Overacting

(Yesterday’s column)

A decade and a half or so ago, whenever prices of fuel and consumer goods started rising at alarming levels, people used to joke that “Si Nora Aunor na lang ang hindi tumataas [Only Nora Aunor isn't getting any higher].” The literal translation might not make sense but in common usage, “taas,” rootword of “tumataas,” is used to describe anything from a person’s height to social stature to the skyrocketing prices.

These days, with La Aunor not as visible nor as popular as she once was, people have a new version of the same joke. They say, “Si Gloria Arroyo na lang ang hindi tumataas.” Of course, there is no intention to even remotely suggest that Mrs. Arroyo, at any given time, was as popular and as adored by the public as Nora Aunor used to be. Substituting her name to tell the same joke springs from one reason only–she is the only public figure known to have the same height as Nora Aunor–they are both 4 feet and 9 inches tall–or short, depending from which perspective one is looking.

Anyway, I’m not dedicating this column to an attempt to understand why some people are short while others are tall. The claims of the maker of Cherifer aside, genetics hold the answers to the most fundamental questions. I’m not dedicating this column either to prove that even in the darkest of times, Filipinos never lose their sense of humor and still manage to joke about their sad plight. I think that’s a given. In fact, I started this column with the Nora-Gloria anecdote to lighten the mood because any discussion about the dizzying rise of prices of basic commodities tends to get depressing. And that’s what I really want to talk about–my grocery bill and yours, and the effect of seeing more numerals to the left of the decimal point even though we’re buying the same amount of food stuff and household items.

The so-called experts have a simple way of explaining things. They say that when the price of fuel goes up, everything follows. Of course, these people are silent as to why, during times when the world prices of fuel went down, retail prices of gasoline, diesel, kerosene and LPG in the Philippines never dropped correspondingly. We’d get one rebate of 50 centavos or so per liter for every five or more times that the price went up by one peso or more per liter. That’s what I call a lopsided equation in favor of business and always against the consumer.

We don’t read much about the monopoly on fuel either. Where there used to be six major oil companies in the Philippines called the Six Sisters when I was in college, there are now only three. And, supposedly, the entry of new players, a.k.a., small local petroleum companies, is proof that monopoly is a myth. Whether that constitutes sufficient evidence that rise in local fuel prices are never artificially instigated is up to you. What I do know is that no amount of street protests will give big businesses, especially those in the oil industry, a conscience.

Personally, I don’t like playing the role of victim. That’s often hard to do especially in situations like the present but when it gets more and more difficult to stretch the budget, it is the best time to reassess what it is exactly that make us feel like victims. The truth is, we feel like victims because with the weak peso and the never-ending rise in prices, we are unable to sustain our personal lifestyle. What most people don’t want to face is the fact that the deprivation is probably more artificial than real.

What do I mean? Okay, let’s say that five years ago, the prices of commodities and the combined income of Juan and Juana meant that they could take their children to the mall most weekends. They could afford out-of-town trips once every few weeks and even a foreign trip once a year. They ate hotdogs, corned beef or bacon for breakfast. Lunch and dinner were accompanied by cans of soda. Juan Junior went to karate class and Maria Juana took piano lessons.

Then, crisis hit. Juan and Juana still make the same amount of money but their combined income is no longer sufficient to sustain the weekly visits to the mall, the trips, the hotdogs, corned beef or bacon breakfasts, the constant supply of soda in cans, the karate and piano lessons. So, they start whining. They feel poor, they feel deprived and they start acting like victims.

What Juan and Juana do not realize, or refuse to admit, is that they only feel poor because they are not willing to do away with the non-essentials. What they refuse to admit even more is that giving up these things might actually benefit them and provide one of the most valuable life lessons to their children. I mean, get over it, what loss is there in giving up tons of saturated fat, preservatives and sugar? Is it so wrong to eat home-cooked lugaw for breakfast? Is it such a waste of time to play Scrabble or watch movies at home on Sundays rather than be the quintessential indiscriminate consumer at the mall? Just how essential are karate and piano lessons to the development of a child?

I sympathize with the middle classes when I hear and read about how affected they are by the economic situation. I am one of them and I know. But some of the complaints are just too OA.