Needed: A spokesperson for the economy

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For almost the entire month of August, the conversation had been almost wholly on criminality and corruption.  Not that these are unimportant, but pushed aside by the scandals of corruption allegations, including one mixed with purely private marital woes, and the most unfortunate murder of Kian de los Santos spotlighting the issue of drug-related killings, are issues on the Philippine economy.

Malacañang’s spokesperson, the very capable Ernesto Abella, has had to parry negative issues almost completely on the killings and the corruption scandals.

Hardly anything about the pending tax reform legislation, or the positive developments as well as difficulties facing the economy, aside from the usual business-page relegated statements from Department of Finance, National Economic and Development Authority, Department of Budget and Management or Department of Trade and Industry.

Because the economy is the nation’s lifeblood, and it affects the daily lives of our population of 104 million and counting, this space suggests strongly that we start moving the conversation to economic issues.

Sure, economic matters are hardly sexy, compared to stories of killings and grand larceny which shock.  But a good spokesperson for the Philippine economy can always make it sexy, interesting.  My point is,  let’s veer the national debate more and more to what matters most—the economy.

Our economic managers are quite good and very professional, but we don’t want them to waste their precious time on meeting the press individually and repeat the same things one or the other is saying.  And let’s face it: if they aren’t natural or professional communicators, they can’t present their statistics or their policies in a sexy manner.  Economic statistics to begin with are boring, unlike political popularity surveys.

The President himself eschews details on the economy, humble enough to admit publicly that economics to him is arcane, and statistics leave him cold. 

But truly, there is so much on the economic departments, and I don’t mean just Dominguez + Pernia + Diokno + Lopez, because even agriculture, tourism, the Department of Environment and Natural Resources, the energy department, public works, important agencies like Bureau of Internal Revenue, Bureau of Customs, Bases Conversion Development Authority and others constitute parts of the whole economic raft.

Instead of a babble of messages, or a gaggle of spokespersons, most often the heads of departments or agencies themselves explaining their programs and policies, why not appoint a spokesperson for the economy who can coordinate the messages and synthesize these as the presidential vision?

This way, the man on the street gets to know what government is doing for him and his future where it matters: jobs, income, prices.

This way, the man on the street will get to realize that present sacrifices can mean a better future for him and his children.  Or that sin taxes can cut down the prospects of him having cancer or some other deadly illness.  That postponing instant gratification and curbing “normal” consumption habits are good for his and his children’s health.

The economic managers can source the spokesperson from some of their own officers and staff, and recommend to the President.  A few have shown both competence and the appropriate personality to go with the requirements of the job.  Or they can source from some of the “bright” and personable media people who have a good grasp of business matters and economics.

The Economic Intelligence Unit has of late rued that not enough attention is being given to Dutertenomics and the Build! Build! Build! infrastructure program, as these play “second fiddle to the president’s security and law-and-order agenda.”

You can’t ask the President to take a crash course on economics, which is why, in a rare example of humility for a leader, he publicly declares that whatever Sonny Dominguez says goes as far as the economy is concerned.  But Dominguez has more things to attend to than be interviewed all the time, or speak on business forums or roadshows.

Take how media keep harping on the “falling” peso value vis-a-vis the dollar, as if exchange value is the be-all and end-all of economic well-being.  BSP’s Nesting Espenilla or Ben Diokno can certainly dispel the fears, but isn’t that wasting their time, or for that matter, cannot Malacañang itself, through a spokesperson on the economy, be the message master?

Or take a very recent example.  The PEZA, through its Director-General, recently touted a one-time big-time foreign investment from a supposed “big” tycoon from Xiamen in China, who would put up a skyscraper in Roxas Boulevard.  Plus a petrochemical plant, a deep sea harbor and industrial park, an international airport even, in Pangasinan, on land exceeding 3,000 hectares in a combination of municipalities along the west coast.

If we had a spokesperson for the economy in Malacañang, the information could have been properly vetted.  After all, such a huge investment is something no less than the Office of the President should announce.

It turns out of course, that not only are the announced potential investments more illusory (“drawing”, the media calls it) than real. 

There are height restrictions in Roxas Boulevard, the planned site for the skyscraper, both because of proximity to the flight path around Naia or security considerations for Malacañang.

And more mind-boggling are the figures announced:  360 billion American dollars, or almost 19 trillion pesos!  That’s the total budget of the Philippine government for the next five years, at 3.5 to 4 trillion average per annum.

And does anyone have that much money to invest, credit lines included?  

A spokesperson for the economy would have instantly seen the incredibility. He would from institutional memory know that even Bill Gates and Warren Buffet and Mark Zuckerberg combined cannot put up that kind of money.  Throw in Carlos Slim and the owner of the Zara retail chain as well. (Bill Gates net worth is 84.6 billion dollars, Warren Buffet is 60.8 and Mark Zuckerberg is 44.6 billion worth). Go figure.

There’s more:  The US owes China 1.02 trillion dollars.  So this prospective investor can put up a third of that?  From where?  Why, even the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) is capitalized at 100 billion US dollars.

And the Philippine external debt, if memory serves me right, is just around 70 billion US dollars.  And this Chinese guy will invest 360 billion US into the Republic?

 Assume we can close our eyes to the provenance of the money, if money there indeed is.  Did not the Roman emperor Vespasian, who wanted to tax toilets (only the rich in ancient Rome had toilets), rationalize his tax by saying “money has no smell”?

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