The Long View: Under the surface


Under the surface


Under the surface

April is tax season and the unhappiest time of the year for most people in productive occupations except, perhaps, for those who have made a profession out of official extortion.

For them, this is their time to shine. Operating on the simple principle that God helps those who help themselves, they gladly offer a devil’s bargain to big taxpayers: the overall size of what you have to pay on taxes to the government can go down if you give the tax official you’re dealing with a cut.There is no getting around this deal because of two tried-and-tested principles.

The first is that the only certainties in this world are death and taxes (so it’s only a question of when and how much). The second is one familiar to gamblers everywhere: the house always wins. In the case of taxes, this means that honesty never pays because tax rules are written in such a manner as to leave an opening for interpretations by the dishonest or the dishonorable in the public service.

Hence the euphemism known in the corporate world as the “cost of doing business“ which, in “good” years, is fixed because predictable. Any increase in uncertainty and therefore, risk, dampens domestic economic dynamism and drives away foreign investments; not enough has been written about the manner in which both domestic and foreign economic activity were suppressed by how then President Rodrigo Duterte maintained his hold by “sampling”: targeting individuals to intimidate broad swathes of society.

This was useful to Duterte but also resulted in fostering behavior that has helped his successor at a time when Duterte could benefit from a revival of behaviors he helped stamp put: conditioned to duck and cover, big business is not about to offer bold prescriptions for reform; having helped severely erode media independence and reduce the media landscape as a whole, there are no longer enough reporters, or editors, or readers, or viewers, or listeners, to make the powers that be sweat: not least because the new dichotomy in our politics is no longer Left and Right and Establishment versus Reform, it’s between the Old Right and the New Right, and between Marcos and Duterte.

Similarly, there are dynamics as old as political time itself at play in this Restoration Era. Not just every new administration (since this administration is approaching middle age, aka its midterms) but every new finance secretary has to show it can collect more taxes than its despised predecessor(s): this means, during tax season, another layer of desire being imposed: the desire to meet quotas imposed from above, in expectation of window-dressing moment during the State of the Nation Address or some similar official ritual.

At such times, a new kind of terror stalks corporate boardrooms: the terror of assessment, with particularly terrible seasons being those when assessments are repeated: you think you’ve gotten past one, and another one is announced. Here again, rectitude is neither a good defense nor a survival mechanism, because of the iron rule of the quota. It must be met, and to be uncooperative is to give those trying to fill the quota a scapegoat.

The best that boardrooms seem to be able to hope for is equal opportunity assessments, even if repeated, on the principle that at least it fairly spreads misery around instead of selectively targeting certain businesses that happened to incur the ire of the powers that be.

Here is what separates the past from the present: the lack of a forum for the public to vent its frustrations so that in most years, complaining lets off steam and in truly bad years, the steam is of such volume and pressure even the powers that be can get scalded. At present, what relieves pressure is the weird kind of satisfaction that comes from hearing—not knowing, but simply hearing whispering—that the predators are preying on each other. That those shaking down productive enterprises are informing on each other, resulting in kidnapping, robberies, and extortion that can’t be reported to the cops—because those extorted or stolen from are themselves the beneficiaries of ill-gotten wealth.

Most fundamental of all is this truly mind-boggling theory: that it is better to keep quiet about crime because to raise a fuss would only help those whose criminality was much worse than whatever’s allegedly currently going on.

Manuel L. Quezon III.

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