The inaugural address of newly-sworn in Pres. Ferdinand “Bongbong” Marcos Jr has given us the first official glimpse into the new administration’s economic policy directions. The traditional address is of course hardly the venue for an elaborate economic program; this is not expected even of the constitutionally-mandated state of the nation address (SONA).
Still, the few minutes speaking to the nation after the oath-taking is literally the first official act of the new president and, if only for this, whatever is said has to be given much weight. This is unlike the new First Lady sticking out her tongue because her position is merely customary and does not even merit any kind of remuneration from the state.
In fairness, a respectable amount of Mr. Marcos Jr’s brief 25-minute address was devoted to outlining Bongbonomics from the perspective of the country’s chief economic manager. He presumably gave the gist of something that his economic team is already hard at work fleshing out.
Based on the inaugural address, what are the apparent contours of Bongbonomics?
It is about a minimalist state consistent with the obsolete neoliberal notion that the best state is the one that intervenes least in the national economy. Mr. Marcos was clear about this when he said: “Imagine how much more you’d achieve if government backstops instead of dictating your decisions.”
This is shrewdly justified as coming from how he “[trusts] the Filipino” – which is apparently a Tik-Tok-like endorphin-inducing spin on promoting the right-wing philosophy of individual liberty and freedom aka anarchic capitalism.
This is not as exaggerated as it might sound. The Marcos Jr government will “[invest] in your self-empowerment,” “[give] what you need to get past a problem,” and “put more means and choices in your hands”. It will claim to “[be] there to pick you up when you fall” but, really, “you have your own lives to live, your work to do”.
It also seems that the people are not seen to be that relevant to governance and need to be involved: “Government will get as much done alone without requiring more from you.” This is packaged as meaning the quiet delivery of public service. However, it is ominous that he also twice said that he will act with or without the “wide cooperation that’s needed”. It is Duterte’s neoliberal authoritarianism with a more jovial and, slightly, more articulate face.
This all sums into an anti-statist and pro-free market stance continuing the neoliberal trajectory started by his father and that has defined Philippine economic policy-making for half a century now. Mr. Marcos clearly cannot even just conceive the development state and meaningful government intervention so urgent to fix the weakest economy in decades.
The share of manufacturing in the economy recently fell to its smallest in 70 years and of agriculture to its smallest in the country’s history. Job creation is at its weakest since the overthrow of the Marcos dictatorship. Yet Mr. Marcos is clearly oblivious to these.
The symbolism of Mr. Marcos’ oath-taking is worth a thousand words. The Bible he used was the same one used by his dictator father during his inauguration in 1965. On the hand he placed on this, an apparently US$254,000 (Php14 million) Patek Philippe wristwatch peeked out from behind his sleeve. If true, the watch alone on his wrist is worth more than what 99% of Filipino families each have in wealth.
The imagery is stunning – the May 2022 national elections installed the country’s most powerful political dynasty and oligarchs well and truly at the center of state and economic power.
So, unsurprisingly, the inaugural address was oblivious to the serious social crisis and deep economic problems suffered by millions of Filipino families. Mr. Marcos made cursory mention of jobs and fair wages early on. He also perfunctorily spoke of “[enabling] changes to benefit all” which seemingly alluded to a grasp of the severe inequality in the country.
But even when he spoke of “a future of sufficiency” and “a better life in a safer, more prosperous country” this was not so much as real goals and rather more to divert attention from talking about his and his family’s dark and controversial past.
It is fair to assess Mr. Marcos’ economic policy-related statements even if it is just his first day in office. In particular, his saying that he is “presently drawing up a comprehensive all-inclusive plan for economic transformation” should be unacceptable.
He had the longest record as an elected official among all the presidential candidates with 24 years as vice-governor, governor, representative and senator. He was also the runaway frontrunner in opinion polls for the presidential elections since filing his candidacy in October 2021. The Marcos family is also reputed to have been systematically planning this winning presidential bid for many years.
If there were sincere concern for the plight of millions of Filipinos, he has had more than enough time and certainly has more than enough resources to prepare the solutions needed for immediate sharing with the public the first official chance he gets.
It did not have to be detailed which would have been too much for an inaugural address. But at the very least it could have been bold and ambitious. What we got, instead, were fragments of mostly bland ideas.
Opening about having been the “fastest-growing economy in ASEAN” set the tone, and not in a good way. Economic growth has increasingly become a key indicator of corporate and billionaire elite progress rather than the conditions of the majority, particularly since jobless growth set in years ago. When Mr. Marcos said that “we will build back better” he gave no sign of appreciating that what was being built back to was not really all that good.
On economic matters, Mr. Marcos gave the most time to infrastructure, agriculture, and climate change.
The attitude to infrastructure was unsurprisingly conventional. There will be a “comprehensive infrastructure plan” and “we will continue to build,” basically as his father did in the 1970s and as his predecessor did as well in the last six years. The simple-minded argument is that industries will somehow sprout “along the promising routes built” and bring about development. Yet all he could mention developing in this way was the tourism industry.
He stressed “food self-sufficiency” and correcting agricultural “neglect and misdirection” as well as “inherent defects in the old ways and in recent ways”. This potentially telegraphs a long-overdue shift from destructive liberalization to being given “preferential treatment” like the “richest free trade countries” did to their agricultural sectors. Mr. Marcos is president and concurrent agricultural secretary so it is worth watching if he will deliver.
There were hints of a similar shift on climate change when he spoke of how “the rich world talks a great deal but does a lot less about it than those with much less”. He also promised to: “spare victims; then help them recover; and move on to lessen the harmful impact of climate change.” There was some ambiguous talk about, it seems, supporting renewable energy – although in the end he repeated the approach of negotiating more oil supplies as a solution to energy supply problems.
There was a little said on a few other issues. On education, he rebuffed rethinking how history is taught and instead mentioned the sciences, theoretical skills and vocational skills. Overseas Filipino workers would “survive and thrive” and nurses will get higher pay. There was also mention of “free public health” and of how the “last major upgrade of a public health system” was “three generations” ago.
It’s not as if the economy’s problems aren’t clear nor that the neoliberal economic policies used for so long haven’t shown themselves to fail. If Mr. Marcos had instead mentioned a few new ideas, even if only perfunctorily, then perhaps there would be something to look forward to.
Imagine if the inaugural address had mentioned – big fiscal stimulus from more ayuda and support to MSMEs to spur aggregate demand, prioritizing social spending over infrastructure and debt service in the 2023 budget, expanding fiscal space with a billionaire wealth tax, higher wages, arresting environmental destruction by corporations, financial regulation, public ownership, protecting and supporting domestic agriculture, and a comprehensive plan for national industrialization.
Unfortunately, what we got instead was Bongbonomics and what we will get is persistent underdevelopment.