Friday, September 25, 2009

Extravagance of the rich and powerful

Published last August 12, 2009 at the op ed section of the Manila Standard Today.  

A million pesos spent on a single dinner sounds obscene, I know. The thought is probably incomprehensible to some people who scrimp on everything or live very simple lives; appalling to those who don’t even know where their next meal is coming from. How can someone—or even a group of 25—spend all that much money on a single meal?

Of course most people are operating from the assumption that the report, which was published in a tabloid known for outlandish and exaggerated storytelling, was true. While the bright boys from Malacañang have admitted that such a dinner party did take place, they have continued to be adamant in their refusal to reveal exactly how much was spent on the dinner supposedly paid for by a congressman from Leyte. They insist it was a “simple dinner,” which really does not make matters any less objectionable precisely because the whole point of the controversy is the perception that the President and her lackeys seem to have a completely different definition of what “simple” means.

If the whole report about the gross extravagance turns out to be a dud then there will be lots of red faces all around and the citizens of the blogosphere would have learned yet another lesson, something about checking facts first before spewing sanctimoniousness. It certainly wouldn’t be the first time some people have been caught opening the mouth before engaging the mind. I hope this isn’t true in this case because I’d hate to see all that hyperventilating go to waste.

If it is revealed that the presidential party did spend close to a million pesos for that dinner, then people have another reason to further demonize Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo. Not that it means anything to her; she seems oblivious to criticism anyway.

What seems to have been glossed over is the fact that except for Miriam Defensor Santiago whose reaction seemed to sound like a why-wasn’t-I-in-that-party-complaint rather than open condemnation, very few people among those who prowl the corridors of power weighed in with their two-cents’ worth. This was quite surprising considering that we usually have a long line of garrulous people all wanting to be heard above the din. Let me tell you why: Spending huge amounts of money—either for dinner parties, status symbols, and for other forms of representation has long been the norm among the rich and powerful. Of course there are exceptions, but quite frankly, extreme materialism and consumerism have long been part of the lifestyle of many particularly those who are in power.

What the controversy really highlights is the great divide between, on one hand, the rich and powerful, and on the other, those who are not or will never be rich and powerful no matter what. I know, that statement drips of heavy cynicism and seems like an endorsement of a caste system. But by rich I don’t really just mean having money. I am also referring to lifestyles and attitudes as well. There are people who do have the money but continue to shun extravagant lifestyles.

The truth is that there really are people in this world and in this country today who think spending huge amounts of money for a meal, for clothing, bags, shoes and other status indicators is no big deal especially if they can afford it. They not only spend money like there is no tomorrow, they also actually flaunt their profligacy. They actually take pride in being seen in posh places and show off their status symbols. Many appear on television wearing expensive clothes and designer shoes, carrying branded bags, and all bedecked in jewels.

Just as there are people who don’t think there is anything wrong with having a dozen bags that cost P2 million each, shoes that cost hundreds of thousands of pesos, or a headband that costs tens of thousands of pesos, there are quite a number of people who actually have no qualms about throwing parties that cost millions of pesos—either here in the country or abroad.

In case you haven’t heard, throwing parties or even dinner parties has already become a major art form and business enterprise. Note the rise of new careers such as those of party planners, party coordinators, events organizers, etc., whose job description is essentially to organize events to end all others, costs be damned. The dinner parties of the rich and powerful—including those who have delusions of being rich and powerful—can rack up millions in costs today.

Just very recently, a friend of mine was gushing over a wedding she attended where everything including the chairs and tables for the guests were specifically designed and created for the occasion. The flowers were flown in from Amsterdam. The food was catered by—not one, not two, not three, but four caterers, one of them a five-star hotel. Two major bands provided entertainment and three celebrity singers performed. The wine that was served cost around P5,000 per bottle. My friend shared that estimates of the total cost were placed at close to P4 million. Of course the couple were not politicians but a number of politicians were in attendance.

Another friend of mine who has to submit official receipts to support claims for representation allowance once showed me official receipts from a café. According to him, the manager of the outlet, who is his friend, regularly sends his way official receipts that are not claimed or are left behind by clients, which include popular politicians—senators and local government officials. Nothing wrong with that, you might say. Hanging out in cafés for hours and on a regular basis is normal, even students do that. But my friend showed me the official receipts—these were for meetings held at the café by the politicians. The total cost reflected in one official receipt I saw boggled the mind—close to P200,000. Apparently the politicians and whoever they were meeting with not only drank vats of coffee, ate the most expensive items on the menu for dinner, and gorged on lots of desserts, they also had to spend for a coterie of bodyguards, drivers, and staff. In addition, they had to order take out for everyone else it seems.

A celebrity actress, for example, travels around in a bus—her own bus, which has been especially outfitted for her needs. Okay, so she can afford it. She obviously has not thought about the kind of road space required by a bus compared to an ordinary car and the kind of impact it has on the environment. There is only so much road space out there and ideally we should be sharing as much of it as we can with others. This is why in other countries, carpooling is encouraged so as to reduce road congestion and to lessen pollution. When one appropriates more space for herself just because she can, that’s not really being nice or responsible, is it?

All these are not justifications or a defense of that million-peso dinner—I don’t think there is any justification or defense for it if it were true. What I want to point out is that that dinner and what it represented is actually part of a whole social phenomenon that we are seeing today.

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