The Long View
The great book blockade of 2009
According to Malaysian blogger-turned-parliamentarian Jeff Ooi, if you buy books or computers, the government will allow you to deduct your purchase costs from your income tax. The Malaysian government seems to be of the opinion that buying books and computers are good things; that these good things should be encouraged; and that the benefits of personal purchases that improve knowledge and increase modern skills outweigh any potential loss of revenue to the government.
The policy of our government seems to be the exact opposite: to put the squeeze on citizens in order to add to government coffers depleted by electioneering expenses. Over at McSweeney’s is an entry by Robin Hemley, the director of the University of Iowa’s Nonfiction Writing Program who’s in the Philippines on a Guggenheim Fellowship. In “The Great Book Blockade of 2009,” he details the creativity of Filipino bureaucrats like Customs Undersecretary Espele Sales.
According to Hemley, the situation developed this way. Stephenie Meyer’s novel “Twilight” apparently did so well in the bookstores that the number of copies being imported attracted the attention of a Customs official. Examiner Rene Agulan decreed that duties be paid. It seems that the importer of the book reacted in a manner familiar to most book lovers in the country: to eliminate the hassle, the importer complied with the Customs levy on the title.
Hemley says surrendering to the authorities was a mistake because the Philippines, back in 1952, became a signatory to the Florence Agreement, a United Nations treaty that mandates the tax-free importation of books in order to facilitate the free flow of “educational, scientific, and cultural materials.” The importer’s submission to the whims of Customs whetted the Bureau’s appetite; they put a squeeze on all book importations by air. The result? For two months virtually no imported books entered the country.
Not least because it seems book sellers had the gumption to challenge the government. Enter Undersecretary Espele Sales whose PowerPoint presentation to booksellers Hemley describes as “Orwellian,” because of an essay in which Orwell examined how officials twist words to suit their purposes.
Take the official’s interpretation of the following sentence in RA 8047 (the Book Publishing Industry Development Act): “the tax and duty-free importation of books or raw materials to be used in book publishing.” According to Sales, this lacked a comma after the word “books,” which meant that what was tax and duty-free was only books used for book publishing.
People in the book industry were left scratching their heads, wondering what a “book used in book publishing” is. Customs went further and said it interpreted the Florence Agreement to mean only educational books are tax-free, with Customs deciding whether a title qualifies as being educational or not. Booksellers responded that this went against half a century’s common understanding of the treaty; did this mean everyone had been wrong and Customs suddenly right? Sales replied, “Yes.”
Their books sequestered in warehouses, booksellers trying to comply with red tape found the rules being changed every time they seemed on the verge of getting their documents in order: “Now they were told that all books would be taxed: 1 percent for educational books and 5 percent for non-educational books.” With Customs officials doing the sorting, manually, on a per-volume basis, it seems, tying up inventory as storage fees escalated.
This finally led many booksellers to comply (under protest) with the government’s levying of tariffs. Who says kidnap-for-ransom doesn’t pay?
For years now, Filipinos bringing in books have had to wrestle with Post Office and Customs officials trying to impose tariffs, hoping that citizens would meekly submit to paying duties and fees on books. But back in September 2008, there was an opinion of the Bureau of Internal Revenue that the importation of books for personal use is exempt from value-added tax as well as from the payment of import duties. A small handling fee, is, however, legitimate on the part of the Post Office.
While Republic Acts 8047 and 9337 put in place Value-Added Tax exemptions for imported books, the government seems intent on nullifying those privileges; and citizens and booksellers alike seem headed to being at the mercy of Customs officials pressured to remit to the national government even to the extent of defying international treaties. This is a government policy that has basically declared obtaining knowledge, in any form, as subordinate to fattening the national purse.
But of course this is simply yet another manifestation of a larger trend, which is to deemphasize government’s being in place to serve the citizenry, and instead fortify it’s existing in order to mulct the population: the rule of law being nothing more than systematized extortion, whether one talks of traffic enforcement or books.
As a writer and a partner in a modest book publishing concern, I have a bias for books. But then again, this is, to my mind, a healthy bias and one shared, for example, by countries like Malaysia. You’d think any reasonable government would encourage all forms of reading, as healthy and beneficial to the population. The teenager who reads “Twilight” might just go on to reading the classics or about science; however, at the rate officialdom’s going, it seems content to keep us starved for affordable reading materials. In the land of the blind, the one-eyed man is king?
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YOU can read Robin Hemley’s entry in full at http://www.mcsweeneys.net/links/manila/1dispatch6.html