The Long View: Past’s lessons (2)

THE LONG VIEW

Past’s lessons (2)

 / 04:05 AM March 31, 2021

Ahead of Monday night’s announcement by the President (that he’d authorized the granting of P1,000 per person up to P4,000 per family, to 21 million of the poorest citizens in the metropolis and surrounding areas), the Palace already said the tentative release of assistance would be by mid-April.

This marks a reversal of what he’d insisted the last time aid was rolled out. Money won’t be a problem, the Department of Budget and Management said, since there remain unutilized funds from Bayanihan 2. This time, the funds can be given in cash or kind. Something is better than nothing and better late than never, and besides, like his order to the vaccine czar to expedite private sector importations of vaccines, the devil is in the details. This is why the Palace also announced yesterday that anyone wanting to import vaccines will still have to sign a tripartite agreement with government; the best improvements to be (which is good) is tax-free importation. So the point here is that it’s the private sector that will be bearing the brunt in the short term, to tide many people over, whether in terms of assistance (paid leaves, loans, outright aid) or ramping up vaccine procurement and administration.

Remember what happened last year? What happened was that as the President put the squeeze on local government units and tried to channel all aid through agencies like the Department of Social Welfare and Development, it was the private sector, whether big business, small companies, or simply neighborhood and other associations, that ramped up and rolled out aid to the poorest and most vulnerable communities around them. To be sure there was self-interest involved; but even if viewed through the lens of preventing an urban insurrection, it points to domestic capital having an interest in domestic peace. Take the stock market—foreign capital flew out and has stayed out.

Similarly while multilateral institutions like the Asian Development Bank rolled out aid, and some multinationals channeled their advertising budgets to charitable causes, on the whole and in the main, it was domestic capital that focused on domestic needs. This is the point from last week’s column: When push comes to shove, it will be domestic resources and domestic interests that can be expected to be mobilized.

In a similar vein, after 20 years of advocating for the elimination of constitutional limits on foreign ownership (to the extent that their efforts boomeranged against the proponents because of the unpopularity of their positions, particularly in what seems to be the sole nonnegotiable, which is foreign ownership of land), when the current Congress was finally poised to try to ram through these changes earlier this year, domestic business groups like the Philippine Chamber of Commerce and Industry suddenly changed their minds and said the time and manner isn’t right. They much preferred stimulus spending and tax breaks and other incentives, to wholesale constitutional change.

What accounts for the sudden change of heart? One suspects that what fueled the proposals for a generation — for domestic business to cash in and cash out by selling to foreign businesses from the West — suddenly fizzled out when it became clear mainland Chinese firms are the ones poised to do so, if ever. The generations-long, hardly-noticed, but still remarkable, antagonism between (some) Filipino-Chinese businesses and aggressive competition from (some) mainland Chinese, may account for this change of heart. Or consider the attractions of nationalist protection when the Pogo boom enriched our middle and upper class, which would not have been the case if those firms could simply have bought property for themselves and rented it out to their compatriots. Put another way, opening up the economy now would simply open up a bargain basement sale to foreigners at distressed prices.

It’s big business that appealed for relaxing vaccine importation requirements, and which is left scrambling at the back of the line, globally, even as government sort of tries to make it easier for them. Their vested interest is not necessarily fully the national interest—big business is out to restart business by vaccinating workers, managers, and so on, while the state must be the one to vaccinate everyone it possibly can, regardless of economic “usefulness”—but is aligned with it at least. This is of wider scope than equally praiseworthy efforts from the start, of foreign businesses operating call centers.

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Manuel L. Quezon III.

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