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Tuesday, November 26, 2013

The high horse

November 25, 2013 9:39 pm

Ben D. Kritz

Ben D. Kritz
These anti-critics really do not get it. We can see better from atop our high horses, and what we see is appalling. Were it not for a deep concern for our fellow man, a frantic distress at seeing even one blameless citizen of the world suffer for one moment longer than could have been avoided by better preparation or better response, we would have nothing to criticize.
These anti-critics really do not get it. We can see better from atop our high horses, and what we see is appalling. Were it not for a deep concern for our fellow man, a frantic distress at seeing even one blameless citizen of the world suffer for one moment longer than could have been avoided by better preparation or better response, we would have nothing to criticize. The dissent in defense of the government’s negligent mediocrity has a horrifying implication: That additional suffering is both inevitable and acceptable, because the government “has good intentions” and is “doing its best.” To put it in human terms the apologists would prefer to avoid, November 19, 11 days after Typhoon Yolanda struck, the United Nations World Food Program published a conservative estimate that 600,000 people had not yet been reached with substantial aid. Thus the message of the anti-critics to those people is, “Survival and compassion from others are privileges, not rights. Your suffering is less important than our self-image.”
Being critical is questioning the way things are done and the results they produce. Being an anti-critic is to assert that “business as usual” is sufficient, improvements are not necessary, and that improvements are perhaps not even possible. Business as usual has not been enough, and it will not be enough for the much more difficult tasks that lie ahead as the country slowly shifts from relief to recovery.
Beyond the grievous human toll, the cost exacted upon the Philippines by the storm is mind-boggling. Up to a third of the country’s rice-production capacity at least temporarily interrupted. Even more worrisome, up to a third of the Philippines’ coconut production was lost; rice farms can be recovered in a matter of weeks, but replacing coconut farms, which produce a key export commodity, will take seven to 10 years. According to various estimates, between 20,000 and 40,000 small fishermen will be unable to work until they replace boats and equipment lost in the storm. Still uncounted are the losses to small and medium enterprises (SMEs), thousands of businesses providing jobs and a tax base; early assessments by the UN International Labor Organization suggest that a total of up to 2.5 million jobs were lost in the disaster.
When the global judgment of the task facing the Philippines is that the reconstruction will rival that of the country’s post-World War II recovery, business is anything but usual. One of the biggest concerns of economic and market observers who have not been enamored by the Philippines “miracle” is that several bubble-like aspects of the economy—which to be fair, the country has so far somehow managed fairly well—make it extremely susceptible to an external shock. Typhoon Yolanda was that shock, and it has left a huge hole in the already brittle foundation that props up the Philippine economy.
There are a couple obvious ways the Philippines could run into serious economic trouble over the next few months. Even though government debt has increased during President Benigno Aquino 3rd’s term, it has been reasonably manageable because roughly 89 percent of the government’s debt is owed to domestic creditors. Domestic credit capacity has been diminished because of the sudden drop in consumer spending, and so the government will have to turn to more external sources to fund reconstruction; that will in turn reduce its ability to service domestic debt—even if the total amount of debt service is not reduced in any way, that pie will have to be sliced into more pieces—and that will in turn act as a brake on business growth, slowing the recovery of jobs and consumer spending, a feedback loop that could quickly spiral out of control. If the increase in foreign debt is significant enough that it actually does require an increase in debt service, that will reduce government’s capacity for increased spending—already attenuated by at least temporary losses in its tax base—to replace destroyed infrastructure and provide economic support to the agriculture and SME sectors, which again will hamper the recovery of consumer spending.
There are other at-risk components of the economy as well, but a complete discussion would probably fill this entire paper and then some. What is alarming to critics is that the approach of the Aquino administration so far—which the anti-critics think is okay—is to follow the same program with the same people after the typhoon as before; the reconstruction “task force,” cheerfully announced by the government last week is, after all, the same Cabinet in a different wrapper, the very same leadership that is responsible for creating such a tenuous economy in the first place, and were subjected to international reproach for its unimpressive performance in the immediate aftermath of the storm.
Effective solutions require imagination and ideas that are different from what has become routine, because the circumstances are anything but routine now. The watchword for the recovery effort should be “Progress”: part of the reason the people in the areas lashed by Yolanda suffered so grievously is that the government and that part of Philippine society to which the anti-critics belong looks upon the impoverishment of some—too many, actually—as a normative state. The recovery must focus on reducing the imbalance between productive and consumptive capacity and sustainability of physical and social infrastructures, so that the next Yolanda—whether it is a typhoon, earthquake, large-scale flood, or some other disaster, it will arrive sooner than anyone is prepared to face—will not exact such a tragic toll on the country.
benkritz@outlook.com

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