Call a Spade a Spade

Sta. Ana coordinates Action for Economic Reforms. A slightly different version of this article came out in two parts and was published on February 8 and 9, 2010 in the BusinessWorld, pages S1/4 to S1/5.

The title of Winnie Monsod’s BusinessWorld column is “Calling a spade…”  For she calls a spade a spade—she plainly and forthrightly says what is evident, what is factual, and without fear of being rebuked.

And she does not hesitate to criticize anyone—not only the bad guys but also those she likes and respects. Perhaps, only Winnie’s husband has been spared from her stinging criticisms.

Despite Winnie’s close association with Cory Aquino, as economic planning secretary she had serious policy differences with her President (on managing the debt, for example), leading to intense debates and eventually her and Jimmy Ongpin’s resignation from the Cabinet.

Nevertheless, her love for Cory, whom she calls a “saint,” does not prevent her from speaking out her mind on Cory’s Noynoy.  In her Philippine Daily Inquirer column titled “The statesman and the retreatant” (5 September 2009), she described Mar Roxas as a statesman and Noynoy Aquino merely as a politician.

Winnie thought that Mar was better suited than Noynoy to lead the nation.  Her pointed remark, something now echoed by Noynoy’s rivals:
“Anyone who wants to assume the mantle of leadership and selflessness similar to that of Ninoy and Cory better make sure that it is deserved, and earned. It is not something that can be claimed merely because the same blood runs in one’s veins.”

And so when Winnie wrote her Inquirer column titled “Manny Villar blameless?,” she cannot be accused of partisanship.  She calls a spade a spade.  She ends the column by asking the question: Is Villar blameless?  Winnie likes to use idiomatic expressions, and her answer to her own question was:  “Is the Pope protestant?”  Or are you playing a joke on me?

Villar is intimidated by Winnie’s integrity—in the same way that he is not man enough to answer the charges of unethical conduct against him with respect to the C-5 expansion project (or CX-5).  Thus instead of directly responding to Winnie (and the Senate), Villar lets his followers do the talking for him.

One of Villar’s defenders is Ricardo Barcelona, whose paper titled “C-5 sound and fury: Is Monsod painting the full picture?” is an open challenge to Monsod.  The paper’s subtitle shows that the writer has chutzpah:  “Student rebukes professor.”

To boost his credentials, apart from stating that he was a student of Professor Monsod, Mr. Barcelona also declares that he’s the managing director of an investment firm in Spain and the UK—the obscure Barcino Capitas—and a lecturer at the University of Navarre’s business school.

But he does not impress.  I should not dwell on minor things but because Barcelona’s immodesty is irritating, I cannot resist saying his writing needs editing (for example, lapses in subject-tense agreement and the atrocious mixed metaphor for his title).

The chutzpah again shows when he, the student, tells his lady professor Monsod that “her efforts risk losing sight of the first principles in economics.” Ahem.

Barcelona asserts that the underlying principle is one of “providing choices for motorists.”  And hence, the CX-5 does not entail waste.

But the motorists already have choices.  They can take the toll road or the non-toll roads (for example via Sucat or Bicutan) to get to Las Piñas or Parañaque).  Choice in other words is not violated.

But Barcelona disregards other basic principles of economics.  Either he does not know his economics or he distorts his economics to defend Villar.

Since the motorists already have choices of roads to take, building a new road, the Villar project, is redundant and thus a waste of taxpayers’ money.  Here, Barcelona must be reminded of a basic concept that was taught to him in Economics 11, the concept of opportunity cost.  The amount of PHP6.96 billion that was spent for Villar’s road could have been alternatively used to finance basic education, preventive health, and rural infrastructure. This would have had a greater impact on alleviating poverty.

In fact, Barcelona and Villar violate a basic principle in economics—the efficient use of scarce resources.  We can build all the roads we want to expand motorists’ choices only if resources are unlimited and abundant. But resources, especially government funds, are scarce.  Government’s revenue effort is very low, and government has under-spent on essential services.  In this context, the construction of the Villar road using taxpayers’ money, when other road networks to serve the area are in place, is wasteful.

Barcelona argues that the road toll increases the cost for motorists  (So  his and Villar’s response is build a new toll-free road!)

But no one is forcing motorists to take the toll road.  To repeat, motorists can take alternative routes if they don’t want to pay the toll.

The toll fee is a user fee, which is a sound concept.  It is fair and equitable. because only those who use the road will pay the toll.  Not all taxpayers, the overwhelming majority of whom don’t use the expressway to get to Las Piñas or Parañaque, need to pay for the construction and maintenance of this road.

The use of public money is justified when roads are absent.   So the construction of the Villar project that competes with the toll expressway and other existing public avenues becomes a burden to ordinary taxpayers.

The CX-5 extension controversy, however, goes beyond the question of choice and efficiency.

The issue is first and foremost about corruption.  The basic definition of corruption, one that is internationally accepted, is the misuse or abuse of public office for private gain.

In the CX-5 project, Villar clearly had a conflict of interest.  The least he could have done was dissociate himself from the project.  The Project Feasibility Study of the Department of Public Works and Highways (DPWH) states that “the conceptualization of and the initial release of funds for the CX-5 project was initiated by Sen. Manuel Villar
whose same efforts also paved the way for the funding of the Las Piñas-Parañaque Link Road.”  Further, from 2002 to 2008, Villar used his pork barrel funds to finance CX-5 and the Las Piñas-Parañaque Link Road.  It is also a fact that these road networks pass through Villar property.

The Philippine Constitution (Article VI, Section 14) states that a Philippine Senator “shall not intervene in any matter before any office of the Government for his pecuniary benefit.”  Republic Act No. 6173 declares that “a public official or employee shall avoid conflicts of interest at all times.”

The CX-5 is, in a manner of speaking, a resurrection of the corruption-tainted National Broadband Network (NBN). Recall that the abandoned NBN project nearly led to the downfall of Gloria Arroyo in the wake of popular anger and opposition.  Whistleblowers Jun Lozada and Joey de Venecia exposed the intolerable, massive corruption that accompanied the NBN contract, pointing to the involvement of no less than Mrs. Arroyo and her husband.

Both the CX-5 and the NBN are examples of superfluous, wasteful projects. (The NBN was unnecessary because several broadband backbones are already operational.) In addition, high-level public officials—the de-facto President and an aspiring President—intervened to okay the NBN and CX-5, respectively, which served their private interests.

Monsod’s objective, factual column on the CX-5 controversy is a primer that ordinary people can understand. Just imagine its impact when it gets popularized and translated into various local languages. It is thus dangerous for Villar.

Villar might think that corruption is not a decisive issue in the elections, given that his survey rating went up and Noynoy’s rating went down at the time that the Senate CX-5 report was made public.  He thinks he has bagged the votes of the poor.

He is wrong.  People know the connection between poverty and corruption.  The poor face corruption everyday—the kotong they give to policemen for protection, the bribes they pay to avoid bureaucratic red tape, the ghost projects that deprive them of essential public services; the costs they incur from the low quality of roads, clinics and schools arising from the diversion of funds; etc.

The poor are still processing the information on the CX-5 project.  The impact of the CX-5 corruption on the poor will sink in.

No comments yet.