First of 2 parts
I WISH to elaborate on last week’s column pertaining to proposals often heard from politicians that iterate the need to do away with middlemen in order that farmers (rice farmers in particular) can be compensated more fairly for their labor.
That economic forces have been, for ages now, robbing farmers of their just due is to say what I think is obvious to many. But the means to rescue them from that kind of bondage are not as clear as the ends, overhyped they may be. Sometimes they are high in promise, but low on delivery. Sometimes they shine — like Manila Bay’s makeover — as advertised, but swiftly turn ashen like a fake piece of jewelry in a glass of vinegar as soon as they are subjected to the grinding test of the real world.
Worse, government often has been found to ameliorate the conditions of the poor with sham packages of goodies that on the surface look good, but underneath are wicked devices that merely trick the taxpayer to keep paying. The coco levy, katas ng pork barrel, biyayang Napoles and the fertilizer scam, among many other examples, blended so well with our everyday lives that we hardly noticed a robbery had been going on for decades.
In that sense, one can say that responding to the plight of the poor has been a convenient way for those in power to make money.
Sen. Christopher Lawrence “Bong” Go’s proposal to tap the government in place of middlemen as a means to rectify an injustice and lift the farmers from their misery may have something in it. Flirting with the same results for things done the same way? The proposal is not new, but the power of the punch behind it is seldom seen even among heavy-hitting endorsers. His words:
“Isusulong ko po na magbigyan natin ng additional incentives ang mga farmers natin, for example itong easy access sa low-interest credit facilities, makinarya, fertilizer at iba pang farm inputs para mas maging productive sila… In addition, the family members of the farmers and fishermen should also be provided with free business and skills training that they could use to further increase their income. At saka magtatayo po tayo ng mga Tienda Malasakit stores in key cities para mas madaling mabenta ng mga farmers ang kanilang ani at hindi na daraan pa sa middlemen.”
We recall that Go owns the malasakit trademark, having established himself even before he became senator as the driving force behind Malasakit Centers nationwide. Such finely crafted branding may work wonders for fanboys, like a hypnotic vote magnet. What his followers miss is that this approach by necessity adds another layer to an already bloated bureaucracy. We concede that there is merit in government becoming a source of mass employment, especially during times of economic crisis. But we must not also ignore the perils associated with such a double-edged strategy.
In the first place, there is this question of how we are supposed to appreciate the functions of government. As a student of public management, I would say that government, in its totality, is designed precisely to perform malasakit duties for all its citizens. Will a service delivery system in sachets — that is, by retail — make a difference? If streamlining of government operations is an objective, which one will make it more likely to happen — more staffing or better coordination?
Secondly, a government that grows at an abnormal rate can indicate a shift towards authoritarianism. Read the signs with this backdrop: at least 272 government corporations came to life during the Marcos years.
When Cory Aquino and Fidel Ramos came to power, the government lost big chunks of its extra poundage either by mergers, privatization or outright abolition. But today, we see Marcos being cloned: not only are government agencies being created left and right, we also have a boot-licking Congress that is quick to grant extra executive powers. Somebody in that stinky Augean stable even tried to pass a congenitally deformed presidential succession bill.
And so, we reached this level of disgust: Congress is to Malacañang as appendix is to intestine. It is a useless extension of anything that is visceral. The whole body can function without it. If there is a middleman that needs to be excised by surgery, then both houses of Congress are past the triage stage. This costly prop — along with many other government offices that reek of rot and corruption — has been showing symptoms of political metastasis, pushing itself towards the edge of becoming a self-destructing organism. Because oddities of Congress’ kind exist, dud ideas like calls for self-propagation (disguised as a revolutionary government) suddenly become explosive.
Funding government is taxing enough; creating expanded conditions that, instead of improving public service, give rise to more corruption and human rights abuses, breaches the universally accepted norms of the social contract. These iniquities fire up activism and inflame the soul of true revolutionaries.
In response, one way by which sitting politicians — given that they aspire to stay in power for as long as they can — manage dissent from a disgruntled constituency is to use government offices, and free ride on taxpayer’s money that supports their operations, to buy loyalty from diehard followers. History as it relates to Marcos is instructive: having controlled all three branches of government, he consolidated his forces by putting retired generals and favored cronies in key government positions. Add to this the rise of subsidy-dependent government corporations that ostensibly, in malasakit fashion, answered every human problem. Such an investment in political patronage and dynasty-building has paid dividends decades on and counting. Marcos’ political longevity did not expire in 1986. The remnants of that immortal fan base should be lively enough to contend in 2022. Again.
RevGov or not, making the government truly responsive to the needs of the poor can be measured not by how heavy it throws a punch. It is better done by efficient targeting, in the hands of morally fit, competent and fairly compensated civil servants.
Next week: Makeovers that can make government more responsive to the needs of the poor.