Monday, October 19, 2009

A Pinoy ‘New Deal’

Inquirer Opinion / Columns

Commentary : A Pinoy ‘New Deal’

By Denis Murphy
Philippine Daily Inquirer

Posted date: October 18, 2009

MANILA, Philippines-In the days after Ted Kennedy's death, when people discussed his role in American political history, the name of Franklin Delano Roosevelt often arose. At first it was just talk, comparing him and Kennedy, but then by some strange providence of the Lord, the man himself came back from the shadows of history. He was seen in Washington, D.C. being pushed about in his wheelchair. The former US president, father of the New Deal program that saved America’s poor in the Great Depression of the 1930s and polio victim, was back from the grave for a brief while. He seemed to enjoy every minute of his return.

He met with President Barack Obama in the White House and with Ted Kennedy’s family. Kennedy was often called “The last of the New Deal Democrats,” that is, those Democrats who worked in season and out of season almost exclusively for the poor.

Then Roosevelt surprised everyone by asking to meet with the candidates for the Philippine presidency. I was in Washington, so I was asked to help gather the candidates. We met in the Philippine Embassy in Washington. There were eight candidates, seven men and a woman. We sat in a semi-circle around his wheelchair.

I told the candidates the little I knew of the former president and his New Deal: When he entered the White House in 1933, some 30 percent of American workers were unemployed; thousands of small farms were foreclosed monthly; unions were beaten down and ineffective; and Wall Street reeled out of control. Roosevelt turned this situation upside down. He started Social Security for the old and handicapped, strengthened labor unions, saved the small farms, created jobs, controlled the banks and financiers, and effectively restored the American people’s faith in their country.

What I didn’t tell the candidates because I didn’t know how the old president would react was that critics say he brought class struggle between the rich and the poor into American politics. He said he was simply restoring justice.

“Yes,” said Roosevelt, when I finished, “and anyone of you can do the same for the Philippines and even more. I know something about the Philippines. I signed the law that created the Commonwealth. I oversaw MacArthur’s return. It wasn’t all his doing, was it? But you know all that history better than I do, so let’s talk instead of what may be more relevant, namely, our program of government in the 1930s that came to be called the ‘New Deal,’ and its usefulness in today’s Philippines. What was it, or better, what is it, since ideas are timeless? The New Deal comes down to this: we gather state power for the benefit of all citizens, but especially for the poor and handicapped. I think the Philippines needs something very much like it.”

I could see he was enjoying himself. “I have a test,” he told them, “that will help me judge who among you is most likely to introduce a New Deal-type program in your country. I’m looking for someone who is clever, passionate for the poor and lucky. I’m dead, but I can still help that person and I will. Here is the test.”

He told us there was going to be a great flood in Manila in a month or so. Hundreds of thousands would be affected. The poor living along the waterways would be blamed for the flooding and many would be banished. The rich—government officials, developers and loggers—who really did the damage would not be touched. There would be widespread hunger. Then he asked, “What will you do as a candidate when this flood occurs?”

The candidates took a few minutes to think and then one after another they told him what they would do. Roosevelt listened and at the end said, “I’m disappointed. I don’t see anything like a New Deal political analysis in your thinking. For example, who’s to blame for the floods? The poor or the rich and powerful? Don’t let them blame the poor. Blame the rich and let the poor know you are on their side in the controversy, and will be on their side as president.”

The candidates were taken aback by his criticism. “Well, what would you do?” one of them asked.

He answered, “Do you agree nothing will change unless the Philippines gets a government that acknowledges its existence to the 60-70 percent of the voters who are poor and near poor, and makes them its special and favored constituency?”

The candidates nodded in agreement. Roosevelt was happy now that he had his audience agreeing. He put a cigarette in his long black cigarette holder and lit it. Strange, though, we couldn’t smell the smoke. He went on: “In the case of the floods, I would go to the affected people and ask them what they want me and my partymates to do for them in the flood crisis. When they tell us what they want, I’d go and do it, at least, I’d try. I’d fight government efforts to evict the squatters. I’d be in the courts and in the front lines when the police came to evict them. I’d picket with the poor outside the grain bodegas if there were no food.”

He said, “Some will accuse you of electioneering, but the poor won’t and their allegiance is all you need. You must, however, be sincere. The poor will spot faking.

“I’d make sure the poor people are aware that I know what their problems are and that I really care what happens to them. In the meantime before the election, I’d spend my money to bring in earth-moving equipment to clean up the city streets and to remove the mud from the homes. I’d buy new clothes for the children and the women. The men, too, of course, but women and children first. I’d work alongside the men in the mud. I’d treat the poor women as the saints they are. We are in a democracy in the Philippines and in a democracy the majority rules, but it must be aware of its power and take advantage of that power. In democracies reform comes through the ballots of the poor.”

The candidates were writing everything down feverishly.

Denis Murphy works with the Urban Poor Associates. His e-mail address is

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