THE campaign promise of government largesse offered up by Vice President Jejomar Binay about a week ago is the sort of stuff that makes political opponents cringe. It should make anyone with an interest in effective, socially healthy policy cringe, too.
As he “officially” opened his campaign in Mandaluyong last Wednesday, Binay made an immediate splash by declaring that, if elected, he would see to it that workers earning P30,000 per month or less are exempted from paying income tax. In addition, he promised to replicate a couple of his popular Makati programs on a national scale and allocate P65 billion for the provision of free school supplies and medicines, and expand the conditional cash transfer (CCT) program. His Liberal Party opponent, whose name I will not state here, has been using this program as a dishonest threat to lower-class voters – to include people aged 60 to 64, as well as “many of our countrymen,” a demographic he did not describe in detail.
To more sophisticated voters, or interested non-voters like myself, that slate of promises sounded completely over the top, and maybe even a little desperate – “Vote for me, and I’ll give you the moon. With chocolate frosting on it, if that helps you make up your mind.” But of course, that message was not intended for the thoughtful. The ability to get elected and stay elected is not an insignificant skill set in this sort of political system, and in that respect Binay is probably peerless; in terms of substance (regardless of its actual value), Binay showed up at the gunfight with an actual gun, while his opponents have yet to equip themselves with anything more potent than swear words and a dog-eared script to a canceled telenovela.
Going beyond campaign mechanics, Binay’s declaration encourages two substantial questions: Is his plan feasible, and is it a good idea? In terms of feasibility, it probably is manageable, despite the Liberal Party’s dispatching one of its army of apparatchiks (the same ninny who took a picture of the nameless candidate and his opportunistic running mate in a helicopter and tried to tell everyone they were in a bus) to loudly protest that Binay’s plan would lead to financial ruin. Binay explained – briefly, which is understandable given the context in which he made the promises – that funding could be easily gathered from improved tax collection procedures, cleaning up wasteful government spending, and cracking down on smuggling. None of those things are exactly original ideas, but again, considering the circumstances and target audience, they were the right things to say; and to be fair to Binay, making a fair accomplishment of even just one of those objectives would be a welcome first.
As to whether or not following through on Binay’s plans is actually a good idea for the country, that depends on whether or not the country’s medium- to long-term needs will be best served by a socialized, big government nanny-state or applying effort to building a sustainable framework of social administration that encourages and supports greater individual self-reliance – or “empowerment,” if you prefer touchy-feely 21st-century buzzwords.
If the sarcasm dripping out of that last sentence wasn’t enough of a clue, I believe the latter approach is eminently more productive.
With the understanding that a campaign-launch speech really does not provide the space for a great amount of detail (details that I would be pleased to give a fair hearing to, should the Vice President wish to discuss them at length – an open invitation that is, for the record, extended to all the candidates), expanding tax exemptions is not nearly enough to fix what has become a comprehensively disfigured tax system, and risks creating unintended consequences – one can easily imagine, for instance, an increase in contractualization and overall decline in wages resulting from it.
The other suggestions simply aggravate conditions that have made the Philippines so politically dysfunctional in the first place by institutionalizing vote-buying on a grander scale. “Democracy” in this country has become very transactional; instead of creating conditions in which the entire economic spectrum is gradually shifting upward and providing people at every level with greater control over their own standards of living, government has instead progressively institutionalized dependency.
The only thing that really distinguishes and gives the competitive edge to Binay’s promises over the naked bribery of something like “bottom-up budgeting” is that he is going directly to the people with them, rather than making the voters subordinate to another level of political middlemen. The consequences are much the same: Rather than offering opportunity, Binay is merely offering a different kind of social crutch, and it is difficult to see where the underlying details necessarily left out of the campaign speech due to space constraints could make that a palatable idea without completely contradicting his public message.
If this is the best offer being put to the country this coming May – and for now, at least, it certainly looks like it is – there may not be much reason for optimism for the future beyond that.