THE LONG VIEW
Ignoring what neighbors learned from us
According to its own site, the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) agreement is a free trade agreement (FTA) between the member states of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) and its six FTA partners (Australia, China, Japan, New Zealand, India, and the Republic of Korea). It covers trade in goods, trade in services, investment, economic and technical cooperation, intellectual property, competition, dispute settlement, e-commerce, small and medium enterprises (SMEs). It went into effect at the start of last year, but the Philippines for its part, still needs to ratify the agreement in the face of organized opposition. President Marcos Jr. himself, after initially expressing reservations back when he was still a candidate, now wants it ratified. The Senate, for its part, has assured the President that it will do so before its Holy Week recess. But things hit a snag when the President’s elder sister, who happens to be chairperson of the Senate committee on foreign affairs, not only declined to preside over scheduled hearings but put her opposition to the agreement on record. There are all sorts of forces trying to rush approval, she declaimed, adding that “As somebody from the province, a child of agriculture, my conscience can’t support RCEP if it would cause the downfall of our fellow Filipinos.”
The President’s response was to reiterate his belief that the agreement needs to be ratified as soon as possible. While this latest public spat provides grist to the emerging cottage industry engaged in dissecting the sibling rivalry between the two Marcoses, it does underscore three clichés about politics: first, that all politics is local; second, that politicians campaign in poetry but govern in prose; and third, a politician thinks of the next election, while a statesman, of the next generation.
I’ve heard it described by an expert that the irony of agriculture in our part of the world is that the Philippines has neighbors who sent their best and brightest to study and learn in the country (whether at the University of the Philippines Los Baños or the International Rice Research Institute next door) and who have been successfully implementing the lessons and learning they obtained here, while we ourselves studiously ignore the same institutions and lessons they provide. Put another way, the same expert summarized the difference in agricultural policy between our neighbors and ourselves. Filipinos are focused on protectionism for increasingly backward sectors and using what resources are available to give short-time giveaways to court votes, while our neighbors are focused on relentlessly improving yields and maximizing efficiency.
One of the biggest changes in agricultural policy has been rice tariffication, and its proponents point out that the national staple has not suffered from the price fluctuations—and shortages—that have led to headlines about sugar and onions, which still subscribe to policies and systems that subordinate the market to the government. While rice is still more expensive for Filipinos than it is for our neighbors, that price difference is from the retention of comparatively high import taxes: But the income earned is earmarked for the support of domestic rice farmers. The idea is that this allocation will help support farmers as they acquire the means (new technologies, including tailoring rice varieties to the unique local conditions of the farmers instead of the old system of decreeing one variety and one approach everywhere) to plant higher-yielding and more robust varieties.
A case could be made, however, that the government should be bolder and find other ways to support the farmers aside from retaining high import duties from the protectionist days of yore, on the principle that both farmers and nonfarmers alike benefit from consistently cheaper food. But as the goings-on in the Senate (where half of its members will be up for some sort of election in two years, even as the President himself will face a plebiscite on his rule by way of the midterm Senate results, and where all congressmen and local officials will be up for reelection) show, it’s hard to make a pitch for long-term growth when short-term needs are so pressing. No one, not the farmer, not the candidate, is willing to take a risk on the national government being able to take care of short-term needs even as it works toward long-term goals.
Sen. Imee Marcos has a keenly developed instinct for the effective sound bite and the attention-grabbing stunt; her brother has been proving himself a more amiable, even earnest, executive inclined to freely delegate. The President having to balance the need for retaining popular support while trying to bring the country forward is most clearly on display when positive signs such as his rectifying past wrongs with the rehabilitation of Leocadio Sebastian are accompanied by nostalgia-fueled populist moves, such as reviving the Kadiwa rolling stores, which bogs down government in both wholesale and retail functions that it’s best not attempting at all. What, then, is government ought to do? Understand what it is only government can do, while leaving all the rest that the private sector can do better, alone.