Monday, 18 January 2010

Salceda’s prescriptions

J.A. de la Cruz

Albay Gov. Joey Sarte Salceda never fails to impress. Having had the opportunity to discuss and debate with him on a number of issues, including this administration’s economic policies, this top- notch analyst, three-term congressman and PGMA’s economic adviser always comes up with factual, thought-provoking analyses of seemingly intractable problems and concerns.

Amid the clutter of all kinds of facts and figures given all kinds of spin by all kinds of analysts from all kinds of persuasions, Salceda provides a fresh view, a new paradigm, so to speak. Such was his grasp of the clutter, as it were, that when he guested at our regular Kapihan sa Sulô forum on Saturday he almost floored all the critics, not to say the cynics, among us journalists into believing that this administration’s economic legacy is second to none among all the past five administrations. Of course, we got our bearing just in time when our other guests, former senator Kit Tatad and his fellow “senatoriables” JV Bautista and Raul Lambino, and our resident constitutionalist, former University of the Philippines Law dean Froi Bacungan, and, of course, the ever-prescient interrogators, the Inquirer’s Mang Neal Cruz and Times’ Dan Mariano, pounded him with all kinds of questions. To his credit, he managed to issue factual, credible answers, except on two or three points which we would rather discuss some other time. For now, we have to give space to him and his former college professor, President Arroyo.

The facts and nothing but...

Saying that critics will always be critics, Salceda debunked the popular view that this administration’s legacy after nine years in office is more people below the poverty line, a debauched trade-and-investment regime, a bankrupt treasury, overweening corruption and regulatory capture and, yes, the highest incidence of joblessness in living memory. For one, the Albay governor noted that we are one of only four countries in the Asia-Pacific region which registered growth from 2007 to 2009 within the time that the world went through severe recession and financial meltdown. That by itself is evidence of our resiliency and, of course, PGMA’s solid and firm handling of the economic tsunami which came our way. If only for that Salceda, said PGMA deserves a pat on the back, not shrill protestations that she had not done well enough. He noted that over the period 2001 to 2008, the average gross domestic product growth was 4.86 percent, higher than Estrada’s two-and-half-year average (4.7 percent), Ramos’s six-year average (3.6 percent) and Aquino’s seven-year average (3.3 percent). On top of that, average inflation was lowest under PGMA’s watch, i.e., 5.37 percent from 2001 to 2009 versus Aquino’s 10.4 percent, Ramos’s 7.6 percent and Estrada’s 6 percent; and the foreign debt, in relation to GDP, decreased considerably, allowing us to borrow at lower interest rates for our strategic needs. He also advised that our gross international reserves jumped from $15.06 billion in 2000 to $45.03 percent in 2009, boosted no less by the increase in our overseas Filipino workers’ remittances to $14.3 billion from January to October 2009. Ranged against the bleak economic standing of our Asean neighbors and even most of the Group of 20 countries, these figures are reasonably impressive, indeed. The problem, as one of our interrogators noted, is that these rosy economic figures never dented the wretched state of our “poorest of the poor.”

Salceda has an explanation to that as well. While he acknowledged that, indeed, the number of poor Filipinos has not decreased a bit (it may in fact be increasing), he placed the blame squarely on our flaccid population policy. Salceda advised that for the seven-year period 2001 to 2007, we added about three-and-a-half Singapores to our already booming population with 17 million Filipinos born over the term. That is a wrenching 2.8-percent annual increase requiring billions of pesos in basic services and, of course, jobs for millions more. That adds even more pressure to a slowing economy which already has to contend with at least 2 million unemployed and close to a million new entrants to the labor force annually. In other places and other climes, Salceda contends, those figures alone would have brought down any ordinary Third World country to its knees. But to our and PGMA’s credit, we remain standing and even able to squeak a certain level of growth. Thus, coming to terms with our population growth comes first in Salceda’s prescriptions. That prompted a reply from senator Tatad who noted that the state must creatively figure out how to implement the constitutional mandate to “protect life” and secure the best interests of every human being. It must not dictate; rather, it must consult and manage that growth responsibly.

The Albay governor then noted that this administration faced the question of declining revenues squarely by passing the expanded value-added tax and other tax measures and plugging the leaks, so to speak, in our revenue-generating units such as the Bureau of Internal Revenue, Customs, Philippine Amusement and Gaming Corp., Land Transportation Office, Philippine Charity Sweepstakes Office and other government-owned and -controlled corporations. He noted, and we agreed, that even as we should all be heated up against profligate spending, corrupt and wayward practices, we should give equal, if not more attention, to revenue-enhancement measures which can generate billions of pesos annually. He mentioned that our forgone revenues from all sources alone amount to P274 billion which is already our budget deficit and, mind you, our allocation for debt servicing this year. Revenue enhancement for sustainable growth is at the heart of Salceda’s prescriptions, and nobody can quarrel with that. Such has always been our dream—to be able to draw in much-needed revenues by simplifying the rules, making the rules more transparent and predictable including the “reward and punishment” terms to which all citizens must subscribe.

Which brings us to what Salceda noted as the third prescription for a good presidency—a sustained and sustainable anticorruption plank. That means leading by example, simplifying the rules of the game, so to speak, and using all tools, including technology, to make all of us, in our public or private lives, accountable and merit-oriented. Without such a strategy and a firm commitment to do better than “business as usual,” we will never be able to limit, if not overcome altogether, the curse of corruption, which has taken roots all over the place, including the lowliest barangay.

So there. We now have the duty to review whether Salceda’s prescriptions and, of course, his glowing endorsement of PGMA’s economic policies and, yes, accomplishments, deserve commendation or condemnation. It bears noting that as a caveat, Salceda advised that quite apart from having good policies is proper and responsible implementation, which requires, at the same time, popular support to have any impact on the lives of the broad masses of our people. That is the curse which has continued to hound this administration. It may be true that it has put the necessary sustainable policies in place and that to a certain degree, it has been able to hold the fort, so to speak, but it continues to be shelled and lambasted due to all the negatives which have come its way, principally, in its fight against corruption. Having been bombarded with loads of corruption complaints, high-profile or otherwise, consummated or not, the perception remains that this administration is so immersed in this unwinnable fight even its good deeds have been shaded by such reports and stories. Sayang. Anyway, who among the candidates can stand up to the pressures and take the Salceda prescriptions to heart to test if, indeed, this analyst’s “best buys,” as it were, can carry us through the tough times ahead? Each one of us must make that choice soon and it’s good we have people like Salceda to help us make such an informed and responsible one, not whimsical and arbitrary. Sana na nga....

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