GBB: Really!?! Edition

I wrote this post last night, then decided to let it sit a bit. Read it again today to make sure I wasn’t being unnecessarily inflammatory and came to the conclusion that I should go ahead and post it (with a bit of an addendum). There are certain depths of emotion that can only be borne through either a judicious application of sarcasm or Ponstan… and I’m all out of Ponstan.

For an irony free take on some pro-tariff arguments/theories, head over to Bibliophile Stalker. We overlap on certain issues but offer different, though non-contradictory, responses.

Unprecedented levels of snark ahead. You have been warned.

The danger in checking MLQ3’s timeline and readings of the Great Book Blockade is that inevitably I stumble across items of news and/or opinion that simply call for a response–or more appropriately, taking a page from the SNL: Weekly Update playbook, a simple question.

Really? Really!?!

First off though, I do realize and recognize that everyone is entitled to their own opinions. I do not intend what follows to impugn the intelligence or virtue of those who hold contrary opinions to myself–it’s just I find some of those opinions expressed to be, well, hilarious–in a black humored Sweeney Todd kind of way.

So in short–I respect you guys, but some of what you’ve said just cannot be allowed to slide. If you agree with the BOC’s actions (spoiler alert: I don’t.) but can’t take some good ol’ fashioned sarcasm, then do yourself a favor and don’t read any further. Consider yourselves duly warned that if you read on beyond this paragraph any bruised egos shall be on your own heads.

OK? Good.

Let’s begin with some answers to the Philippine Star’s recent poll on “What do you think of the BOC’s plan to impose higher taxes on imported books?” I’ll comment on these based purely on the merit I find in the statements, as opposed to the factual legality of the customs duties (note to the Star–it’s not a “plan”: the duties are already in effect ok? That’s why we’re having this conversation) – since I think we’ve sufficiently ventilated that in my prior posts.

  • “If it will result in more taxes for the government, why not?”

Really? So shall I put you down as “in favor” of the special 99% income tax rate then? I’m sure the BIR will give you a gold star. Sure that’s a slippery slope argument, but it’s hard not to resort to the same in the face of such a gross generalization. To put it mathematically, the virtue of a tax is not in direct proportion to its amount. Taxation is a mighty power of the government, but for that reason it must be used wisely–there’s a reason that for every mention of taxation as “the lifeblood of the government” in case law, there’s a caution about how it is likewise “the power to destroy.”

  • “Books are more of a luxury than a necessity and reading is a hobby for the more affluent”

Really? So the ideal then would be that reading be placed beyond the means of everyone but the super-affluent? Well that’d be okay right since it’s only a luxury, a hobby, not a necessity. By God you’re right. Come to think of it, I’ve heard that people of certain religious affiliations get by perfectly fine without eating pork or beef, so maybe we should jack the prices for those up as well. In fact, I learned from Bear Grylls (I assume that television shows remain incontrovertibly educational?) that we can survive in the harshest environments for so long as we have a canteen, shoelaces, socks and a camera crew.

The fact that something is not a necessity is not in itself an argument that can be used to support measures negatively impacting its attainability. Each person not only has the right to life–i.e. survival–but the right to a good life, and all that implies. Lessons in morality are not necessary for survival but they certainly add to quality of life (not to mention society)–and books have those. Friends are not strictly required for me to keep breathing–and yet, can you imagine life without them? Books enable friendships as well, as many a fan community can attest.

We have the right to enjoyable, enriching things that do more than simply keep our hearts beating: the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights enshrines the right to education (Art. 13) the right to take part in cultural life (Art. 15) and the freedom indispensable for scientific research and creative activity (Art. 15). And before anyone asks–yes we are a signatory to the ICESCR.

  • “I don’t see anything wrong about imposing higher taxes on imported books. It will be good for our economy.”
  • “The influx of cheap imported books in our country is due to the low taxes imposed on them. The BoC’s plan to impose higher taxes is laudable.”

Really? Oh right, of course because cheap imported books are evil since they… uhm… I’ve got nothing.

The only way I can make sense of this comment is if I construe it as the author taking a protectionist stance: if imported product A weren’t so cheap, people would instead by local product A and thus make our economy healthier. Like these  commenters:

  • “If they do that, people would be forced to buy Precious Romance pocketbooks instead of the Harry Potter series or foreign-authored computer science books. At least there would be less inflation by chance.”

Really? The next time your computer hard-drive crashes, maybe you can have someone fix it through the raw power of “kilig.” I’m sure that’ll work out great.

  • “The BoC is right to impose higher taxes on imported books so that people will patronize our own books. We must always buy Pinoy-made products.”

Really? Well I suppose it’s only logical to assume that the author in the best position to write Frank McCourt’s memoirs would be someone other than Frank McCourt because-hey-he’s not a Filipino right? Can’t have that since we must always buy Pinoy-made products.

The tragedy here is that some people seem to believe that different books are somehow interchangeable. That’s not the case–books aren’t sugar, or rice: if I ask for a copy of A Thousand Years of Solitude and you give me Noli Me Tangere my desire will in no sense be satisfied, not because Noli Me Tangere is a Filipino product (can someone honestly point at me and say I hate local prose?), not because I feel it is an inferior product (I liked Noli, though I loved Fili more) but simply because it’s not the same damn book. Perhaps I need to be more clear: the words between the covers are different.

The desire for a book is not simply a desire for any book but for a particular book, or at least a book which deals with a particular subject or genre. That is why, with all due respect to the author, the answer to the question posed in the Manila Times (“If we don’t have access to foreign books, will Filipinos reacquaint themselves with local books and rediscover our own classic and contemporary writers?”) is this: Not really, no. Three reasons: (1) if I want to read a genre that we do have covered here, chances are high I’ll read both local and imported works in the genre; (2) There are simply some subjects or genres that we don’t have here: If I want to read a non-fiction book about Apartheid in South Africa, the biography of a WWE Wrestler or a YA book dealing with a high school romance involving vampires… we simply don’t have that covered; (3) The internet.

{Let it be said–I do agree that Filipino-authored books should be classified by subject and not relegated to an uncategorized section of the bookstore… But import duties do not even tangentially address that problem.}

My head hurts. Still, let us soldier bravely forward and tackle the post of anonymous customs veteran RJA which is a reaction to the editorial of the Philppine Daily Inquirer dated 16 May 2009.

“The editorial is a thinly veiled argument in favor of book smugglers and profiteers thus I am surprised why it landed as an Editorial piece in Inquirer.”

Did I say soldier bravely forward? Is it too late to retreat? I can’t deal with this.

Oh alright: Really? You really want to start your counter-arguments by making an ad hominem attack–and not  even directly against the proponent of the argument?

And–really? An argument against import duties is an argument in favor of book smuggling? Well, I guess I would see your point: if it weren’t for the fact that, by definition, book smugglers don’t go through customs and hence don’t pay any duties, ever, no matter the law.

Actually, wouldn’t book smuggling increase if the cost of books became prohibitive? You do remember what happened when the United States prohibited alcohol right? Because I heard that worked just great.

If the imported books do not fall under the Florence Agreement or RA 8047, then a five (5%) duty rate is imposed.
So the editorial rants that the Department Order violates the Florence Agreement because the same agreement applies to all books and limiting it to cultural, scientific and educational materials violates the spirit of the agreement. See? The Editorial writer is disturbed by spirits. He or she is concerned about violating the spirit of the agreement but has nothing to say whether the questioned order violates any specific provision of the agreement.

Sigh. Yes, just what we needed, a bad pun.

Granted however, that the Inquirer article is a bit vague with regard to the specific violation, but I think that a close reading of the Florence Agreement speaks for itself. Likewise I should emphasize that complying with the spirit and not just the letter of the law is a recognized legal principle, and under the principle of Pacta Sunt Servanda, treaties should be complied with in good faith. Trying to find a loophole that would allow a State to undermine the purpose ot the treaty? That’s not good faith.

A national law that violates intellectual property right but is deemed lawful because it is a domestic law.

I didn’t even understand this. I can’t even do the “really?” shtick anymore… It seems superfluous to satirize some of these statements. Moving on…

Just imagine every book and magazine that is imported will benefit preferential import treatment. No duties. That’s good for the reading public generally, but not books and magazines are alike. I can relate to duty free importations of the Asia Foundation, UST and other universities. I can appreciate Scientific American, the Harvard Law Journal, and all science and computer books – they should be imported duty and tax free. But what about comic and anime books and magazines, flesh magazines, best seller books such as Angels and Demons, the Harry Potter series, the Lord of Rings series and similar books?

Let’s deal with this on three levels:

(A) Law: Whether or not one sees the wisdom in the blanket duty-free importation of books is beside the point. To date there does not appear to be a single convincing counter-argument to the applicability of the Florence Agreement. “We studied the matter thoroughly” is not a convincing counter argument. Neither are the guidelines and the FAQ;

(B) Policy: In subscribing to the Florence Agreement and adapting RA 8047, the government has professed to have a declared policy  to “ensure an adequate supply of affordable, quality-produced books,”  to ensure an adequate, affordable, and accessible supply of books for all segments of the population,” and to guarantee the free exchange of ideas and knowledge and, in general, the widest possible dissemination of the diverse forms of self-expression used by civilizations. In this light the duties imposed by the DOF and Customs are contrary to the self avowed policy of the government. It’s within the power of the government to change this policy, to withdraw from the Florence Agreement and amend its laws–but until it does so it’s certainly logical to question acts that run counter to this policy. And no, departmental “guidelines” can’t reverse policy contained in statutes and international treaties.

(C) Wisdom: Again, I think the position of those opposed to the duties is clear.

It is high time that these importers and sellers are taxed. They are just hiding behind some color of legality. When I was a Customs Officer at NAIA in the middle 1990’s I used to groan every time I was assigned to examine a consignment of books or magazines. You exert your best to perform your duty (no pun intended) but you end up extending tax and duty free privilege to an importation which you know is being sold for a handsome profit.

Let us spend a moment of silence and commiserate with the fact that during the mid 1990’s, the man tasked to examine book consignments had to…*gasp*…examine book consignments. The horror! It’s just as bad as that cop who went through all that trouble arresting someone, only to find out they had to release the suspect later on because the stupid git turned out to be innocent. What a waste of effort.

Sigh. It’s like this: The job of the customs official is to assess and apply the correct legal duties to imported items–if those duties are zilch, then it is the official’s job is to assess and charge, well zilch.

They end up fattening their pockets so much that when government moves in to collect its rightful revenue, they are suddenly alarmed by the legal, educational and other repercussions of taxation. They say they are only after the public’s welfare.

First, what people are saying is, in fact, that the duties are not “rightful.” Second, if a tax has repercussions in the legal and educational sphere… er… isn’t it right to be alarmed? I’d think that to be the natural response.

But what do we expect? Importers, publishers, and book sellers are in the business to make profit. Can we honestly say that we can sacrifice government revenues just because those idiots do not want to acknowledge their social responsibility to be good citizens and tax payers?

Ah symmetry: begin with an ad hominem attack, end with an ad hominem attack–never mind that it is again aimed at the wrong people since, as best can be determined duties were paid. As far as social responsibility is concerned… That’s a two way street neighbor. Section 4, Article 2, 1987 Constitution: The prime duty of the Government is to serve and protect the people. “Government revenue” is not an end in itself–anything the government does can only be justified if it serves the people.

Finally, lest we be remiss, let us turn our attention to the well-intentioned but regrettably flawed proposal of 1ReAd2, namely a boycott of books for which the duties were paid.

  • Small Problem: how would you know which books were covered by paid customs duties? How would you know if a book that came out in 2001 was imported years ago (before the tariff) or yesterday? The bookstores would either be unaware of the same, or be unlikely to tell you. Of course you could simply assume that all imported books on the shelves were subject of the tariff and boycott them all… which would lead to–
  • Big Problem: –a situation wherein we protest the fact that customs is making imported books difficult to obtain by volunteering not to obtain them at all (ebook and library book availability was never the issue), which strikes me as counter intuitive and counter-productive given that–
  • Bigger Problem:–purchase of the book has no effect on whether or not tariffs will be paid, since any tariffs would have already been paid before the books arrived on the shelves. The tariffs imposed would depend on the importation of books, not the purchase of the same, and a boycott would have to be truly massive to convince affect importer behavior, which leads me to the–
  • Biggest Problem: –think what would happen if the boycott was a massive success. Only two options would be available to the importer: don’t pay the duties, in which case customs wouldn’t release the books and the importer wouldn’t be able to sell them anyway; or stop importing books completely, pack up and open a fish ball stand along PHILCOA. The biggest problem with the boycott is that if it succeeds we lose.

I understand the frustration with the fact that some of those directly affected do not seem to be as passionate in their fight against the tariff. But consider these factors: (a) importation is their means of livelihood–it’s how they pay their employees and feed their families. As I said if they don’t pay then the books will be held by customs and the importer earns nothing–in good conscience, one cannot force them to do that; (b) the importers will always have to deal with customs, long after this issue is resolved and the rest of us return to our lives; (c) we don’t know if they are being active in other ways behind the scenes, perhaps through the BDAP or NBDB.

Again, more help would be nice, but let’s not lose our focus here.

Aaaand… that’s a wrap. See you guys at the Book Bigayan.


One response to “GBB: Really!?! Edition

  1. Pingback: The Great Book Blockade of 2009: Timeline and Readings (updated) : Manuel L. Quezon III: The Daily Dose

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