Trade-off: “The giving up of one desired objective in order to attain another, when both cannot be achieved at the same time.” (The Free Dictionary)

In his economics textbook Principles of Economics and other writings, the accessible Harvard economics professor N. Gregory Mankiw says everyone faces trade-offs. The metaphor frequently used by economists is: “There is no free lunch.”

 The poor peasant is trading off immediate gains from farm production for the long-term betterment of his children’s welfare by sending them to primary school instead of having them work on the field.
The productive rich who go to Balesin are spending a hefty amount, including accommodations and happy meals for their yaya, trading off work (and more income) for leisure. Our President, Noynoy Aquino, has traded off having wife and children for the presidency — it would have been impossible for him to attend to family while preoccupied with removing Renato Corona from the Supreme Court, having reproductive health and sin tax legislated, and searching desperately for ways to make Mar Roxas become competitive in 2016.In the realm of public policy, the politician or the technocrat has to grapple always with trade-offs. A typical example in economic policy-making is the trade-off between employment and low inflation in the short run. When the government decides to increase employment and output, it must recognize that this will lead to price increases. Bolstered by government spending and higher incomes resulting from more jobs, aggregate demand increases and outpaces aggregate supply at the current price level. This leads to a higher inflation rate.

Depreciating the local currency, which in the current Philippine context is generally beneficial for the economy and for employment, has a necessary trade-off — an increase in the inflation rate, for it increases the prices of imported goods, including oil and consumer items.

The term “guns and butter” should be familiar, especially for those who had introductory economics in college. Because any country has a budget constraint (resources are finite) : the more it spends for the military or for defense, the less it spends for food (or education).

“Guns and butter” in fact can also apply to war and peace. This brings us to the discussion about the Mamasapano tragedy.

Much of the severe criticism with regard to the Mamasapano debacle has revolved around the botched tactical operations, including the breakdown in the chain of command and the absence of coordination between the Special Action Force and the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP).

But only a few have raised a more fundamental question of whether the operation to capture or kill Marwan was worth the trade-off.

The question is: As it was planned (that is, without disclosing information to other major stakeholders), could the operation to capture or kill Marwan have been pulled off without endangering the peace talks with the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) ?

Consider the fact that several attempts before Mamasapano were aborted. If they were not stopped, these operations would have also ended in disaster. It would have likewise threatened the peace negotiations. The risk was very high: The objective of capturing Marwan would result in undermining the objective of having peace with the MILF.

The report of the Board of Inquiry quotes the mayor of Mamasapano, Tahirodin Benzar Ampatuan, who said that the clash with the MILF was inevitable when the SAF conducted armed operations within the MILF’s controlled territory.

Rappler’s editor Glenda Gloria captures in writing what the trade-off was: “I sneaked Alan [Purisima] into a special operation behind the military’s back, but for a noble cause of arresting a bomb-maker. Yet, I also accepted the AFP to heed my orders of keeping the peace, an equally noble cause. The left hand was made to contradict the right.”

But here’s the rub, the wisdom of capturing Marwan at the risk of endangering the peace is put into question by the international think-tank Institute for Policy Analysis of Conflict, which reported that Marwan’s “image was bigger than the man,” that “a tendency to panic in crisis situations made him unwanted in battle,” and that he had “no special bomb-making skills.”

In sum, the trade-off was very costly.

In the wake of the Mamasapano tragedy, rabble-rousing politicians like Alan Peter Cayetano and Bongbong Marcos want the country to reject the proposed Bangsamoro Basic Law and the MILF. This again is a question of trade-off. Guns or butter? War or peace?

Filomeno S. Sta Ana III coordinates the Action for Economic Reforms.