SO far into his presidency, President Ferdinand Marcos Jr.’s popularity continues to be high. Going by the pollster Publicus Asia’s most recent poll, his approval rating in June 2023 remains at 62 percent, unchanged from a year ago, and his trust score is at 80, statistically unchanged from 81 a year ago.
However, Filipinos’ misery during Marcos’ first year in office has worsened, using that rough economic measure termed the “misery index.”
This is simply the sum of the unemployment and inflation rates. It is a logical rate to measure a nation’s well-being, or lack of it: more people without work means more miserable people, while even more people are at work, but the salaries they receive aren’t enough to buy the things they need.
From the start of Marcos’ watch in July 2022 to June 2023, the misery index averaged 11.9, nearly double that for 2021 of 6.6. To compare this with two of our neighbors, for Indonesia for the same year, it is 7.9, and for Vietnam, it is just 5.7 for 2022.
Marcos’ index is the third-highest in 25 years. The most miserable year in that period, going by the misery index, was during President Estrada’s term in 1998, when the index was a high 13.1, above Marcos’ 11.9.
This was mainly because of the outbreak of the Asian financial crisis, which resulted in a major devaluation of the peso (from P30 to P41 per dollar) and the consequent rise in consumer prices, as well as the costs of inputs both for agriculture and industry.
The second-highest index was during President Arroyo’s term, in 2008, when it was 12, just shy of Marcos’ 11.9. As in Estrada’s term, this was due to global factors triggered by the 2007-2008 global financial crisis, which was the most serious economic meltdown since the 1929 Great Depression.
The high misery index during Marcos’ term was in part due to the fact that the country was still crawling out of the depths of forced unemployment due to the Covid-19 pandemic that broke out in 2020. From just 2.2 percent in 2019, the jobless rate rose to 2.5 in 2020 and then 3.4 in 2021. Recovery from the pandemic was slow in terms of new employment, with the jobless rate reaching a high of 4.8 percent in February this year.
However, the main factor for the high misery index was inflation. Inflation was largely contained in 2021, averaging 3.1 percent. It was in the 3-4 percent range in the first half of 2022 but surged to 6.1 in June, coincidentally or not at the start of Marcos’ watch, to even hit a high of 8.7 percent in January 2023.
This in turn was mainly due to the rise in agricultural commodities, especially rice, sugar and such vegetables as onions. There have been several reasons given for this, from the global rise in prices of farm inputs such as fertilizers to the downturn in production. There was also evidence that traders had been able to hoard the products at certain times so as to manipulate prices to their advantage.
However, what stands out in this problem is that President Marcos adamantly held on to the post of agriculture secretary. Myriad problems have beset agriculture, from production to distribution, for decades. The department inarguably requires a full-time CEO, which Marcos, as president, can’t be by any stretch of the imagination. Not only a CEO, but a crisis-mode best-and-brightest CEO is required as volatile global factors (the Ukraine war, the tensions over the possible invasion of Taiwan, the apparent surge of global warming) continue to threaten the prices of agricultural production.
Days before he assumed office, Marcos said: “It’s important that the president take that portfolio, not only to make it clear to everyone what high priority we put to the agricultural sector but also as a practical matter, so that things move quickly.”
He was correct: It is our agricultural sector that has worsened Filipinos’ misery, as the high prices for agricultural products increased inflation, one of the two things that determine the misery index.
In practice, however, agriculture has become his administration’s lowest priority, with the President, sources in the Agriculture department say, having visited its headquarters only six times in his first year as president.
Nobody in the department is really taking seriously its 84-year-old “senior undersecretary” Domingo Panganiban. (While the “senior” designation was intended to put him on a higher rank than the three other undersecretaries, the joke in the department is that it is the only department headed by a “senior,” with the more cruel joke alluding to that feared malady of that age.)
Panganiban was dragged from retirement — and from his vocation coaching a basketball team — to replace Leocadio Sebastian who was removed as Marcos’ de facto representative in the department after he signed a sugar import order “for the President” — which he did not have the authority to do so. Agri officials applauded his removal, though, as he couldn’t get along with his subordinates, which was expected, they said, as he was a scientist and not a bureaucrat.
Failure to lead the department would be close to mismanaging the presidency since it is now practically the most critical government institution, as its area of responsibility, the food sector, is far from sound.
Our agriculture sector has gone from bad to worse, not just because of its structural weaknesses but also because of the worldwide rise in oil prices resulting from Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Petroleum products account for 20 percent of crops’ production costs, while for livestock, it is 50 percent. A huge chunk of retail food prices is also due to transport costs. Fishermen’s biggest cost is fuel for their boats.
The Duterte government undertook a P3-billion fuel subsidy program for farmers to mitigate rising fuel costs. Has the current administration ordered studies to find out the bottlenecks in the distribution of such subsidies and how much more is needed? Prices of that sector’s main output — rice and sugar — and even vegetables have risen to historic highs.
There are, however, indications that Filipinos’ misery could be alleviated soon: the index peaked at 13.4 in February and has been going down to the June rate of 9.7. Marcos should resign the agriculture portfolio and get the most qualified CEO to run the department. Hopefully, that would alleviate Filipinos’ misery in the remaining years of Marcos’ administration.
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