By Filomeno Sta Ana III
“The economy, stupid.” This was a campaign slogan of Bill Clinton in the US’s 1992 presidential election. It was a most fitting message at a time when the US was suffering from recession. Hammering home to voters the message it’s “the economy, stupid” made Clinton win the election.
Thirty years after, “the economy, stupid” as a catchphrase resonates in the Philippines and elsewhere. The pandemic, aggravated by how authorities bungled the pandemic response, led to the worst recession that the Philippines has suffered since independence.
An internal, unpublished survey done in December 2021 showed that the main fears of the voters were: 1) “getting sick,” 2) “not having a job and salary,” and 3) “not being able to afford basic needs.” Here, health or containing the pandemic was a primary concern, and it was inextricably tied to economic well-being.
But as infection rates, severe cases, and deaths have declined significantly since the pandemic’s peak in January this year, the people’s attitude and behavior have changed. One can observe pandemic fatigue and even complacency.
A more recent survey (April 2022), likewise unpublicized, showed that the chief concern of voters is the revival of the economy. Similarly, the survey pointed out that voters want “a clear tangible plan for reviving the economy.”
The question thus is who among the candidates for President is most capable, most competent to address an economic recovery? Since the race has boiled down to a “two-way race” between Bongbong Marcos and Leni Robredo, let’s focus on these two candidates.
Based on background, record, and articulation of economic platform, Robredo has the clear advantage.
Robredo is an alumna of the University of the Philippines School of Economics (UPSE). UPSE is the premiere school of economics in the Philippines. Although Robredo is not a practicing economist (for she specialized in lawyering for the poor and the oppressed), the schooling and training she received from the leading economics professors and the firm support she has gotten from economists — in the academe, think tanks, civil society, and business — demonstrate the credibility and confidence she enjoys managing the Philippine economy.
More importantly, Robredo has articulated a well-thought-out economic plan. She grasps well the link between fighting COVID-19 and growing the economy. Her many initiatives to stop the spread of COVID-19 do facilitate economic revival and job protection or creation.
She likewise has a good grasp of the issues of fiscal policy. She is committed to increasing spending on health, education, climate change, technological innovation, and infrastructure. And she will do this by creating fiscal space by reducing waste, inefficiency, and corruption in government spending and, at the same time, increasing the tax effort through reforms in tax policy and tax administration.
Under a Robredo administration, we can expect policy continuity with respect to the reforms that have led to Philippine economic transformation (but which were disrupted by the pandemic) in the last decade.
On the other hand, Marcos Jr. spells trouble for the Philippine economy.
His grasp of economics ever since has been poor. In a column titled “Yes, I tutored Bongbong in Economics” (Inquirer, Nov. 6, 2021), Solita Collas-Monsod wrote that at Oxford, Marcos Jr. applied for the bachelor’s degree in Philosophy, Politics and Economics. “Well, he passed Philosophy, but failed in Politics and Economics.”
So, Professor Monsod was assigned by the UPSE Dean Jose Encarnacion to tutor Marcos Jr. in economics. The young Marcos had an attitude problem; he didn’t even bother to show up for the first tutoring session.
One can argue that Marcos Jr. can appoint qualified economic managers to his Cabinet. But a serious problem arises. Whoever will be Marcos’s economic managers, they must follow the leader. But Marcos Jr.’s answer to the complex economic problems we have is “Unity,” which is empty-headed.
Marcos Jr. also promises subsidies left and right. But where will he get the resources considering the budget constraint? His populism is of the worst type, because he is opposed to taxation, which is necessary to have the space for increased spending. For instance, he opposed the sin tax law, a reform that has provided substantial financing for universal healthcare. (Robredo supported the sin tax reforms.)
The truth is, even the technocrats under the Duterte administration fear a Marcos presidency will reverse the economic reforms. Do ask them, and they will give their honest answers.
Incidentally, Secretary Sonny Dominguez recently said that the “Department of Finance’s successes on Duterte watch” are a result of the “good work” of predecessors, a result of “policy continuity.”
But the “good work” is threatened. The title of an article from Focus Economics (Economic Forecasts from the World’s Leading Economists) goes: “Philippines: Marcos Jr. vs. Robredo: Economists prefer Robredo despite Marcos Jr.’s poll lead” (April 26). The article said, “the election is already having a macroeconomic impact” and uncertainty prevails. “Moreover, investor perceptions of Marcos appear weak, raising market jitters.” Further, said article posited that “the most salient aspect of Marcos Jr.’s economic platform is its lack of clarity.”
We have been subject to a lot of misinformation. There’s the myth of Marcos and Marcos Jr. There’s the lie about the competency of Robredo — her being lugaw and lutang. I hope this piece has given the information that Robredo is the best candidate (and that Marcos is the poor candidate) to tackle “the economy, stupid.”
If Keynes were alive, he would have informed voters: “When my information changes, I alter my conclusions.”
This article was published on Businessworld on May 2, 2022.