Skewed
FIRST PERSON - Alex Magno (The Philippine Star) - August 1, 2020 - 12:00am

Rodrigo Roa Duterte is not the most eloquent president we ever had. After five state of the nation addresses, we know that for a fact.

The presidential speechwriting pool is very likely rusted from disuse. This is because Duterte rarely speaks from prepared text. That compounds the communicability problem.

The President’s Tagalog is poor and his English is stilted. That has been a barrier preventing him from communicating effectively with his people. Someone around him ought to have suggested a bold work-around that disability: having him deliver the most prominent speech of the year in Cebuano. The delivery would have been a thousand times more fluid.

Last Monday’s speech was badly written. There was no unifying narrative to hold it together. There were no applause lines and no quotable passages. There was no buildup, no crescendo and no clincher. This is a textbook case of how a major address should not be written.

Duterte aggravated the poor speech twice by speaking off-script. He attacked Sen. Franklin Drilon at the start of the speech, undermining the tone-setting portion of the address. Then he attacked Drilon again at the end of the speech, undermining the clincher. This is a textbook case of how a major address should not be delivered.

To top it all, he attacked Drilon first for something the senator did not say (defend the oligarchs) and then for something he did not do (write the water concession contracts). That is the useless cherry on top of the messy cake.

Having participated in the preparation of several SONAs in the past, I know the unwritten rule: never name a living person in the speech at the risk of immortalizing him. The SONA, after all, remains on the public record for generations to come. It is what was spoken, not what was written, that remains on record.

Duterte, as we know, tends to be carried away by whatever grievance grips him at the moment. Last Monday, Drilon was his grievance.

But if it was absolutely necessary to lambast Drilon, Duterte might have, with the exquisiteness Winston Churchill delivered his insults, dissected what was really wrong in what the veteran senator really said. Drilon taunted Duterte’s claim about dismantling the oligarchy by challenging the President to ban political dynasties.

The senator obviously misspoke. He conflated two distinct phenomena: political dynasties and the oligarchy. In our historical context, those are two very different things.

Political dynasties are elected to office by the grace of our voters either because they perform well or are generous with the spoils. This is why it has been very difficult to ban them.

Oligarchs, very often, do not bother to get elected. They grow their wealth by skewing public policies to favor their businesses. Often they do that under the garb of nationalism or simply by brazen means of regulatory capture.

The oligarchy is a regulatory problem. It is the outcome of policy distortion that produces an uneven playing field penalizing consumers and crippling our economic progress.

Not all wealthy people are oligarchs. Some make it by honest competition, hard work and innovation.

Oligarchs do tend to become wealthy. But they make it by holding public policy hostage by many means, including using media influence to protect vested interests.

Fighting the oligarchy is a just cause and, for Duterte, a fitting legacy.

It is a fight that will be won by reforming public policies to widen access to wealth creation by breaking up monopolies and changing regulations designed to protect vested interests. An entrenched but irresponsible elite created that skewed policy architecture that frustrated inclusive economic development. It is never too late to reform that policy architecture that is patently anti-people.

Duterte has a nearly instinctive grasp of the problem. This is why he sought the highest office by promising change is coming. But he never found the discipline to work out a comprehensive policy reform program that will open our markets, force our elites to compete on even terms and protect our consumers from regulatory capture that prevents contestability of market segments.

Speaker Alan Peter Cayetano aligns himself with Duterte’s vision of dismantling the oligarchy and freeing our economy. He has the youth, energy and vantage point to flesh out that vision into a clear legislative agenda for change. He should apply himself to articulating that vision by drawing the road map to a more inclusive economy.

The reform of the tax incentives system, proposed by the Department of Finance, is a good place to begin. Many antiquated enterprises have benefited for decades from tax holidays that kept competition out and ensured profitability for oligarchs at the expense of our consumers.

The old sugar elite continues to reproduce wealth even if our cost of production is double the global average by leveraging the sugar quota we enjoy with the US. Many inefficient industries prey on our hapless consumers by keeping out potentially more efficient competitors through “nationalist” investment provisions.

Our agricultural sector remains a poverty trap for millions of Filipinos because middlemen enjoy a privileged position between producers and consumers even if they add no value to the chain. Our inefficient domestic shipping sector makes money from holding off competition through antiquated regulations.

It is not capitalism that produces the oligarchy. It is the systematic denial of a truly contestable market through bankrupt rules and regulations that serves the greed of vested interests.

Our salvation lies in the achievement of an efficient domestic market economy free from the corruption of entrenched and unresponsive elites.

RODRIGO ROA DUTERTE
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