From a used-book store, I recently got three books on as many prominent figures with varying backgrounds and orientations: Keith Richard, Leon Trotsky and Mario Cuomo. The first is an aging rock star who wrote his wonderful bio titled “Life”. The second was a revolutionary and a Jew who gained a prominent role in Bolshevik Russia. The third was a Democratic politician known for his unapologetic defense of liberalism.
So sorry the books have remained in their cheap plastic wrap, unopened, unread. Mario Cuomo, the former three-term governor of New York and the father of the incumbent governor, died last week with my intent to learn more about liberal politics and about politicians who stood for the more vulnerable in society unfulfilled. Mario Cuomo was all of that. Some say that his introspection and humanity scuttled his presidential dreams. Failing to read his book, I was forced to turn to the obits, the recollections of his life in politics and the memories of his unabashed liberalism.
You know what. In the 1984 Democratic National Convention, Cuomo delivered the speech of his life, a stinging, scathing rebuke of Ronald Reagan’s “ shining city on a hill” and “morning in America.” I will quote the most memorable sentence of that speech.
“ There is despair, Mr. President, in the faces you don’t see, in the places you don’t visit.” Read the sentence again and try to see if it applies in our own context of uneven development, Mr. Aquino’s own “ shining city on a hill” of credit upgrades and sustained GDP growth. Mr. Aquino’s creation of a paradise for the Top 1 percent.
We can only wish that somebody of prominence in our politics would stand up and echo the words of Mario Cuomo and tell Mr. Aquino this: There is despair, Mr. President, in the faces you don’t see, in the places you don’t visit.”
How true and how relevant to our own specific political-economic context was that Cuomo line about the two cities. We won’t debate about the sustained GDP growth and the credit upgrades. And we won’t even refute the puff pieces written by parachuting foreign journalists on the reformist agenda of Mr. Aquino. We can even say that we don’t even question the personal integrity of Mr. Aquino.
But what Mr. Cuomo said in 1984 about the America of Mr. Reagan, that it was a “ tale of two cities “and not a shining city on a hill” is exactly the unalloyed condition of Philippine society today. In the places that Mr. Aquino doesn’t ever visit, in the faces that he does not see or want to see, what is in there is despair and hopelessness.
And over the past four years, Mr. Aquino has never cared about these hamlets of hopelessness and poverty, our own sloughs of despond. He has not lost a single night of sleep thinking over the two cities, one of gleaming skyscrapers and the other – just a few kilometers away – slum areas of brutal poverty.
There is more despair in the rural areas where most live on subsistence farming.
Mr. Aquino has a governing philosophy that is not too far removed from Reagan and his “shining city on a hill.”
The key strategy is to favor the key economic players, the “job creators” and to erect an entire infrastructure that is favorable to business. Markets and capital are the king. Once you unleash the power of capital, there will be growth and this will spread prosperity all around. Gains from the top will trickle-down, even with the least push from government as that is the natural order of things.
On the growth side, the key strategy has worked well over the past four years. Growth is being posted year-on-year. Credit upgrades have come with the realization of monetary and fiscal benchmarks. Foreign journalists have not run out of puff pieces to write about the Philippines and its sustained growth. Pegged, of course, on Mr. Aquino’s so-called reformist agenda.
The singular misfortune of Mr. Aquino is all of these positives have been posted in the time the phrase “99 percent” was made an important part of the global economic lexicon. And that 99 percent of income gains in the US from 2009 to 2012 had been sucked up by the Top One percent. Thomas Piketty wrote a masterpiece on global inequality called Capital in the Twenty-First Century, which consciously drew from an earlier masterpiece by Karl Marx. And Pope Francis declared “ tickle-down” as pure bunk.
Piketty warned that only bold political approaches can reverse the slide to patrimonial capitalism and the inexorable march to a truly unjust and unequal world.
Mr. Aquino has neither the boldness nor the will to depart from his “growth-at-all-cost” governing philosophy. He is truly Reagan on that score, blinded by the belief that a rising tide lifts all boats. The multitudes who are poor and despairing are invisible to his government. While Mr. Aquino loves inaugurating office towers and manufacturing and assembly sites and would not miss the chance to cut the ribbons on newly-built roads and bridges and ports, he has a loathing for going into areas of despair and poverty.
Look at his photo-ops. It is exclusively with things associated with dynamism and progress. Or, photo-ops with captains of business or young overachievers. The people mentioned in the Sermon on the Mount are not the people of Mr. Aquino.
Mr. Aquino has yet to realize the hard truth that we are not a “shining city on a hill” but truly a “tale of two cities.”