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Making all things new

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Today is the first blank page of a 365-page book,” we’re told on New Year’s Day. “Write it well.” How many will skid instead into what the Economist calls “New-Year Irresolution.”

As the old year fades, people stitch resolutions. Some vow to exercise more. Others pledge to quit smoking. By Jan. 2, many will not have budged from sofas. (Or they’ll be) “lighting cigarettes.” Here’s the old struggle against feet-dragging.

“In recent Philippine field trials some smokers who wanted to quit, were offered a ‘commitment contract.’ Those who signed up put money into a zero-interest bank account. If they were certified nicotine-free six months later, they got their money back. If not, the cash went to charity.”

Result: “The contract increased likelihood of quitting by over 30 percent over a control group,” Economist reports. “Those new-year resolutions need not turn to ash.”

“The economics of procrastination offers an explanation,” write authors Ted O’Donoghue and Matthew Rabin. People are unrealistically optimistic about their future likelihood of doing things. Exercise or saving, for example, involve costs when done. “Their benefits, however, lie further ahead.”

“People tend to put off unpleasant things until tomorrow, even if the immediate cost involved is tiny.” Call that “recent-biased” preferences. Most are unsure of this bias extent. So, they believe (incorrectly) that they can “do it tomorrow.” However, “they feel this way at each point in time: So, “tomorrow never quite comes.”

Our parents never read O’Donoghue and Rabin. But they had “endless procrastination” down pat. The mañana habit, they called it. And that syndrome spawns jokes.

“New Year’s Day is the accepted time to make your annual good resolutions,” Mark Twain chortled. “Next week, you can begin paving hell with them as usual. Oscar Wilde had a similar beef: These resolutions are “checks that men draw on a bank where they have no account.”

“Not so,” counters TV host Oprah Winfrey. “Cheers to a New Year and another chance for us to get it right.” We do need to review our lives from year to year. “The unexamined life is not worth living,” Socrates argued.

Part of the mix-up stems from confusing limpid wishes with tough resolution. A wish identifies a goal. “For 2013, I’ll keep the Ten Commandments,” pledges a legislator. Fine. But that remains sterile desire.

A resolution specifies steps that one takes. Gems were abandoned in Malacañang closets as the Marcoses scrammed on Chinook helicopters ahead of People Power crowds. Suppose that in 2013, Imelda Marcos backed government’s plan to auction off the confiscated stones, including the Roumeliotes jewels. That’d be resolution—which remains the exception.

Hit the replay button for the Year 153 BC. Two Roman consuls then set Jan. 1 as the New Year. It marks the passing of 525,600 minutes ever since. The consuls named the first month as “January,” after the Roman god Janus. He had two faces: one looked to the past while the other peered into the future.

That capsulizes the New Year experience. “Life can only be understood backwards,” Soren Kierkegaard insisted. “But it is best lived forward.”

There were milestone events in 2012: Death, in an airplane crash, of a towering Department of Interior and Local Government secretary Jesse Roberdo,nimpeachment of a Supreme Court chief justice holding a “midnight appointment,” canonization of a second Filipino saint, arraignment of a former President for plunder to Typhoon Pablo wreaking havoc in Compostela Valley and Davao Oriental.

Less visible were 221 faceless mothers who died in every 100,000 live births. Set in context, that figure means more Filipino mothers today die in childbirth than in the early 1990s. Then and now, most of those deaths were preventable.

Of every 1,000 births, 29 kids never made it to age 5. They’ll never “comb grey hair,” to borrow a line from Irish poet and 1923 Nobel Laureate William Butler Yeats. We’re on par with Dominican Republic in infant mortality rates. We lag behind Malaysia ’s 6.

“It is harsh to say we’ve turned a deaf ear to the death rattle in the throats of thousands of young mothers and infants,” commented Viewpoint ( PDI / July 6) . “But it is true.”

Nonetheless, “New Year’s Day is every man’s birthday,” as Charles Lamb wrote. What of the year ahead? Will things will be different this time around?

Structures for reforms from sleaze governance of the past are rising as New Year 2013 dawns.

Moro Islamic Liberation Front and national government signed the “Framework Agreement on the Bangsamoro in October. Three annexes on power and wealth sharing, plus “normalization are being treshed out. These are first steps in beating swords into ploughshares.”

President Benigno Aquino III signed the sin tax bill into law despite a tobacco lobby’s deep-pocket campaign. Stiffer taxes on tobacco and alcohol products could bring in P34 billion to bankroll a universal healthcare program.

Before Christmas, P-Noy approved “the first national law (RA 10350) in Asia that makes enforced disappearance a distinct criminal offense.” The Reproductive Health law is on the books. Hopefully, that’d end the scandal of 560,000 underground abortions yearly.

The Conditional Cash Transfer Program to ensure that children, in the poorest households, get immunized and stay in school should reach 4.3 million households by 2016.

If sustained, these reforms could usher the poorest to more humane living conditions. As the Book of Revelation puts it: “He that sat upon the throne said: ‘Behold, I make all things new.’”

Happy New Year!


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