POSTSCRIPT / July 23, 2006 / Sunday


Philippine STAR Columnist

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To each his own biases, to each his own SONA

SELF-SERVING: The problem with President Gloria Arroyo giving an economic scorecard in her State of the Nation Address tomorrow is that such a report is actually a self-assessment of her own performance the past 12 months.

As such, it is self-serving.

But neither will a predictably negative assessment by the political opposition or by the street mob present the true state of the nation.

We should evolve a third party research institution that is ruthlessly independent, even of its financiers and staff, that will give the populace an unvarnished periodic report of the true state of the nation.

In theory, private media can or should provide this institutionalized reporting system. But most media still have to work out an independent existence in a milieu that demands interdependence, sometimes even accommodation.

The end result is that we the people gravitate to our favorite SONA version, mostly on the basis of our biases. We normally prefer to listen to a report that echoes our own sentiments and economic condition.

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STATISTICS LIE?: But figures, including statistics, do not lie? They do. Or to put it another way, they can.

My saying this will be challenged, but I will still say that even the computation of the national product, gross or domestic, can lead to different bottom line figures depending on who is doing the calculation and for what purpose.

There is the basic problem of gathering all necessary figures, especially in the Philippines where I would say more than half of economic transactions go unreported.

In fact, in answer to the question of why despite the dire situationers written about our economic condition we still manage to survive as a people and even make good in some outstanding cases, there is the informal or underground economy.

Transactions in the underground go unreported, making it extremely difficult to factor them in when calculating the national product or the peso value of all goods and services produced in the country in one year.

Arbitrary factors invented to make up for undocumented transactions result not only in arbitrary totals, but also make government figures — including those in the SONA — also arbitrary.

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POVERTY & JOBLESSNESS: Look, for instance, at government figures on poverty, or the economic condition in which an individual or a household is considered poor.

The basic measurement here is income counted in terms of money. What must be a household’s money income to be considered statically poor?

By setting an income threshold, or revising it now and then, the government is able to say who are poor and who are not, or how many Filipinos are below or above the arbitrarily moving poverty line.

There is also the matter of unemployment or joblessness, which can also be arbitrarily defined and measured.

The arbitrariness enables the government to say if a person is unemployed, employed or underemployed and how many in the total employable population are similarly situated. On that basis the government then reports the unemployment rate.

Such figures usually find themselves into the SONA. When they do, they usually spark inconclusive debate. But the discussion tapers off after a few days as the interest of the public, including the politicians, on the subject wanes.

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RESONANCE: On the basis of administration figures, presidential chief of staff Michael Defensor — who has evolved as the de facto presidential spokesman — said the President would highlight the “positive economic growth rate” in her SONA tomorrow.

He said that the Arroyo administration achieved a “buoyant economic outlook despite political noise, including persistent destabilization attempts.”

The economy grew by 5.5 percent last year, he added. The poor might think that by that he meant that they had 5.5 percent more food on the table and 5.5 percent more money for basic needs last year compared to that of the previous year.

Trotting out government statistics, Defensor said unemployment rate is at 8.2 percent and that seven of the 10 poorest provinces are faring better this year. He added that the poverty index has gone down from 34 percent to 24 percent.

Whether the government statistics being thrown at the public will find resonance in the public mind — and gut — will be another matter.

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CRUCIFIX: Across the street, we have the think tank IBON Foundation saying that “the Arroyo administration (has) revised statistical methods and definitions to come up with better social indicators and make them consistent with the growth hype.”

IBON executive editor Rosario Bella Guzman said, “On the ground, the economic growth is a fantasy as people continue to face joblessness, high prices, and abject poverty.”

Guzman said that by simply changing the definition of joblessness, and not by job creation, the Arroyo administration was able to reduce the unemployment rate to 8.2 percent in April.

IBON estimates that job scarcity is 43 percent of the country’s labor force. Note that Guzman is talking of what she called “job scarcity.” Like Defensor, she employs her own terminology and arrives at her own conclusions.

The final arbiter is the man in the street, the head of family, the average Juan Pasang Krus on whose frail shoulder is carried a heavy national crucifix.

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REDEFINITION: Guzman said that by simply revising the definition, the administration is able to peg the national average poverty threshold per day at only P33.72. This means that a Filipino who earns this much daily is considered not poor.

This revision has enabled the administration to claim having lowered poverty incidence from 33 percent of the population in 2000 to 30 percent.

But using the daily cost of living as basis, IBON estimates that as many as 8 out 10 Filipino families, or some 12.8 million families (around 76 percent of the population), may be poor.

Using the poverty threshold figures it has set, the government is able to justify a minimum wage level that IBON says is only 44 percent of the estimated cost of living for a family of six (P675.54 as of June 2006).

Guzman said that wages have been outstripped by runaway prices resulting from monopolies in vital industries.

The Arroyo administration, she pointed out, had the most number of oil price increases (69 times since 2001, or an average of once a month), and was responsible for 26 power rate hikes from 2001 to 2005, and the steepest increases in water rates.

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MAKING MARTYRS: The administration should hold back its military and legal hounds pursuing Bishop Antonio Tobias of the Novaliches diocese for sheltering fugitive Magdalo soldier, Lt. Larence San Juan, who is now singing like a canary.

Justice Secretary Raul Gonzalez is running true to form in seeking an investigation of the bishop for allegedly coddling a fugitive from justice. Such pressure tactics will not work on a bishop guided by Church doctrine that anybody who knocks on his door and needs help is welcome.

I agree with Sen. Nene Pimentel when he says the bishop was not harboring a criminal since San Juan was/is not a convict. He is presumed innocent of the charges until proved guilty.

But I do not think President Arroyo will commit the blunder of detaining Tobias and reaping the whirlwind of an enraged Church with the faithful in tow.

The administration’s hit men may just be trying to strike fear into the hearts of administration critics, including radicalized members of the Church.

The problem lurking here is that instead of being frightened to submission, the religious may actually be praying for that elusive chance for martyrdom.

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(First published in the Philippine STAR of July 23, 2006)

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