Your instincts tell you not to comment on the debate between Mr. Binay and Mr. Trillanes on which—between corruption and massive inequality—is the primary source of evil in the country. Except for those who crunch figures (who make up an insignificant slice of Filipinos), the vote-getter on the greatest evil is official corruption.
Official corruption is evil. It should be stamped out with extreme prejudice. And the perpetrators should all go to jail, in reclusion perpetua. No one will argue against the crippling impact of corruption on our country’s still-fragile democracy.
But to say that it is the country’s major curse is wrong, woefully wrong and off the mark.
Let us assume, for academic purposes, that all of these were true:
• The P10 billion that went to the Napoles NGOs lined the pockets of senators, congressmen, governors and mayors—and the Napoles family (plus their agents) exclusively.
• That some P5 billion more went to the non-Napoles phony NGOs and that the total vanished into pockets of corrupt politicians and the ringleaders of the non-Napoles NGOs.
• Let us assume that in a ten-year corruption binge that involved pork barrel funds, more than P15 billion, which was supposed to be spent for public good, lined the pockets of executive officials, senators, congressmen and LGU leaders. And that greed was of a level that was without precedent in a corrupted bureaucracy.
• Let us add another P5 billion more in squandered funds during that ten-year binge for a total of P20 billion in lost money.
The next step, after determining that P20 billion was lost to official corruption in a ten-year binge, is to compare it to two figures—the yearly national budget and the yearly GDP. How big is P20 billion when ranged against, say, a P2-plus trillion national budget and a larger GDP?
Again, we state that corruption is evil. But we also have to admit that with a little accounting trick, the P20 billion, which is less than 1 percent of the yearly national budget, and just a blip in the yearly GDP, can be hidden as transaction or operational cost and can disappear in the books.
Now, let us look at another set of figures.
The Walton family in the US owns wealth that is more than the total of what 42 percent of poor Americans own added together. Researchers on inequality in the US have been able to put figures on the great divide with real accuracy. So it is not far-fetched that the two wealthiest families in the country own more than what 50 million Filipinos in the bottom of the economic strata own. And we can say that that is a great understatement of the great divide in the country.
Legally, no one can be hauled to the courts and sent to jail over this great human tragedy. That Social Darwinism is perfectly acceptable—and considered a fact of life —in most capitalist countries makes that great divide a crime of zero accountability. Even then, it is hard to overlook the draconian human costs of the divide. Such as:
• At least ten million children of school age being wasted by malnutrition
• At least 11 million families self-rate themselves as poor: skipping meals, surviving without running water, toilets and electricity
• Two or three regions with poverty rates of over 50 percent (a sanitized stat) and with literacy rates that would make Uganda a paragon of educational excellence
• Seven of the three causes of death are all poverty-related
• The school drop-out rate is one of the highest in the region
• The marginal rural farms (that are tilled by 30 percent of the entire workforce ) are a Slough of Despond
• More than 2 million Filipinos are out of the country at any given time to work in back-breaking, horrible jobs such as domestic helpers in the Middle East and the richer countries of the Asean and as caregivers in developed economies
• An active Revolutionary Left that lives off the exploited, the aggrieved, the starving and the restless. This singular fact alone makes the country a global outlier
• A thriving market for body organs as the poor are forced to sell body organs to survive
From all angles and reckoning, a P10 billion to P15 billion theft of public money every year cannot be the proximate cause of our country’s many ills. It is contributory but it is not, as the mainstream media narrative says, the worst of the country’s many evils. With the size of the national budget and the size of our economy, a P10 billion loss can just be written off without pushing the Republic into the financial cliff.
So why is the narrative that official corruption, which reportedly made Cardinal Tagle tear up, is pointed to—and getting sustenance—as the root of grinding poverty and wasted lives? Why is no one talking of a society of vast inequality, which denies the poor the opportunity to live lives with a little food on the table, decent plumbing, running water and electricity? And a 40 percent chance for a poor kid to finish college? Many reasons.
• By blaming politicians for being corrupt, the oligarchs and the plutocrats escape scrutiny
• Media are either lazy or compromised, or even members of the oligarchy-created power structure
• The main media outfits are owned by the superrich
• It will require research and hard work to do a Pikkety or a Saez and our public intellectuals are either very lazy or are compromised
• It is quite tough to inject science and empirics and accurately pinpoint what is the real source of the country’s many ills
• As a society, Filipinos would rather stick to conventional thinking than go into a critical examination to find out the truth
Aha. The president, in 2012, said “Kung walang corrupt walang mahirap” and used this mythology as a governing philosophy.