The Philippines, if we go by the NEDA numbers, is now part of a short, short list of global economic overachievers. The 7.2 percent growth rate last year was phenomenal by any benchmark and reckoning, given the sense of triumphalism in countries that barely got out of crippling stagnation. The Cameron government in England, still plagued by bad fundamentals, has been beating its chest for barely getting out of what seemed to be a permanent slump.
There is a sense of relief in prostate Greece and overeager pundits are now talking about a possible rebound. In reality, there is not much going on there, except for a few choice bonds that returned over 100 percent last year. These were essentially short-term market movements and never the general positive macroeconomic picture.
Yet, there is now plenty of talk of a “Great Rebound.”
Ireland is also in some sort of a chest-pounding binge and there are optimistic projections of a 2.1 percent growth for 2014. Still, the general picture remains bleak. Why there is rejoicing in a context of a 12 percent unemployment rate, we do not know. Perhaps this is the “new normal” —rejoicing over nothing.
Which brings us to this question. Why was the announcement of a stellar economic performance last year met with a baffling, perplexing kind of indifference? And why was the amazing feat reported by a minor Palace—and not by the president who customarily crows about such stellar figures?
The two figures—a 7.2 percent growth rate and a 6.7 percent unemployment rate—merited some Madison Avenue type media rollouts. Because very few countries in the world had done the same and achieved the same.
Why, we have to ask this, were the marching bands quartered on announcement day?
The hard truth is this. The Palace is truly afraid that none of the chest-pounding and gloating would resonate with the general public. It would not even enhance the institutions of democracy, as Justice Brandeis put it succinctly. You can’t have both plutocrats—all powerful and immensely wealthy—and a functioning democracy. The two are irreconcilable.
The Palace, for starters, will be hard put in explaining who benefited from the gains generated by the stellar growth performance. Doing so would force the NEDA to create a simple graph that would track, through Xs and Ys, what income gains in 2013 went to the top 1 percent and the top.01 per cent. Thirty percent? Forty percent? Sixty percent?
The Palace can aggregate the gains of the Top 20 percent to show a more equitable society but that can be exposed as a sham by merely extrapolating the gains that went to the 1 percent and the.01 percent. Explanatory journalism, not the usual puff jobs about how great the plutocrats are, is still an infant field but some people with conscience are going into it.
A media rollout would make it easy for critics to point out that in the rural areas where agriculture is the only economic activity, growth was almost stagnant, as it has been over the past several decades and in these areas the vast masses live wretched lives. Farming areas would only receive news of a great economic performance with extreme incredulity, if not with scoffing disbelief. I know what I am talking about.
In the barrio where I farm, 90 percent of my farming neighbors joined the aquaculture craze about ten years ago. They borrowed jumbo loans (their version of jumbo loans is anywhere from P250,000 to half million pesos) to build tilapia ponds in former cassava/sugar raising areas. I cautioned them about the perils of borrowing money to engage in a type of farming that we don’t know about. I even told them that even the fishpond operators along the Pampanga River had been losing money over the unpredictability of the water supply. What more of ponds that have to suck water from underneath using pump and plenty of diesel?
I made a rough computation that showed this figure to them: ten years from now, you will have to declare bankruptcy. To the left of me, to the right of me, and everywhere I look, what I said ten years ago had been proven true now. Former tilapia farms carved out of areas devoted to crops have been overrun by cogon patches. The rural banks are now moving in to foreclose.
Those who have stuck to rice and sugar and the traditional crops have fared slightly better but that is just saying slightly better than bankruptcy and losing your land to the banks.
It is useless stating whatever happened to the typhoon-ravaged farms in Bicol and the Visayas, and the farming areas wrecked by late 2013 and early 2014 heavy rains in Mindanao.
The 6.7 unemployment rate was mostly driven by service industry-type jobs that don’t even pay the minimum wage. The fast-food chains and the malls generally pay slave wages, with no tenure and auxillary economic benefits that come with full employment.
The labor unions have been eviscerated. What is current now is a right-to-work policy that bypasses the unions. The BPO workers are not even covered by the current Labor Code.
The middle class—meaning the OFWs—is physically absent from the country and does not function in your normal center.
The 7.2 growth rate offered no lift except to a tiny slice of Philippine society—income gains vacuumed upward. On second thought, the Aquino government was right in letting the announcement just pass. A sense of triumphalism would have been like toxic salt rubbed on open wounds.