The taxing presidency


    ‘But one lesson politics in the age of social media teaches us is this: your rabid followers will not believe the truth about you if it is damaging, and your critics will happily spread everything bad they hear about you even if the bad thing is untrue.’

    POOR President Duterte. For the nth time in his nearly five years in office he has again expressed some desire to step down, this time because of corruption. It is unstoppable, he says, based on his years of experience in government.

    And this type of battle that you can’t win makes him look like a modern-day Sisyphus, who pushes a boulder up a hill only to see it slide down again.

    “I offered to resign,” he said, apparently making that offer to his closest associates who, not surprisingly, must have resisted the idea. But put yourself in PRRD’s shoes – even if he is in fact at 85% of what a healthy man his age is supposed to be, there must be days when he wakes up and wonders why the hell he agreed to take on the job of leading our country of nearly 110 million people. Leading the Philippines is a difficult thing to do under normal circumstances, but it is now made even more difficult because of the COVID pandemic.

    During his low days he could perhaps take solace in the fact that his mandatory retirement from office is just about 700 days away. That is, of course, assuming murmurs about Charter Change between now and 2022 don’t transform into real action that could keep PRRD in office beyond July 2022, maybe even for life.

    I’m not sure if he would like that though I suspect some of those around him would. But will the Filipino people agree?

    Across the vast expanse of the East Philippine Ocean (I have taken the liberty of renaming the Pacific so that our dear Chinese neighbors will not feel picked upon by our renaming part of the South China Sea!) another leader is facing his own taxing presidency, albeit in a more literal way. A few days ago the New York Times released a report showing that Donald Trump, aka POTUS 45, only paid $750 in federal income taxes in 2016 and 2017, and for 10 of the last 15 years actually paid nothing due to business losses.

    This is the same Donald Trump who, in 2012, mocked the 20.5% tax rate paid by his predecessor, Barack Obama, on an income of about $750,000. Trump did pay more than $30 million in the early 2000s, but I am not sure if this was from the over $200M he earned from the TV program “The Apprentice.” Other than that, though, he has been paying peanuts, if at all.

    That a rich man gets away with paying nothing or close to nothing is not a surprise. It’s why the rich are rich and it’s why they have a battery of accountants and lawyers. I remember my own brothers as Philippine Science High School scholars in the 1970s getting stipends far smaller than classmates who were children of lawyers or surgeons. The stipends were based on family income and who can believe that my father’s income as a UP professor was greater than a surgeon’s or a lawyer’s? Well, the BIR can, if you can afford an accountant. Same thing with Trump.

    So his tax avoidance is all legal. It shows you how the “brilliant” businessman has been incurring “losses” rendering himself legally free from making any tax payments on income.

    But it also shows you how legal and moral are two different beasts, especially when someone has made tax payments a key plank in his advocacy only to find out he was taking advantage of every loophole in the book.

    “Drain the swamp,” he said. Of course, it hasn’t happened. I don’t think he ever intended to.

    But one lesson politics in the age of Social Media teaches us is this: your rabid followers will not believe the truth about you if it is damaging, and your critics will happily spread everything bad they hear about you even if the bad thing is untrue. Which makes it easy for a leader under taxing circumstances to simply dismiss negative stories as “fake news,” and that’s that.

    Unfortunately, all this is taxing on the people, too.