AN apocryphal story is told about the late President Ramon Magsaysay and the late Senate President Eulogio “Amang” Rodriguez, the two most powerful Filipino politicians in the 1950s, discussing the high price of rice which had been rising beyond the average consumer’s reach. Then, as now, because the harvest had been poor, the government had to import the staple from abroad. But at what price! This naturally became the President’s headache. What could he do to bring down the prices, RM wondered.
“Nothing, I’m afraid,” his economic adviser said. “Prices are dictated by the law of demand and supply.”
“Then, in that case, I’ll have to repeal this law of demand and supply,” said the President, who was a mechanic before he entered politics.
“Ah, no, Mr. President,” said the venerable Amang, a zacatero in his previous life, “you can’t do that, only the Senate and the House can do it.”
Nobody died laughing
The story went viral, as the expression goes, but nobody died laughing. This is why we still have the law of demand and supply until now. We continue to import rice even as we speak, and Malacañang-favored officials continue to reap huge windfalls from the overprice and the kickbacks. At the same time our policymakers assure us that our dependence on imports will never be endangered by a more sensible future policy on agricultural production.
Our research institute in Los Baños continues to train agronomists from Thailand, Taiwan, Cambodia, Myanmar, Laos, Sri Lanka and other parts to grow more of what we buy, and our credentialed economists continue to tell us that instead of increasing food production, we should simply cut down the number of children being born into the ranks of “useless eaters.” Since the multiplication of bread happened only once in Scripture, the only thing we can do is to send away the excess diners from the dinner table.
This, to them and for us, is the new Economics 101.
Faithful to this dogma, Economic Planning Secretary Ernesto Pernia is trying to teach the poor not to have more than three children per normal married couple. But the poor are such slow learners that President Rodrigo Duterte had to come in with a more persuasive implementation of Pernia’s prescription through his bloody drug war. UN Special Rapporteur for summary killings Agnes Callamard and The New York Times are convinced this war on the poor has already killed some 8,000 drug suspects since July, but Mindanao lawyer Jude Josue Sabio has told the International Criminal Court at The Hague that DU30 has ordered the killing of 9,400 since 1988—23 years before the Philippines became an ICC member. “They are slaughtering us like animals,” said a NYTimes pictorial essay last December, and the Pulitzer Prize honored the freelance photographer for his work.
The drug killings as fake news
In DU30’s defense, the new foreign secretary, Alan Peter Cayetano, has described this claim of extra-judicial killings as “fake news,” just as the deniers of the Holocaust dismiss the execution of six million European Jews by the Nazis as false. Since not even the police have documented the killings, Cayetano seems safe in this presumption that nobody else—not the UN nor the NYTimes nor anybody else—could provide the appropriate documentation.
Nobody knows. To the government’s credit, this figure of 8,000 or even 9,400 is not even a smidge of Stalin’s record of executions in Russia, Hitler’s record during the Shoah, Mao Zedong’s record during the Cultural Revolution, the Khmer Rouge genocide under the Pol Pot, the tribal and ethnic wars in Africa, or the global epidemic of abortion, each one of which had cost millions of lives. Nor does it put DU30 at the level of the world’s top despots, despite his open boast about his ability to kill criminals, in a nation of 105 million mostly poor people, with (according to him) three million drug addicts.
But it gives us more than enough to worry about.
I have digressed far enough from our story about the law of demand and supply. I wanted to point out that basic knowledge of any law of physics, economics, nature, or anything at all is not a natural attribute of political power; the most powerful men could commit the most humbling mistake just because they did not know any better. This invites some amusement from others, but it need not cause irreparable harm. The mistake could be corrected as soon as it becomes clear.
But real danger comes when the error is inflicted by someone who believes he can do no wrong. Caligula believed he could make his horse a consul; Simon Magus believed he could fly by his own power. (In the 1954 film, “The Silver Chalice,” Jack Palance as Simon, the magician, flew from the top of a tower without any props, to Nero’s great disappointment—“he did not fly.” )
Are Turkey and Mongolia Southeast Asian?
I hope there is no reason to fear that PDU30 might be heading in that direction. But coming home from China, where he attended the One Belt, One Road summit meeting hosted by President Xi Jinping, he told a Davao news conference on Thursday that Turkey and Mongolia would like to become members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean), and that as Asean host this year he would like to sponsor the appropriate resolution making them members.
Apparently, he shared his enthusiasm with Myanmar State Counselor Aung San Suu Kyi, who asked him whether he had considered the geography. Are they part of Asean or not? she asked. To which he reportedly answered, “I would say they are.” Ankara, the capital of Turkey, is 8,827 kilometers from Manila, while Ulanbaatar is 3,917 km away. Neither of them is in Southeast Asia. Asean is made up of 10 Southeast Asian countries—-Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam.
It has 10 non-Asean dialogue partners: Australia, Canada, China, European Union, India, Japan, New Zealand, Russia, South Korea and the US. Non-Asean countries could also be sectoral dialogue partners, development partners, special observers, and guests, but certainly not regular members. Yet DU30 gave the impression that he spoke with Turkish President Tayyip Recep Erdogan and Mongolian Prime Minister Jargaltulgyn Erdenebat in Beijing about their possible regular membership in Asean. This would be courting unnecessary embarrassment for DU30, who clearly knows the distinction between Southeast Asia and other parts of the region.
If they could join Asean, could we join NATO?
If these two countries could become regular Asean members, could South Korea, Japan, Singapore, Malaysia, Thailand, Vietnam, Australia and New Zealand, upon President Donald Trump’s behest, become members of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization? This is a rhetorical question.
This is not the only muddle that seems to confront DU30, in his handling of foreign affairs. His foreign secretary nominee breezed through the Commission on Appointments confirmation process without any questions being asked about his foreign policy views, or his undivided allegiance to the Republic, being the son of a natural-born American mother. In contrast to the speed with which the CA handled Secretary Alan Peter Cayetano’s confirmation, the CA put on hold the hearing of Social Welfare Secretary Judy Taguiwalo, after she had been rebuked for being a solo parent at the last confirmation hearings. She said the postponement of her hearing was the equivalent of torture, which she had borne in the hands of her captors after she was captured as a communist partisan.
But while the CA confirmed Cayetano’s nomination without any questions, DU30’s first act was to repudiate his position on a proposal aired at the Beijing One Belt, One Road conference by former Speaker Jose de Venecia, the newly appointed special envoy for inter-cultural dialogue, on a tripartite cooperation agreement with China and Vietnam in the South China Sea.
There is no sign that De Venecia has anticipated the latest reports of China installing rocket launchers at Fiery Cross Reef as a “defense measure against Vietnamese military combat divers.” Cayetano has warned against the implications of the De Venecia proposal on the sovereignty and territorial integrity of the Philippines, a position shared by Supreme Court Senior Associate Justice Antonio Carpio. This is a sufficient objection coming from this level.
Speaking with one voice
DU30 has expressed support for the De Venecia proposal, thereby creating an open public debate between Cayetano and a subordinate on an issue which should have been first discussed within the Cabinet or at least the Department of Foreign Affairs. This should not be happening if the President cares enough for the correct conduct of international relations. Indeed, the President is the author of the country’s foreign policy, but he must speak through his Foreign Secretary, and not through any alternative entity.
However meritorious the De Venecia proposal is, it should have been submitted to and vetted by the Foreign Office before it was aired in an international conference. This is to make sure that the government speaks with one voice and one voice only, in dealing with the international community.
Legitimizing the seniors
Aside from De Venecia being appointed special envoy for inter-cultural dialogue—which has not been defined—DU30 has just appointed former senator Edgardo Angara as special envoy to the European Union, which is already covered by a Philippine ambassador in Brussels and in every major EU member-country. At least a couple of individuals have also been named special envoys to the United States, which until now does not yet have a permanent ambassador. De Venecia and Angara are both politicians of note, but their appointments have provoked some concerns in the foreign service.
What is their actual position in the service? How are their positions and functions defined? If they are organic parts of the service, are their appointments governed by the Foreign Service Act of the Philippines? If so, the law says they must be no more than 70 years of age. I have long suggested that this law be amended to allow the President to appoint as ambassadors senior statesmen who are still lucid and functional in their late 70s or 80s. But so long as the law remains what it is, it should be strictly complied with. The President cannot simply say, “this is what I want and what I want should be obeyed.”