The new normal

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You’d think that, post-Yolanda, the Aquino administration and its agencies would jump at the next chance to prove that they have learned something in the field of managing natural calamities. And yet, five days after heavy rains started pounding and flooding Butuan City and other areas in Northern Mindanao, there is not even a mention of what government is doing to ease the suffering of hundreds of thousands of people there.

 

Regarding the unseasonal rains, the only state agency we hear from is the weather bureau, whose sole announcement, repeated in an endless loop, is that a mere low-pressure area is causing all the trouble, not some Yolanda-like storm. It’s as if Pagasa, by downgrading the meteorological standing of the rains, is telling President Noynoy Aquino and his officials not to bother about the widespread flooding, the landslides and, yes, the dozens of people reported killed or missing so far.

If this were a normal government truly concerned about mitigating the damage of nature’s depredations on this calamity-prone land, it would put on a show of force in Butuan, Agusan and those newly-stricken places. And any sane President would marshal all his resources to mitigate the loss of life and damage, if only to prove that he is not insensitive or sleeping on the job, as his critics have said in the aftermath of Yolanda, the earthquake in Bohol and other tragedies that happened under his watch.

But abnormal is the new normal under this dispensation, apparently. And because Aquino has decreed that the proper response to criticism is to ignore it, we get only deafening silence – and absolutely no action.

Aquino cannot continue to govern by denial and indifference, whether he is confronted by scandalously high electricity and fuel costs or by inclement weather. He cannot pretend that things are going swimmingly under his callous and uncaring watch, as he is serenaded by suspiciously high survey ratings and surrounded by yes-men in his palace.

The people outside of government in and out of the Philippines who did everything they could to help in the aftermath of Yolanda must now be wondering if Aquino and his government have abdicated their duties of coming to the aid of a citizenry that it swore to protect. They are right to ask if Aquino has not actually privatized disaster response, relief and rehabilitation, just like he has practically given up on shielding the people from escalating power costs and every other ill that has festered and metastasized during his administration.

There will be more Bohols, Taclobans and Butuans in the days to come. And the response of this government will likely be the same: nothing.

* * *

Last week, a Cebu-based lechon entrepreneur skewered the Bureau of Internal Revenue for coming out with a full-page newspaper ad in a bid to “shame” him and others in his trade into paying proper taxes. The response of Joel Binamira of Zubuchon caused a sensation in the social media, when he exposed BIR for not using correct sales and production data in its effort to collect taxes.

A major point of Binamira’s treatise, which struck a chord in businessmen in every industry, it seems, is BIR’s lethargy in going after big-time tax evaders, in stark contrast to its industry in going after tax-paying, law-abiding businesses like Zubuchon. The strange case of one upstart tobacco company widely suspected of tax evasion is a good example.

Mighty Tobacco Corp., a Bulacan-based outfit owned by the Wongchuking family, has virtually admitted to not paying up to P4 billion in taxes last year, but has not even gotten a slap on the wrist from BIR. Mighty, which claims an impressive jump in market share for its cigarettes (from 3 percent to 20 percent) in the past year alone, said it paid P4.2 billion in taxes last year.

But industry figures say that a 20 percent share of the 100-billion stick annual cigarette market should easily result in the payment of P12 billion taxes, based on the most conservative estimates. Furthermore, Mighty has not replied to charges—which have warranted calls for probes by Congress and the Department of Finance—that it has somehow been able to procure unheard-of prices for its imported raw materials, which have allowed it to sell its products at rates that are about equal to the taxes slapped on them.

For instance, Mighty retails cigarettes at P14.70 per pack even if the combined excise tax and VAT for the product is already P13.58, according to BIR. Mighty also imports tobacco at a suspicious uniform price of $0.68 per kilo from countries like Brazil, South Africa, China and Indonesia, when the cheapest imported tobacco bought by all Philippine manufacturers was procured at $3.39 per kilo, according to the Bureau of Customs.

The only way Mighty would be able to pull off these feats is through smuggling raw materials and then under-declaring its sales figures. In both instances, it is able to avoid paying the proper taxes to government, while its competitors follow the laws and are, for their pains, taxed nearly to insolvency.

 

Now, anyone can argue that lechon and cigarettes are bad for you. But it’s apparently tougher on the makers of these products if they pay the right taxes while others simply ignore the threats and “shame” tactics of BIR’s Kim Henares.