How fast does populism destroy economic freedom in Latin America?

The turn of the twentieth century has seen an increase in populist government in Latin America. That populism is no friend of free markets is well known. And even if their movement against free markets if fairly quick, it is common for individuals to loose track of how fast they are loosing their economic freedoms.

There are five cases of populist governments in Latin America that can work as benchmarks for the region. In particular, we can look at the behavior of governments in Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, Ecuador, and Venezuela for the time frames depicted in the following table.

Table 1

During this time period, populist governments failed to increase GDP per capita consistently faster than the region. The only exception is Argentina. But its fast increase in GDP is largely explained as recovery after the 2001 crisis and by consuming capital stock, not as an expansion of potential output. It is no accident that Argentina met stagflation in 2007. In the last three issues of the Economic Freedom of the World (Fraser Institute) Argentina ranks among the bottom 10 free economies in the world.

The following figure shows the fall in ranking of each country in the Economic Freedom of the World.

Figure 1

We can translate the information shown in the above into loss of ranking position per year of populist government. This is what is shown in the next table.

Table 2

This table offers a few readings:

  1. Argentina is the country that fall in the ranking of economic faster than its peers.
  2. Ecuador shows a very slow fall. This is due to two reasons: (1) Ecuador already starts from a low ranking position. (2) The last year of the index (2015) shows an improvement (without this improvement the fall is quite sharp as well.) Ecuador does not represent a case of “good populism.”

What this table is showing is that if an individual is born in any of these countries ranking 1st in economic freedom the same year a populist government takes office, then the same country will rank at the bottom of the world before he retires. In the case of Argentina, in 27.8 years the country will be at the bottom of the list, this means that by the time this individual starts to work, Argentina will already have a very repressed economy. By retiring time, this individual will have no experience of living and working in a free economy.

This numbers are not just descriptive of populism in Latin American countries. They also serve as a sort of warning for Europe and the United States, regions that have already seen some signs of populist behavior in their governments and political groups in the last few years. Populism can be emotionally attractive, but is very dangerous for our economic freedoms.

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Who is Jair Bolsonaro and why you should care

Since 1994, Brazilian presidential elections follow a pattern: PSDB and PT candidates are the main competitors, with a third candidate falling between the main leaders and countless dwarf candidates. Although this third candidate does not reach the presidency and does not even dispute the second round of the elections, its political influence tends to increase and its support happens to be disputed by the candidates of the PSDB and the PT. So it was mainly with Marina Silva in 2010 and 2014, and possibly will be so with Jair Bolsonaro in 2018.

After being defeated in 1989, 1994 and 1998, Luis Inacio Lula da Silva finally won the presidential election in 2002 and was re-elected in 2006. In 2002 Lula was benefited by the low popularity of President Fernando Henrique Cardoso (FHC), hurt by the circumstantial economic difficulties that the country was going through. FHC was practically absent from the campaign of his successor candidate, José Serra, apparently by common agreement of the incumbent and the possible successor. In addition, Lula and the PT had a radical change of stance that year, expressed mainly by the “Letter to the Brazilian People”. In this document Lula promised to abandon his historic struggle against free markets and to maintain the basic guidelines of FHC’s economic policy, which in the middle of the previous decade had taken the country from one of the worst economic crises in its history. The Brazilian economy left the circumstantial difficulty of 2002 and with this Lula secured his reelection in 2006. However, looking back, the arrival of Lula to the power was not accidental. Created in the late 1970s, the PT always faithfully (and not secretly) followed Antonio Gramsci’s guidelines of cultural Marxism: to come to power not by violence and also not by elections per se, but by cultural influence. This guideline guaranteed to Lula, even in the elections he lost, about 30% of the valid votes. The other 21% were electors dissatisfied (in the case of 2002) or excited (in the case of 2006) with the economic conditions of the moment. However, it is this same strategy of cultural Marxism that is now opening room for Jair Bolsonaro.

Bolsonaro is already an old congressman in Brazil, but has only really become famous in recent years. Elected for the first time in 1990, he fiercely criticized FHC’s free-market economic policy during the 1990s. In his view the then-president was a entreguista (something like a surrenderer) and the Brazilian economy needed to be protected against foreigners. Bolsonaro has also many times attenuated or even denied the fact that Brazil underwent a military dictatorship between 1964 and 1985. But what his followers (who call him Mito) really admire him for is the way he stands against political correctness, in a way reminiscent of Donald Trump. Bolsonaro became famous mainly for opposing the introduction of gender ideology as content in the country’s public schools. For this reason he is often accused of machismo and homophobia by his opponents. In recent statements Bolsonaro expresses greater support for the free market, but maintains his admiration for the military that governed Brazil in the past and a hard line against the politically correct.

Not only in Brazil, but in other parts of the world, the spell of cultural Marxism is turning against the sorcerer. When the facts refuted Marx’s economic theory (already brilliantly refuted by Mises) some Marxists, such as Oskar Lange, and more recently Thomas Piketty, sought a soft version of economic Marxism. Many others, however, took refuge in the cultural Marxism of Gramsci, Foucault, Herbert Marcuse, and others. The option was simple: instead of admitting that Marxism is not true, many Marxists decided that truth is relative. The main result of this is the identity politics that spread throughout the world. Everyone wants to identify themselves as members of minorities who are not represented by traditional politicians. It was only a matter of time before white middle-aged men began to complain that they were not represented. And so white middle-aged men have taken Britain out of the European Union, elected Trump US president and will shortly elect leaders in other countries or at least greatly annoy the globalist establishment.

Throughout the world there is a weakening of the semi-Marxist welfare state, and the same can be observed in Brazil. Important right-wing leaders have emerged in recent years, ranging from conservatism to libertarianism. In the case of Brazil, however, where the population is still largely socially conservative, there is a strong tendency towards a conservatism with which libertarians do not identify, and this trend is stopping the advance of communism in the country. Brazilians can accept Marxism in politics and economics, but they do not accept it in their bedrooms as easily. It is possible that Bolsonaro is accepting the basic premises of a free-market economy, but his main appeal is to be the most anti-Lula, anti-PT, anti-establishment and politically incorrect presidential candidate. Even if he is not elected president in 2018, or even reaches the second round of elections, Bolsonaro is already a political leader impossible to ignore.

Dutch politics, after the elections

Now that the Dutch elections for the Lower House are over, as well as the unprecedented international hype surrounding it, it is time for a few pointers and reminders.

Turkey

Prime Minister Mark Rutte used the crisis with Turkey to his greatest advantage. When the crisis just loomed he escalated, helped of course by the increasingly hysterical reactions of the Turkish authorities, particularly the President.

I have not been able to get figures, but it is rather normal for foreign ministers, including from Turkey, to visit the Netherlands and address their nationals, also for political purposes. This is just the consequence of allowing Turkish people to have dual nationality and -in the Turkish case- also double voting rights. With the referendum in Turkey coming up, it is only logical to allow proponents and opponents to campaign as well.

This said, any thinking person would strongly object to the plan to give even more power to the already way too powerful Turkish executive. Dictatorship looms (please read Barry’s much better informed blogs on this).

Politicians almost always choose the short term over the long term. Certainly four days before elections. Still, the downside of Rutte’s actions are immense, as they also serve the interest of Erdogan, enabling him to play the victim of the ‘racist Dutch’. It might even pull the deciding number of voters into his camp. That would be bad for Turkey, and for Europe.

Chances for Turkey joining the European Union were already small, but have now disappeared completely. (Which I personally do not mind much, but others differ, including many in Rutte’s own party).

Populism

Another topic of international concern surrounding the election was the rising populism and its alleged ending by the electorate at the ballot box. Indeed, Geert Wilders’ Party for Freedom did not become the biggest party, yet he did win votes again. An increase of a third actually, from 15 to 20 in the 150-seat Lower House. His party thus became the second largest party in parliament.

He was never going to be Prime Minister anyway, as all parties had said before the elections they would not collaborate with him. This was important as the Dutch electoral system has a low threshold, which means many parties can enter parliament and no party has ever won a majority of 76. It demands parties to negotiate a governing coalition. After Wednesday at least four parties are needed for such a majority, which will take months.

There is a less-noted, other ‘bad populism’, which includes the largest winner, the Green Left party. This party represents are the radical environmental left, led by a young good looking leader who has been able to attract a lot of young people, in particular women, according to electoral research. There are also other populist parties elected, most notably the party for pensioners, the Islamic party DENK,  and the Forum for Democracy, the intellectual version of Geert Wilders’ party.

Coalition building

It remains to be seen whether Green Left will get a seat in government, given the large differences with the other parties who will be negotiating the new government: the centre right VVD of Rutte, the social liberals of D66, and the Christian democrats.

This process is slow and boring for most people, except for political junkies like myself. So chances are you will not hear about Dutch politics until a new government has finally been installed. Do not be surprised if this does not happen before Christmas.

Memorial Day in the Days of Trump

It disturbs me that in my area of the Central Coast of California, Memorial Day is almost entirely a beach day, a sailing day, a fishing day, and a barbecue day. There is little here to mark the day as one of remembrance for those who died to protect our precious republic (and by the way, to save many innocent civilians, including me). Most of the local people are too sophisticated and too lazy to do anything out of the ordinary on that weekend except pretend it’s summer. And then, some of the population is gone because the university lets out on Memorial Weekend and many students go somewhere else. They are replaced to a large extent by visitors from Silicon Valley forty minutes away on a hard mountain road, and from as afar as the agricultural Central Valley, hours away. The ones and the others want to sit on the beach or go on rides on our famous old fashioned Boardwalk, a sort of permanent carnival. The ocean water is still too cold for almost all adults but the kids will wade in a little. (Frankly, I think few adults around – except surfers – here know how to swim in the ocean but that’s neither here nor there.)

I know that the locals don’t care much about the meaning of Memorial Day because there are only three American flags on my long street, and two belong to my household.

In the vicinity of Santa Cruz, there is one Saturday morning Memorial Day parade. It’s held in Felton, a small, funky town not ten minutes from Santa Cruz proper. It’s in the mountains (as opposed to near the sea). The real estate there is a little cheaper than in Santa Cruz. It’s home to a certain horsey set, not the kind that rides knees to the chest, English style, but those who ride on a Western saddle, with their legs comfortably extended. Its downtown stretches over half of a street with a couple of grocery stores, other small businesses, and one Chinese restaurant (not that good, to tell the truth). But, this is Santa Cruz county so, there is also a mediocre Mexican restaurant that doubles as a fantastic music venue.

In spite of physical proximity, the culture in Felton is strikingly different from the culture of university-anchored, progressive, mock-sophisticated, vegetarian/organic, and often transgender Santa Cruz. For one thing, its population is visibly different. The people at the parade in Felton are mostly light-skinned or Portuguese-washed out olive (but see below), and many of their children have blond hair. Everyone is badly dressed, not poorly dressed just dressed carelessly, even the young women.

The thin crowd does not include many brown skins. I can guess the reasons. The large Hispanic population around here is almost entirely from Mexico. It lives in another part of the county and in Santa Cruz proper. It’s not that Felton discriminate, it’s that immigrants tend to agglutinate around where the first immigrants from their countries take root. It’s almost a random process, in historical terms. Many immigrants and their children appear to be dimly aware of this country’s military history. Mexico had no military history for more than eighty years, after all. This does not promote attention to such fine points. Incidentally, Mexican immigrants and their children don’t, by and large, understand Cinco de Mayo either although it’s an official California holiday made up just for them. Hispanics are welcome in Felton, I believe, but they don’t come and their absence makes a difference. The local culture is different where they are numerous.

The parade in Felton inspires something close to pity but also a little melancholy. It starts at 10 am sharp, as announced. It includes no marching band and few flags. The cub-scouts do carry flags. They look bedraggled although they are on parade. The Mom who is a cub-scout leader is wearing jeans, some example! There is a bagpipe band – something I always enjoy – but it includes only three bagpipes. Mostly, the parade consists of people in automobile vehicles. There are several fire trucks of course. This feels good because, in these parts, fire brigades are mostly composed of volunteers, an American institution if there ever was one. The other cars are there for no particular reason I am able to grasp except one car. There is a guy driving his period muscle car in average condition with the words “For sale” painted in several places. That’s American commercial ingenuity, I think.

From all cars but that one, and from the firetrucks as well, jets of candy aimed at the little children brought by parents to see the parade are issued. There is so much candy that boys on either side of the street start a candy fight during a lull in the parade. Two middle aged women quietly fill a backpack with candy. One is white, the other black. If this is not proof of harmonious race relations, I don’t know what is, really!

The people in the parade and the people at the parade strike me as absent from the current American cultural narrative. You don’t find them in books, you don’t find them in movies, you don’t even find them in TV series anymore. They barely exist in popular music, even in country music. There are pockets of them all over the country, mostly larger pockets than in Felton. No wonder they feel forgotten and are pissed off in often inarticulate ways. No wonder election analysts and the political class is disconcerted by the rise of a Donald Trump. They were mostly invisible until now.

I am sorry conservative rationalists like me missed the boat.

A Victory for the Big Center

“To my left, the wall,” Argentina’s President Cristina Fenández de Kichner (CFK) had expressed some months ago. Many of her detractors agreed with her on this opinion, while some others doubted where exactly to place the wall -and how far. The label of “Populist” might be subject to controversy as well, but everyone will at least agree on one single definition: her political strain could be everything but centrist.

Notwithstanding “Peronism vs anti Peronism,” “Populism vs Rule of Law,” “Left vs Right,” “Kirchnerism vs anti Kirchnerism” were some of the terms articulated along the presidential campaign whose run off has just had been won by Mauricio Macri, from the challenging front “Cambiemos” (Let’s Change), the decisive point of discussion of the past election was “Big Center vs Hegemony.”

The Big Center could be defined as the coalition of the Center-Left and the Center-Right in order to preserve a political system which allows the competition between both wings from the menace of a radical hegemonic force. That is why it would be a mistake to characterize the winning coalition as a Center-Right or a non-Populist political party. “Cambiemos” (Let´s Chance) has won the election with the support of both Centre-Right and Centre-Left voters and both Populist and non-Populist strains. Its political platform contains an orthodox monetary policy as well as the continuity of the policies on helping to alleviate poverty. Mauricio Macri won in the main cities with European ancestry population, such as Buenos Aires, Córdoba, Rosario, Mendoza, and also won in the Province of Jujuy, where he finished his campaign with a ancient ritual salutation to the Pachamama, one of the most important pre-Columbian deities.

By the width of “Cambiemos” coalition one could imagine how much was at stake. Which will be the final turn of the new government is something that generates no concern among its supporters. It is clear that it will remain circumscribed to the “Big Center.” Perhaps the definition will depend upon the ability of the Peronist Party -from now on in the opposition- to reassess its political strain: to turn into a Center-Right party, or into a Center-Left one or to insist on becoming a radical force. Given that “Cambiemos” has been delimiting its political discourse as a mirror of the “Kirchnerism,” we can expect the former to place itself in the political spectrum in reaction to its opposition. Nevertheless, all of us are convinced that Argentina’s political language will return to the categories of the Modern democracies.

Putting a stop to the Argenzuela Project

[Editor’s note: The following piece is written by Dr Nicolás Cachanosky, an economist at Metropolitan State University, Denver and a native Argentinian. Dr Cachanosky hails from the same PhD program (at Suffolk University) as Rick, who introduced us. His homepage is here, and he is also a member of the group blog Punto de Vista Económico (which you can find on the blogroll here at NOL). Check out his popular work for the Mises Institute, too. – BC]

For the last 12 years Argentina was under the influence of the Kirchner administration. First by President Néstor Kirchner (NK), and then two terms by her wife (and widow since 2010) Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner (CFK). Their plan, as perceived by many, was to alternate presidential terms between NK and CFK and remain in power endlessly. While this plan came to an end with NK’s death in 2010, CFK started to entertain the idea of reforming the Constitution to be able to run a gain for office. Because this was not possible, she chose Daniel Scioli, the Governor of Buenos Aires Province to be her successor. Last Sunday, November 22nd, Mauricio Macri, Mayor of Buenos Aires City beat Scioli in a ballotage and became president elect starting his term this coming December 10th.

Argentina was in path to become what is referred as Argenzuela. Namely, the Kirchner administration was taking the country, step-by-step, to become the next Venezuela of Latin America in a close way to what has been described as the four stages of populism. Under the Kirchner administration, the government increased their political ties with Venezuela, Iran, and China, at the expense of political relations with countries like the United States, Germany, and the United Kingdom. But the resemblance was not only in terms of political friendship, but on institutional and economic reforms. Argentina became a country where “Republic” is just a word on paper without a real presence in the country’s institutional reality. According to the Fraser Institute’s Economic Freedom of the World, in 2003 Argentina ranked 99 out of 153 countries. By 2012 it ranked 149 out of 152 countries. The loss of economic freedom was fast and significant. Economic troubles and imbalances did not take long to appear.

Macri’s victory in the presidential elections put a stop to the Argenzuela project. We know what a presidency by Macri won’t look like. But it is still hard to say what it will actually look like. Macri is known for his emphasis not in free or unfree markets, but on an efficient administration. While not difficult to be more free market than the Kirchners, it might prove difficult to describe Macri’s political movement, Pro, as a free market party. The Kirchner administration has refused, at least so far, to share information with Macri and his appointed ministers, so the real situation of the economy and the Treasury remains unknown. Macri and his team are working on reform plans half-blinded because they don’t have reliable economic information, if they have it at all.

Specific reforms by Macri are still unknown (at the time of writing these lines), but his team of Ministers has already been announced. The people he’s bringing to the government with him show significant successful careers in government, the private sector, and international organizations (her chosen Chancellor is the Chief of Staff of Ban Ki Moon, General Secretary of the United Nations.) This is a clear contrast with the Kirchner administration, where all the Ministers showed a strong ideological motivation before professional accomplishments.

The economic crisis in Argentina hands Macri a unique opportunity to carry long needed significant reforms. He has, also, a unique political position. His political party has not only won the presidential election, with Pro Macri has also retained the Mayor’s office of Buenos Aires City and also won the Governor elections for the Buenos Aires Province. Macri’s Pro is in charge of the three most economically and political important districts. Let us hope that Macri does not become yet another lost opportunity in Argentina’s history.

Around the Web: Globalization, Racism and Surfing

  1. Check out this fascinating reddit thread on ‘blackness’ in the US and the UK. As somebody who has spent a fair amount of time outside of the US, and who is interested in ethnicity from a scholarly perspective, the answers were nothing new to me, but it’s always nice when the streets confirm your suspicions.
  2. A beautiful photo essay on surfing in Liberia. I wish there were a traditional essay to go along with the photos, but it still suffices.

I think there are too many people in the world who don’t think hard enough about the benefits of globalization (i.e. world trade). As populism continues to gain traction here in the US (and elsewhere I presume), I fear that the everyday beauty a more globalized world gives to us will be thrown under the bus in the name of The People.