lifestyle" is the root cause of pollution, denudation of tropical forests, depletion of minerals and other natural resources, etc. etc. All these are "shocking" the earth and upsetting the natural equilibrium leading to the modern phenomenon called global warming. Man, in the past, was at the mercy of nature. Today nature is at the mercy of man.

"Human civilization is now the dominant cause of change in the global environment. Yet we resist this truth and find it hard to imagine that our effect on the earth must now be measured by the same yardstick used to calculate the strength of the moon's pull on the oceans or the force of the wind against the mountains. And if we are now capable of changing something so basic as the relationship between the earth and the sun, surely we must acknowledge a new responsibility to use that power wisely and with appropriate restraint. So far, however, we seem oblivious of the fragility of the earth's natural systems."

I shudder to think what will happen to the world once the human population reaches the 9-billion mark. Quality of life will definitely be lower than now. Let's discuss just one basic human need - housing - and how overpopulation has affected it.

In the 1950s/1960s, single income households were the norm - the father works, the mother stays at home - and on a single salary, a typical couple could afford to make a downpayment on a house, buy a Volkswagen Beetle and have money left to send their kid's to private Catholic schools. There might even be money left to enable the family to go on an outing once a month. That is all gone now. Nowadays, both the father and mother have to work just to be able to provide the standard of living which thirty years ago only one breadwinner can provide. Indeed, double-income households have become the norm and the term "working mom" (a woman who is able to strike a good balance between family and career) has since become an ideal. Some households are even multiple-income, with unmarried adult children living and "chipping in" the household expenses (this may be the next "wave of the future"). Not only that, many Filipinos have to leave their families and work abroad thus further breaking up the fabric of family ties.

In today's typical working household, the entire salary of one spouse is allocated just for the house amortization while the salary of the other working spouse goes to the kid's tuition and living expenses. Thirty years ago a single-income couple could afford to buy a 450 square meter lot in Housing Mandurriao. Nowadays, even families with OFWs abroad can barely afford the same today. And lot sizes are getting smaller and smaller. A 180-square meter lot is now considered "big." Even in a provincial city like Iloilo (where land is relatively cheaper than in Manila), you can hardly find a housing development offering cuts of 450 square meters. It is by no accident that Metro Manila, the most densely populated area in the country, also has the most expensive land prices today. Land prices are directly proportional with population: the more people in a certain area, the more demand for land and the more the demand, the more the prices go up. That's the law of supply and demand. Economics 101.

Housing is just one example of how the population explosion adversely affects our quality of life. Today's Generation Me (those born in the 1970s, 80s and 90s) are finding it harder and harder to duplicate the standard of living that their parents, the so-called Baby Boomers, gave them. And this is not because they are less-educated, less-motivated or lazier than their elders. On the contrary, the present crop are in fact better-educated, more driven and more ambitious than their parents. This is because since childhood we were taught to expect a great future, trained to demand the best things and told that we can be whatever we want to be. But after raising our hopes up and giving us a false sense or inflated view of our position in this world, our generation's expectations collide with the present reality: we may never get to achieve our dreams in life because there is just too many people competing for the same stuff. Just to attain what our fathers and grandfathers achieved, one has to work harder, be smarter or just plain lucky in today's world. For many of our generation, owning that 450 square meter house and lot in the city may no longer be within reach. We may no longer afford to send our children to exclusive schools and gone were the days where we can drive out of town on a mere whim (Hell, owning a car would once again be confined to the privileged few if fuel prices continue their present trajectory). There are just too many people angling for the the same things.

This is why our generation should teach the next generation (I wonder what label they will use for the children of Generation Me) how to manage their expectations. Because if we inflate their egos and teach them to love material things, I am afraid that they will just end up disappointed in life. I observe that today's crop of 20-somethings seem to be very impatient to get ahead and are unwilling to "pay their dues" in the workplace. This is also a common lament I hear from my 30-something friends, many of whom run small businesses or are already corporate mid-level managers with several people under them - fresh college graduates asking unrealistic starting salaries, instant promotions, refusing to work on Saturdays, etc. In my day I was just happy to get a job right after graduation and didn't really mind the low salary because I thought that if I worked hard enough, the boss will notice and promote me. My advice to new graduates is: love your job first, be patient and the job will love you back. And manage your expectations and make it in line with reality - don't expect that you will become the senior vice president of the company after only 10 years no matter how talented or diligent you are.

Going back to the population management bill, I believe that it has better chances of passing in this 14th Congress than in all previous congresses. Notwithstanding Church opposition to it, 135 congressmen (or more than half) have already signified their support for it. I suspect many more are just quietly waiting for a "tipping point" or are suspending declaring their position on the bill for fear that they might be pressured by Church leaders to change their stand. Public opinion polls have time and again indicated that Filipinos want birth control and even some priests I know are quietly advocating it to their parishioners. Statistics also show that our growth rate will slow down to 1.95% for 2005-2010 (NSCB data) from the previous 2.3% annual average which seem to indicate that Filipinos have taken upon themselves, sans government intervention and despite Church opposition, to plan their families.

Thursday, July 10, 2008

Mud, Mud Everywhere

The flash flood last month was without a doubt the worst calamity to hit Iloilo since World War II. At least, during the Great War they say people had prior warning kung gapa-abot ng ang mga Hapon and many were able to evacuate ("bakwit") in time to avoid the Japanese invaders. The muddy flood waters came onrushing with nary a warning and everyone was caught totally unprepared. The flood has since become part of Iloilo's communal memory and everyone, rich and poor, has some horror story to tell about the catastrophe. If New Yorkers have their 9-11 Attack, we Ilonggos now have our own shared experience: The Great Flood of 2008. Never again will the people associate rainy weather with sleepy weather. Never again will the people be able to sleep soundly at night when it rains.

Only about a year ago, Iloilo City was one of the best places in the country. I remember writing something in this blog about Iloilo City's "quality of life," its being a great place to raise a family with its relatively lower standard of living, cheap food, excellent medical and educational facilities, low crime rate, etc.

Iloilo City today is blanketed with mud. Sticky mud and dirty water is everywhere. The city is close to becoming uninhabitable. It is completely bewildering to see how the city has managed to become, from one of the best places to live in only a few years ago, to being one of the worst places in the Philippines in just a short period of time. Even before the flood, the city's much-vaunted "quality of life" was already deteriorating because of the daily brownouts, not to mention the spiraling cost of fuel and commodities, and inflation. Truly what a difference a year makes!

After the flood comes the blame game. Politicians are either trying to pin the blame on one another or trying to gain political capital from the disaster. Even the church leaders and environmentalists were quick to grab the opportunity to highlight their advocacies, blaming the flood on global warming, illegal logging, mining and coal power plants. There are those who are pinning the blame on the poor for clogging up the esteros with their shanties while there are those pointing to the posh subdivisions of the middle/upper class for blocking the rainwater's natural pathways. And they might all be right: some politicians may be more liable than others, coal power plants may indeed contribute to climate change, and the rich and the poor may be equally to blame for the catastrophe. But my point is now is not the time for finger-pointing. We must concentrate all our efforts on helping the victims. We must focus our thoughts on how to rebuild our city. There will be plenty of time for recriminations later on.