An interesting theme from commentaries overseas: a kind of all-pervasive mental and moral exhaustion afflicting national elites. Fin de siècle? The 1968 of our times (see contrasting views on that important year by Tom Stoppard and Tariq Ali; Filipinos had their 1968 in, well, 1970… it takes time for fashions to filter through…)? David Sirota thinks that in the United States, the possibility of a grassroots revolt ought to be considered:
America is in the throes of a powerful new uprising right now..
…this uprising is happening on both the Right and the Left. Like most revolts, it is rooted in a backlash to an Establishment widely seen as corrupt and morally decayed. This uprising has more picket signs and protests than pitchforks and pistols… It is a social phenomenon that is impacting all aspects of public life — our pop culture, our media, and most significantly, our upcoming national elections. It could take our country in a very different direction — perhaps positive (think universal health care, an end to the Iraq War, new trade policies), perhaps frighteningly negative (think immigrant bashing and a war with Iran).
Though today’s uprising has been going on since the two major explosions of the last decade — 9/11 and the Enron disaster — polls indicate that it is now intensifying in ways not seen before. Surveys reveal that the public despises its current president, and more importantly, that America is suffering a crisis of confidence in government as an institution. As Scripps Howard’s 2006 poll found, “anger against the federal government is at record levels” and “widespread resentment and alienation toward the national government appears to be fueling a growing acceptance of conspiracy theories” — most prominent being the one suggesting our leaders helped plot the 9/11 terrorist attacks.
The political topography resembles that of the last major uprising in our history — the one that took place in the 1970s. America then as today faced the same crises that have catalyzed uprisings since colonists tossed tea over the sides of boats in Boston harbor: among others, an energy emergency, a national security quagmire, a recession, a financial meltdown, and an attack on democracy.
As that uprising gained steam, Democrats nominated an outsider candidate for the presidency (sound familiar?). But when that outsider was elected he and the Democratic Party didn’t effectively represent that uprising – and that uprising did not go away. On the contrary, it became more intense. And by 1980, conservative organizers used the candidacy of Ronald Reagan to channel that revolt into the full-fledged conservative movement we’ve been living under for a generation. Over the next two decades, this conservative movement changed America domestically (tax cuts and social service cuts), internationally (massive increase in the military budget), and politically (wholly changed electoral map).
This same pace of change could be upon us again today — though one key indicator suggests the specific kind of change could be different. According to Gallup’s biannual survey of attitudes toward social institutions, Americans’ disgust with government resembles that of the late 1970s — but the variation between then and now is the antipathy toward Corporate America. Whereas in 1979 one in three Americans told Gallup’s pollsters they had confidence in big business, today a little less than one in five express the same confidence. In 1979, almost two out of three citizens said they had faith in banks. Today, only two out of five say the same thing.
The trend bodes well for progressives. Conservatives’ close affiliation with big business puts them at a disadvantage in the Left-versus-Right competition to harness the current uprising…
Of course, today’s uprising could be squelched completely, with neither the Right nor the Left capitalizing on it. Many institutions inside our government and our political parties exist specifically to crush populist, mass-based revolts.
Jared Bernstien responds by saying,
David is obviously writing about bottom-up uprisings, in many cases, movements that are a reaction to government failure. But in my experience, these groups eventually are demanding that the government alter its policies. So we’ve got to think on both bottom-up and top-down tracks.
And the problem for the top-down track is that government is in big trouble. I’m speaking at the federal level, but let’s not get too romantic about local cases. I haven’t seen much evidence that Albany works that much better than DC.
There are lots of reasons for this, but certainly one of the main ones is that if you elect people who explicitly prophesize that government is the problem, they will fulfill that prophecy with a vengeance. And yes, they’ll enrich their cronies along the way.
The problem cuts deep into the agencies… The depth of dysfunction is astounding, and it’s going to take years to repair.
David reminds us that our country was founded partly on “the right of the people to alter or abolish” destructive government. I’m in the “alter” camp, and I’d like to hear someone with David’s insights and movement experience hold forth on what it’s going to take to get there. What steps ought we be taking now that will ultimately give progressive uprisings a public conduit through which their goals can be achieved?
Are there echoes in how the police are despised, even attacked, in China? See Cracks in China’s Armor. Is this all in marked contrast, perhaps, to what’s going on in Thailand, where those formerly characterized as reformists are now advocating the dismantling of parliamentary democracy, according to The Asia Sentinel’s anonymous correspondent in Thailand’s “New Politics” Charade:
The New Politics turns out to be a startlingly reactionary proposal to move Thailand’s parliamentary system towards a form of appointed corporatism, or what might be called a selectoral democracy. Thirty percent of MPs would come from elections, perhaps one per province, and the rest of MPS would derive from various occupations and associations. Sondhi says the proportion is not fixed, it’s up for debate.
The rationale for wanting to dismantle Thailand’s electoral system is evident: pro-Thaksin forces keep winning elections. And as Thaksin is said to represent everything bad about Thai politics, he can not be allowed to wield power directly or indirectly. Thus, for Sondhi, and it would seem the PAD leadership as whole, there is now a need to bring about a revolution in political representation.
The idea of examining alternatives to electoral democracy is not without some merit, for it is common knowledge that massive amounts of money are required to win parliamentary seats, making parliament a millionaire’s playground and a source of further monopolization and corruption. It wasn’t always so, Sondhi told the rally. In the 1970s socialist politicians in Thailand could get elected on the basis of their ideology and popular support, but the emergence of dirty politics in the 1980s crushed any such possibility in the present.
The New Politics has interesting antecedents. The PAD leadership has clearly been speaking to military figures (this is now well documented in the Thai language press) who tried to stifle the emergence of parliament in the 1980s. Indeed, selectoral democracy nicely fits with corporatist visions of the old “Revolutionary Council”. The Council, to which General Chavalit Yongchaiyudh was said to have an association, held that elections merely led to parliamentary dictatorship and proposed a form of corporate representation to realize the “general will”.
A former communist, Prasert Sapsunthon, was the inspiration for this Thai appropriation of Rousseau, the French theorist of the social contract. Prasert became a leading intellectual among military circles calling for non-elective forms of democracy. When the Revolutionary Council effectively declared itself a provisional government during the political crisis of 1988 the elected Chatichai government took it to court for treason. It then faded into obscurity, but its ideas have never quite gone away, finding support among small rightist groups and even in some labor circles.
The New Politics is unashamedly pro-military and even codifies the conditions under which military intervention may occur. Sondhi has spoken of four conditions for military intervention: when charges of lese majeste are not acted on; when a government is incompetent; when corruption is rife; when a government betrays national sovereignty.
This has striking parallels to many discussions taking place here in the Philippines (e.g., “Should the military be kept out of politics or does military interventionism represent a deus ex machina moment to be ardently desired?” or “The problem with elections is that the electorate elects idiots”, see smoke and Verisimilitude), and reminds me of something I brought up when Adrian Cristobal died: the enduring triumph of Marcos’ concept of a New Society helps explain why Edsa contained the seeds of its own destruction.
The papers today report P1 hike for jeepneys, buses; P10 for taxis. The transport sector has to be placated. Senator Escudero lays down the basis for the next round of placating -of workers- as reported in Inflation cancels wage hike; hope pinned on new law. The Catholic bishops have to be placated, too: Gov’t open to lowering, not scrapping, EVAT on oil.
The problem of course is that soothing all these sectors requires money, and proof of the President putting the nation’s money where her mouth is, will be in the national budget.
Former national treasurer Leonor Briones in her column says something germane to yesterday’s entry (and the foreign commentary above), this time from point of view of economists:
Last week, I talked to two eminent economists. One drew a picture of the gathering of a perfect economic storm. To him, all the signals are already making themselves felt: increased unemployment, accelerating inflation, escalating prices, capital flight, and rise in poverty levels. The social consequences of the economic storm are also building up: increase in suicides, rise in criminality , social disintegration, and loss of hope.
So how come people are not rising in anger? The other economist said that all these negative developments did not occur in one fell swoop. They were building up, one after the other. By the time the perfect economic storm sweeps the country, people will be so weakened they will not have the strength to bestir themselves and take action.
She also happens to think Arroyo’s hold on funds, spending habits ‘dangerous’. One presidential habit I’ve heard about, is that the President travels with a stack of blank government checks when she drops in on local government officials; she then fills in these checks personally, a habit that apparently gives professional bureaucrats the Willies.
Anyway, in her column, Briones says the executive department has to redo the proposed national budget, because the macroeconomic assumptions that served as the budget’s parameters have become obsolete in the months since the Budget Call was made in May. Among the assumptions made were: singe-digit inflation, a balanced budget by this year, and a Peso-Dollar exchange rate of 40 to 43 to 1.
The Inquirer editorial for its part, says that real oversight over the national budget is a Mission impossible.
Anyway, the Palace propaganda machine has begun testing potential messages for the State of the Nation Address. If the Palace number-crunchers are, well, number-crunching furiously now, to come up with new economic assumptions for the national budget, Governor Joey Salceda is also batting for his economic plan by claiming it has presidential approval.
So we can expect the budgetary process to pop in and out of the news in the coming weeks and months. For a closer look at the entire process, visit The Philippine Center for National Budget Legislation. And here’s their book: CNBLbook.pdf which provides a crash course in understanding how the budget’s put together, and what it contains. (The Department of Budget and Management website also makes available the Budget Call for 2009 and last year’s national budget-related documents: the General Appropriations Act for 2008, which was based on the President’s Budget Message for 2008,with supplementary material: the National Expenditures Program FY 2008, Staffing Summary FY 2008 and Budget Expenditures and Sources of Financing 2008.)
I’ve reproduced some charts from the Philippine Center for National Budget Legislation’s book, and supplemented them with some charts I prepared for my show.
The first thing they point out, is that the Executive Department dominates the national budget, with the ratios more or less constant. The 2004 budget, for example, has 68% of the monies devoted to, and in the hands of, the Executive Department, with the next-biggest chunk devoted to debt payments, and a relatively slim percentage for the legislature, the judiciary, and constitutional commissions.
The PCNBL helpfully presents past budgets in a color-coordinated manner:
And then explains what the color-coding means:
Most members of Congress spend their time on the yellow portions, and sometimes run out of time to adequately look into the blue portions, which are meant to supplement the expenses of government offices (in yellow). The blue portions are called Special Purpose Funds, and as this chart shows, they total more than what’s spent for the established offices of the government:
A page from the book explains why Alleba Politics, for example, can complain that the National Government is in arrears to the City of Davao, to the tune of 142 million pesos:
Special Purpose Funds are entirely in the hands of the President, who decides when they’re released and to whom -and this includes the pork barrel funds of members of Congress (a surprisingly slender 3% of the whole) as well as the revenue allocations of Local Government Units. In a sense, then, aside from the fixed (because tied to government’s obligation to fund existing employees and offices) national budget, there is a parallel national budget, one bigger than the fixed budget and purely within the discretion of the chief executive.
This chart shows that of these funds, the biggest chunk is for “Unprogrammed” Funds.
These are, in a sense, promissory funds: if they come in, then they can be spent for certain purposes, still pretty much at the chief executive’s discretion. The book explains this in detail:
These “wish ko lang” funds, in turn, have been growing, percentage-wise:
The book provides a glimpse of the budgets and expenses of the major agencies of the government. By way of illustration, here is a set of charts featuring expenditure programs for the different branches of government, and including samples of two constitutional bodies we all adore, the Comelec and the Ombudsman:
Then there’s a focus on some issues raised by the allocations for various departments and their flagship programs, for example:
As well as an introduction to lesser-known budgetary practices such as earmarking funds. One example the book focuses on is the Motor Vehicles’ User’s Charge, which the group says is the third-largest source of revenue for the government, with a tremendous amount collected in a few years:
The charge, levied on vehicle owners, is meant to be specifically used -or earmarked- for a specific fund, with four main programs funded by it:
Subject to two departments:
Here’s the introduction to the fund in the book:
The organization hopes that their book will enable congressmen to deliberate on the budget more wisely and efficiently, and that it will inform the public so that it can keep tabs on budget preparation and execution.