POSTSCRIPT / September 12, 2000 / Tuesday

By FEDERICO D. PASCUAL JR.

Philippine STAR Columnist

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What this country needs is a president

(This piece should have come out last Sunday, but a technical glitch got in the way. We hope this is explanation enough for the many readers who emailed us to ask what’s going on. We thank those who expressed concern.)

* * *

DON’T crack your head analyzing what’s wrong with this country.

The answer is simple: We need a president.

We mean a real president, not an actor pretending to be one.

* * *

THE Estrada administration, warning against panic-buying, should be told that the people can only panic but not buy.

With prices of essentials – from fuel to fare to food – rising ominously, the normal impulse of the average household is to buy now and pay (suffer the consequences) later.

But with most of us not earning enough, how can we buy? We can only panic.

* * *

ON the continued fall of the peso in relation to the US dollar, our monetary officials are again asking the people not to panic as panic, they say, only fuels more speculation.

This is another misplaced call. The man in the street has nothing to do with the peso’s fall. All we plain folk do is go to the tienda, the supermarket, the movies or the gas station to buy our stuff.

Such routine and small-time economic activity has no significant bearing on the comparative value of the peso.

* * *

THE authorities should instead grab by the collar the moneyed speculators who raise money, sometimes via overnight loans, and wade into the market buying up bags of dollars in anticipation of a further fall of the peso.

Such speculative mopping up of dollars causes the peso to fall faster and lower, in a classic demonstration of a self-fulfilling demonic dream.

The irony is that some of these speculators are the very persons who have been living off their closeness to the Estrada administration. Some of them are the same kaibigan licensed to own or manage banks that are supposed to help guard the country’s currency.

* * *

THE authorities should also stop referring to “lack of confidence in the peso.” The culprit, Sirs, is not lack of confidence in the peso, but lack of confidence in the crooks and the amateurs running this country (to the ground).

To be more specific, and to give the problem a face… it is lack of confidence in the President of this country.

They should also stop giving the excuse that the peso falls because other currencies in the region are falling. Why do we have to blame others for our own failures? (Note that our neighbors are not accusing the peso for their troubles.)

Let’s be honest and just admit that we hit the dumps every now and then because until now we have not firmed up our fragile economic infrastructure nor shored up our shaky moral moorings.

* * *

THIS reference to morals is no idle thought. It has something to do with values and our spirit as a people.

Let’s look again at our real selves in the rear-view mirrors of our cars. Our behavior on the road tells a lot about us, especially our values and frame of mind.

We need the smallest incident to develop a monstrous traffic snarl. A slight drizzle, or such a minor incident as two vehicles lightly grazing each other in a tight situation is enough to tie up traffic at that point and farther up and down the road for hours.

When such a traffic problem arises, road courtesy and mutual consideration vanish faster than the substandard asphalt being washed away in a downpour.

* * *

THE beast in us then emerges. Sensing the tightening of the traffic knot, we drop all pretenses and resort to kanya-kanya. It’s then every man to himself.

The same mentality rules the monetary jungle. A window of opportunity opens when the peso shows signs of faltering, and even staid bankers succumb to the temptation to try grabbing a piece of the dollar action.

It is useless to appeal to speculators intent on making a fast buck. What should be done is to catch them and drag them to court – if our corrupt system and corrupt enforcers could do that.

* * *

AS we sink, our footloose president is in America on an unnecessary 10-day junket.

Why 10 long days at this critical time? And what’s so urgent in having Erap Estrada read a forgettable speech at the blah-blah hall of the United Nations? What do we gain from a trip that required a dollar outlay so huge that the market trembled when the money was withdrawn?

Have you noticed that the peso drops whenever Erap and his traveling troupe buy up millions of US dollars in preparation for some foreign trip? The peso fell during this current trip, as it did just before the previous US trip of Erap.

For the sake of the battered peso, we beg our President and his buddies to please refrain from going on sorties abroad too often.

* * *

TO summarize the scary scenario, look at this simple scorecard of minuses and pluses:

Down: Peso down versus the dollar, foreign investments down, tourism down, employment down, real wages down, sales down, real estate down, construction down, essential services down, people’s morale down.

Up: Prices up, inflation up, layoffs and business closures up, crimes against property up, kidnapping for ransom up, cronyism up, corruption up, traffic mess up, garbage and flood problems up, pollution up, Moro secession and NPA depredation up.

But whether up or down, the total effect is Hard Times Ahead for most people, especially those who are unemployed, underemployed and even those who think of themselves as middle class but are not earning enough to maintain their accustomed lifestyle. All together, that’s more than half of the population!

* * *

ON the local scene, meanwhile, that was a cheap shot fired by Sen. Raul Roco when he lumped together President Estrada and Vice President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo and blamed the unlikely tandem for the economic morass we are in.

Roco is obviously trying this early to chip away at the popularity of Arroyo who looms as his most formidable rival for the presidency in 2004.

But Arroyo, whose assignment in the Cabinet is social welfare, has nothing to do with Estrada’s (mis)handling of the economy. Roco knows that. For him to hit Arroyo below the, huh, poverty line, he must be very worried about her.

* * *

AT least the oil cartel is transparent this time. The Big 3’s using as stalking horse their allies among the new players is very transparent. Everybody sees through it.

It’s clear that the oil cartel wants the new players to take the lead with their peso-plus price increase per liter of gasoline, hopefully to dilute expected objections to their own upcoming price increase of more than a peso.

They would have a problem, however, if considerable political pressure is brought to bear on the President and, by extension, Petron, not to raise pump prices beyond a peso.

* * *

THE psychological ceiling in this town for gas price increases is one peso per liter.

Will a defensive Erap Estrada buffeted by gut issues of prices, unemployment and deteriorating essential services, allow Petron (and the rest) to go beyond 95 centavos and thereby trigger demands for corresponding adjustments in fares, wages and prices of food?

Imagine Erap limping back home from an extended junket to preside over an economy in disarray, an economy he may not even understand, with unrest in the streets, insecurity in our homes, and shrill cries for his removal.

Erap must love the oil cartel so much to allow himself to be crucified in their name.

* * *

THE new oil players were reportedly making some two pesos per liter even before they raised their pump prices last week. That was because instead of trying to beat the Big 3 by underpricing them, the small players decided to join them.

It appears that the one-peso price increase of the new players was meant merely to preserve their profit margin.

We’re amazed by the audacity of the new players sticking out their necks for the Big 3 (actually the supplier of some of them). As it is, the new players do not have volume because many motorists still adhere to brand loyalty.

He who loves his car would normally not pump just any fuel into his tank. The average car owner sticks to brands that he has found satisfactory. He would not experiment with the small operators’ brands even if they were a few centavos cheaper.

Only the drivers of jeepneys, taxicabs and other public conveyances who want to cut expenses would gas up at a new player’s station offering slightly cheaper fuel. After all, they don’t own the vehicles they drive.

* * *

MEANTIME, don’t blink. Keep your eyes on the Abu Sayyaf. Especially after Erap Estrada made it a point to announce in Nuyok that no, he’s not sending commandos after the Abus.

One morning, you might wake up swamped with news of a night assault with some of the remaining hostages, including that American from the dark side of Oakland, rescued.

The government has oft repeated the line that the safety of the hostages had priority, but with the impasse dragging on, more and more people are beginning to think hindi na bale if some of them get hurt in a rescue attempt.

Note that all the women hostages and all but two of the Caucasians have been ransomed out of harm’s way. Puede na?

But what about preacher Wilde Almeda and his apostles? These JDV fans better start running before the fireworks start. After all, Almeda is not Mike Velarde. Otherwise a swarm of avenging angels looking like St. Michaelacson would descend on the kidnappers and blast ‘em to kingdom come.

* * *

(First published in the Philippine STAR of September 12, 2000)

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