Business World, 16 October 2017


“Will no one rid me of this turbulent cleric?”

Tradition says these were the words spoken openly (and likely in French) by England’s Henry II (1133-1189) before his court and some of his knights. Henry was locked in conflict with Thomas Becket, archbishop of Canterbury — over one of those inevitable church-state controversies of the Middle Ages — and the cleric was obviously getting under the monarch’s skin.

Henry’s words however were taken as a direct command by four of his knights who, eager to please the king, then secretly rode off to Canterbury cathedral and there proceeded to murder Becket right before the altar (each knight taking turns hacking him until his skull was split open).

That historical incident comes to mind because of the obvious vitriol in President Duterte’s reported plan (on Oct. 5) to impeach Chief Justice Ma. Lourdes P. A. Sereno and Ombudsman Conchita Carpio-Morales.

Just as eager to please, the President’s supporters in Congress did Henry’s knights one better: they had already taken the first step to impeach Sereno even before Duterte publicly announced his desire to do so. The House Justice Committee gave due course to a flimsy complaint against Sereno. Now it needs only to ritually find “probable cause” and submit it to the Congress as a whole. First hack.

But before this, the entirely gratuitous impeachment of the Comelec’s Andres D. Bautista — who had already indicated his intent to resign — was meant both as a threat and a dress rehearsal for the main act, which is the impeachment of both Sereno and Morales.

Bautista’s example illustrates the preferred outcome: an impeachment threat that forces resignation. But it was also meant to demonstrate sheer power.

By overriding the recommendations of its own justice committee (which had already voted to dismiss the impeachment complaint), the House majority sought to demonstrate its ability to disregard its own rules and to act based on no more than sheer whim or caprice — in other words to behave like a lynch mob. The point was to demonstrate the ordeal that awaits Sereno and Morales and hope to cow them into resignation (thus allowing the President to appoint their more spine-malleable replacements).

But why do I get the feeling, given their character and grit, that neither woman will allow herself to be bullied into resigning but that each will defend her integrity to the last? Those who think otherwise probably just don’t know these women enough.

Like Becket, they have nothing to lose but their good name and self-respect — which just happens to be everything. (That is admittedly a notion alien to those — including many of their tormentors — whose secret life-goals go no further than the accumulation and enjoyment of private wealth, no matter how acquired, and uncritical approval by their narrow circle of family and cronies.)

So if the President’s mob in Congress insists on its scheme anyway, the likely scenario is not quick capitulation and resignation by the two women but (at least) two contentious and long-drawn out impeachment trials in broad public view. These will inevitably be covered wall-to-wall by the networks, given a blow-by-blow account in the newspapers, and provide months-long fodder for social media trolls and activists alike.

The agenda for next year’s politico-novela will have been preset. And all this will be aside from those other unresolved political issues between the administration and its widening circle of critics: the drug war, EJKs, the alleged hidden wealth and secret corruption of the president and his family, the debate over federalism and charter change, ISIS infiltration in Mindanao, NPA attacks. (Should I go on?)

In the meantime, will anyone in Congress be left to mind the economy?

Political controversies carried over into next year are bound to run out the clock and suck out any air left for rational discussion of anything of economic substance. And towards the end of next year we’ll already be looking at the 2019 midterm elections — good luck making politicians work seriously by then.

You can tell things are dire and desperate when even the ever-resilient and forbearing Donald Dee of the Employers’ Confederation of the Philippines begins to sound exasperated. Donald was quoted last week as saying he had had “enough of this fighting, this politics. We’re sick and tired of that. We don’t want any of that because it’s so frustrating. Give us some confidence that we are going to invest in a long-term investment now.”

Just to reinforce the point in case some of us missed it: major organizations have already lowered their GDP growth forecasts for this year: the IMF (from 6.8% to 6.6%); the World Bank (twice, from 6.9% to 6.8% then to 6.6%); Standard Chartered (from 6.8% to 6.5%); and the Asean+3 Macroeconomic Research Office (from 6.8% to 6.6%). These organizations are polite enough to give revised forecasts that don’t fall below the government’s lower-bound target (6.5%) and to say they are more “optimistic” about next year. But that’s no guarantee they cannot revise their numbers downward again. Much of the downgrading is ostensibly because of delay in the government’s promised infrastructure rollout: “build, build, build” has turned into “wait, wait, wait.” But more worrisome and important for long-term growth is the fact that new equity foreign investments — the canary in the coal mine — are declining precipitously.

There is a hiatus in the administration’s economic agenda because the attention of its highest leaders is preempted by an agenda of vendetta and scorched-earth politics. Even the single significant economic reform proposal thus far, the revenue-raising TRAIN measure, is struggling. Nor does it even hit the spot.

For the immediate problem at this point is not even more revenues when the administration (just like the previous one) cannot even eat the food that’s already on the table. The real bottlenecks are in implementation and none of these are close to being sorted out: clunky rules on procurement, right of way issues, prohibitive rules on foreign participation in infrastructure construction and provision, and the technical deficit and lack of coordination among government agencies.

And even more broadly (to repeat some of what Toti Chikiamco wrote here last week), who’s now even willing to talk about really big issues? Like how to modernize agriculture value chains and wipe out rural poverty, build peace and encourage private investment in Mindanao, create an active market in agricultural land, get serious about vocational-technical training, catch up on advanced science and technology. (About that last item, the University of the Philippines — the country’s premier research university — to this day has no program in big-data science, much less in AI; its high officials instead spend their time figuring out where to lay out minor campus roads using public works funds for the noble purpose of rerouting ikot jeepneys — high science and high-priority infrastructure, indeed!)

The sense of drift and uncertainty will only deepen with the further diversion of Congress’s attention to an agenda of politics instead of policy. The conventional wisdom used to be that Mayor Duterte could be left to indulge himself in the issues he knows best — the drug war, crime, and getting even with his opponents — so that his “economic managers” would be left alone to run the economy according to their best judgement. But that is now clearly mistaken.

The Mayor’s outsize political agenda of intolerance and vendetta is like a Harvey Weinstein that cannot be denied: it overbears, dominates, cajoles, intimidates, threatens, sweeps away all else until it gets its own way.

By yielding to impeachment-mania, the sycophantic mob in Congress has become the enabler of those who would assault society and its independent institutions. Is it really too late to change course?

While the country has long been criticized for not having a decent rail system, it is strange that in Congress, railroading seems to be a well-developed skill. And the choo-choo express there seems to be functioning fine.


Emmanuel de Dios is professor at the University of the Philippines School of Economics. If not for the distraction, he would rather have devoted a column to Richard Thaler and the ethical implications of behavioral economics.