Get Real
Philippine Daily Inquirer, 31 December 2011


“Let’s start the New Year right, and resolve, among others, that the decisions or choices we will be making henceforth are informed ones, based on issues rather than personalities, gut feel, blind-loyalty, or political/blood ties. Too many of those have been made in the past year, and their negative consequences have either been already felt, or will be felt in the years to come.”

Thus, I wrote in my first column in 2010.

As it turned out, I was whistling in the wind. Even more wrongly based decisions have been made in the past 12 months, it would seem, than in 2010. One can only hope that the trend does not continue in the coming year, because the Philippines, tough and resilient as it is, can’t afford too much more of them.

Still and all, “there is a time and a season for everything.” And now is a time for counting our blessings, not for grieving our mistakes. So I will end the year on a positive note.

With respect to things macroeconomic, definitely on top of the list of things to crow about are the latest employment figures from the October Labor Force Survey (LFS). These show that the economy generated 2.057 million new jobs between October 2010 and October 2011—and that has to be a record high, not to mention that it is higher than the targets set out in the Philippine Development Plan (PDP) of at least 1 million new jobs a year.

It is true that 10 years ago, the employment generated was marginally higher at 2.215 million—this was in the aftermath of Joseph Estrada’s ouster (a euphoria, I cannot resist pointing out, that faded very fast, so P-Noy beware!). Nevertheless, the 2011 figures describe a much better situation because (a) the jobs generated more than accommodated the increase in the labor force (2.057 million jobs, 1.95-million increase in the labor force)—as compared to the 2001 situation, where the new jobs were less than the increase in the labor force (2.215 million new jobs, 2.453-million increase in the labor force); and (b) wage and salaried workers in 2011 comprised 55 percent of the labor force, whereas in 2001, the percentage was only 49 percent.

While we cannot crow, we can be content with respect to another aspect of the macroeconomy—that is, inflation for the year has stayed within (if only just) the Bangko Sentral ng Pilipinas target rate of 5 percent. The year-to-date inflation rate (up to November) was 4.8 percent for the Philippines, although one must say that for Areas Outside the NCR, the year-to-date inflation rate has breached the ceiling. We will know in a matter of days (by Jan. 5, 2012—the Philippine Statistical System has a statistical calendar and sticks to it most of the time) what the average inflation rate is for 2011, but I don’t expect any surprises. In any case, considering those nasty oil price increases, it was no mean feat to keep within the inflation targets. Re-appointing Amando Tetangco as BSP governor, even if he was an Arroyo appointee, was one of P-Noy’s best moves.

The three main objectives of any macroeconomy are (1) high and growing levels of output (GDP), (2) high levels of employment and low levels of unemployment (in developing countries, underemployment is also a major concern), and (3) stable prices. The government must be given credit for achieving two out of these three objectives. And I don’t want to be told that 2011’s GDP growth, which has not and will not reach even half the PDP targets, is primus inter pares. Not now, anyway. I am determined to concentrate on the bright side, even if it kills me.

Now let’s move from the economy to the polity.

In this area, top marks must be given to the conditional cash transfer program, warts and all. It has not been called (by economist Nancy Birdsall) the nearest thing to a magic bullet in development for nothing, and the Aquino government must be given credit for its determination to implement it (I take issue with its timetable for phaseout, but again, this is for another time)—even if it was started by Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo. Another good move by P-Noy.

The recent headlines about the Commission on Audit findings regarding the inclusion of non-poor families in the program should be taken in perspective: First, when there are 2.3 million families in the program (as of year-end, 2011) a finding that 200 family beneficiaries have been found to be non-poor—or for that matter 2,000 families, or even 20,000 families—merely means that the magnitude of the inclusion error is anywhere between one-hundredth of one percent and one percent. And second, it is par for the course that errors occur. But it is better by far to make inclusion errors (to include the poor or near poor) than exclusion errors (i.e., excluding them). As it is, the Department of Social Welfare and Development has hot lines that have helped it correct these “errors.”

And while we are on the subject of the war against poverty, again, the government’s efforts toward achieving the Millennium Development Goals are to its credit, including the coordinative efforts of the Department of Education, Department of Health and DSWD toward this end. Surely, there is an efficiency gain there.

Finally, even some of the boo-boos that P-Noy made can be considered blessings in disguise (okay, this is a stretch). His Porsche purchase (and its subsequent disposition) has brought home to him that one cannot talk poor and act rich at the same time.

And if the tragedy of Tropical Storm “Sendong” has made him finally pay attention to the monumental challenges of climate change and its impact mainly on the poor, we may yet get the transformational leader this nation deserves.

Happy New Year to all.