There’s the Rub

It’s the people, stupid

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The newspapers said pretty much the same thing rather amusedly: Finally. Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo had something good to say about P-Noy. After several years of finding his governance execrable, indeed after writing a paper entitled “It’s the economy, student,” where she flunked her student for failing to learn his lessons in her Economics 101, she finally complimented him for managing more than pasang awa.

“It’s welcome news,” she said. “He is on track (to) restoring the growth of 7.9 percent where it was before the first half of 2010.” But she’d like it better, and support it, if P-Noy could “translate (it) into poverty alleviation.” Indeed, she’d like it better, and support it more, if he would go on to have some respect for due process. Such as in her case, for example…

Of course the newspapers had reason to be amused. It wasn’t just that it was amusing to see the former leader and current jailbird turning a new leaf, it was also that it was amusing to see the former leader and current jailbird not turning a new leaf. The praise isn’t really for P-Noy, it is for herself. What Arroyo is saying is that P-Noy has just managed to preserve her “legacy”—she actually uses the word—instead of frittering it.

Prison seems to have failed to dim the hubris. I was just wondering last week how she saw P-Noy’s performance in Davos, how he spoke of the Philippines rising after being the sick man of Asia for a long time. If I remember right, Arroyo went there herself a few years ago under a cloud of doubt about her legitimacy, which was not lost on the other leaders. But which did not particularly faze her: Her press releases in this country had her being the toast of Davos, the one person whose opinion the world’s most powerful leaders solicited, having rescued her country from the jaws of misery under conditions—the American recession chief of them—that had pitched most of the world into it. Like I said, prison seems not to have dimmed the hubris.

I did wonder a few months ago, when news first broke of economic growth exceeding expectations for the third quarter last year, how the Arroyo camp would react to it. It was a complete refutation of their tack. That tack had been to say that P-Noy’s preoccupation, obsession, fixation with fighting corruption had led to the criminal neglect of the economy. The suggestion was clear: Better in Arroyo’s time when we had decent growth rates. Honesty you cannot eat, food you can. Integrity you cannot eat, rice you can. Morality you cannot eat, the economy you can.

Well, P-Noy has just proven, and in record time, the opposite is true.

It’s good that Arroyo should draw attention to how she handled the economy and how her student, P-Noy, has. It reveals a couple of fundamental truths.

The first is that growth means nothing if the people do not feel it and do not benefit from it. Arroyo’s remark about P-Noy still needing to transform the growth into alleviating poverty isn’t just hubris, it is gall. If I remember right, she got sore when a reporter asked that very question—when will the purported growth trickle down to the poor?—after she delivered a glowing report of her economic feats in a press conference. Not least because of its implication that with corruption, any growth, even if real—and that regime was dedicated to substituting illusion for reality—had as much possibility of trickling down as nectar on a sieve.

It hasn’t happened even to this day—not yet. But the possibility at least exists. And it is slowly being felt, if the surveys about the people’s sense of wellbeing, or their reckoning of the future, are anything to go by. That’s what makes this economic growth real, that’s what makes this growth meaningful.

But more than that, as I keep saying again and again, the economy doesn’t just have to do with numbers, figures and statistics, it has to do with people. True enough, as Mark Twain quipped, there are three kinds of lies: big lies, little lies and statistics. P-Noy had every reason to be bullish at Davos and say what he did: The country is rising, the country is soaring, and nothing shows that more than the universal confidence in it. The confidence of the world as much as the confidence of the people.

At no time since the country overthrew martial law has it drawn the acute interest of foreign investors. Enough for them to be jostling to be first in line? Well, we can forgive the hyperbole, but even if we scale that down a little, or a lot, there are still the unmistakable signs of money pouring in. Growth is above all about investment, and investment is above all about trust. It’s a far cry from the days when the country languished in the lowest rungs of surveys on business preferences.  But of course you can eat honesty, you can eat transparency, you can eat trust.

Even in the United States, whence comes Bill Clinton’s famous campaign line against George Bush Sr., “it’s the economy, stupid,” there’s an acute recognition that the economy is not an arcane, alien, fetishistic thing that governs our lives without us being able to do anything about it, it is the sum of what people do, it is the net effect of what actors do. That has been hammered home by the recession, a catastrophe wrought in great part by the bean counters of Wall Street. Specifically, by the greed shown by its powerful financial crooks, which spawned the movement “Occupy Wall Street.” Greed does play a humongous part in the economy, corruption does play a humongous part in the economy, trust and confidence do play a humongous part in the economy.

It’s the economy, student?

It’s the people, stupid.

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