• The hand you hold is the hand that holds you down

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    Ben D. Kritz

    Ben D. Kritz

    For today’s lesson, we have to make a couple of wildly irresponsible assumptions: First, that the existence of funds like the so-called “Disbursement Acceleration Program,” or DAP, is actually legal, and that it and other funding mechanisms like the Priority Development Assistance Fund (PDAF), or “pork barrel,” are objectively distributed.

    The hand you hold Stop laughing. This is just a mental exercise.

    If the PDAF is working as it should, the process goes something like this: A certain amount of funds (the actual figure is not important) are designated for each senator and congressman and held in escrow, to be disbursed at the legislator’s direction to the appropriate government departments, nongovernmental organizations, or in a limited number of cases, to the legislator’s office directly for the financing of projects and services of the legislator’s choosing. The amount of funds set aside for each congressman is the same, as is the amount set aside for each senator, although the senators’ PDAF allotment is significantly higher, since their offices are national in scope.

    The DAP, on the other hand, works differently. It is controlled by the President, and is compiled from savings from the budgets of the various executive departments; for example, if the Department of Public Works and Highways completes a road that had an original budget of P100 million for only P85 million, the leftover P15 million is deposited in the DAP, to be redistributed to other projects and services as the President deems appropriate. In other words, the DAP for the President functions the same way as the PDAF does for a legislator, differing only in not being a fixed amount because it is not part of regular national budget.

    I said stop laughing. The point of explaining how these things are supposed to work is to illustrate why they are terrible ideas, even if they were handled in a completely honest and accountable fashion.

    The first big problem with the PDAF, as has been pointed out repeatedly, is that its distribution is inefficient. Each congressional district is entitled to the same number of services that might be covered by PDAF funding, but the scope of those services differs from district to district because districts differ in physical area and population. The result, of course, is a vast disparity in the resulting welfare of the districts; the Lone District of the Batanes Islands (a favorite example), with a population of about 18,000 and a land area of about 227 square kilometers thus benefits disproportionately compared to, say, one of Cavite’s three congressional districts, which each have a population of about 700,000. Ironically, the lack of senatorial districts actually makes the senators’ PDAF a little more efficient, since these funds tend to cluster where there are the most people and are thus somewhat more proportional. The same is true of the DAP, which is not tied to a specific area or population.

    The second big problem, which applies to both types of funds, is they inevitably represent a retrograde planning process, funds followed by application, rather than the other way around. In that sense, the only thing PDAF or DAP can accomplish is to compensate for existing funding deficits, covering needs that were not, for whatever reason, anticipated and addressed through the formal planning process represented by the General Appropriations Act. That is a big part of the reason why the Aquino administration’s tiresome assertion that “government spending” can “boost the economy” is an utter fallacy: The “additional” spending through PDAF and in particular through the DAP (that didn’t actually exist until the Budget secretary had to scramble for a name for the apparent bribe slush fund discovered about two weeks ago) is not “additional” at all, but simply spending to bring government activity up to a normative level.

    On a more philosophical level, the inefficient funding paradigm—and by extension, its breathtaking abuse by every politician who has ever dipped a pudgy finger in it—would not exist if it were not for a stubborn paradox of in the public understanding of democracy, wherein the average citizen irrationally attempts to occupy an imaginary place where he expects to be simultaneously responsible for and taken care of by the government. For all her unlikeable shrewishness, Rep. Lani Mercado-Revilla of Cavite (wife of the now-indicted Sen. Ramon “Bong” Revilla Jr.) had it right when, not long after the “pork barrel” scandal blew up in everyone’s faces, she grumbled that if the pork barrel were taken away, her constituents had better not ask her for any favors.

    Call it what you will—intellectual lassitude, an overdeveloped sense of avarice, or a poor ability to perceive one’s place in the context of communities that may extend over the horizon—the Filipino citizen, much like democratic citizens in a lot of countries, assesses his or her government from very much a “what have you done for me lately” perspective. Even an honest legislator (remember, this is a hypothetical discussion) has a certain amount of scope creep forced on him or her by the demands for direct action coming from his or her constituents, and has to divert from his or her real role to enable the efficient execution of planning by legislating, to actually doing the job of the executive, to the detriment of both and the citizens who should benefit from them. The Executive, on the other hand, doesn’t have quite the same excuse; but since he or she is a product of the same political culture and has no external experience in management and strategy to fall back on, he or she reverts to the pattern which is familiar to him or her.

    The current uproar to “scrap pork” addresses the obvious problem of its widespread abuse, but for the most part, overlooks its fundamental economic and management flaws, which is worrisome because it suggests the desired fix is a substitution based on the same flawed perspective rather than a different perspective entirely. Even if it’s honest and has noble intentions, the hand you hold is the hand that holds you down; if the country is to progress at all, its people need to shift the aspirations from “a government that takes care of us” to “a government that gives everyone a fair chance to take care of themselves.” That’s what democracy really means.

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    2 Comments

    1. I don’t want the Government to do anything for me. I just want it to leave me alone so I can prosper on my own merits. But alas, that’s not gonna happen any time soon.

    2. maybe the other way around: the attitude of “what the government is doing for me” is

      the end-result of pork barrel culture … can’t really blame the people for this attitude,

      dole-outs have weakened their resolve … if we scrap the

      fund now – the government will be forced to plan out the budget better… oh well we

      live in hope