Policy 101 for PDU30 (and friends)

Nobody at first thought he’d become the leader of 100+ million Filipinos, but now that he is, he might benefit from a few lessons in public policy.

Lesson 1: Define the Problem

How we frame the problem often determines the solution.

Drug addiction: is it a plague (salot sa lipunan) that needs to be stamped out (addicts are vermin that need to be exterminated-hence the Hitler-like remark)?

Alternative views of the problem are either demand- or supply-based: drug enforcement agencies often are aimed at stemming or suppressing the supply – tracking down and jailing drug lords. Incarceration or even the death penalty is seen as the ultimate solution.

You can suppress supply all you want, but demand creates its own supply.

What happened when drug addicts voluntarily surrendered in their thousands to the government out of fear that they would end up in the morgue?

Duterte’s response was to lock the addicts up in army camps because there was insufficient capacity in rehabilitation centers to absorb them. Again, the analogy is of a concentration camp. The solution to the situation is incarceration because it is framed as an enforcement problem. Lock them up or kill them.

An alternative is found in some progressive countries, where drug taking is no longer seen as cool among the youth. Heroin addiction is akin to social leprosy.

Social stigma has reduced the problem to manageable levels and constricted demand, allowing governments to set-up clinics to wean addicts off the drugs. Framing the problem in this manner means looking at our culture and changing the way drugs is depicted-no longer valorized, but portrayed as being lame and an activity for losers.

This could be a more sustainable, long-run solution to the problem, rather than the endless war on drugs.

Lesson 2: Consider the consequences

PNoy fell into the trap of taking action without considering the consequences thoroughly. His campaign against corruption was noble, but in seeking to address that problem, his administration was blindsided by the consequence: paralysis of analysis, a chronic underspend on infrastructure, which led to the same outcome as corruption – a deprivation of much needed development funds and assistance to the countryside.

When he tried to correct this through the Development Assistance Program, his administration fell into a second trap, the DAP became a source of rorting by politicians, who had been cooperative in his show trial of the late-chief justice Renato Corona. This DAP was also declared unconstitutional by the Supreme Court.

For Duterte, the prosecution of his war on drugs, which has led to the death of thousands of suspected peddlers or addicts, has had many consequences. Pressure has come from the international community led by the US, EU and United Nations to adhere to the international conventions on human rights, which the Philippines is a signatory to.

In response to such concerns, Duterte has doubled-down by cursing US Pres Obama, UN Sec. Gen. Ban-Ki-Moon, and the EU, railing at the ASEAN summit and making pronouncements that alluded to Hitler’s holocaust, which has drawn flak from the German government and Jewish community.

Markets have been rattled. The peso has depreciated in value to a multiyear low, and hot money flooded out of the country. Indeed it is one thing to grandstand by telling foreign leaders to get stuffed, but it’s a completely different scenario to tell fund managers and ratings agencies to do the same.

If the reputation of the Philippines suffers among the investor community, it could spell the end of the Philippines’ fantastic economic run, which in turn could diminish Duterte’s legitimacy among the populace. Of course, Duterte says he will go to the Chinese and the Russians for help, but I doubt very much whether he has considered the consequences of doing that.

A leader is stronger when he can hedge his bets. Being one-sidedly in the camp of either the West or the East limits options. Playing one side off the other, as Pres. Marcos did during the Cold War allows a client-state to extract maximum concessions from either side. Becoming an international pariah is not advisable. Just ask Kim-Jung-un.

Lesson 3: Choose your battles wisely (and prioritize!)

Just as PDU30 has caught the ire of the international community, his deputies are making dangerous moves that challenge the position of very powerful interests at home and abroad.

Environment and Natural Resources Sec. Gina Lopez is creating a shakedown of the mining industry. Both local and foreign players are deeply concerned. At the same time, the Agrarian Reform Sec. Rafael Mariano is putting a stop to the conversion of agricultural lands into industrial estates, reviewing previous decisions to allow them to escape coverage of land reform.

We know that the previous dispensation was quite close to mining interests and was led by landed elites.

The combination of international concern from the West, along with discontent among global elites and their local counterparts could make for a powerful cocktail. The words “regime change” may yet again be on the agenda, especially with the simmering issue of the South China Sea, combined with the Philippines, a former proxy/client state of the US, now cozying up to China.

With all of these battles being waged at different fronts, PDU30 could be causing a new “coalition of the willing” to rise up against him. The president needs to consider his options carefully.

He needs to get his priorities straight. His economic team did a good job of calming markets after his election, but his recent statements have caused consternation. He needs to work hard at calming them down again before stokng any more fears. In fact, he needs to do away with the macho shtick for awhile.

The Philippine leader really does not have that many cards to play with. Perhaps if his peace negotiators finalized an agreement with any one of the three rebel groups they are in talks with by the end of the year, and his allies in congress prepared to relax the last remaining constitutional restrictions on foreign investments, current tensions could be diffused, and grant him some space to work on other issues more methodically.

Indeed the Philippines has continued to be a source of a lot of color and noise, but with very little substance. We have spoken loudly on the world stage, first against China, and now we are rounding out against the US and our traditional allies. This is policy by megaphone and tilting at windmills rather than pragmatism.

If our leaders would simply learn to follow the maxim ‘speak softly but carry a large stick’ we’d be in a much better place. Unfortunately, that just doesn’t seem to suit our temperament either as a nation or as a people.