IN professional wrestling, a face is a heroic, good-guy, fan-favorite wrestler, booked by promoters as someone to be cheered by the people. By contrast, a heel is a wrestler who portrays a villain, bad guy, or scoundrel who receives jeers. There seems to be a parallelism between professional wrestling and social affairs, where faces are often portrayed by politicians, and heels are often portrayed by economists.
Princeton economist Alan Blinder provides a description of the Lamppost Theory: Politicians typically use economics the way a drunk person uses a lamppost—for support, not illumination. This means that politicians, for better or worse, decide their positions on political criteria, and then they sometimes seek economists to bless those positions.
That decisions are made politically in a democracy is hardly shocking, and neither is it inherently wrong. The real problem, however, as Blinder argues, is that good economics often makes bad politics, and good politics often makes bad economics.
Blinder notes that politicians have a different—and well-known—objective: getting elected and reelected. Thus, politicians often strive to appeal to ordinary people who feel that their concerns are disregarded by established elite groups—the very meaning of populism. By contrast, economists, particularly those who are not employed by special interest groups, generally support policies they deem to be in the national interest. They realize that virtually every policy change creates some losers, but they instinctively favor the ones likely to create the most benefits for the most people.
The story of this year’s recently concluded elections is truly instructive. Campaigns leading to the polls were truly polarizing, as the top candidates faced off with the heavy use of social media optics and grand rallies. Nevertheless, eloquent election platforms seemed to have mattered less than how the voting populace perceived candidates.
Candidates poured a lot of resources in maximizing their presence online where there is wider reach—with some even employing the services of vloggers and influencers to help rebrand their image to make themselves more palatable to younger and older voters alike. “Less talk, better visuals” was the game. The goal was to make these candidates appear down-to-earth and approachable to the masses, thereby convincing voters that the candidates truly represented their hopes and aspirations, whether or not this was true.
What does truth mean nowadays? People did not seem to be sure anymore, despite the wealth of information available to validate information. Was perception really more important than the truth? Furthermore, for millions of Filipinos, what could be more true than the suffering they experience on a daily basis, due to a system that does not champion the marginalized? Despite this seemingly stark reality, many still wanted to latch onto the fantasy that populism promises to bring.
Given the results of the recently concluded elections, it is all the more apparent that many politicians prey on the hope of their voting base. Because these people are impressionable due to a lack of technical knowledge in economics, it is easy to hook them on sugary promises, as these are marketed well like a rebranded but subpar product. As long as keywords like “lower prices,” “more jobs,” and “better lives” are present in the rhetoric, people hold onto them, perhaps because it is easier to fantasize about a brighter future than to discuss excruciating details on how to actually make progress happen.
What people forget is that once politicians take power, difficult tradeoffs must be made to keep the government running. For instance, to increase government revenues and afford certain promises like lower prices for commodities and subsidies for senior citizens and PWDs, the government might need to raise taxes or defer tax reductions because trillions had been borrowed to mobilize the pandemic response. Populism does not mention these hard measures. It simply promises support for ordinary Filipinos who want to get back on their feet.
Sadly, social media has been an ally of populism, especially in this election. Given the right optics and motherhood statements, even bad economics can look like a promising solution to the country’s woes. The sobering truth is that genuine and inclusive development will not be attained with a quick-fix blanket solution that politicians often promise. It will involve making difficult choices and systemic reforms that will shake up the status quo—something that most people are not willing to embrace.
Indeed, either a face or a heel can influence people’s individual and collective choices, which will always entail some hardship. It may be difficult to tell who the face or the heel really is. Perhaps, it is still best to be reminded of this old saying: “Beware of a wolf in sheep’s clothing.”
Ms. Ma. Angelica B. America is a faculty member of the Department of Economics at Ateneo de Manila University.