Our incompetent political class

Calixto V. Chikiamco

Posted on September 22, 2014

WITH POLITICIANS at the helm, is the MRT providing bad service, risky trips, and crowded trains to a suffering public? Check.

How about the airports? Stinking toilets? Poor security? Scene of crimes, from assassination to petty theft? Long lines everywhere? Check. Check. Check.

Massive corruption at the National Food Authority and rising rice prices? Check. Government-created garlic cartel and skyrocketing garlic prices? Check. The Department of Agriculture sleeping on the job on the cocolisap infestation? Check.

Worsening traffic? Check. Port congestion? Check.

Looming energy shortage? Check. Impending water shortage? Check. Rising crime against Koreans and Chinese and more crimes perpetuated by rogue policemen? Check.

I will steal a term which my friend, Atty. Tony Abad, posted on his Facebook wall and redefine it as such: INEPTOCRACY (In-ep-toc’-cracy): a system of government where the Philippine political class runs the government.

I have said that the Philippine government is like King Midas in reverse: everything it touches turns into, well, garbage. Do you remember when the water system was run by the government? No water. Most households had to have deep wells, or water pumps, or paid for very expensive water. What about when government was into energy production and distribution? Massive corruption, inefficient plants, taxpayer-subsidized bailouts, etc. What about the government-run Philippine National Railways now? Enough said.

There are many reasons the Philippine political class and its main instrumentality, the government, are so incompetent.

Our political system’s lack of political accountability. If the Liberal Party has mismanaged the government departments, how do voters throw these rascals out? They can just shift political parties. Voters have few ways of penalizing the incompetent and corrupt. As Bayan Congressman Noli Colminares noted in the congressional hearings on his impeachment charges against President Arroyo, Rep. Ben Evardone of Eastern Samar, who was an ally and principal defender of former President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo, is also a Liberal Party stalwart and the principal defender of President Benigno S. Aquino III, who ran on an anti-Arroyo platform. Go figure.

On a deeper level, voters aren’t really free to express themselves. Vote-buying in an environment of poverty and the widespread use of political patronage frustrate efforts to make the corrupt and incompetent pay for their malfeasance and incompetence.

Penalizing the incompetent and corrupt through the judicial system would be another way of exacting accountability. So far, however, we are seeing the judicial system being used to eliminate political rivals rather than to exact accountability.

Incompetence and corruption are two sides of the same coin. The inability to deliver good service to the public frequently stems from self-serving actions and corrupt practices. The equipment breakdowns and maintenance lapses of the MRT, for example, arose from an “emergency” contract given to a relative of former MRT General Manager Ace Vitangcol, whose company had no prior experience in MRT maintenance. If we are to believe the critics, it was also a fund-raising exercise for the Liberal Party.

It doesn’t mean that venality exists only in the Liberal Party because political parties don’t really mean anything in the Philippines. The Philippine government isn’t really run by political parties but factions of “ins” and “outs.”

If there’s one political reform that’s needed to improve efficiency in the management of public institutions, it’s to lessen the incentive of politicians to raise campaign funds through their public offices. This means that there must be a law, as it is in many developed democracies, of state funding for political parties and electoral campaigns. Political turncoatism must also be outlawed.

Another reason for bad public service is that we don’t have a professional bureaucracy that can serve as a counterfoil to the short-term orientation of our political class. Our bureaucracy is highly politicized, with political appointments down to the assistant director level. More often than not, being kaklase, kabarkada, kabarilan, or kamag-anak is the primary qualification for appointment to sensitive government positions, rather than merit and long professional experience. The result is a weak, inefficient, and corrupt bureaucracy that can’t perform and overcome the shortcomings of the politicians in the executive department.

In fact, instead of trying to professionalize the bureaucracy, President Aquino, as presidents before him, is trying to overcome the inefficiency of the bureaucracy by resorting to unilateral, possibly illegal actions. Witness the Disbursement Acceleration Program fiasco, which was justified on the basis that government spending had to be accelerated because the normal bureaucratic process wasn’t fast enough. Witness the resort to “emergency power” to cure the looming energy shortfall summer next year, a situation caused by the administration’s own incompetence. In other words, President Aquino and other politicians peddle the lie that dictatorial powers are the solution to the inefficiencies of government, whereas the root of the problem lies somewhere else.

Given the incompetence of our political class, government might as well outsource as much as it can to the private sector and just focus on a few core things. Privatize Pagcor. Privatize MRT again. Privatize Philippine Ports Authority. Privatize PNR. Push PPP (Public-Private Partnerships) and Build-Own-Operate projects as much as possible. Heck, even privatize the running of prisons as they have done in the United States.

There are a few kinks, however. One is that the regulator can be “captured.” Sweetheart deals become the norm and the public pays the price. A solution would be to build more transparency and more competition in the privatization and regulation process. For the big projects, it’s important to remove the foreign ownership restrictions in the Constitution on public utilities in order to have greater competition and prevent collusion among the local big boys.

Another possible kink is the tendency of the government to change the rules and get back into the game because of the temptation to raise funds. This is happening now in the electricity sector.

Perhaps it’s time for the Philippine version of a Tea Party movement, led by the middle class who pays the majority of taxes in the country. The movement must call for political reforms to attack the roots of the problem. Otherwise, the Keystone cops who call themselves our political leaders will continue to give us performance comedy and risk our lives and sanity in the process.

Calixto V. Chikiamco is the president of Foundation for Economic Freedom and a board member of IDEA