Sugar tax and health alarmism

* This is my article in BusinessWorld on August 03, 2017.

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“To what extent will the poor merely replace more expensive colas and 3-in-1 coffee with unsafe sugared water in plastic bags, samalamig, or home-brewed sugared coffee, none of which are covered by the tax? … there is simply a great deal we do not know, which is all the more reason to proceed with reserve and caution.” — Emmanuel de Dios, “Just take it, it’s good for you”

Among the tax-tax-tax plan of Dutertenomics to finance the budget swell is premised on health alarmism, that government is concerned about public health and dangers of obesity so it will confiscate more money from the public via the sugar-sweetened beverage (SSB) tax.

Simple joys of the poor like 3-in-1 coffee, mango or guyabano powdered juice, softdrinks, etc. add flavor to meals and whet more appetite so people eat more, which help their nutritional intake. But the government says this is bad and must be taxed.

Before you know it, the government will increase taxes twice, thrice, or even four times, citing whatever health alibi is handy when the real goal is to collect more money for the state, for the politicians, for the bureaucrats and their consultants, not to mention those who are already dependent too much on welfare.

There is one paper from Harvard Heart Letter that said: “Eating too much added sugar increases the risk of dying with heart disease” by Julie Corliss (updated Nov. 30, 2016).

“Sugar-sweetened beverages such as sodas, energy drinks, and sports drinks are by far the biggest sources of added sugar in the average American’s diet. They account for more than one-third of the added sugar we consume as a nation. Other important sources include cookies, cakes, pastries, and similar treats; fruit drinks; ice cream, frozen yogurt and the like; candy; and ready-to-eat cereals.”

Since this seems an authoritative article, then the SSB tax of Dutertenomics suffers from an old disease of selective harassment and taxation.

If they have to be consistent, they should tax not only soda, powdered juice, energy drinks but also cakes, ice cream, chocolates, cookies, yogurt, candy, pastries, samalamig, banana-Q, etc.

If all the claims of various health and environmentalist groups are true — that there are more diseases, morbidity, and mortality due to high sugar consumption, man-made climate change, high maternal death, etc. — then life expectancy of Filipinos should be declining, not rising.

Numbers below show that this is not the case — that life expectancy among Filipinos and other people in the region are rising (see table).

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From only around 61 years in 1970, Filipinos are living longer and healthier compared to the past and they can expect to live to 68 years old, as of 2015. This, despite the fact that more Filipinos are eating and drinking more “unhealthy” products.

So, what to do?

One, the government should not impose a sugar tax. No to selective harassment and taxation of sugar-sweetened drinks and food and confiscation of more money from the pockets of ordinary Filipinos.

Two, if they have to tax some sugar-sweetened beverages, they should tax all of them without exceptions. Just keep the tax as low as possible.

Three, proceeds from the substantial sin tax revenues should be enough to promote health awareness and finance the fight against infectious and communicable diseases on top of regular DoH and LGUs’ health budget.

Health is not just a “right” but more importantly, health is also a personal responsibility.

It is very likely that proceeds from the tax are designed more to pay the multitrillion-peso loans to Duterte-beloved China-funded infrastructure programs. And since this government is run like a one-party state, they will get what they want from Congress.

Tax-tax-tax mentality and policy is wrong and ugly. And this is the philosophy that Dutertenomics wants to impose on the whole country.

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PPP vs. ODA, Part 3

* This is my article in BusinessWorld on June 30, 2017.

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This is a continuation of two earlier pieces I wrote about that compared two funding schemes of government infrastructure projects in the Philippines — through public-private partnership and official development assistance.

In this vein, I wish to correct the numbers I previously cited in my second piece, entitled “PPP vs. ODA: Part 2.” I wrote that “Vaughn Montes cited the big contrast between ODA-funded SCTEx and the PPP-funded TPLEx. SCTEx… cost nearly twice at $32.8 billion vs. the approved budget of $18.7 billion or P341 million per kilometer. TPLEx cost only P61 million per kilometer.”

Recently, Dr. Bong Montes sent me his presentation during a Management Association of the Philippines (MAP) meeting. The correct numbers about SCTEx are: Cost overruns are from P18.7B to P32.8B; Cost per kilometer is P349M vs. TPLEx P274M. Thanks for this, Bong.

The same presentation indicated a summary of the delineation of risks and values between Public Private Partnership (PPP) funding and government funding (see Table 1).

The main beef of PPP project funding therefore is the transfer of significant risks to the private sector. The shared risks for both private and government are bankability and force majeure.

The “hybrid PPP” plan of Dutertenomics is to award the construction of many big infrastructure projects via foreign aid or Official Development Assistance (ODA) mostly from China, or the annual General Appropriations Act (GAA), then invite local private operators later for the operation and maintenance (O&M).

This plan will invite big current and future controversies for the following reasons.

One, private O&M operators will not take over a facility that they did not design and construct without prior intensive due diligence. If project quality is poor and thus O&M will be high, then bidders will demand high prices for the O&M. The government-contracted construction company (from China) may have undercut the design and quality to maximize profit and potential kickbacks and leave the headache of high maintenance costs to the separate O&M operator/s.

The most optimal scheme is a straight, integrated PPP funding from design and construction to O&M. The private party mobilizes its internal financial muscle and borrows to fund capex, and make sure that construction is of high quality so that O&M will be lower. As a result, the public and the taxpayers benefit, which also means a lower tax burden to pay for the project cost. Moreover, frequent users of the facility will pay every time they use it and taxpayers from far away provinces and regions who seldom or do not even benefit from it will not be burdened.

Two, Dutertenomics’ sudden pivot to China ODA is highly anomalous because China is not exactly a good source of foreign aid even in the recent past. Its share in total ODA in 2014 and 2015 (latest data available from NEDA) is miniscule, only $123M out of total $30.08 billion (see Table 2).

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Only ODA with at least $70M in two years are included here. Other sources of ODA at smaller amount are Austria, Spain, Norway, New Zealand.

Three, PPP projects are generally the fastest way to do things compared to ODA funding, especially China ODA. Project development to groundbreaking takes 27 months through the PPP, 37 months through Korean ODA, 38 months through Japanese government funding, and 40 months on Chinese aid.

The most famous tollway in the Philippines, the North Luzon Expressway (NLEx) was built via World Bank ODA in the 1970s. O&M is private, currently the Manila North Tollways Corp. (MNTC). The independent design checker and certification engineer on its rehabilitation is Norconsult Philippines, probably the first Norwegian company to do business in the country since the ’70s. NLEx toll fee of around P2.50/kilometer from Sta. Ines to Balintawak is the lowest among the many tollways in the country.

State central planning vs Household decentralized planning

* This is my article in BusinessWorld last week.

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“The curious task of economics is to demonstrate to men how little they really know about what they imagine they can design… Planning leads to dictatorship because dictatorship is the most effective instrument of coercion and the enforcement of ideals and, as such, essential if central planning on a large scale is to be possible.”— Friedrich Hayek

The bigger the socioeconomic unit like a state, the less central planning should be. And the smaller the socioeconomic unit like a household, the bigger the planning should be. The family is a good example of this. Parents take care of their children until they grow up. Once the kids feel they are independent enough, they move out of the house. And moving out is an expression or an attempt at independence of the kids from the nitty-gritty of support and intervention by the parents or guardians.

In contrast, in many countries including the Philippines, as the population expands and as the needs and aspirations of the growing population further diversifies, the state bureaucratizes further and regulates and imposes more taxes. Meaningful decentralization and federalism is muted by high taxes and regulations from the central or federal government so that the states, provinces, and cities are left with little leeway for tax adjustments and regulations.

2017061563250The current tax reform program of Dutertenomics known as TRAIN (Tax Reform for Acceleration and Inclusion) is generally based on envy. While its income tax cut for the low income earners is good and commendable, its tax hike for upper middle class and the rich is not. And the government will hike the taxes of many other products and services including those consumed by the poor and lower middle class — cars, petroleum products, sugar-sweetened beverages, more services that will be covered by VAT.

This government therefore, its politicians and bureaucracies, feel that they have more entitlement to the income and wealth of the upper middle class and the rich. The implicit message is that if people aspire to become upper middle class and rich, the state will go after them, demonize them if they resist paying more taxes. And this is where the advice of Friedrich Hayek above becomes appropriate.

During the BusinessWorld Economic Forum last May 19, 2017 at Shangri-La at the Fort, one of the impressive speakers in the afternoon session was Ms. Vicky Abad of Kantar. She discussed what are the income ranges of upper and lower middle class households and their aspirations. Below is the income class differentiation she made. ONCR means Outside of the National Capital Region (NCR) or Metro Manila (See table).

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Three things are worthy of note in Ms. Abad’s presentation.

One, middle class households in C1, C2, and D classes comprise some 72% of the population or nearly three out of four households. Those in D should include previously bicycles- or jeep-riding people who now drive motorcycles or second, third-hand cars.

Two, while middle income class C1 and C2 are big consumers of fast-moving consumer goods (FMCG) or consumer packaged goods, the class D households drive about 62% of the FMCG market in value contribution.

Three, the key, constant driver of middle class aspirations is being able to provide for the needs of family. Family basic needs, health, and savings are the top three concerns. Followed by friends/bayanihan, car and house, value of work, and social status/rewards like travel.

Many of these things are not sufficiently provided by the government. There is public education, yes, but many middle class including government officials and personnel bring their kids to private schools and universities. There is public health but these people go to private hospitals and clinics when they are unwell. There is public peace and order by the police but these people employ lots of private security agencies to secure their villages, schools, shops, banks, buildings. There is public welfare department but many people still dig deep into their pockets and savings to help their fellow Filipinos struck by severe natural calamities.

With this wide gap between government taxation and low quality of public services, and the rising aspirations of the people, government central planning should decline, and households should be given more leeway, more take home pay via deep income tax cut across the board. Household planning should prevail over state central planning.

Bienvenido S. Oplas, Jr. is the head of Minimal Government Thinkers and a SEANET Fellow. Both are members of Economic Freedom Network (EFN) Asia.

Sugar tax and nanny state

Why the DOF’s sugar tax bill in Congress is lousy.

  1. The state is further addicted to tax-tax-tax mentality and policy.
  2. This 2-tier taxation (higher tax for imported sugar) is anti-WTO rules, DFA is correct.
  3. State nannyism (‘protect public health’ alibi) is fuelling more state interventionism. Tax alcohol, tobacco, soft drinks, juices. Soon it will tax litson baboy, litson manok.

See this report from BusinessWorld last week.

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That the state has hiked the tax on alcohol and tobacco products is generally accepted by the public. But taxing further soft drinks, powdered juice drinks, etc. is OA state nannyism. People own their body, not the state and politicians, not the health NGOs, etc. Simple joys by the poor like drinking powdered juice, the state will make these products become more expensive, and certain sectors like health NGOs, medical groups are clapping partly because they will get more tax money.

Earlier, a lady Senator wanted to file a bill banning unlimited rice (“unli-rice”) in restaurants. The usual alibi is “public health concern.” Trying-hard state nannyism, those politicians and state bureaucrats think they are so bright they can plan other people’s lives. Next they will penalize climbing trees and climbing roofs because they might fall and it’s bad for their health and it’s bad for public health budget.

The silent motive here is that Dutertenomics will need lots of tax-tax-tax because it will go into endless borrow-borrow-borrow from China. Improving public infra is good and there are many big private companies, local and foreign, willing to bankroll many infra projects, but this administration intends to please China — the communist dictatorial government, its banks and contractors.

PPP vs ODA, Part 2

* This is my article in BusinessWorld last week.

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“The first lesson of economics is scarcity: there is never enough of anything to fully satisfy all those who want it. The first lesson of politics is to disregard the first lesson of economics.”
— Thomas Sowell (US economist and political philosopher)

This paper is a continuation of the same topic in this column last June 8. To summarize previous arguments:

  1. User-pay principle via public-private partnership (PPP) means only those whose the service or facility will pay for its construction and maintenance. As a result, the rest of the population in other parts of the country will be spared of such cost.
  1. All-taxpayers-pay principle means projects are paid by current taxpayers through the annual general appropriations act (GAA) or by future taxpayers through official development assistance (ODA). Taxpayers from Visayas and Mindanao will also pay for toll roads, dams, airports even if they hardly use these since these are located in Luzon.
  1. It is not true that infrastructure projects funded by official development assistance (ODA) and/or taxpayers through the GAA are more beneficial to the public than PPP-funded projects. Iloilo Airport — which was funded by ODA — took longer to build and incurred cost overruns compared to the PPP-funded Mactan-Cebu Airport, which remains on schedule despite initial delays.
  1. There are inherent problems and risks to the public under GAA- and ODA-funded projects since ODA funding normally has strings attached. Thus, a project funded by China ODA may require the government to hire Chinese contractors, suppliers, managers, and even workers.

We now add more reasons why the Dutertenomics’ shift from PPP to ODA (mainly from China) funding of its build-build-build plan is unwise and risky.

  1. In a Management Association of the Philippines (MAP) forum two weeks ago, finance expert Vaughn Montes cited the big contrast between ODA-funded Subic-Clark-Tarlac Expressway (SCTEx) and the PPP-funded Tarlac-Pangasinan-La Union Expressway (TPLEx). SCTEx took seven years from government approval to completion, two years delayed, and cost nearly twice at $32.8 billion vs. the approved budget of $18.7 billion or P341 million per kilometer. TPLEx cost only P61 million per kilometer.
  1. Investor confidence in the Philippine economy has gained momentum compared to some of our neighbors in the region and it is not wise to constrain such confidence by ditching many PPP projects and shift to ODA and GAA funding.

The expansion of FDI in the Philippines from 2000 to 2009 (last year of the Gloria Arroyo administration) was not significant (less than twice). However, during the same period, FDI expanded almost five times in Singapore, about four times in Indonesia and Vietnam, about three times in Thailand, Cambodia, South Korea, and Taiwan.

But from 2009-2015 or just six years, FDI in the Philippines expanded two and a half times while there was only two times expansion in Singapore, Indonesia, Vietnam, and Myanmar; and less than two times expansion in Thailand, Malaysia, Hong Kong, South Korea, and Taiwan. It is this kind of investor confidence and momentum that can greatly propel the Philippines into more investments and job creation, faster growth and infrastructure buildup.

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  1. The government’s PPP Center noted that “most PPP bids received in recent years have come at lower than the approved government costs. If in the instance that actual project costs turned out higher than approved government costs, the private sector partner assumes or shoulders cost overrun risk.”
  1. 201706146745fThe China government is the least trustworthy source of ODA funding considering that it is acting belligerently and aggressively in bullying the Philippines and other ASEAN neighbors that have claims over the many islands and islets in the South China Sea or West Philippine Sea (WPS). Note also that recent China-funded projects in the country were notoriously scandal-ridden — North Rail and National Broadband Network (NBN)-ZTE projects.

The insistence of the Duterte administration to compromise the income and savings of Filipino taxpayers — even if there are many big private investors, local and foreign, that are willing to shoulder the costs and risks of infrastructure projects — may result in shenanigans and large-scale corruption.

And its consistent pronouncement of relying more on the money and contractors of the bully state across the WPS would further weaken the Philippines’ territorial claims to those islands and exclusive economic zone and weaken the rule of law.

Honest minds in the Duterte Cabinet should remind the President of the economic and political dangers that it is treading on.