Wednesday, May 06, 2009

Essay: More The Great Philippine Book Blockade of 2009 Fallacies

Every Wednesday, I have an essay or feature article on any topic that catches my fancy!

Here's a couple of fallacies I've come across, in addition to some additions I want to make.

Here's one from the tabletop RPG mailing list I'm part of:

That explains so much! Why Fully Booked sometimes will order a book for you and then you never hear back...

That's actually a problem of Fully Booked, not customs. While their customer service has been helpful, their book ordering system is honesty deficient. To be fair to Fully Booked, they don't request customers to make downpayments, so they're not obliged to follow up on your orders either.

If Fully Booked was indeed having problems with customs, you wouldn't see their new stocks on their shelves. Of all the bookstores, they're the ones that have new books the most frequent (twice a month). It's not a case of "it just so happened your book orders was stuck at customs but the rest of our shipments came in." It was never ordered (or they couldn't order it) in the first place.

Why Neutral Grounds has all but given up carrying (RPG) books...

First off, Neutral Grounds is a hobby store. They import games. While RPG books are indeed books, they're most likely lumped up in whatever category the rest of their inventory is classified as. Hence the new law doesn't really affect them.

Second, the reason why Neutral Grounds isn't stocking RPG books is due to various business reasons:
  • RPG books are difficult to sell, at least compared to Collectible Card Games (CCGs), Miniatures, or Board Games. The only RPG books Neutral Grounds is obliged to carry are Wizards of the Coast books (because they carry other Wizards of the Coast products, such as Magic: The Gathering).
  • The Southeast Asian distributor of D&D books is crappy--at least according to Neutral Grounds. That's why the shipment of the core books were delayed, and why many customers who pre-ordered didn't immediately get their DMG.
  • In an attempt to make selling RPGs more profitable, Neutral Grounds is focusing more on the player-centric (as opposed to Game Master-centric) books.
  • The frequency in which stocks arrived at Neutral Grounds is slow. Probably once every two months.

No one's made this assertion yet but just in case they do:

It's all Twilight's Fault.

First of, that's like blaming a victim of a hold-up on the victim by being at the wrong place at the wrong time. No, the guilty party are the robbers themselves.

Second, Twilight may have been a catalyst, but as I pointed out in yesterday's essay, this kind of corruption has been prevalent in customs for the past few decades. If it's not Twilight, it would have been the next big book fad.

Now here are qualities of the Twilight series which make it lucrative to tax:
  • It's a hardcover - it's both heavy and takes up more space than, say, a paperback (which was the case with many of Dan Brown's books).
  • It's not being carried by Scholastic - Scholastic was the distributor of Harry Potter books when it was popular (and it was a hardcover as well) but Scholastic also has a reputation of actually carrying books that without a doubt can be classified as educational by the Department of Education.
  • It's being ordered in large quantities - Stephen King for example might be a best-seller, but his books aren't as selling as much as Stephenie Meyer, at least in the Philippines these days.

From one of the comments in Philippine Genre Stories, which is quoting me:

"The crime here isn't so much the breaking of the Florence Agreement but the seemingly arbitrary judgment calls. There's no consistency on whether a shipment will be taxed or not."

While this seems to be the case with post offices, a few of my DHL experiences tell me otherwise; that book taxation is more systematic and pervasive than we think.

Well, my experiences is certainly arbitrary (taxed one day, not taxed the next). But the definition of arbitrary means that it's implementation is not universal. If such taxation was indeed systematic, then there would be a fixed formula that charged you for all your incoming shipments, whether you used the postal offices or a courier. And in this case, let's also not mistake of thinking that "just because it happened to me, it happened to everyone." Granted, that argument can be used against my claim, but if you ask around, some people haven't been charged for books sent via courier (and of course, some have as well). That's what arbitrary means: it's inconsistent.

The arbitrary factor here is dependent on several factors including:
  • Where your municipality is located.
  • The service (courier or otherwise) you're using.
  • The size, weight, or price of your shipment.
  • The person receiving the shipment.

Inconsistent result leads to the conclusion that it's arbitrary.

Here's my correcting myself:

Those custom officials might not be corrupt...

Okay, claiming that custom officials are corrupt is accusatory on my part. There is another possible explanation for the fees they're charging that doesn't include malice or greed. The said custom officials might be ignorant. I mean that's a perfectly reasonable argument: they're not as well-versed with the law, especially when it comes to the specifics of product shipments (in much the same way that we citizens aren't aware of all our rights--this fiasco included). They'd rather charge citizens for their shipments rather than risk not meeting their quotas or letting shipments freely pass when they should be charging for them.

And here's me making some additions:

This is a two-front war: a "corruption" (or ignorance, see previous paragraph) and a legal issue.

First off, the easiest to explain is the legal issue. That's the matter that revolves around the Undersecretary of Finance Sales. A lot of the commenters and bloggers are focusing on this problem and it's understandable: it's something that concerns the law, and a lot of the ones responding to this issue have some background in law. And honestly, of the two problems, this one is the easier one to prove (it's on paper) and to solve (either it's legal or it's not). (And yes, it does not require the presence of witnesses.)

Now I want to talk about the "corruption." Again, I think a lot of the past problems stems from corruption. Sales's new proclamation, as I mentioned in my previous essay, is only supposed to be effective last April 27, 2009. What will explain the hold-up during the months of February and March, if Hemley's account is true? It also does not explain the arbitrary policies before then (should this shipment of books be taxed or not?), the fees charged at importers (which I suspect is charging them regular importation rates, whether their metric is retail value, volume, or weight), and forcibily keeping them in storage (thus charging storage fees at the importers).

For me this is the bigger dragon to slay, and the harder one to prove. For one thing, it's sytematic, and must be proven on a case to case basis (did -insert name here- charge you for -insert shipment no. here-?). It's like proving the MMDA officer who stopped you in the middle of traffic is guilty of bribes. One can't go about and accuse the entire MMDA organization as accepting bribes, we can merely cite specific situations and guilty parties.

Let's say the legal issue is resolved. There is no 1% (of 5%) tax. There's nothing stopping either a corrupt or ignorant customs officer from charging the next importer (whether they're running a small business or a big business) for their next shipment of books. They may lodge a complaint but that'll take time--and sometimes some of these books are rush orders, and any delays will inevitably lead to "miscellaneous fees" such as storage. This is precisely what happened in Hemley's account (remember, Sales's proclamation hadn't gone into effect then) and if we merely focus on the law aspect (rather than the implementation of the law), it's going to happen again.

Honestly, a lot of problems in the Philippines isn't the laws themselves (although our laws have its fair share of complications) but the implementation of them. Traffic officers aren't supposed to accept bribes, yet we all know a lot of them do. Taxis aren't supposed to charge more than what their meters dictate, or decline passengers who intend to travel to a reasonable location (I'm not talking about Manila to Baguio here but Makati to Ortigas on rush hour), but they do.

If my theory is right, The Great Philippine Book Blockade of 2009 is a two-front war, a legal and an illegal aspect. While a lot of people are focusing on the former, let's also remember that there's still the latter to contend with.


pgenrestories said...

Hi, Charles. Nagpapaalam po uli. Will link this essay to the PGS Multiply. TY.

the jester-in-exile said...

brilliant piece!

Brillig said...

Great insights again, these hopefully would stoke a useful public discussion.

Corruption is the bigger problem, and one more difficult to remedy. It is as old as Ancient Egypt, and the source of thousands of years worth of individual crises of conscience. The reflexive antidote has been to sermonize about the need to repent, to inculcate social civics and morality in the hearts of children to adults. All indisputable premises. But corruption persists because being corrupt works to the self-interest of the official involved. Personal wealth, security of family, or the orgasmic high some get when they are able to wield levers from a position of power. It's like promoting "abstinence only" to prevent teenage pregnancies. For adults, it takes little effort and minimal angst to declare that abstention from pre-marital sex is ideal for teenagers, but fat chance that such a policy will be widely successful.

It works both ways too. There are remedies in law available to those dealing with corrupt officials, and who are unwilling to accede to corrupt bargains. But these consume time, energy and legal fees. For many, such as importers dealing with corrupt customs officers, the calculation is that paying the bribe ultimately works more to their self-interest than waging the righteous legal battle. Apart from the financial and emotional costs, there is also the fact that next shipment, they'll have to deal with the same people (or like-minded colleagues) again.

It is an age-old problem, but the still-emerging field of behavioral economics may eventually provide some new solutions. Tinker with the system to induce potential bribers and bribees into realizing that the corrupt bargain does not redound to their self-interest, or better, minimizing contact between those two parties. (No concrete ideas yet, sorry) There is this interesting article from The New Republic on then-candidate Obama's economic advisers, steeped in behavioral economics, and their preferred "inductive approach" to problem-solving, or "working piecemeal from a series of real-world observations". Resolving or minimizing the incidence of corruption may ultimately depend less on moral outrage, and more on the power of creative problem-solving.

Anonymous said...

How wonderfully put. It is indeed possible to make a theoretical separation between the law and the implementation of the law, although ideally they be the same thing. I don't think that it's a 'legal and and illegal aspect' so much as the appropriation and manipulation of the law, even to the point of defying reason and credulity. To take your example, once a policeman has flagged you down, no amount of proof of innocence will do you any good, because he is not there to implement the law and keep the streets safe, but to extort under a thinly-veiled guise. But whither now? The great clattering of keyboards from the pundits in pjyamas and then the stomping of feet of public indignation and self-righteous anger in the name of the Right to Knowledge and the decrying of dishonourable men? There is no dishonour if there was no honour to begin with; that ended with the very first bribe, the first extortion that went unchallenged. Laws are made like batons that we hand over for them to clonk us on the head with. Of course they're corrupt.

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