COLUMN: MONEY

MANILA, January 20, 2004 (STAR) FIRST PERSON By Alex Magno - $684 million is a lot of money. It is a large political ball everyone wants to play with.

$684 million is the money the Philippine government expects to possess after the Supreme Court decision becomes final and is finally executed. 18 years after we overthrew the Marcos dictatorship, a major sum of an incredibly large loot is actually being recovered.

This is a windfall. And even if the administration deploys this money most scrupulously, according to every detail in the law and with due regard for every detail of administrative procedure, it will produce a political windfall for a presidency that is presently seeking a mandate from the electorate.

This is a terrifying prospect for the rivals of this administration, those who seek access to power and those who expect to benefit from this money themselves in the event they win power.

And so it is that even if the Filipino people needs this money desperately and expect to be benefited by it immediately, having waited for so long for this moment to come, a wide variety of individuals and groups want this money kept in some purgatory, unavailable for immediate use.

Expectedly, lawyers for the Marcos estate are not in a hurry to see the money transferred from the escrow account to the National Treasury. They are scrambling for every dilatory tactic possible, including invoking the ruling of some minor US judge embargoing the loot even if sovereignty dictates he cannot impose on a sovereign government like we have.

The behavior of the Marcos lawyers is understandable. More understandable, in fact, because the longer they are able to make this case drag, the more they will earn in retainers. The many cases filed in connection with the wealth cleverly stashed away by the late dictator produced a cottage industry of sorts for lawyers.

Expectedly, the politicians seeking to replace the current administration would want to delay the positive impact of this large fund made available for good economic and social use. They are now demanding postponement of the benefits by putting the money away until after the elections.

They want to freeze this political ball, get in the way of the already slow judicial pace and, for entirely partisan reasons, postpone the boost from this windfall that our economy and our people so direly need.

A lot has been said about politicians screwing up our peopleís development. Behold a stark case in point.

And then there is the law.

According to the law, enacted during the heady days following the 1986 Edsa Revolution, all recovered wealth from the Marcoses will be used for one purpose only: to fund the agrarian reform program.

The law reflects what was the political orthodoxy then. The agrarian reform program was the "centerpiece" of the Corazon Aquino administration Ė although scarcity of funds brought paucity of results as far as this program was concerned. It symbolized our societyís response to the social justice expectations of millions of landless farmers for generations.

This was an orthodoxy few disagreed with at that time. It is an orthodoxy that would still be politically painful to disagree with today: agrarian reform has achieved the status of a civil religion even if the economic data demonstrate that the programís effect on our economic productivity is nil at best, adverse at worse.

Agrarian reform did not improve our agricultural productivity. It more likely undermined it. The beneficiaries do not want their "family-sized" plots, which are too small to be economically productive and insufficient to feed farmer families. But they cannot sell the land because the law prohibits redistributed land from being utilized more efficiently through resale to more productive users of that land. The same land cannot be used as collateral either, effectively preventing the capitalization of our agriculture Ė which is the only means to raise the productivity of our scarcest resource, arable land.

This is an unholy thing to say: our agriculture is mired in what might well be called The Agrarian Reform Trap.

But the law says that all recovered wealth goes to expand this trap. None could be used for direly needed investments in raising the quality of our education, in closing the infrastructure gap that impairs our growth nor in paying off the debt that constricts our budgetary ability to do capital investments crucial to our peopleís progress.

Now, what is truly surprising is that the radical leftist factions want both the postponement of the use of the recovered wealth as well us the diminution of the funds to pay indemnities for victims of the Marcos dictatorshipís cruelty. They want a major portion of the recovered wealth to be turned over to the human rights victims.

If there is anything more useless (in strictly economic terms) to our economic growth than putting good money in agrarian reform, it is to redistribute the money in morsels that guarantee they will be used for added consumption rather than invested to create added production.

Donít get me wrong. There is some moral end served by indemnifying human rights victims. I do sympathize with them. I am one of them.

And because I am one of them, I do understand that the victims died, endured torture and dared incarceration not in expectation of getting backpay in a more enlightened time. These patriots endured what was inflicted on them because they were possessed by the conviction that they were doing the right thing for all our people.

Against the natural tendency towards greed, I somehow expect that the community of victims to which I belong would agree that there are more economical ways for the money to be used to serve the people.

It is hard to turn away from the possibility of indemnity. It takes a hard heart and a tougher economic mind to appreciate the fact that the money is better used to pay down debt, build infrastructure, do microfinance, support community-based enterprises than to enlarge the agrarian reform trap or help middle-aged ex-activist buy a new car.

I sort of expected that a group like Bayan Muna, which is so pompous in its self-righteousness, would rather fight for the self-interest of its constituency rather than the general interest in the case of a sum of money large enough to have strategic impact on that nationís development.

I donít know if the recovery of part of the Marcos loot should make me happy or not. It is a large sum of money that will be deployed, sooner or later, for goals that are politically correct but economically wrong.


Reported by: Sol Jose Vanzi

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