Business World, 29 May 2017


The early 1980s in Germany were a time of growing environmental concern. One of the main issues at the time was the dying-out of forests. Acid rain caused by automobile and coal-power plant emissions were rapidly killing off the trees. A minor sidelight in the midst of this otherwise grim context, however, was a half-ironic, half-recalcitrant car sticker that gained some fame. It read: “Mein Auto fährt auch ohne Wald.” (My car will run even without the forest.)

Black humor has its role during dark days, so it may be about time a bumper sticker was produced here, too — maybe in lieu of car plates, which are still unavailable. It could read: “We shall thrive even without the poor,” to be issued only to the rich and middle classes, who are those who can afford cars, anyway. A similar attitude might well be advertised in view of recent events. Bumper sticker: “Business is good, even without human rights,” or “I will get rich even under martial law — now na.”

In the meantime, for those who are still mildly interested, poverty may actually be on the rise. An SWS survey for the first quarter of 2017 showed 50% of respondents regarded themselves as poor, a marked increase over the 44% in the last quarter, or an additional 1.5 million households. This reverses a trend of consistently falling self-rated poverty since 2014. The hitherto declining trend was confirmed even by official poverty statistics, which showed poverty incidence among families had fallen from 19.7% in 2012 to 16.5% in 2015 (or from 25.2% to 21.6% among individuals). But that may now have ended.

Nor is this deterioration just a matter of subjective perception. It may well be connected with some hard facts. Headline inflation has risen sharply from only 1.4% and 1.8% respectively in 2015 and 2016 to 3.4% by March and April of this year (and don’t say this is just “base effects”). Food inflation alone already reached 4% as of April — no doubt worsened by the silly hemming and hawing over rice imports.

The other real variable that has escaped notice is jobs.

For all the preaching and hand-wringing about the need to generate employment, no one seems to have noticed — or to care — that employment has actually been declining since July last year. Based on preliminary but official statistics, the total number of people employed was 40.9 million in July 2016; it fell to 39.7 million last October; and fell further to 39.3 million in January this year. This is not a normal trend. Employment generally dips only in April because of the holidays but usually continues to rise from July to January of the next year. As things stand, however, total employment as of January 2017 was 1.36 million people fewer than in January 2016 (again don’t say this is because of “base effects”). If past patterns are any guide, employment should drop off further in April, which will then make two quarters of falling employment for this year. We’re not even mentioning the minor fact that unemployment has also risen. If Trump were only concerned, he would have tweeted: “So alarming.”

Then there is that ultimate issue people already seem tired of: extrajudicial killings that fall disproportionately on the poor. Quibbling over statistics seems perilous these days — it got the personable Dr. Benjamin Reyes fired as chair of the Dangerous Drugs Board. What is not in doubt, however, are the police’s own figures showing that murders and homicides under the present administration have risen by 40% over the same period the previous year (7,022 in July-November 2016, versus 5,019 in 2015), mostly with the poor as victims.

But, hey, who cares? Bumper sticker: Mein Geschäft läuft auch wenn arme Leute sterben. Duterte still gets “very good” ratings across the board, so there’s little chance of a political upheaval soon on the order of EDSA I or II — certainly not one led by the middle classes and the well-heeled. Indeed, according to Pulse Asia, President Duterte’s approval ratings rose the most (by 17 percentage points!) among the relatively well-off ABC demographic between December last year and March this year. Just goes to show who’s applauding the loudest. By contrast, his approval ratings fell by six and eight percentage points respectively among the D class masa and the poorest class E. Disapproval rose by 8% among the poorest.

Fortunately, despite the attacks and indignities being heaped on them, the masa and the poor are so powerless and confused they cannot even register a coherent protest. But of course they must continue to support the war on drugs — the very war that is decimating them. Why not? It seems the good thing to do and to say. Even their betters and superiors say so. For this reason one gets paradoxical results (e.g., from SWS): 73% are worried they themselves may be possible victims of extrajudicial killings; 93% say it is important to keep drug suspects alive; only 24% believe the police when they say the suspects killed were really “resisting arrest.” And yet 78% continue to support the “war on drugs.” (Trump-tweet: “So ironic.”)

The fact that GDP still grew at 6.4% (even if it’s looking like jobless growth), that the stock market has rebounded, and that now Gina Lopez is out of a job can only further warm the cockles of the hearts of business, high-society denizens, and would-be high achievers.

To top it off, now there’s Martial Law — what’s not to love?

After all, we should simply trust this President to do the right thing: such as when he declared of a state of lawlessness in the whole country in September; such as when he scuttled the peace agreement with the Bangsamoro, which gave more radical terrorist groups the opening they were waiting for; such as when he turned away from the US and Europe, appeased China, then complained of helplessness when China threatened us with war. It’s all good!

In fact, with our infallible economic managers saying it will not harm and may even help the economy, what’s wrong with expanding Martial Law to cover the whole country? It may even finally bring 8% GDP growth. Sure, it will bring some inconvenience — maybe shut down or takeover a media outlet or business here and there — but just remember, “It’s not about us.” It’s really about this or that oligarch, this particular business, or that particular freedom. In any case, we can always make our individual deals with the powers-that-be. (Why do I suddenly smell boiling frog? Trump-tweet: “So delicious.”)

More seriously, however, what we are witnessing is the gradual erosion of belief in human rights and civil liberties, a growing retreat into the private sphere, and an abdication of the citizenry’s responsibility to be informed and to hold their officials to account. Duterte often claims to admire Marcos, but the two are slightly different. Marcos surprised an unwitting populace with a dictatorship, but tried to buff up its reputation with highly qualified technocrats (many of whom were corrupted anyway). Duterte’s creeping authoritarianism, however, is being implemented in full view of an apathetic crowd (think Sauron and the orcs). Since there is no need to burnish the regime, it can be populated with mediocre provincials, rank amateurs, and outright clowns. (Question: under which one are you more confident the economy will fare better? “So obvious.”)

It will bring cold comfort that the Philippines is not alone. But the long view and the last word must, of course, come from the administration’s favorite européenne:

“What is exceptional is the very question of human rights is being questioned and in many places rejected. And that constitutes a marked alteration of our environment globally and locally, possibly the most significant human rights development since the establishment of the modern global and universal human rights system at the end of world war two. …

“Most crucially, however, this rejection of human rights is predicated on rejection of our common humanity. The rejects — those that don’t fit in, are not welcome, are to be rejected, criminalized, punished, may differ from country to country, community to community, leader to leader — but be assured they are all human… Their demonization — and the unaccountable empowerment of authority that accompanies it — pushes open a door onto an abyss — a void into which humanity has thrown itself before with awful consequences — because, of course, one cannot deny the humanity of some people without losing humanity for all people.”

So true.



Emmanuel S. de Dios is professor at the University of the Philippines School of Economics — and these days an unapologetic Europhile.)