Monday, November 1, 2010

Two economies, two presidents

Commentary : Two economies, two presidents

By Denis Murphy
Philippine Daily Inquirer

Posted date: October 28, 2010

ON THE last Sunday of September my wife, our daughter and I walked through Central Park on what New Yorkers said was the loveliest day of the year. Just a few steps into the park from the midtown traffic, we were stunned by how deeply and vividly green the trees and open fields were. The park glowed like a giant emerald. We walked down Fifth Avenue to St. Patrick’s Cathedral and Rockefeller Center. Everyone we saw looked young, happy and prosperous, except for a South Asian woman who lay curled up on the sidewalk in her sari near the cathedral. No one looked at her. If they saw her, they looked quickly away. For that day no one wished to worry about the poor and the economy.

Poverty is not very visible in New York. Even poor families come out of the supermarkets pushing overloaded carts of food. Economic insecurity, however, is rooted just beneath the surface. Bob Herbert, writing in the New York Times, said: “The American economy over the last 40 years (since the Nixon years) has given unparalleled wealth to the very, very rich, undermined the living standards of the middle class and crushed the poor.”

Only the super-rich have benefited, the top 1 or 2 percent of the population. Herbert pointed out that the pauperization of 98 percent of Americans is not the result of impersonal market forces gone amok, but the consequence of the conscious planning of the economic elite to achieve ever greater wealth for themselves no matter what damage was done to the rest of the population. The growing poverty of the people is the collateral damage of the greed of the very rich.

He wrote: “The middle class is finally on its knees. Jobs are scarce and good jobs even scarcer. Government and corporate policies have been whacking working Americans every which way for the past three or four decades while globalization and technological wizardry were wreaking employment havoc, the movers and shakers in government and in the board rooms of the great corporations were embracing privatization and deregulation with the fervor of fanatics. The safety net was shredded, unions were brutally attacked and demonized, employment training and jobs programs were eliminated, higher education costs skyrocketed, and the nation’s infrastructure, a key to long-term industrial and economic health, deteriorated.”

Meanwhile, President Barack Obama is in trouble. His Democrats may lose the House of Representatives in next month’s election. His approval ratings are down. New Yorkers who voted for him enthusiastically two years ago are disappointed and even angry with him. These days political talk is always angry talk.

Compared with the somber economic and political news from the US, we now have good news in the Philippines. We can learn, however, from the US failures and weaknesses as we once sought to learn from its successes.

If Herbert and other similarly minded experts are correct, the US economy has been undone by the super-rich and their allies in Congress who have gained near-total control over who gains and who loses in the economy. The rich and powerful in the Philippines exert at least the same amount of control over the Philippine economy as their counterparts in the US have over theirs. Who watches these men and women?

President Aquino should have a salutary fear that the Filipino rich will manipulate the economic gains to their near-exclusive benefit as the US rich have done. The President has spoken enthusiastically of the benefits of government-private business partnerships, but it would be tragic if these ended up benefiting the very rich and few others. Corruption must be controlled, but there are many legal ways in which financial wizards can channel economic growth into their coffers and away from those of the middle-income and poor people. Who watches out for this? Who protects the President’s back on this issue? Who makes sure that he is not betrayed by the very rich?

Obama is criticized now for having spent too much time and political capital trying to negotiate with the Republicans, when it was clear from the beginning they had no intention of negotiating or working with him, and were out simply to stonewall all his efforts. Instead, Obama should have acted single-mindedly from Day One for his priority goals, the critics say. In the beginning he had high popularity ratings, so he could have done almost whatever he wished to do. Now it is more difficult. “Ripeness is all,” Shakespeare tells us. Now seems the best time for President Noynoy to assist the poor, before political problems mount for him and his choices become limited.

Finally, Obama is criticized for not explaining his programs carefully to ordinary Americans, his healthcare program, for example. He has found that the people do not support his programs because they often do not understand how they benefit from them. If the ordinary people support a president’s programs, Congress will have to pass the necessary laws. The most important step for a reform president is to get the unequivocal support of ordinary citizens. No Congress or boards of directors can resist the power of a president who brings with him the support of the nation.

When President Noynoy undertakes specific legislations and programs to benefit the poor and lower middle-income people, he will be dependent on the strong and loyal support of these groups. Few others will back him. The more time he spends with the poor and middle-income people, explaining his programs and listening to their wishes, the more they will support him when the crucial days arrive and basic issues of social justice are at stake.

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

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