THE first reaction of government was not reassuring. Faced with the President’s declaration that “we are already in the midst of a fiscal crisis and we have to face it squarely,” members of her official family dodged the bullet. Secretaries Purisima, Amatong, and Boncodin downplayed the president’s pronouncement, saying we were headed for a fiscal crisis, but not, exactly, there: not just yet, anyway.

Focusing on these surface differences, however, is like watching medieval theologians debating how many angels can dance on the head of a pin. Prior to the president’s Camp Crame announcement, a group of respected economists at the University of the Philippines came out with a sober paper detailing how the country could become an Argentina-style basket case in two to three years. Nothing the members of the president’s cabinet have said contradicts this: indeed, their statements, while meant to reassure that we aren’t quite a basket case yet, all emphasize the need to act now to prevent our country’s economic collapse.

So this is, in fact, what the President has called for: action now, in order to head off a fiscal crisis wrecking what’s left of the economy.

For her part, the president has asked that her financial team lay out the groundwork for declaring a “state of fiscal crisis,” which is presumably the economic equivalent of declaring a state of emergency. This will, in theory, afford the president certain powers and greater latitude in juggling funds. Whether such a condition can be declared and used to provide the Palace with greater economic teeth, however, remains to be seen. The last time we had a government fiscally on its knees was in 1983, and we were a dictatorship then.

What is evident, however, is that while the administration seems to more or less know what needs to be done, it is far less obvious whether the Palace has the savvy and the will to get other people to do what needs to be done.

The image of a circular firing squad comes to mind. Everyone is concerned with the fiscal deficit, they all want to do something about it. But the way they’re going about it seems more calculated to do more harm than good.

The Palace wants more taxes, which may be necessary, but seems hardly inclined to take swift and hard steps to rein in corruption –the infamous “leaks” in the tax system. Congress doesn’t want new taxes, but the best it can do at present is announce, on the part of the House, a possible –not even probable- pitiful reduction of the pork barrel by 25%. And not a peep from the senate.

Local governments are raising a hue and cry about their revenue allotments being reduced by 30%, and yet we haven’t seen either our major cities or provincial governments reining in the pre- and post-election spending sprees that occur by way of “beautification” projects that are unessential and downright extravagant.

We see the public and professions up in arms about new taxes, yet unwilling to commit to paying their taxes properly, and doing what it takes to ensure that taxes collected are spent wisely. The public and professionals all upset over new taxes voted in big spenders, and too many Filipinos are aiders and abettors of corruption in government. As has so often been asked of businessmen and the public: would there be corruption if citizens didn’t offer and pay bribes?

We point out these unpleasant facts because the fiscal crisis is not merely government’s problem, it’s everyone’s. Everyone has a part to play, and it begins with the belt-tightening and sacrifice that gives, first of all, the citizenry the moral ascendancy to demand the same of government.

In the end, we get the government we deserve: we have heard this often, and for all the endless repeating, it’s true. While this country remains a democracy the bottom line of democracy should be applied to the bottom line of the government: fiscal reforms requires fiscal responsibility and sacrifice, all of which can only be undertaken if there is public support and public expectations.

And so every citizen must take pause to ask: if the time has come to stop bribing and turning a blind eye to corruption, can we do it? If government asks us to sacrifice, what sacrifices will those in government make, and most of all, what are we prepared to do about it? We must begin by looking at the officials next in line for judgement at the polls: our barangays. We have until next year to clean them up. Can we?

Manuel L. Quezon III.

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