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Breeding resentment

What can we make of the fact that the seeming display of conscientiousness on the part of some government officials has been met by a lot of howling? 

Two weeks ago, the initiative of the Land Transportation Franchising and Regulatory Board to regulate application-based ride-sharing services such as Uber and Grab Taxi was met by virulent protests. This happened even when the agency made it clear that it really just wanted to guarantee the safety of the riding public and to ensure that the right taxes were paid by the entrepreneurs behind the new transport services scheme. 

And as we settled in for the three-day weekend, social networking sites were ablaze with fiery commentaries directed at the Bureau of Customs over the proposal to open balikbayan boxes to ensure that these are not being used to smuggle goods that would normally be subject to taxes.

In both cases, taxation was submitted as an issue.  It is a given that any discussion about taxes is bound to get an emotional response in this country.  Everyone agrees, of course, that taxation is the price people have to pay for the privilege of being called responsible citizens.  The problem is that most people believe they are already overtaxed; an assertion that is not entirely baseless given that the tax table for working people who are automatically subjected to withholding taxes is higher in this country compared to most of our neighbors. 

An even bigger problem is the perception that a huge chunk of taxpayers’ money is lost to corruption, or wasted on projects that are not necessary, or used to support the profligate lifestyles or advance the political careers of favored politicians.  So people do have a reason to balk when asked to pay more taxes. 

But what’s been riling people up is the fact that government seems more concerned with ensuring tax collection at the expense of more important considerations.  In the case of Uber and Grab Taxi, a transportation system that actually works even without government intervention!  More importantly, it’s a system that has provided a much better alternative to the poorly-run public transport system, which has increasingly become unreliable and unsafe despite regulatory oversight by government. 

In the case of the balikbayan boxes, the uproar is due to perceptions of government’s insensitivity to the situation of overseas Filipino workers, misplaced priorities, and well, mistrust in the people who run the Bureau of Customs. 

Any Filipino would know that those balikbayan boxes mean more than the goods they contain.  Those tins of Spam, packets of chocolates, bars of soap and pieces of apparel carry a lot of symbolism; we’re a people that likes rituals, channels affection and emotions through material things and through certain acts, and we find expression in the time-honored traditions of pasalubong, pabaon, and pabilin.  A balikbayan box not just a box of goodies, to the people at both ends of the system (sender and receiver) it represents fulfillment of a promise, or validation of one’s worth, or even a form of reassurance. 

Given the fact that OFWs are the ones that prop up this country’s economy, surely we can afford to give them a little break.  Allowing them and their families some privileges might be warranted.  Besides, the value of the goods smuggled through balikbayan boxes may not be really worth the effort; the resources could be spent more productively in pursuit of big ticket items such as luxury cars.  It’s basic Pareto Principle at work—why spend inordinate amount of effort on something that yields very little results?   There are more reasons to ditch the madcap idea.  It’s almost impossible to implement the proposal consistently thereby opening the system to accusations of favoritism and unfairness.  And there’s always the possibility of pilferage or corruption.

We can take some comfort in the fact that we have officials who seem to have the drive to implement programs that are unpopular.  One wishes, however, that the drive, the initiative, and the political will, be marshaled in support of programs that will truly make the most difference.   I think our leaders are wasting precious political capital at this crucial time on the eve of a national election on programs that showcase utter lack of strategic thinking and which breed resentment among the people.

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