Beyond EDSA: a quiet revolution at Commonwealth Avenue

A powerless state, however embellished with democratic rhinoplasty, is
not a vehicle to deliver the democratic dividends beyond the most
paltry. A ship, overloaded with constitutional and legitimatical claims
but shorn of the wherewithal to address them, was bound to founder in
the shallow waters of unending legal, or worse, legitimatical,
challenges. To function effectively a state requires both carrot and
stick – carrot where the stick does not work and vice versa. Having no
stick, however, it can only move forward with carrots, otherwise called
payola. And payola only sows a harvest of futility, which cannot
trigger a leapfrog of the contradictions of EDSA ’86.

The author is the Dean of the School of Economics of the University of the Philippines in Diliman, Quezon City.

Part One: The Legacy of EDSA

The 1987 Constitution, in order to ensure overwhelming approval, had to
be rendered generous in one political facet: inclusiveness. It had to
make one and all a stakeholder by being an explicit registry of
sectoral demands, regardless of whether or not those diverse demands
were consistent. The embrace of undefined favorite shiboliths was the
ingenious instrument of universal registry. Undefined deliverables are
at once always and never delivered. They are a fool’s bounty.
Considerations, deemed essential in less precarious times – internal
consistency, economy of ideas and precision in language, long-term
resilience to accommodate new technologies and new responses – these
were of secondary importance. Other stakeholder come-ons (e.g., CARL
and the Lina Law) soon followed. In a manner of speaking, the difficult
terrain that had to be negotiated dictated the use of spiked wheels. To
ride the same wheels in the racetrack of economic progress would be
another matter.

Implicit in this constitutional strategy but perhaps subliminally
welcomed by all, was an affirmation of a powerless state. The
constitutional overload meant that subsequent governments could be
constitutionally challenged at every turn. The sale of Manila Hotel to
a Malaysian group was challenged and revoked on national patrimony
grounds. Empowerment took the form of “cheap veto.” The numerous
calling cards in the 1987 Constitution meant, in effect, that interest
groups were unwilling to entrust future policies to the discretion and
wisdom of subsequent governments and future laws. Subsequent political
contexts and decisions would be forever slanted by those calling cards,
heavily circumscribing the power to define and pursue the architecture
of the future. To advance subsequent governments, either had to wade
through the mudflats of lawsuits or bribe its way through. The latter
fitted the powerless state to a tee.

Unsure of their own shot at the scepter of power, and deeply suspicious
of other would-be kings, interest groups appeared to opt for a
powerless scepter. This squared well with the profound suspicion of
central power embodied in the phrase, “Power corrupts and absolute
power corrupts absolutely” – a truism the Marcos dictatorship appeared
to evidence beyond doubt. Recent history favored the likelihood of
abuse of central power rather than its beneficial deployment.

When the state is powerless, power effectively passes into private
hands. It means that governance, which should be the sole prerogative
of the state, becomes effectively bolkanized. Enforcement, regulation
and rule making become fiefdoms of private interests in or out of
government. This is also called the “capture of the organs of the
state.” While Marcos’s was a centralist capture, the powerless state is
a decentralist capture of the state. When state power is effectively
privatized, it can be bought and sold in a krypto market brokered by
“rents.” The powerless state is at the heart of a decentralized market
for power over rules and enforcement. Where power, centralist or
otherwise, is for sale to the highest bidder, rents replace value
creation as the dominant source of wealth. Since value-creation is the
true and only wellspring of economic progress, the economy languishes.

The dominant belief in 1986 was that “power corrupts, absolute power
corrupts absolutely.” Routed was the notion that some non-negotiable
quantum of power in the state is sine-qua-non for nation building. The
initial historical condition in 1986, contrary to Hobbes’ chronology,
was a nasty and cruel Leviathan rather than the “state of warre” where
life was “nasty, cruel, brutish and short.” From this vantage point,
the latter, indeed, became unwittingly the garden of greener grass.
This was what Jose “Pepe” Diokno dreaded: Philippine democracy after
1986 reversing the Hobbesian chronology.

Thus, a powerless state, however embellished with democratic
rhinoplasty, is not a vehicle to deliver the democratic dividends
beyond the most paltry. A ship, overloaded with constitutional and
legitimatical claims but shorn of the wherewithal to address them, was
bound to founder in the shallow waters of unending legal, or worse,
legitimatical, challenges. To function effectively a state requires
both carrot and stick – carrot where the stick does not work and vice
versa. Having no stick, however, it can only move forward with carrots,
otherwise called payola. And payola only sows a harvest of futility,
which cannot trigger a leapfrog of the contradictions of EDSA ’86.

This turbulent birthing has resulted in a serious warping of Philippine
democracy. EDSA ’86 tried but failed to find closure to a painful
history of abuse of power in state powerlessness. If Philippine
democracy’s future is to be delivered from endless challenges to its
legitimacy, it must find an alternative closure, one that can deliver
the democratic dividends. The closure to the abuse of state power
cannot be a renunciation of state power. Naive as it may seem, closure
requires a leap of faith that state power can be harnessed in the
service of the greatest good for the greatest number. We can only truly
celebrate Ninoy’s martyrdom when EDSA ’86 is finally rendered whole by
a proper closure.

But is this closure hopelessly out of reach? Is this leap of faith too large and utterly naive?
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Of Demagogues and Demiurges

How long a powerless state persists depends on many things. If it is an
isolated state, then only adverse internal dynamics can lead to its
breakdown. If it is part of a larger world, the system can be tripped
by external pressures, or by a combination of both internal and
external pressures.

Are there enough internal dynamics for a state to emerge from the trap
of powerlessness? At the core of a powerless state, precisely because
it cannot deliver, and predation is so unequal, is a permanent
reservoir of discontent. Growing wealth inequality reflecting unequal
distribution of power and cross-border benchmarking fuels this
reservoir. Some of this may dissipate due to the flight of the more
efficient and less tolerant citizens to the West. Much remains that can
be harnessed by careful rechanneling to the upsetting of the applecart.
The powerless state, in a word, has local stability draped over an
ocean of potential microscopic instability. Inquiescent slumbers dwell
in this deceptively quiescent ground.

How can the powerless state, if at all, be transformed from the inside?
Let us dwell on an obvious presence that has long engaged this polity
in a tug-of-war.

External Pressure

Since 1986, there have been some decisive changes in the Philippine
policies. These changes were originally opposed by interest groups but
were eventually introduced largely because of pressures from
multilateral institutions – the so-called “evil” WB-IMF-US axis.
Prominent of these are trade reforms and deregulation. But that is only
half the story. The other half is that the powerless state has an
innate tendency to stumble because the competing claims on its
resources, which it is powerless to refuse, always exceed its weak
capacity to generate revenues. This leads to chronic fiscal deficits
and pressure to borrow from the outside. Unable to use borrowed
resources properly as in the archetypes of futility, it is chronically
unable to repay. It soon stumbles into a BOP crisis and has to run to
the multilateral institutions for more loans and, of course, inevitably
submit to the conditionalities. Countries that have their economic
houses in order need never bother with the evil axis.

However, the fact of the matter is that good economic policies, while
very beneficial in strong governance environments, have marginal
impacts if at all in weak governance environments. New evidence on the
“deep” determinants of growth (see, e.g., Rodrik, Subramanian and
Trebbi, 2003) shows that bad governance trumps good policies. Thus,
strong governance must still be crafted internally and strong
governance is not importable like a steam turbine.

The Demagogue Cometh

As carrion is to vultures, the powerless state is an endless lure to
demagogues. The reservoir of social discontent, which extends to the
lower echelons of armed forces, is the demagogue’s opportunity. He or
she can start to create a “web of belief” around himself: a colorful,
fictional or, if eventive, bloated, story of heroic exploits; a
contrived and hardly coherent story of conspiracy and greed that
explain current deprivation, reinforced by direct experience of
instances of betrayal and corruption and a sweeping program of renewal
centered upon himself and his clique conditioned on a power grab
completes the picture. At the center of this web of belief is a black
hole camouflaged by assertive bravado and magnetism. These then are the
demagogues’ essential elements:

  1. a largely incoherent story of greed and malignancy blamed
    squarely on some other people or groups – they are the problem because
    while they have the power, they are wicked.
  2. a vague program of renewal based on a grab of power;
  3. a “web of belief” at the center of which is the demagogue’s
    persona – embellished by some imagined or exaggerated exploit or
    bravado;
  4. the absence of tangible beneficial achievements in the form of public goods;
  5. their replacement by personal magnetism and media image;
  6. the promise that all will be righted by a big bang at the “end of the rainbow;”
  7. a contempt for painstaking and incremental improvements as subversive of the final solution;
  8. the belief that the final solution is “us,” or more exactly “me.”

The demagogue is playing the credible commitment game with the public:
“Trust me with power because unlike them I am trustworthy.” Medals and
movies are his ethical exhibits. But the ethical commitments are
salivary and intangible; he can easily dump them at little cost to
himself if the price is right. The technology he articulates is
incoherent and pulled together only by the full delivery of power to
himself. Most demagogues, no wonder, end up nestled comfortably in the
arms of the system they try to denounce. Is there an alternative?
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The Demiurgic Leadership

The demagogue is not the only possible breach of the local stability of
the “powerless state.” The same dynamic conditions and discontent that
catapults a demagogue can catapult a demiurge, a different kind of
leader who gathers political momentum on the strength of tangible
accomplishments that positively impact people’s lives directly. The web
of belief that begins to surround the demiurge stems from a growing
list of incontestable “facts on the ground,” public goods that improve
the public’s welfare and transform mistrust to belief. You can see
them, touch them smell them.

Unlike the demagogue who simply demands that all power be first
delivered to him, a demiurge first learns to use the accepted, if
twisted, norms of the “powerless state” to cut down obstacles to public
goods projects. Rather than endlessly blame others as does a demagogue,
the demiurge builds despite, through and over obstacles posed by
others. He has to muster the workings of the powerless state by cutting
it into manageable slices. Crucially, he has learned the art of taming
the extreme suspicion of power by tangibly delivering an ample harvest
of that power. In his hands, creaky and feckless institutions become
part of the solution. This harvest of public goods comes in the face of
confrontation and rillification.

The demiurge’s record of performance has one very important common
element. At any time, his goals are limited and very well defined. He
does not worry about nor promise big bangs “at the end of the rainbow.”
Thus, his concern is not universal ownership of all forces (that comes
with a power grab) but local mastery of the forces in the immediate
ambient of his limited goals. Local mastery of forces is not central
control but a rechanneling of various forces some even wielded by
others. His idealism is thus not dreamy like the demagogues’ but
supremely pragmatic. He brings with him not only new ethic but a new
set of technologies.

The demiurge demands trust on the strength of a history of performance;
the demagogue demands loyalty on the strength of the immensity of
assurance.

Part Two: The Quiet Revolution

Commonwealth Avenue, QC, from Quezon Memorial Circle up to the Litex
Road is experiencing a transformation that can only be considered a
revolution. It appears like the dawn of a new order. Whence is this
transformation? Why suddenly this beachhead of order where disorder was
once unchallenged?

For starters, the prohibition of left turns and the provision of U-turn
slots have reduced travel time through the stretch by about 50% or more
(40 minutes to 20 or less minutes on average). To complement these
innovations, the islands around the Quezon Memorial Circle were removed
to allow a free flow of traffic. Trees were balled and removed to the
chagrin of tree lovers. But one suspects that the net environment
impact of faster traffic flow is positive.

The proper way to address the tree controversy is not by absolute cost
or absolute benefit but by a balance sheet of both. The system is now
largely self-enforcing, a feature which has reduced the number of
visible MMDA traffic agents from a dozen on rush hours at each
intersection to two or three to monitor the U-turn slots. The cost
savings implied is of the order of magnitude of a major technical
innovation in manufacturing and must be valued similarly.

This is the time compression phenomenon that transformed East Asia in
the last three decades of the 20th century. In those fateful decades,
the travel time from downtown Bangkok to Bangkok Airport dropped from
two hours to 30 minutes or less. Travel time from QC to NAIA, by
contrast, had risen from 30 minutes to one hour and thirty or worse in
the daytime. This is where we missed the East Asian miracle boat.
National competitiveness is a joke until we can begin to properly run
our highways and collect our garbage. Which is why what is happening in
Commonwealth Avenue (CA hereafter) is more crucial for nation building
that 20 years of endless blab in the nearby Batasang Pambansa.

The second part is the clearing and demolition of illegal structures
and squatters along Commonwealth Avenue. In one inspired moment of
courage and resolve, the shoulders of CA were cleared. An interesting
sidelight of the clearing must be told. When the left-hand shoulder of
CA was being cleared, the right-hand shoulder squatters, realizing this
clearing was inexorable, began dismantling on their own. Gone was the
tire-burning traffic-jamming defiance that stopped halfhearted
demolition of old. The majesty of the law has its uses. Now, CA is
being remade and looks poised to become a modern artery fit for the
21st century.

How did all these come to pass in a “powerless state”? Why was this
force not trumped by an endless barrage of TROs and coddling and
nattering politicians which are the normal fixtures of these events?
How did the “powerless state” suddenly gain muscle during the
Commonwealth episode?

The fact of the matter is that the CA did not happen overnight. It had
very deep roots and a lengthy gestation period. The whole story of CA
iceberg needs to be told.

Focal in the concatenation of events seemed to many to be Bayani
Fernando (BF) accepting the MMDA chairmanship. He immediately defined
his mission as regaining the sidewalk for the pedestrians and the roads
for motorists. While this seemed downright low tech, he sensed that
this was one key out of the powerless rut. The road is every citizen’s
first daily encounter with the government. To do this, he greatly
empowered the Sidewalk Clearing Operation of MMDA with logistical ammo
to give the impression of irresistible force and unbending resolve.
Buses, haulers, dozers gave the impression of an army in operation.
This was quickly trained, amidst loud defiance and skepticism, towards
the clearing of Baclaran, an obvious challenge to rational traffic
management and considered an immovable object. There it got its first
baptism of battle and a taste of victory. The Litex clearing along
Commonwealth of the “kerosene spray” notoriety followed soon. It was
followed further by the Batasan Road intersection clearing which people
said will never happen because “nambabaril ang mga vendors doon.” They
were cleared.

The demolition of illegal structures along Tandang Sora beside UP was a
signal triumph. For more than a decade, UP authorities have petitioned
local authorities for relief from this emerging red-light district.
Nothing. Then, in one evening, the MMDA Clearing Unit demolished the
detritus of decades. The majesty of the law was finally being upheld.
This is very new in Quezon City. How did the MMDA, so long viewed as
part of the problem, become part of the solution?
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The Marikina Watershed

The prologue to the sidewalk wars in Metro Manila was the battles and
victories in Marikina. “Riverbanks, Marikina” is a triumph of pitbull
determination and a clear vision. It is now a national shrine to order
and a strong state. Clearing of the Marikina riverbanks was one thing;
it would have been useless had there not been a vision to build and the
wherewithal, financial and political, to pursue that vision.

The battle for higher real estate taxes in Marikina cannot be
overemphasized. While in other cities, e.g., Quezon City, the loud
opposition of the affluent scared skittish politicians away, the noisy
demonstrations in Marikina failed to stop higher taxes. BF, by standing
up to the rich, secured the moral beachhead to stand up to the illegal
poor. And the financial wherewithal to pursue a vision to boot. It was
a moral and a fiscal victory.

The delivery of public goods in return for the tax sacrifice creates
what is known as strategic complementarity which in turn results in a
positive feedback loop.

When BF accepted the MMDA chair, he was already “bigger” than the
office. He could demand and exercise a hand free from customary endless
meddling. He could “say no.” He could also, if overly meddled with,
step down and not be diminished. BF had clearly demonstrated to all and
sundry that power re-concentrated can be employed sometimes brutally if
fairly in the service of the law. Power need not always be pressed in
the service of the heavily escorted Explorers and F150s or of Swiss
bank accounts. Power can be employed to deliver tangible public goods.

When BF started as mayor, he brought municipal employees en masse to
Subic Bay to see and feel for themselves a higher meaning of order and
cleanliness. New benchmarks of governance had to be imported. A street
sweeper reared in a squatter area has a very different definition of
“clean” or “orderly.” He has to see and to touch and to feel another
definition of order implemented, in order to disabuse his mind of low
accustomed standards. People are at the heart of change. And embraced
benchmarks are how people judge others and themselves. You only need to
give the pursuit of higher benchmarks a sense of social mission and
purpose. BF would have brought them to Japan but finances would not
allow. When Park Chung Hee became President of S. Korea in 1964, he
packed his cabinet for an excursion to Taiwan (not Washington, mind
you), then the fledgling model of global market orientation. This was
state-of-the-art and this was doable. Thus began the S. Korean miracle.
Ideas and benchmarks must sometimes be imported. BF’s own benchmarks of
order and cleanliness are Japanese, easily the cutting edge of that
technology.

Marikina’s garbage collection spending per capita is only half that of
other contiguous municipalities. Other municipalities have a lot of
explaining to do. Marikina, though far from perfect, is a national
benchmark. The Marikina city hall is a positive learning experience.
Educators should make Marikina a field trip stop for their young
charges. This is beginning to stir up local governments. People now
know the threshold of the doable and are demanding more.

While BF at times had to create new institutions, for the most part, he
simply empowered and revitalized existing institutions. This happened
at MMDA. That institutions can be shaped up enough to deliver is new in
the Philippines.

That CA ever happened is due to a confluence of forces whose combined
horsepower was harnessed by the already-bigger-than-office MMDA
Chairman. When BF was designated concurrent DPWH Secretary, the
clearing of CA shoulders also came under his responsibility. He
parlayed two advantages, one logistical, the other philosophical: (a)
BF as MMDA chair had an already battle-scarred Sidewalk Clearing
Operation Unit, and (b) BF rejected the old DPWH adage of engagement:
“Clear only when funds to develop (e.g., roads) are on hand.” BF’s
alternative rule of engagement is: “Remove illegal structures whether
or not development funds are available. Public lands belong to the
public.” BF then exploited the prohibition of the issuance of TROs for
public works projects issued by the Supreme Court. Add a street-wise
tactical mind and a CA phenomenon happens.

Is BF a demiurge? We will never know for sure. The new ethic and the
new technologies are plain to see. Whether or not he is, he is still
closer to being one than any other has ever come. Even if he quits now,
what he has already accomplished demands national attention. In a world
increasingly and perversely dominated by press releases and “pakulo,”
he is already a unique role model.

BF’s claim to our trust is a string of tangible public goods. These are
not promises; these are facts. He is, in effect, the polar opposite of
fast-talking charlatans and demagogues who spin incoherent national
recovery programs and promise paradise at the end of the rainbow. Nor
is he anything like the false heroes who, having made their names
peddling good looks and bone structure in third-rate flicks or
dribbling balls in hard courts, now also believe they can steer the
national destiny, despite utter paralysis from the neck up.

His philosophy for nation building is as valid as it is biblical: do
the little things exceptionally well and exceptionally smartly, and the
big things will take care of themselves. This is downright low gear.
This means sidewalks, garbage, roads, highways. There are no
empty-headed sparks and gyrations from media and showbiz denizens. The
self-lacerating, if all too accurate, description of Pinoys by Pinoys:
“We are all talk and bluster; no implementation,” does not apply to BF.

Should we trust him with power?

The Power Coase Theorem says that power will not be delegated in the
hands of a player, however efficient he is in its use, unless a
credible commitment against abuse of that power exists. If a demiurge’s
history of tangible justifications of power, the fact that he has
become defined by those “tangible facts on the ground,” will not serve
as credible commitment, nothing will. He has a lot to lose with
betrayal. Whether BF has crossed the point of no return in the journey
to demiurgia, only he knows.

If he has, the immune system of the powerless state will reject him as
a dangerous threat. After all, he is far from perfect and the political
demolition crew may be getting busy to drag him to the gutter. Many a
good man has become a victim of this crew. This is where the demiurge
needs his public – those of us who have seen, touched and smelled the
rich harvest of power in his hands. He needs us not only to blunt the
demolition job but also to keep him on the road to demiurgia.

Filipinos have to work hard to deserve democracy; to complete EDSA; to finally become “worth dying for.”

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