Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Lifting VAT on oil helps the rich

Taking off the consumption tax on oil products in the Philippines, as Senator Mar Roxas has been pushing for, is a bad idea.

Higher-income households are the top consumers of all goods, especially oil products, so they'd benefit most from a tax reduction-- and that's just not right in a country with such a wide gap between the rich and the poor. Of course, some of the benefit would eventually trickle down to help the poor too, indirectly, but basically it would be a tax cut for the rich that hurts government revenue and sinks the country deeper into debt.

The well-off are the top consumers of oil products. That's why the United States (Population: 300 million) is the world's top consumer, eating up more than a quarter of the world's oil. That's more than the next five countries combined-- China, Japan, Russia, Germany, and India (Combined population: 2.8 billion).

If you look a list of countries ranked according to oil consumption per capita, the relation to wealth is so apparent that you could mistake it for a list based on GDP per capita. Look at the Philippines' positions, for example... Oil consumption per capita ranking: 127. GDP (PPP) per capita ranking: 128.

Oh, and the country at the bottom end of oil consumption per capita? The Democratic Republic of the Congo. Among the poorest of the poor.

What does need to be done is to channel these VAT revenues into spending on things we need like infrastructure and education. I'm not a fan of the idea of direct subsidies for the poor, but if that delivers the benefits to those that need it most then it is at least a step.

I'm not saying anything revolutionary here, this stuff is just common sense. The IMF agrees with me, at least.

Mar Roxas called suspending the VAT on oil a "win-win" solution for both the transport sector and for consumers, but a conflict between those two is obviously not the issue. It would be a big lose for government revenue, which the VAT was made to address, and making an exception that favors the rich more than anyone else does not make sense.

You know, Roxas really does seem like a nice, cool, smart guy. To see him positioning himself for a presidential run by championing an empty populist cause is unfortunate. He should know better. I think he does.

Saturday, July 26, 2008

The Dark Knight

The Joker is the role of a lifetime that Heath Ledger, against all expectations, was perfect for. With all the emotional tributes and eulogies that followed his unexpected death, you may have started to wonder if he deserved all the attention-- and you may now put those doubts to rest. That guy had talent, and The Dark Knight is his triumphant last hurrah.

The Joker is the best thing in the movie. Whenever he's onscreen you're mesmerized by his presence, and whenever he's offscreen you're wondering what that guy is up to. It's also a credit to skillful direction of Christopher Nolan-- who, to my knowledge, has yet to make a movie that's not some kind of masterpiece-- that the movie takes such an outlandish villain and keeps things both engaging and believable, grounded in the world that we live in and identify with.

And believability is an important, essential trait! It's what made Batman Begins such a sweeping upheaval. It makes all other superhero movies look almost silly by comparison-- especially the old Tim Burton/Joel Schumacher line of Batman films. It branches boldly away from the old guard of comic book films, taking its superhero and convincing us that while comic books are where superheroes are born, film is where they thrive.

The script is serious to a fault, however, at times sucking some of the joy out of sequences that a typical superhero film would have relished in. But that's the direction this movie has chosen for itself, and it does it with class. Christian Bale, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Michael Caine, Gary Oldman-- all give measured, perhaps understated performances that breathe depth into the world.

But it's the Joker who stops the show, and I would really like to know how Heath Ledger fit into the equation: was he cast for his ability to portray such a haunting villain, or did his brilliance suddenly shine forth when the cameras started rolling? He doesn't just breath life into the role, he disappears into it-- and I don't mean simply behind the makeup. I couldn't recognize the gay cowboy in there even if I tried. There's a genuine fear and exhilaration he brings to his scenes, ensuring he'll live on in our memories long after his name rolls on the credits for the last time.

Another installment of my should-have-posted-this-a-week-ago series.

Thursday, July 24, 2008

Oh look, Shariff Kabunsuan is gone

The Philippines lost a province last week, and now it's down to an even 80. The Supreme Court has voided the 2006 creation of Shariff Kabunsuan province out of Maguindanao:
The Supreme Court has declared the creation of the province of Shariff Kabunsuan in the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao void and ruled that the power of ARMM’s legislature to create provinces and cities is unconstitutional.

The SC, in an 8-6 vote, declared void Muslim Mindanao Autonomy Act 201, which created the province of Shariff Kabunsuan, which was carved out of Maguindanao province.

"Only Congress can create provinces and cities because the creation of provinces and cities necessarily includes the creation of legislative districts," the 33-page decision penned by Justice Antonio Carpio reads.
Why news like this doesn't get more attention is beyond me. This is interesting stuff! It's literally reshaping the Philippine map, not to mention putting a governor out of a job and thrusting an entire provincial bureaucracy into limbo, yet the story didn't even make the front page.

Did anyone even know about the creation of Shariff Kabunsuan from Maguindanao in October 2006? What about the creation of Dinagat Islands province from Surigao del Norte later that year?

Incredibly, The Inquirer even got their headline of their article wrong, saying that the Philippines is down to 79 provinces instead of 80 (it has since been corrected). Now that's just sloppy. Perhaps even more disheartening is knowing that only me and a handful of other map-hungry dudes caught the mistake.

Thursday, July 17, 2008

The optimism deficiency

A few days ago I was talking about the Philippine media's fetish for cynicism and misery and despair, and Jon Limjap responded that focusing on the negative is part of the Filipino psyche, one of the factors that prevents us from progressing. That pretty much sums up what the blog entry originally intended to say. I had chopped off a big chunk when I realized it was just unfocused ranting.

I was reminded of this reality again when reading this snippet in the epilogue of Barack Obama's book, which sums up the theme of his 2004 speech:
The audacity of hope.

That was the best of the American spirit, I thought-- having the audacity to believe despite all evidence to the contrary that we could restore a sense of community to a nation torn by conflict; the gall to believe that despite personal setbacks, the loss of a job or an illness in the family or a childhood mired in poverty, we had some control-- and therefore responsibility-- over our own fate.

It was that audacity, I thought, that joined us as one people.
While the problems America faces have parallels with the problems of the Philippines, the attitude of the people, as Obama describes here, could hardly be more different. A sense of control and responsibility over our own fate, a belief in better days ahead... these are not Filipino characteristics. Dare I say, they are the opposite.

I wish I could say otherwise, but Filipinos are fatalistic, declining ambition and conceding that their destinies are predetermined. This, combined with a general pessimism in the face of prosperity, cynicism in the face of hope, and doubt and fear when confronted by challenge-- it's not a healthy combination.

In the fifty years or so that the Philippines was a colony of the United States, they may have given us their music, their movies, their language, their constitution, but they didn't instill in us their spirit.

Maybe we just need someone that can make us believe again.

Monday, July 14, 2008

Benjamin Diokno gives fiscal advice, for some reason's current headline story says "RP fiscal position shaky, unstable". Which certainly would be alarming if it were real news! Thankfully, despite it's strange position as ABS-CBN's "top story", it hardly qualifies as a current event. There are a dozen variations of "Diokno said" in that article-- and in fact the entire thing is constructed from the building blocks of Diokno's opinion given at some lecture he gave at the University of the Philippines last Friday.

Diokno was Secretary of Budget and Management during the Estrada administration. This is a fact not mentioned in ABS-CBN's article, as simply crediting him as a UP economics professor apparently gives the story more credibility. Estrada's term was characterized by economic mismanagement and by the corruption that led to its downfall.

The budget deficit was the government's single biggest problem during Estrada's administration. With Benjamin Diokno at the helm of the Department of Budget and Management, the government ended 1999 with a budget deficit of P114 billion, dramatically overshooting its original target of P68.4 billion. In 2000, the government set a deficit target of P62.5 billion, and the International Monetary Fund set its "worst case scenario" deficit at P126.5 billion, yet the country managed to overshoot even that, ending with a full-year deficit of P136.1 billion.

The IMF set a worst case scenario, and the actual deficit ended up even worse.

After Estrada was ousted, Senator Joker Arroyo had to admit that "The government is bankrupt, its coffers are empty".

And now Benjamin Diokno is giving advice on fiscal policy? Seriously?

Thursday, July 10, 2008

The other side

When the Philippine peso was strengthening last year, inflation was kept wonderfully low but you couldn't hear enough of stories about suffering exporters downsizing their businesses, and families of OFWs with decreased buying power. Now that the peso is weakening and pushing up inflation, all you hear about are stories of families being dragged into poverty by rising prices of goods.

Personally I preferred it when the exporters and OFW families were the ones "suffering". So, where are the stories of them reaping the windfall of cash now that the peso is on the decline? There are two sides to every economic trend, but media's focus is steadfastly on the negative. Thank God that, in spite of everything, the economy is not as bad as they say it is.

Thursday, July 3, 2008

Ang Lalaki sa Buhay ni Selya

Ang Lalaki sa Buhay ni Selya (known in English as The Man in Her Life) is an examination of human nature, and it questions the very meaning of what it means to be in love. Pretty deep stuff for a Filipino movie, and this one does at least emerge as a solid effort.

It's the story of Ramon, a school principal, and Selya, a young teacher abandoned by her lover Bobby. The two are set together by Ramon's caretaker Nana Piling who believes that a man in his position should marry and procreate. Oh yeah, Ramon is gay-- but that don't have to get in the way, does it? His homosexuality is kept hidden from Selya, giving way to all sorts of misunderstandings, and the relationship is threatened by former lovers and social pressures. When Bobby unexpectedly returns, Selya must confront her own prejudices and choose who will be the man in her life.

The film is not so much a study of sexual orientation as it is of human accommodation. The characters are affected by a traditional society that pressures them, forcing them to make the best of the situation as they can.

When Selya marries Ramon it's not because she loves him, but she needs him. Her previous boyfriend Bobby, despite being irresistible, could not satisfy her. Bobby didn't a real meaningful relationship, didn't want marriage. When Selya looked at Ramon she saw companionship, sensitivity – in many ways the opposite of Bobby. Was this love? Perhaps not. But for Selya it was good enough.

Ramon married Selya for different reasons. Being the gay principal of a school, he was the subject of all sorts of gossip from his students, and the people of the village were equally as intolerant. His caretaker thought it best for a prominent person such as himself to be married and to have children. If there was anyone Ramon loved it was his gardener Carding. Surely he was aware that the bond with Selya wasn't love. But for Ramon it was good enough.

Obviously this isn't an ideal marriage, but they both provided something the other was looking for. In the end, Selya was forced to evaluate their relationship and decide between Bobby and Ramon.

The ending is presented as a happy one, but how can either decision really be happy... Selya was in love with Bobby when he left her, but when he returned she decided to stay with a man that she could never really love. Can you ever really justify that? I guess some people would put practicality over principle, but that's not me. Something to think about.

It's nice for once to have a Filipino movie that doesn't allow itself to be shaped by the mold. It didn't bow to political correctness, concentrating instead on the realities of their provincial life. Selya and Ramon are trapped in social conventions based on ignorance and hostility, and they choose to make the most of what they have.

Adapted from a May 2004 essay.

Wednesday, July 2, 2008


Morgan Freeman says "motherfucker".

From the beginning, Wanted makes it clear that it is a comic book movie more hardcore than the rest. The violence is more graphic, the profanity unrestrained. And Morgan Freeman-- an actor so deeply associated with his wise paternal caricature that a few short years ago he played the role of God-- finally gets his chance to be the badass.

Wesley Gibson is a jaded "accounts manager" trapped in a meaningless job and disenchanted with life. He knows exactly what his tomorrow is going to be like, because it's going to be exactly the same as today, and exactly the same as yesterday. His boss is a monster, his name gets zero Google results, and he's doomed to a life that amounts to nothing forever and ever... Until Angelina Jolie comes along and gives him the chance to unlock his dormant superpowers, and step into his murdered father's shoes as the greatest assassin the world has ever known-- An unparalleled enforcer of justice (and vengeance?), curving bullets through the air and all sorts of crazy shit like that.

Curving bullets? Oh yes, yes. This could be just any other regular action movie if it weren't for the wacky superpowers these people have. It isn't ever explained why he has these powers (not that I care), except that he was born with them, and we're all the more entertained because of it. Reality, after all, is just one useful measure of complexity, so why not take things a few crazy steps further. By the time people suddenly start defending themselves by shooting the incoming bullets in mid-air, I'm just sitting back and enjoying the ride.

A bullet curves around the room in a full circle, a car jump flips sideways over another car, an assassin's bullet kills a man from miles away, the wings get shot off of flies, and thousands of rats strapped with explosives are used as a base-infiltrating weapon. The movie is totally idiotic, but loads of fun, and totally worth it.

Plus, you get to see Angelina Jolie's bare butt for a two-thirds of a second.

And Morgan Freeman says "motherfucker".

Tuesday, July 1, 2008

The Man from Earth

Imagine if a man from the Stone Age was inexplicably gifted with immunity from aging, and just kept on living until the present. That's the premise of the The Man from Earth, which I watched last night on my laptop (with any feelings of guilt evaporated by the movie's producer, who has thanked people who've raised its profile by distributing it over the internet).

The movie tells the story of a man who was born 14,000 years ago and survives until the present day, currently living as a professor under the name John Oldman (note the clever pun!). He moves from place to place assuming various identities every 10 years or so, or whenever people start to notice that his appearance hasn't aged a day. When his colleagues throw an unexpected farewell party and pressure him to give an explanation for his sudden departure, he gives in and takes the risk of revealing his identity to the stunned group.

A very clever premise! In fact, half of the appeal is in the concept, the idea of someone who's lived for thousands of years, an idea which they take and explore for 90 minutes. The entire movie takes place in a small house, and plays itself out through intelligent conversation among the group. Yes, they take that mind-blowing premise and milk it into a long conversation.

Perhaps this would have been a very different movie if it had the proper budget of a major studio motion picture. But would it be better? Take, for instance, The Island, which took an awesome idea and buried it deep under thick layers of action and special effects. No, this movie isn't the slightest bit interested in the glitz and adrenaline. It just wants to take its idea and get you thinking about the possibilities. What if this guy was a disciple of Buddha? What if he was friends with Van Gogh? What if-- and this is the real bombshell-- what if he was Jesus? All this talk doesn't lead to anything significant, but it's fascinating with the way it tugs at the imagination in all sorts of directions.

The idea of taking an impossible concept and elucidating it to tickle the mind reminds me of The World Without Us, a "speculative fiction" book by Alan Weisman, exploring what would happen to the environment if the human race suddenly disappeared-- how houses would deteriorate, cities would crumble, and lifeforms would evolve on an Earth without people. Well, no I haven't actually read this book, but it's a very cool concept. Just think of it, and the conversation it could make.