Ramblings


Brazil is in crisis. This crisis, and agreeing upon a unified course of action in response, was the topic of a plenary of broad left forces that included over 320 people coming from over 60 leftist formations last Friday evening.

João Pedro Stedile, the renown progressive economist and a founder of the Movimento dos Trabalhadores Rurais Sem Terra, characterized the current period as a three-pronged crisis never seen in Brazil since redemocratization: economic crisis, political crisis, and social crisis.

Economic Crisis

The declining economy has been the immediate major source of tension in recent years. Following a decade-long economic boom, Brazil’s economy has been shrinking since 2012, unemployment reached 6.9% in June on this year, the highest since July 2010, while inflation reached 9.56% in July, the highest since November 2003. The bleak economic situation has caused a wave of rich Brazilians to leave the country in favor of relocating their homes and businesses in the United States, and there has been a chilling effect on middle class consumption. As always, though, the most grave effect has been on the basic sectors. Workers from various industries – from school teachers to civil servants to bank employees – have conducted protracted strikes, budgets for public services that low-income earners rely on, like education and health, have been frozen, workers’ benefits are stricter, and the price of public transportation has increased. As in most economic recessions, while the capitalists claim that they are losing vast amounts of money, it is the families that were once barely making it that have slipped back into poverty, and the poor who have found their much relied-on public services diminishing.

Political Crisis

This economic crisis is a, if not the, major driver of the unfolding political crisis. Many analysts agree that President Dilma Rousseauf’s first electoral victory could largely be credited to her robust endorsement by the still widely popular outgoing president, Luis “Lula” Da Silva, and a strong ruling party in the PT. Dilma, however, has had the extreme misfortune of 1: governing at a time of recession, as opposed to Lula who was elected at the end of a steep economic decline and governed during an economic boom, and 2: lacking the personal charisma and political skill that Lula so famously possessed. (It is worth noting that, as in most proportional representation systems, the PT has never controlled a majority of seats in the Congress. It has always ruled in coalition and these coalitions have always included progressive to centrist and traditional elements. Lula’s ability to manage the coalition – some would say through too much compromise – was a key factor that contributed to his governments’ stabilities. Dilma is less charismatic and less skilled at coalition management.) Add to this mix some hardy corruption scandals (though in my opinion, nothing more outrageous than scandals from past administrations), and you have a government very much more vulnerable to opposition and especially attacks from the right.

This vulnerability was acutely illustrated during the 2014 elections. The election began as a three-way race between Dilma, Acéio Neves Cunha, a traditional politician from the center-right Partido Socialista do Brasil (PSDB), and Eduardo Campos of the Partido Socialista Brasileria (PSB).

While it was expected that the PT’s main challenge would come from the PSDB, Brazil’s second largest party, Campos of the PSB was an interesting development. Since the PT was founded, and particularly since it assumed the presidency in 2002, various small tendencies from within the party have split. Some groups split for personal reasons and some for ideological reasons. Several of the groups that split, like the Partido da Causa Operária (PCO), Partido Socialista dos Trabalhadores Unificado (PSTU), and Partido Socialismo e Liberdade (PSOL), had fielded their own presidential candidates in past elections but received nearly negligible vote percentages. In the 2010 presidential elections, these parties received a combined vote of about 1%.

In 2014, however, the PSB, which was never part of the PT but was part of its electoral coalition in 2010, split from the coalition and fielded its own candidate in Eduardo Campos. Formerly a Science and Technology Minister under Lula, Campos portrayed himself as a leftist who was simultaneously business-friendly – he campaigned for increased spending on education, health and universal public services (including the Bolsa Familia) while reducing the size of government, reducing government intervention in Brazil’s various semi-state-owned companies (a version of GOCCs), reducing red tape for business and aggressively investing in alternative energy. His running mate, Marina Silva, was a well-known environmental advocate who had an impressive run under the Green Party in the 2010 presidential elections, coming in third place with 19% of the vote (in the first round). Silva had also previously been a cabinet minister (of environment) during a Lula government and she remained a PT member until 2009.

Not insignificantly, much of Campos’ campaign messaging focused on a “third way,” or attempting to convince voters that they had an option that was not the PT or the PSDB. Every Brazilian presidential election since 1994 has essentially been a contest between the PT and the PSDB, with these parties gaining over 80% of first round votes. Additionally, much of Brazilian political life has been painted, especially by the Globo media monopoly, as a polarizing dichotomy between the PT and the PSDB. There are two meaningful insights to note about Campos’s campaign: First, his strategy involved painting the PT as the “establishment”, and no longer as a party of economic and social transformation. Second, his candidacy provided a focus for those who still considered themselves left – or at least those that supported the PT’s social welfare programs – but were frustrated with Dilma’s performance.

Campos tragically died in a plane crash less than two months before the elections and Marina Silva took on the mantle of being the PSB’s presidential candidate. Silva was doing well, consistently outpolling Cunha and even tying Dilma around five weeks before the elections. At the end, however, her ranked position and the overall hype surrounding her campaign (along, of course, with a plethora of other factors) made her the logical main target of both the PT and the PSDB’s offensives. Silva ended up coming in third falling only two points behind Cunha with 22% to Cunha’s 24%. Accordingly, she was not included in the 2nd round.

In the 2nd round of the elections, where Dilma faced Cunha head-on was the tightest presidential race in recent history. Despite rampant and outspoken criticisms of Dilma’s government, the left unified and mobilized to support Dilma, with the position that a Dilma/PT-led government, for all its faults, would be better than a rightist Cunha-led government. Dilma’s campaign, in turn, moved to the left, including promising to use Petrobras revenues to dramatically augment health and education budgets, in response to and acknowledgement of who the party’s core constituency was and who would deliver the PT to victory.

Following the election, Dilma’s policies nearly immediately moved back towards the right. Despite this, rightist political forces have maintained their attacks. Rightist groups have organized three national protests so far this year, including a national day of action on August 16 that gathered almost 200,000 people in Rio de Janeiro, São Paulo, Brasilia, and other cities to call for Dilma and the PT’s ouster. Dilma has weathered a seemingly constant threat of impeachment. These are expected to continue until the end of her term.

 

Social Crisis

The economic crisis has also bred a general tension and discomfort that is palpable in daily life. Economic and political insecurity are common topics of conversation even in social functions with non-political people. Economic tension tends to accentuate other social tensions such as racial, class, and regional divisions, and rightist attacks on the PT’s social welfare programs often also come with characterizations of traditionally marginalized populations (especially people from the north, poor people, Blacks, and immigrants) as lazy, ill-intentioned and parasitic.

Social movements, for their part, are far from their apex. The height of social movement activity was in the latter part of the military dictatorship until the 1990s. Despite a reinvigoration of large public manifestations in recent years, which arguably peaked in 2013, social movements are having difficulty inspiring and recruiting this new population of outraged citizens into an organized force. As Stedile characterized in Friday’s event:

“Most working people come home and watch the political crisis from their sofas like they watch a tennis match. Dilma says something and then Cunha [the right-wing lower house speaker who Dilma narrowly defeated for the presidency in 2014] says something and then the PT responds…”

When the audience laughed at this characterization, Stedile quickly retorted, “I don’t know why you are laughing. This is our problem. The people are watching politics like a game instead of going to the streets.” Like the Philippines, NGOs are also in crisis as donors are pulling out of Brazil in favor of less “democratically developed” countries.

The Plenary

The Plenary meeting had three stated objectives. The first was to forge unity (the perennial left problem). Second was to approve a joint manifesto to oppose any impeachment attempts, which they referred to as coups, and oppose the government’s fiscal adjustment policies, which include cutting social investments and increasing taxes on basic services such as electricity and water. Third was to agree to mobilize their bases for a large manifestation on August 20 wherein these demands will be voiced.

While the left forces in attendance were overwhelmingly unsatisfied and angry with the current government, their stand is to prevent Dilma’s ouster. This stand is based on the analysis that an ouster would result in a Cunha-led government, which would be infinitely worse than Dilma’s government. The second, and I think more important stand, is to show Dilma and the PT that the left is the only force saving them from a right-wing coup. Essentially, the intention is to consolidate and raise to public consciousness a political force that carries the message: “We are the ones who got you elected, we are the ones protecting you from a coup, you must move your policies to the left because if we leave you will be left with nothing.”

Points to Ponder

 

Watching these events unfold has made me ponder some issues I think are relative to our own struggle:

What happens when party supporters are not happy with the party’s performance in government?

Many of us have been observers of the PT for many years, seeking to extrapolate lessons that could inform a leftist, social movements-based party rise to power in the Philippines. We have witnessed changes within the PT, and heard many of our long-time and respected friends and comrades from Brazil criticize the PT for various versions of “going neoliberal”, “acquiescing too much to elites and the Washington Consensus”, and even “becoming the new elite.” Since Akbayan entered into coalition with the LP, it has faced many of the same important questions, from both within and without. “Will Akbayan be tainted by elites?” “Will Akbayan compromise its values as a leftist party?” and even “Will Akbayan be corrupted by its proximity to power?” and “What will be the role of social movements in and with Akbayan?” There are also similarities with how internal dynamics within the two parties have developed. There are, broadly speaking, those who want to split and create a new party, those who struggle from the inside to pull the PT to the left, and those more willing to compromise with traditional politics. The struggle to answer these questions is an ongoing process that will continue to determine Akbayan’s nature as a party. After 12 years as the ruling party, the PT and allied social movements are still struggling with the question, which are a reflection of the different tendencies and internal democracy that comprise the PT. I consider this tolerance for different left tendencies and internal debate, and especially the presence of those who actively criticize the party within left circles but defend it outwardly because of their investment in the PT project, to be the main source of the party’s strength.

Parallel, yet independent force

In this (like the Philippines) highly personalistic political culture, there is a tendency among the many disappointed leftists to attribute the policies that have unfolded over the past few years, at least in part, to Dilma’s personal characteristics: “Dilma no longer cares for the working class.” “Dilma has forgotten her ideals as an activist.” I do not know Dilma Rousseauf. These accusations may very well be true. However, I choose to take a more structural viewpoint. Dilma heads a minority government. The right is strong and the left is weak. The right, naturally, is using its position of strength to negotiate for rightist policies, and they are getting them. Even if Dilma was personally the most radical leftist conceivable, she would have to compromise in order to hold onto the presidency and prevent someone from the extreme right from taking over. Thus, I tend to think the adoption of rightist policies reflects the weakness of the left more than they reflect Dilma’s political will (or lack thereof).

Ideally, social movements allied with the PT intended to pursue a strategy of organizing independently from the PT in order to maintain pressure the party and other political forces at large. At times, however, this has proven difficult in practice. Many observers have criticized PT-aligned social movements, and the MST in particular, for being less militant and vocally critical of the government since the PT came into power. (It is worth noting that evidence suggests that the Lula government settled more families than the preceding Cardoso administration, though, some agrarian reform advocates have argued that his administration merely regularized/formalized existing occupations.) Observers I have spoken to characterized left social movements as being in a somewhat sluggish phase since the PT took power. Movements slowed down organizing, recruitment, education, and research, relying on the PT instead to simply deliver demands. While PT governments delivered significant victories on social welfare and economic development fronts, they have certainly not approximated achieving the socialist revolution or fundamental change of the established predatory social and economic system.

Nevertheless, the call on Friday was clear. The left is no longer to rely on just having a supposed ally in the presidential office, nor is it to call for blanket support or ouster. It must grow and consolidate its own independent force of militants while drawing unorganized public opinion to its side in order to negotiate specific policy concessions with the government.

To quote an interview Stedile gave in 2007:

“Deep down the government is like a mirror that reflects society. And if in society the working class is weak, if it’s in reflux, a leftist government can’t advance its agenda…

“I’m not absolving him of his responsibility, but Lula’s administration hasn’t been able to make changes because of the reflux in the proletariat that hasn’t yet reversed. We didn’t count on this. We thought that a simple electoral victory would give a shock to the masses…We thought this was it, the time had come! And it hadn’t. It was really frustrating…This is the greatest challenge that we face today: we’re waiting around, seeing if the government will do this or that instead of just acting on our own. And of course it’s better that Lula will be reelected than to have Alckmin [of the PSDB] win. Obviously we’ll vote for Lula, but real change will only come with the process of organization among the people and the rising of the proletariat. That is the only chance we have.”

It’s not about the individual, it’s about the system / Elections are but one of many fronts

This isn’t the first time we’ve heard “we need to go back to organizing the base.” Nearly every meeting on left strategy that I have attended in the past near-decade has inevitably come down to this point. However, watching the unfolding events in Brazil makes the need to organize, maintain, and grow a base that much more evident.

The Partido dos Trabalhadores and Akbayan are political parties and one of the purposes of a political party is to gain elected office. However, gaining office is not akin to winning the revolution. Revolution is about a fundamental change in society and economy, and the electoral front is but one means of accessing power that would later enable this fundamental change.

Furthermore, it is important to remember that although both Brazil and the Philippines are strong presidentialist systems, the president is not as powerful as we often think. The vast majority of politicians come from established landed or capitalist interests and so have their own personal power bases independent of party politics, especially national politics. As a result, national figures depend on the local elites for vote delivery and often even program administration. Furthermore, our fight is no longer contained to the proletariat versus the domestic elite. As a comrade from the MST reminded me, the left in the developing world must also deal with the pressure predatory transnational capital places on government and the alliances they forge with domestic capital.

We would be foolish to think that “getting a good president elected” would be enough to effectively fight off capitalism. Even if, by some particularly plucky electoral strategy, we were able to elect “true leftists” (whatever that means) to the highest positions, this would still be insufficient to take on traditional elites, the various industrial syndicates, and transnational capital without a strong popular backing.

Any government the left would participate in, even lead, in our systems within the foreseeable future would necessarily include elements from the center and right in order to maintain some kind of stability. In the face of immeasurable money and institutions biased towards the status quo, the organized masses are the political power necessary to both support the progressives in government, especially when they take the radical steps we so desire, as well as to shame and isolate the reactionaries.

Thus, the fronts we must engage in are as numerous as there are sources of power. Legal-electoral, yes, but also educational, identity-cultural (including pop culture), media, developmental, resource accumulation, and of course, membership and militancy. We are not merely fighting against reactionary politicians. We are fighting against a political-economic-social system. An empowered society with socialist values that is ready to take various forms of action when necessary is the only assurance of victory.

This is not to say that we should give up pursuing electoral and even governmental coalitions with non-progressive forces for fear of getting our hands dirty. Something the left is an expert at, much more expert than the right, is splitting our forces and trading judgmental accusations about who “more left” and is a “true, pure socialist.” For a group that claims to value diversity and open thought we sure do seem to have dogmatic tendencies. Many of the groups who attended last Friday’s plenary were groups that attacked the PT for this exact reason. They even included parties and organizations that count themselves among the left-wing opposition to the PT. Yet, they saw the need to support, while engaging the government at this conjuncture, even if it hurt their ideological sensibilities.

The struggle that we engage in is not merely about being correct. We are not conducting an academic exercise where being correct is enough to feel proud of ourselves and say we did our job. The stakes are simply too high to treat it as such. The struggle we engage in, no, that we live, is about gaining real political power in a system where compromise is inevitable. It is about being honest about our own strengths and especially our weaknesses, taking responsibility for such, and realizing that sometimes choosing the lesser evil is the best we can do today, while we lay the conditions for tomorrow.

Resources:

http://en.mercopress.com/2015/05/22/brazil-heading-for-full-recession-economic-activity-down-unemployment-up

http://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2014-04-04/pro-market-campos-offers-brazil-3rd-way-in-bid-to-oust-rousseff

http://www.mstbrazil.org/news/lula-meaning-agrarian-reform

http://www.tradingeconomics.com/brazil/inflation-cpi

http://www.wsj.com/articles/rich-brazilians-wary-of-government-look-abroad-1423182280

http://www.as-coa.org/blogs/s%C3%A3o-paulo-2015-blog-breakdown-brazils-latest-budget-cuts

The economic and social blood of any city relies on the ability of its residents to be mobile, and to have easy access to work, education, and amusement. The sprawling nature of Metro Manila, combined with an extremely chaotic and inadequate public transportation system renders this easy access non-existent, as travelling, and especially commuting, is time-consuming, uncomfortable, and expensive.

The MRT and LRT rail systems, what should be the most modern and efficient components of travel in Metro Manila, are severely lacking. We are all too familiar with their problems: massive overcrowding (to the point where you are literally spooning the person next to you from line-up to exit), unsafe cars, stampede-like conditions. When an MRT car fell from the rails last year it seemed to be the inevitable catastrophe waiting to happen. Yet, the next day, myself included, millions again lined up to take the train. Perhaps we view having an extra four hours a day to spend with one’s friends and family instead of stuck in traffic as worth risking one’s life.

Thus, it is no surprise when the DOTC first floated an over 60% increase in MRT/LRT fared in 2013, it was met with severe opposition. It was seen as an attack on the citizens of Metro Manila, especially the working poor. The government backed down, only to make the announcement that it would implement the fare hike over Christmas break, when Congress was not in session and people wanted to think about enjoying the holidays with their families and optimism for 2015, not additional burdens. The fare hike is unjust and unjustified, for the following reasons:

1. No improvements in service

In a statement, DOTC Sec. Abaya said that commuters could expect service improvements in 2015. These improvements have already been scheduled and budgeted for. However, this fare hike has nothing to do with service improvements. It will go entirely to pay debt to MRTC, the concessionaire that (mis)manages the MRT/LRT system.

I, and I venture to say, most riders would willingly comply with a fare increase if it meant better service, and especially safety. I would even happily comply with a fare hike if it meant MRT/LRT employees could have regular (non-contractual) work with benefits. However, not a single centavo of the fare hike will go to either of those. Rather, it will go to government payments to a corporate entity. A concessionaire, by the way, that has completely failed to maintain and modernize the train lines.

2. Benefits from mass transit do not come from farebox recovery. Benefits come in the form of positive externalities.

Public transportation, especially in dense cities, is a public utility, not a for-profit business. Contrary to government statements, it is not just those who ride that get the benefits, ergo, user-pay is not the correct framework. With few exemptions, no public transport system in the world makes money from ridership. Governments subsidize mass transit because those governments understand that the value of the positive externalities that result from accessible mass transit – a more efficient workforce, less pollution, less traffic, less congested cities, more economic activity – far outweigh the direct subsidies. More accessible mass transit, an important part of which is affordability, results in more commercial activity, which results in the generation of wealth. Put this in the context of Manila, the economic powerhouse for the entire country, and it is impossible to say the benefits of the MRT/LRT extend only to those who ride.

3. The fare hike disproportionally hurts the poor.

Any flat-rate increase in the cost of a basic service is by its nature regressive because those with smaller incomes pay a larger percentage of their incomes for the increase. Combine this with the profile of MRT/LRT ridership. According to the Mega Manila Public Transport Study (2007), 72.4% of MRT/LRT riders make less than P15,000 per month, 52.8% make less than P10,000 per month, and 29.7% make less than P8,000 per month. It is clear that low-wage earners are those most affected by the fare increase.

To further illustrate, let us consider a minimum-wage earner in NCR making P429 per day (though we all know there is an abundance of people paid below minimum wage). An extra P10 per ride, or P20 per day, means almost 5% of their income would go to the increase alone, and so a total of approximately 10% of the worker’s income would go to MRT/LRT rides. The worker now loses an additional one day’s wage every month to the fare hike.

Contrast the additional amount the government is asking commuters to pay compared to what motorists and franchise owners pay. Financing for cars is at an historic low, hence the great influx of private vehicles on the road leading to more traffic. Unsafe, unmaintained, and environmentally-unfriendly taxis and busses abound as the LTFRB works in complicity with franchise owners to eschew regulations and consumer protections for the right price. In other countries and cities, a larger VAT is levied on new motor vehicles, with larger VATs on multiple vehicles per household, and street parking fees are high and regularly collected. These are means of limiting the number of private motor vehicles and introducing a form of progressive taxation that could subsidize public transport and other services (motor vehicles, especially new and multiple new vehicles per household, are considered a luxury good likely to be purchased by households with higher incomes). While I understand that given the shoddy nature of mass transportation in Manila, making it prohibitively costly to own a car would hurt the middle class much more than the rich, the truth remains that there is a de facto policy of incentivizing car ownership versus the use and development of mass transit.

This does not even begin to compare how much the national and local governments spend on the development and maintenance of roads instead of making public transportation more efficient and comfortable.

4. There are plenty of other potential revenue sources that could pay for the government’s debt to MRTC.

As articulated by numerous progressive groups and even not-so-progressive personalities, there are plenty of other revenue sources that the government could tap to pay for its debt to the MRTC. According to Partido Manggagawa, Travel subsidies for high-ranking government officials have increased in recent years – in the 2012 budget they were worth P8.7 billion, over four times more than the P2 billion a year this fare hike proposes to raise. The electricity industry, one of the most lucrative industries in the country (Meralco is a constant top-performer in the stock exchange) received over P5 billion in subsidies last year. It is worth noting that far from a multitude of small energy producers that the spot market envisioned, the electricity industry in the Philippines in run by a few large conglomerates. Local branches of multinational corporations are given tax holidays and preferential import schemes. Hundreds of government officials get reimbursed for meetings and meals in restaurants that they themselves own. These are all examples of when the government used our tax dollars (or potential tax dollars) to give preferential treatment to the already rich.

Ayala, SM and Robinson’s make billions of pesos from the MRT/LRT because train stations run directly to their malls. Hong Kong’s and Singapore’s MTR and MRT systems are the most profitable in the world because they both own commercial establishments connected to train stations, as well as receive a cut of the commercial profits from malls into which the systems feed. Here in the Philippines, retailers get the same benefits from our mass transit system – just consider what a boost to foot traffic the MRT provides to Trinoma, SM North, Centris, Gateway, Megamall, Glorietta, and others – but these retailers do not pay concessions to the system.

This does not even begin to touch on all the government waste and frivolous expenditures that occur. How much did those televisions in the MRT that have not worked since they were acquired almost half a year ago cost? (And even if they did work, what would be the point? It’s not like you can change lines if your train is late.) How much for the metal detectors that are never turned on? Expanding to other agencies, how much for Metro Manila “beautification,” i.e. those potted plants along EDSA that have to be changed every month because they die of smog? Let us not even venture into corruption and inefficiencies in tax collection.

There is no doubt that the Aquino government has had more redistributive programs and been more sincere in its fight against corruption than administrations past. However, the very nature of tolerating subsidies for the rich while removing subsidies for the poor is a form of regressive taxation – socialism for the rich while maintaining predatory rent-seeking capitalism for the poor.

5. This is not about Manila vs. the provinces.

I find it an act of, at the best naïve misunderstanding, at the worst a bad-faith attempt to foment intra-class animosity through taking advantage of Filipino regionalism, that the government is trying to say that it is unfair for provincial taxpayers to subsidize the MRT/LRT and that reducing the subsidy would lead to better services in the provinces. This is not a zero-sum game where the choices are limited to raising commuter fares in Metro Manila or foregoing development projects in the regions. As already mentioned, there are plenty of underutilized (in terms of actual benefits to people in need) funds that could be used to prevent the fare hike without sacrificing provincial development.

Furthermore, Metro Manila is the economic powerhouse of the country. Peso for peso, Metro Manila subsidizes development in the rest of the country much more than taxes collected outside of Manila subsidize the Metro’s transit. In other words, net of the MRT/LRT subsidy, Filipinos in the provinces still get more in redistributed taxes. When the economy in Metro Manila is not efficient and effective and workers have decreased purchasing power to participate in the domestic economy, the entire country suffers. We all know that the Philippine economy loses P2 billion per day due to Metro Manila traffic. That is, the entire economy, not just the Metro’s economy, loses out due to traffic patterns in the Metro. The same principle applies to the MRT/LRT.

6. The sneaky way the fare hike was implemented shows bad faith

The fare hike was first proposed in the middle of last year and was met with outrage. The government postponed, opposition momentum relaxed, and then suddenly it is rushed through decision, announcement, and implementation during the Christmas holidays. This is a time when Congress is not in session, many Metro Manileños have gone home to the province, and people would rather generally be enjoying time with their family and friends than considering injurious government policies and how to combat them. It is simply too wild to believe that the government did not choose this timetable for the announcement and implementation for this exact reason: they wanted to sneak it past us.

7. Don’t victimize the people for government’s past wrongs

There is no question that the Aquino government inherited a contract that was extremely disadvantageous to the Filipino people. According to the contract for MRT/LRT operation, the government guaranteed at least 15% return on investment to the MRTC for operations from 2000-2025. With such a guaranteed return, again, one unheard of in the world of public transportation, why would the MRTC bother to invest in better services? An economics 101 student could tell you this is a textbook moral hazard. Now the DOTC is trying to make up for long-needed upgrades and maintenance. Whoever negotiated that contract over a decade ago should be held responsible.

But that does not justify passing the sins of foregoing administrations onto ordinary citizens. The government must take responsibility and find a solution that protects low-wage earners. However, shame does not just belong to the government, it also belongs to the MRTC. I would like to know who sits on their board, who is calling their shots, and who exactly is so unamenable to throwing working people a damn bone for the daily safety gamble that is the MRT/LRT.

Random memory:

When I was in college I was an intern at an NGO/think tank/public interest law firm. While I was there we got a new executive director who had previously been high ranking in the Clinton administration, so he was kind of a big deal. He wanted to have a barbecue at his house as a welcome/staff bonding event.

My boss asked if I could help the E.D. set up for the party – shopping, food prep, etc. When she asked me to do this, I got really pissed off. What immediately went through my mind was “I got hired to work in an office! I in’t get hired to cook and clean in no white man’s house!”

After a couple days of stewing about it I decided I was going to tell my boss that I refused doing the assignment on principle. If they would fire me because of my decision, so be it, but as an organization that had fair labor practices as one of its core advocacies, it would be really bad form if they fired me.

Before I could talk to my boss though, the E.D. personally sought me out to thank me. He basically said “I know this is way beyond your job description. But, I really personally appreciate that you’re willing to help out and I’ll try to make it a fun day for you.” That changed my mind and I decided to do it.

It did turn out to be fun day. I ended up bonding with the E.D. over shopping for cannolis and slicing up crudite. I appreciated that we did the work together – he didn’t just sit around while I worked – and he made the effort to actually talk to me about my life, political opinions, professional ambitions, etc. In the following months he ended up becoming one of my early mentors.

Lessons learned: Matagal na pala akong pasaway, angry at the system, and all that, but at the end of the day I’m also kind of a softie. Being a gracious manager will make even your most asshole employee go beyond the call of duty. No matter how supposedly “high up” one is, the willingness and how one performs manual labor is still a telling measure of a man or woman. Besides going through war, cooking and having beers together are probably the best methods of bonding.

I was really nerd happy when I woke up this morning thinking I would spend the day poking around the newly-launched data.gov.ph. In fairness, I appreciate the effort to put all government data in one place (which should be the mandate of NSCB, but anyway), and to have it available in CSV, XML, or ASCII – basically anything that’s not PDF – is an upgrade.

However, upon further perusal I remain frustrated and disappointed. It’s clear that beyond the two points I mentioned above there has been no attempt to make the data usable. In order to avoid being called one of those “cottage industries” who makes a living off of criticizing the administration no matter how good its intentions are, I offer some obvious problems and some simple solutions:

1) The search function is not functioning.

Image

Say that I want to know the maternal mortality over time. I go to data, search for “maternal mortality.” No results. I search for “maternal,” no results. “Mortality,” “death” and “deaths,” still no dice. (At this point I’m wondering “Shouldn’t there be regular data on how many people die every month, the cause of death, and disaggregated to at least the provincial level?” But I don’t want to get side-tracked). Finally I search for women, and lo-and-behold, there is one lonely result: Health and Nutrition: % of Women who Died Due to Pregnancy-Related Causes. Jackpot

However, this discovery begs other questions. Why is there only one result when you search for women? Does this mean there is no data on women in the workforce, women married and at what age, average income of women-headed households, women who hold public office, or the percentage of LGUs that use their Gender and Development Budgets? (A search, by the way of “female” or “gender” doesn’t yield these results either.)

I know government data on these topics exists. I’ve seen it. But it is buried in spreadsheets that cover multiple topics and are named something so general so as to obscure like “Updates 2012.” This problem of “the data is publicly available but no one knows where” is the the exact problem this whole Open Data initiative is trying to address.

Solution: Tagging. The whole point of having a search function is so that you type an intuitive, not technical, description of what you’re looking for and then you find it. However, this only works if the name of the file or its tags have intuitive descriptors. Let’s look at the tags for Health and Nutrition: % of Women who Died Due to Pregnancy-Related Causes.

Image

“Health” and “Nutrition” are already part of the title, so they are unnecessary but don’t hurt. “Philippines,” well yes, we are in the Philippines, all of this is assumed to be data about the Philippines, so again, totally unnecessary but doesn’t take away anything. “NAMRIA” stands for the National Mapping and Resource Information Authority. I had to Google that because I had no idea what it was and I have no idea why anyone who wanted to know about maternal mortality would search for NAMRIA.

Common sense should be used when making tags. What is this dataset? Luckily, its title is clear and specific. What are some other terms people would use to describe this and related topics? Well, “maternal mortality,” “mothers,” “death,” “female,” and “reproductive health” for starters. Tags and search terms must be assigned from the point of view of potential users.

2) Non-uniformity in data. Data is a wonderful thing. Having lots of data means that you can not only know about a single phenomenon, but you can know how it relates to other phenomena and come up with an idea about what causes it.

Say that I want to know the relationship between maternal mortality and public expenditures in health. This seems like a reasonable thing to want to know and something that we probably should know if we are going to make good policy. Maternal mortality data looks like this:

Image

The data is obviously incomplete, which is a whole other issue. I will say, though, that having data that is accurate to the local level, even if you only have it in a few areas, is more useful for designing government interventions than having macro data that reflects the average in the country overall but does not tell you about the situation of any particular community. But I digress.

With this data it should be possible to look at the relationship between public health expenditure at the local level and maternal mortality. However, all the budget tables are just that, tables. This map must have been generated from a table, so that table already exists, but where is that table?? I need it to make simple comparison with health expenditure, not to mention more complicated statistical techniques that could reveal the effect of health expenditure on maternal mortality holding constant things like average income, average children per household, rural or urban character, etc.

Solution: The numbers exist. Show us the numbers.

(By the way, searches for “health expenditures” only resulted in national budgets. Searches for “local government units” and “IRA” turned up null.)

3) Labeling. In order to demonstrate that math has practical implications in life, 3rd grade math was full of word problems. My 3rd grade teacher insisted that we label all our answers. “The answer is not 5, it’s 5 apples. Why can’t you just say 5? Because I’m a mathematician, not a psychic, and you can’t assume I know what you’re talking about.”

Again, let’s go back to Health and Nutrition: % of Women who Died Due to Pregnancy-Related Causes. It seems pretty straight-forward: the percentage of women who died due to pregnancy-related causes in the colored local government units. However, Died when? In the past month? In 2013? Ever?? You can’t accurately find out important relationships (like those mentioned in #2) if you don’t specify a time period. Also, are these all women or women of child-bearing age? Also another potential source of skewed data.

Another example, here is a section of a file called “31 October 2012 NEDA Updates” available at  http://data.gov.ph/catalogue/dataset/31-october-2012-updates

Image

Image

This data sheet begets more questions than answers. What does “% g.r.” mean? There is no key that explains this in the file. If the purpose of making data open is so that any citizen, whether they are a technical expert or not, can access it and understand it, then things that are not immediately understandable to the layman should have an explanatory note in the key.

Beyond that however, there are items that are simply impossible to understand even if you do have prior knowledge. For example: row 25, the number of building permits for quarter 2 of 2012 = 4.4. It would seem that this represents the absolute number of building permits. (I can’t see how building permits could be a percentage of anything, unless you meant the value of building permits, but that’s not what it says.) So the question is 4.4 what? 4.4 thousand? 4.4 million? Similarly, the value of construction for quarter 2 of 2012 = 15.4. Again, 15.4 million pesos? 15.4 billion pesos? Or 15.4% of total GDP? Of total GNI? Or of whatever % g.r. is?

Now please look at rows 18-24, electrical consumption. Residential consumption in August 2012 (row 20) is -3.3. I find it hard to believe that residential households generated 3.3% more electricity than they consumed (thus yielding a negative value), so this makes me think -3.3 represents a change of some sort. But a change of what? Is that the change in October 2012 compared to August 2012? Of residential consumers’ share of all electricity consumed?

Again, maybe these are industry conventions that are simply going above my head, but there is no point to providing open access to data if the meaning of the data is not transparent. Accessible necessarily means understandable. Any provider of information has the duty to clearly explain what that information means, not berate the population for not understanding bureaucratic conventions.

Solution: All of these datasets already have a codebook that clearly explains the meaning of each data point and how it is derived. I am confident these codebooks must already exist because at some point NEDA, DBM, DOF, etc. have to train new staff. Just upload the codebooks and link them to the datasets.

In conclusion, Open Data could be the start of something immensely useful, but let’s not pat ourselves on the back just yet. For the Open Data project to cause real changes in its intended areas of transparency and governance, for accessibility to be real and not just a technical concept, it is not enough to just upload all the data to a central location and hope someone will have the time, energy, and expertise to do something with it. You must think of the user, the possible practical implications, and format your data accordingly. (As well as in the future, collect your data accordingly.) There are lots of other problems that make this data unusable or prohibitively difficult to use in its current form: in many files the data is laid out like text tables instead of rectangular data sets; instead of having all the data on a particular topic in one sheet (say, amount spent on public education), every year has its own file thus requiring a whole lot of manipulation before you can do any time-series analysis; the timing of the way data is displayed is inconsistent, making cross-source comparisons very difficult (e.g. some data is displayed by year, some by quarter, some by month, some by calendar year and some by fiscal year – all in the same table).

I understand that the project just started and there is a lot more that has to, and, presumably, will be done. But I do not buy the inevitable excuse of “we’re short on manpower.” The very professional and beautiful PR material that populates the site is evidence that there are very capable people working on this project. But, it seems a lot more energy and resources were put into the PR aspect than the actual data. For example, it’s clear that formatting pretty javascript price monitoring tables (you can’t call it an infographic if you cannot right-click, save, and share it) out of, say, already existing but less pretty price monitoring tables, was higher priority than conceptualizing and executing how to make basic data user-friendly. At this point the site is all shebang and no substance.

While a lot more has to be done to format the raw data, I tried to identify three quick and easy ways in which the usability of this site and its data can be greatly improved: better tagging, revealing the numbers, and labeling data (basically uploading codebooks). These are all steps that don’t need technical experts or statisticians, they just need a little common sense.

P.S. It’s possible that everything I just said is in the Action Plan for Open Data Philippines, but I have no idea because the link is broken.

Image

Womp womp.

I’m late on commenting on this, and much more has been said by comrades like Emman Hizon and Walden Bello, but nevertheless for good measure:

Sure, it was expected that the extreme left would go after Akbayan, but there are jut so many logical inconsistencies:
1. Akbayan is overrepresented in government

  • It is correct that former Akbayan leaders hold positions in the executive, and they are there working for the dignity, rights, and well-being of the marginalized. Is the extreme left saying that the sectors that comprise Akbayan (labor, peasants, fisherfolk, urban poor, women, youth, LGBT, OFs) are now overrepresented in government?
  • By this logic, women were also overrepresented in government during the GMA admin. After all, a woman held the post powerful political office in the land and appointed many other women. Do Anakbayan, KMU and LFS think that women were not a marginalized sector from 2001-2010? Hm, I wonder what Gabriela would have to say about that…
  • They point exclusively to executive positions held by former Akbayan leadership, but the party-list law is about the legislature. Is Akbayan overrepresented in the legislature? Akbayan has 2 seats out of 289 members. Is Akbayan overrepresented? More importantly, are the marginalized sectors that comprise Akbayan overrepresented? If labor, peasants, fisherfolk, urban poor, women, youth, LGBT and OFs are indeed overrepresented in the House then the Makabayan coalition doesn’t have a job either.
  • Confounding executive positions with overrepresentation in the legislature elucidates the simple fact that the extreme left doesn’t understand the distinct function of separate branches of government in a democratic system. Representation in the legislature is a different animal with a different purpose than executive positions.

2. Akbayan running when it is allied with PNoy is the same as GMA’s front party lists

  • Unlike GMA creating various party-lists and running her own relatives as candidates, Akbayan existed, developed its own identity, and won victories for marginalized sectors long before a PNoy presidency was even fathomable.
  • Akbayan does not receive money from the administration – not for operations, not for campaigning, not for anything.

3. Akbayan is a sipsip or puppet to the PNoy administration

4. Akbayan doesn’t do anything

  • Once again, let’s do our research. Akbayan’s successful advocacies:
    • CARPER
    • Cheaper Medicines Act
    • Right to Labor Organization Law
    • National Land Use and Management
    • Support for FASAP strike against PAL and campaign for age and gender equality
  • Akbayan’s continuing advocacies:
    • RH
    • FOI
    • Amendments to Cybercrime law to decriminalize libel
    • Mandatory teaching of Martial Law atrocities
    • Overseas voting and Protection of overseas workers, including repatriation of OFWs in conflict zones
    • Accountability of corrupt government officials (the recent plunder charges against GMA were based on a complaint filed by Risa Hontiveros)
    • Philippine sovereignty over Kalayaan Islands and West Philippine Sea
    • at maraming iba pa…

 

Ideological differences between left groups are inevitable. However, such differences should result in meaningful debate and action towards our common goal: uplifting and empowering the marginalized to take the reigns of power from the predatory elite. When differences become reduced to insults, mudslinging, and procedural gymnastics to gain the upper hand, the elite have effectively split us and the poor are the losers.

As I sit on yet another all-too-familiar 14 hour flight (which, by the way, I paid for my damn self and categorically deny that I ever made any statement to the contrary) a myriad of disturbing ideas ricochet around my head as if banging on my cranial walls, resulting in a massive headache. For someone so used to the immediate cathartic release of honest to goodness conflict, that these thoughts keep banging around in my head with nowhere to go (like when you point a bottle rocket to your enemy’s crib only to realize you forgot to roll down the car window first) raises my heartbeat and agitates my breath. All this is a long and maarte way of saying I can’t fucking sleep. Some people have been asking why I don’t blog anymore. It never fails to amaze me that people actually read this thing. So why not.

After my first stint in the wacky world of Philippine politics many moons ago I came to two major realizations that I intended to put down in a reflection peice. I never quite got around to writing that peice but every time I go back my two realizations are enforced. I guess now is as good a time as any to take a stab at draft 1.

Socialist

I am a socialist. I do not believe in status, title, or heirarchy, which perpetuate inequality, repress dynamism, and restrict access to the means of both material and intellectual production. As a result I have been told multiple times, by multiple and disparate people, that I don’t know my place. Hindi ako marunong lumugar. To that I answer, “Thank you. Hindi talaga.” If I knew “my place,” I could have easily ended up a teenage mother, someone in and out of jail for petty drug offenses, and maybe eventually ended up enrolling in community college in hopes of eventual stable work (self-fulfilling work not at all a consideration) once I all too late realized the mistakes of my adolescence and my lost opportunities. Ok, that describes a minorty of my peers from my neighborhood (though a substantial minority), but to be sure, if I knew “my place” I was fated to live a not at all remarkable life, 5/7 of which would be wasted yessuh- and yess’m-ing some uppity asshole who felt entitled to my humiliation because of the color of his and her skin and the contour of my eyes.

That is a place I refuse. With great skill I learned to be angry and defiant. I learned to hide the neighborhood slang and speak “proper English” so that I would be taken seriously in academic and later professiomal settings. Yet, I always make sure to slip in the swagger every now and then just to break the stereotype and prove a point. I would shake with anger at the world when my mother would hide in the back at my school events because she wasn’t white and we weren’t rich and she was wearing old clothes while the other mothers wore designer jeans, eventhough their only accomplishment in life was being born or marrying into the right class. I would shake with anger when in college, other students laughed when I brought up the shooting of one of our own. I decried how the media quickly portrayed him first as a gangster, part of that distant subculture wrought with violence, and only secondly, if at all, as a victim of a senseless crime. It didn’t matter that the young father had no criminal record or history of violence. His murder was treated as entertainment. My classmates literally laughed out loud when I breached the topic. For them, such things were just expected. It was our place to just accept 60% of us would be dead or in jail before 30. It was their place to laugh about it.

It is with this knowledge and these experiences that I not only rejected the false markers of status, title, and heirarchy, but became determined to break them. It was this rejection and determination that drove me to become a socialist. My socialist ethos was reinforced and nurtured at IPD where, at least during my time, we celebrated the ideal of a flat organization. The first words Joel said to me were, “The most important rule at IPD is everytime you say ‘po’ you have to contribute 200 pesos to the community beer fund.”

But my identity as a socialist is not only rooted in my vehement rejection of status and heirarchy. It’s also rooted in the simple but powerful fact that I believe in luck and the powerful role it plays in everything. It was a mere accident of luck that my father was born to a camote vendor while a friend’s father was born to a doctor. My father began working as a driver and mechanic when he was 14 while my friend’s father, despite ample resources and private university, was rejected from all medical schools he applied to in the US and ended up paying to go to a second-rate medical school in Mexico. My friend’s father ended up becoming a doctor and has spent the better part of his life practicing medicine for 6 hours a day, 3 days a week and playing golf in the balance. My father remined a mechanic and welder until he retired, with books and books of design sketches that never went anywhere because he doesn’t have a formal engineering degree. The powers that be would have us believe that their disparate outcomes are because the doctor was more intelligent and hard-working, basically that he deserved it and my father didn’t. I do not believe that. I believe it was luck.

This viewpoint was exponentially reinforced when I came to the Philippines. It is in the Philippines that I learned to dabble in socialite circles. Where I wine and dine in exclusive restaurants and hotels with people whose names can be found written in our history books and painted on the biggest commercial and industrial sites in the country and around the world. I see these people, I talk to them, and I often find myself wishing they had half the insight as the simple kasama I had casual beers with the night before at the usual bar. One is thoroughly unimpressive while the other is thoroughly humbling. Yet, one shits wads of 1,000 peso bills while other moves from racket to racket in a game to balance maintaining decent livelihood while still contributing to the movement. That unfortunate circumstance can be attributed to luck.

Perhaps most reinforcing, however, is the obvious fact that luck is not lost on me. One too many of my childhood peers became that single teenage mother and although I was angry and defiant and refused to let the low expectations society projected on me determine my future, luck played not a small roll in the fact that I didn’t become that single mother. Why have I gotten all the opportunities I have, and so quickly? Is it because I deserve it, I’m just that good? I dont’t believe that. There are plenty of people out there, there must be, who could blow me out if the water. I’m here because of luck. Because a series of truly great people were willing to take a chance on me, and I, as anyone in my position with half a brain would, made myself available to soak up all the knowledge, experience, and training I possibly could, and still pushed myself to take in more. The luck, on my part is that people, again, took a chance, invested in me and brought me up when they had no real reason to think I’d be worth anything. Or maybe the luck is in the convergence of teachers looking for students, a student looking for teachers, and timing when the supply of new recruits isn’t exactly overflowing. In any case, I am well aware that I don’t deserve this. But now that I’m here I’ll do all that I can to justify my teachers and the cause. I am a socialist and as a socialist I do not believe in working for myself.

On the anniversary of a revolution that changed not only a country but how the world wages war for human dignity…

 

Grad school has given me a chance to see what non-Filipino academics have to say about the EDSA 1 People Power Revolution. Most consider it a case where relatively spontaneous, nonviolent urban demonstrations caused the revolution. As much as I am proud that we basically coined “people power,” I can’t help but feel hurt that the comrades that struggled in the long protracted movement, who suffered in the countryside, and whose sacrifices and deaths helped pave the way for a weakened and delegitimized dictatorship, as well as a better trained and organized inclusive opposition movement are being pushed out of the global EDSA 1 narrative. Para sa mga Nalimutang Bayani: tagay comrade, at manalig kayo na tuloy pa rin tayo.

 

Next Page »