CASUAL observers of governance still remember with weariness a word struck out by Mr. Aquino from the governing lexicon. Pope Francis and President Obama agreed that the word banished by Mr. Aquino “is the defining issue of our time.” It bedevils countries rich and poor, First World and sub-Sahara types, countries large and small.
Mr. Aquino’s loathed word was—inequality.
Mr. Aquino did that on purpose. As he started his term, he set out doing his priority, which was to make the economy grow and post nice GDP charts through an inspired approach that would make Ayn Rand very proud. It was a “winner-take-all” approach that boosted Rand’s “creators” through lax rules and an ideal, unfettered, wealth-making environment.
We all know the results, Mr. Aquino’s six years in office posted prodigious growth rates. His term enabled the emergence of a new class of dollar-billionaires, called by a billionaire tracker as the “those-who-can-buy-a-small-country-rich.”
Mr. Aquino became the darling of the Davos crowd and the Makati Business Club. The foreign financial press called him a “wonky technocrat.” Steve Forbes, the policy crackpot who once sought the Republican presidential nomination and a strong advocate of flat tax and balanced budgets endearingly told Mr. Aquino that he should be President of the US.
Mr. Aquino all but ignored the brutal downside. For the first time in the country’s history, the dollar-billionaires all but sucked up the income gains, leaving the crumbs to the 99 percent. So skewed was the income distribution that the phrase “40 families own 75 percent of the country” became part of the national conversation.
To make his Randian worship less of a national torture, he purged the word “inequality”—and all tamer versions of the word—from the governing lexicon. Not a single speech, not a single proclamation, not a single statement mentioned the word that disturbed Pope Francis and President Obama. And which remains even today—as evidenced by the Brexit vote and the rise of Donald Trump—as a malingering global curse.
The ordure of Mr. Aquino’s Randian worship was cleverly deodorized by his supposed “war on corruption.” He jailed senators after the release of a damning expose on unprecedented congressional corruption, pushed Congress into impeaching a sitting Chief Justice, orchestrated the arrest and detention of a former President. He was abetted by Big Media and the so-called “civil society.” Mr. Aquino’s supposed “Daang Matuwid” became the national issue, its dominance so overwhelming and overpowering that it drowned the real curse of the nation—a society of Gilded Age levels of inequality.
The fight against “corruption” degenerated into a farcical affair, a “wag-the-dog” tactic to obscure the dark underbelly of Mr. Aquino’s all-business presidency.
But as the Bard wrote, all lies and cover-ups end up badly. The May elections voted into power the antithesis of Mr. Aquino, Mr. Duterte. Before May 2016 moved out of the calendar, the Liberal Party, the ruling coalition led by Mr. Aquino, lay in ruins. It was, to use a popular term, the “resbak” of an alienated nation against Mr. Aquino and his political clique. No one paid attention as he left office. The top 1 percent he served was busy finding connections to the new mandarins.
Sic transit gloria mundi.
Mr. Duterte’s rise to power had its roots on Mr. Aquino’s many acts of banishments. He banished the “I” word, he alienated the 99 percent, whom he dismissed as without consequence, he moved with and circulated among the winners and bristled at any contact with the losers. What Peping Cojuangco said in the dying days of the campaign was painfully true. It was an insensitive government that alienated the people and imperiled the normal processes of a democracy that posed a real threat to democracy—not Mr. Duterte’s intemperate language.
Through deeds and not through words, Mr. Duterte should embark on a government of restoration. He should place at the front, back and center of his government the word inequality. The superrich can very well take care of themselves. The vulnerable just need the elementary safety nets from government.
Unless he gives to the Great Divide the kind of focus, the kind of intensity his government has been devoting to the campaign against drugs, the most urgent global issue will not ease even by a bit.
A UC Berkeley-based economist, Mr. Emmanuel Saez, recently updated his figures on income gains in the US. Drawing from IRS data, he found out that income gains that went to America’s top 1 percent in 2015 grew by 7.7 percent over 2014 levels.
What was called the “best year for the 99 percent” did not look good, compared to the gains of the top 1 percent. The income gains of the 99 percent were only 3.9 percent.
It is worse here.
Mr. Duterte’s government, if its intent is really to build an egalitarian society, should start with gathering the factual data on the vast chasm, then work out the programs from there.