They get the most of what there is to get
Our elite of power and wealth are extremely diverse. Their members range from the genteel remnants of the colonial hacendero families to the grossest political-warlord clans such as the Ampatuans of Maguindanao, who are accused of slaughtering 57 people in just one morning.
In between are the political kingmakers who “bet” on a likely candidate and then collect on their investment in business favors once the candidate wins an influential office. Their paragon is the Chinese-Filipino entrepreneur Lucio Tan, who apparently put up 70 percent of presidential candidate Joseph Estrada’s campaign funds in 1998.
The only thing our elite families have in common is that they still get the most of what there is to get. The Ampatuan godfather is reputed to have kept a nest egg of P400 million in an industrial-strength vault in one of his mansions.
The time is long gone when the rich and powerful took fatherly care of their serfs and tenants, in return for their submission and respect. And the decay of this traditional consensus has made the lives of our poorest families less and less secure.
The social contract that had morally obliged the rich to protect the poor’s right to subsistence has been repealed. Whenever this right to live was threatened, as in Central Luzon beginning in the 1930s, the peasants took up arms, but “less often to destroy elites than to compel them to meet their moral obligations.”
Such unrest has widened, as the spread of the cash economy compelled patrons to turn their backs on their customary rights and duties. Besides, people no longer believe inequality to be divinely ordained, or that power is put to the service of society and its values.
Even the usual markers of elite status have been erased, among them the inferred responsibility of privileged people to act with generosity and nobility toward those less privileged.
Landowning, or “not having to buy the rice you eat,” no longer brings social prestige. In Central Luzon, two successive insurgencies have driven away the sugar and rice hacenderos.
Meanwhile, many of the landowning families who have switched to manufacturing have lost out to Filipino-Chinese arrivistes. Having lost their power to monopolize markets, they proved too greedy, too nepotistic, too authoritarian, to survive global competition.
Rich and poor are separating, as in Disraeli’s England in the 1850s, into “two nations, between whom there is no intercourse and no sympathy . . . ”
The Jesuit sociologist John J. Carroll believes that coercion has become the “operating theory” of our social relationships. Naked power has become the main mediator between rich and poor and power is used heedlessly to accumulate wealth and prestige for the power holders.
One result is that income inequality has been rising, and at the expense of the lower-income groups. The historian Carlos Quirino estimated that in the 1970s, the country was “in the grip of about 50 leading families.” Even now, family ownership of the Philippine corporate sector is the most highly concentrated in East Asia.
The economist Arsenio Balisacan, whose field is poverty studies, notes that things have got really worse in the last six to seven years.
Academics from the University of the Philippines estimate that 35 percent of Filipinos live below the official poverty line. Our middle class has been shrinking. In 2006, the National Statistics Office placed it at 19.1 percent of all our people, down from 22.7 percent in 2000.
Gross inequality seems to be distorting even the conventional economic outcomes. In East Asia, because of egalitarian public policies, a percentage increase in GDP growth typically reduces poverty incidence by 2 percent. (Globally, a percentage increase in GDP reduces poverty by 1.6 percent.) GDP is the total value of goods and services produced in a country in a year.
But in the Philippines, a 1-percent increase in economic growth may in fact be accompanied by a 0.3-percent increase in the number of the poor. This is because economic growth is so highly concentrated: 65 percent of GDP is generated in Metro Manila and its satellite regions, Central Luzon and Southern Tagalog.
Power to the excluded
Inequality is notable not only in people’s incomes and status. What is worse, inequality is built into social and political structures that, in Father Carroll’s view, enable “certain groups or classes of people systematically [to] enjoy more than others the benefits which society can provide.”
Unequal institutions and legal systems affect the entire structure of national society and the way it apportions wealth and power. Systematic inequality pervades public policy, starting from a tax structure that falls on the poor more heavily than on the rich; to regulatory agencies unable to protect people against monopolies and cartels; through the steady decline in the budget share of social services; and public investments that favor the rich regions against the poor ones.
In the end, these elitist social structures can be moved only by some exertion of power from those excluded from them. Hence, the easing of inequality must await the time the Filipino poor are able to develop forms of autonomous organizations that will give them some leverage in dealing with people in authority. –JUAN T. GATBONTON EDITORIAL CONSULTANT, Manila Times