Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Books and Taxes


     An article published in Inquirer's website today from columnist Manuel L. Quezon III will dampen every bibliophile's spirits. You can read the whole article here. Back in 1952, the Philippines became a signatory in a United Nations treaty named the Florence Agreement which mandates the tax-free importation of educational, scientific and cultural materials in order to promote a  high standard of education, to foster "the free exchange of ideas and knowledge and, in general, the widest possible dissemination of the diverse forms of self-expression used by civilizations are vitally important both for intellectual progress and international understanding, and consequently for the maintenance of world peace." View the entirety of the treaty here. For the past two months, the importation of books to the country has virtually ceased. Most of the books in bookstores are imported, the ones that are locally published are those in the Filipiniana section. What transpired? 

     Robin Hemley, the Director of the University of Iowa's Nonfiction Writing Program who's in the country on a Guggenheim Fellowship narrates how the customs officials dug themselves a stupendous gold mine by demanding duty fees for the load of Twilight books that entered the country. Stephenie Meyer's hyped up Twilight novels caught the attention of customs examiner Rene Agulan who decreed that duties be paid. In order to avoid hassle, the importer complied and paid. The Importer should not have done this since Philippines has been a signatory in the Florence Agreement for fifty seven years. Agulan argues the books were rightfully paid for because they are "not educational". Yes, but they are cultural materials nonetheless and thus the treaty applies. Encouraged by the success of this particular encounter, the customs officials curtailed the shipment of all the books entering the country. Booksellers are currently intensely negotiating this matter with various government officials. The books are presently stranded in storage facilities. 

    Government officials are up in their elbows defending the added fees. Here is an excerpt from Robin Hemley's article

Finance Undersecretary Espele Sales explained the government's position to a group of frustrated booksellers and importers in an Orwellian PowerPoint presentation, at which she reinterpreted the Florence Agreement as well as Philippine law RA 8047, providing for "the tax and duty-free importation of books or raw materials to be used in book publishing." For lack of a comma after the word "books," the undersecretary argued that only books "used in book publishing" (her underlining) were tax-exempt.

"What kind of book is that?" one publisher asked me afterward. "A book used in book publishing." And she laughed ruefully.

I thought about it. Maybe I should start writing a few.Harry the Cultural and Educational Potter and His Fondness for Baskerville Type.

Likewise, with the Florence Agreement, she argued that only educational books could be considered protected by the U.N. treaty. Customs would henceforth be the arbiter of what was and wasn't educational.

"For 50 years, everyone has misinterpreted the treaty and now you alone have interpreted it correctly?" she was asked.

"Yes," she told the stunned booksellers.

The writer David Torrey Peters, who once spent a year in Cameroon (which is even more corrupt than the Philippines), wrote of being pulled out of a taxi by a policeman who demanded that he produce his immunization card. David did this, but the cop told him that he was missing an AIDS vaccination. When David told the man that there was no such thing as an AIDS vaccine, the policeman was indignant.

"You think just because there isn't an AIDS vaccine I can't arrest you for not having one?"

This is the I-will-say-everything-with-a-straight-face-no-matter-how-absurd hallmark of corruption. It's what Orwell wrote about in his classic essay "Politics and the English Language" when he warns of the ways in which bureaucrats defend "the indefensible" by twisting words to suit their purposes. Though he singled out English, corruption happens in every language. However, he did make special mention of undersecretaries as being among the worst purveyors of actual meaning. Not that that has any relevance here (cough, cough), Undersecretary Sales.

  Kudos to the government for once again reaffirming how vile and corrupt they are in pumping revenue from every opportunity that catches their attention. Who knows? Next time it might be oxygen's turn. Don't hold your breath.

      Kudos to the government for depriving the filipinos of affordable reading materials.

      Kudos to the government for proving once more to the international community how miserable it is to live in this country. 

      Kudos to the government for encouraging the filipinos (specially the youth sector) to avoid reading good books. You know what they say,  reading good books leads to enlightenment and education. And education leads to empowerment. We wouldn't want our kids to start thinking critically now do we? We wouldn't want them to see the many flaws in the way you govern the country. That would be extremely detrimental to the fate of the nation and distressing to your well-being. We'd be better off naive, stupid and ignorant. You wouldn't want those crazy ass smart kids to figure out how to better run the country. That would be disastrous. Tsk tsk tsk... 


  1. The government was/is/will always be fucked up =P

  2. Whoever be the President of a country, the government will never change unless the corrupt officials will be out of service. And we all know that it won't happen. Most of them, are of service because of the money that supposed to be ours. - juicy coture