Yes, Venezuela Is a Socialist Catastrophe

In the age of A.O.C., the lesson must be learned again.

Conspicuous by its absence in much of the mainstream news coverage of Venezuela’s political crisis is the word “socialism.” Yes, every sensible observer agrees that Latin America’s once-richest country, sitting atop the world’s largest proven oil reserves, is an economic basket case, a humanitarian disaster, and a dictatorship whose demise cannot come soon enough.

But … socialist? Perish the thought.

Or so goes a line of argument that insists socialism’s good name shouldn’t be tarred by the results of experience. On Venezuela, what you’re likelier to read is that the crisis is the product of corruption, cronyism, populism, authoritarianism, resource-dependency, U.S. sanctions and trickery, even the residues of capitalism itself. Just don’t mention the S-word because, you know, it’s working really well in Denmark.

Curiously, that’s not how the Venezuelan regime’s admirers used to speak of “21st century socialism,” as it was dubbed by Hugo Chávez. The late Venezuelan president, said Britain’s Jeremy Corbyn, “showed us there is a different and a better way of doing things. It’s called socialism, it’s called social justice, and it’s something that Venezuela has made a big step toward.” Noam Chomsky was similarly enthusiastic when he praised Chávez in 2009. “What’s so exciting about at last visiting Venezuela,” the linguist said, is that “I can see how a better world is being created and can speak to the person who’s inspired it.”

,” as it was dubbed by Hugo Chávez. The late Venezuelan president, said Britain’s Jeremy Corbyn, “showed us there is a different and a better way of doing things. It’s called socialism, it’s called social justice, and it’s something that Venezuela has made a big step toward.” Noam Chomsky was similarly enthusiastic when he praised Chávez in 2009. “What’s so exciting about at last visiting Venezuela,” the linguist said, is that “I can see how a better world is being created and can speak to the person who’s inspired it.”

.. Chomsky walked back some of his praise as Venezuela became more overtly dictatorial, but others on the left weren’t as squeamish. In a lengthy obituary in The Nation, New York University professor Greg Grandin opined, “the biggest problem Venezuela faced during his rule was not that Chávez was authoritarian but that he wasn’t authoritarian enough.”

At least Grandin could implicitly concede that socialism ultimately requires coercion to achieve its political aims; otherwise, it’s human nature for people to find loopholes and workarounds to keep as much of their property as they can.

That’s more than can be said for some of Chávez’s erstwhile defenders, who would prefer to forget just how closely Venezuela followed the orthodox socialist script.

  • Government spending on social programs? Check: From 2000 to 2013, spending rose to 40 percent of G.D.P., from 28 percent.
  • Raising the minimum wage? Check. Nicolás Maduro, the current president, raised it no fewer than six times last year (though it makes no difference in the face of hyperinflation).
  • An economy based on co-ops, not corporations? Check again. As Naomi Klein wrote in her fawning 2007 book, “The Shock Doctrine,” “Chávez has made the co-ops a top political priority … By 2006, there were roughly 100,000 cooperatives in the country, employing more than 700,000 workers.”

And, lest we forget, all of this was done as Chávez won one election after another during the oil-boom years. Indeed, one of the chief selling points of Chavismo to its Western fans wasn’t just that it was an example of socialism, but of democratic socialism, too.

Government overspending created catastrophic deficits when oil prices plummeted. Worker co-ops wound up in the hands of incompetent and corrupt political cronies. The government responded to its budgetary problems by printing money, leading to inflation. Inflation led to price controls, leading to shortages. Shortages led to protests, leading to repression and the destruction of democracy. Thence to widespread starvationcritical medical shortages, an explosion in crime, and a refugee crisis to rival Syria’s.

.. All of this used to be obvious enough, but in the age of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez it has to be explained all over again. Why does socialism never work? Because, as Margaret Thatcher explained, “eventually you run out of other people’s money.

.. Surely there’s a compound in Havana where that gang can live out their days without tyrannizing a nation.

Venezuelan Spring

More than words are at work. Last week the Bank of England blocked Mr. Maduro from withdrawing $1.2 billion in gold reserves. On Friday the U.S. gave Mr. Guaidó control of Venezuelan government accounts at the Federal Reserve Bank of New York and other U.S.-insured banks.

.. Venezuelans have made numerous attempts since 2002 to restore the liberties lost when Chávez used his majority backing to dissolve civil rights and a free press. But they were never able to persuade the military high command, infiltrated by Cuba, to break ranks with the dictator. If this time is different it’s because Mr. Maduro can no longer guarantee the interests of the top brass.

Mr. Guaidó is rumored to be backed by Venezuela’s military rank-and-file and midlevel officers. There are also reports that some commanders of detachments around the country no longer support Mr. Maduro.

The regime is unleashing repression and the international community wants to avoid more bloodshed. The U.S. has offered the military high command safe passage out of the country, and if international efforts to cut financial channels for the leadership are successful, many may find it an attractive option.

.. On Jan. 10 Canadian Foreign Minister Chrystia FreelandwarnedMr. Maduro that he would not be recognized: “We call on him to immediately cede power to the democratically-elected National Assembly until new elections are held, which must include the participation of all political actors and follow the release of all political prisoners in Venezuela.”

.. Mr. Maduro says this is a U.S. conspiracy. But as a member of Canada’s Liberal Party and the lead negotiator of the bitter rewrite of the North American Free Trade Agreement, Ms. Freeland is hardly a Trump administration lackey.

The tyrant isn’t entirely alone. Russia, China, Iran, Cuba, Bolivia, Nicaragua and Hezbollah stand with him. Havana runs the counterintelligence network charged with controlling the Venezuelan armed forces and brownshirts. Reuters reported Friday that Russia has flown an unspecified number of paramilitary contractors into the country. A new asymmetric war can’t be ruled out.

Elizabeth Warren’s generic drugs plan: More placebo than cure

In theory, generic markets should be the Walmart of the health-care world, where everything is dirt cheap and readily available. In practice, the makers of branded drugs often display a malevolent ingenuity at keeping generic competition at bay. And even when they play fair, a number of factors, including tighter safety regulation and more complex formulas, often means that too few firms enter the market.

.. Lots of drugs, especially those used by only a smaller number of patients, have at best a handful of firms producing them. So if one company has production problems — or decides to withdraw from the market entirely — supply contracts dangerously, as prices shoot skyward.

..  you don’t get to be president by saying “The FDA is working on it.” No, you call for action! Specifically, Warren wants the federal government to get into the business of manufacturing drugs or contracting with third parties to do the production.

.. One can describe all sorts of reasons that state-owned firms ought to be better than the profit-grubbing variety. Freed from the incessant demands of greedy investors, state-directed firms can invest for the long term, pursuing innovation and social welfare rather than profit.

One can describe it easily enough; what’s hard is finding one of these creatures in the wild. Rather than providing a shining rebuke to free-market fundamentalists, state-owned enterprises (SOEs) often seem to have a secret mandate to prove their skeptics right about everything.

.. There are examples of well-run SOEs, but they’re suspiciously concentrated in one tiny patch of northern Europe where government institutions more generally outperform counterparts in the rest of the world. And even high-performing SOEs are vulnerable to a change in administration. PDVSA, Venezuela’s state-run oil company, used to be regarded as one of the best in its class. Then Hugo Chávez decided that he would rather use the company’s investment funds for social spending than for stodgy old petroleum extraction, and rather have the firm managed by cronies than professionals. Venezuela’s disastrous economic collapse can be traced directly to those decisions.

.. President Trump’s election has finally nullified the conservative shibboleth that Washington could be fixed if only we could get a businessman into the Oval Office to show all those government chair-warmers how a real organization does things. Unfortunately, the left is busy reviving its own shibboleth, the mirror image of the conservative mistake: that whenever markets frustrate us, the government can and should step in and do it better. Nationalize the health-care system, bring back public housing development … and if you don’t like the price or availability of various drugs, then have the feds become drug-makers, too.

.. This idea is particularly silly given that so many of the problems that make it harder for generic drug-makers to enter the market are created by government regulations in the first place. Unless the government enterprise bypasses the regulatory hurdles constraining supply, it will face much the same difficulties that private firms do.

And if the government is going to relax regulatory requirements, wouldn’t it make more sense to just retool the way the market works for everyone?

Well, yes, it would, if what you wanted to do was actually fix the problem. But that involves a lot of fiddly, boring, regulatory tweaks and can’t possibly happen fast enough to aid Warren’s run for president. It’s unsurprising that Warren has instead hit upon what I call a “Washington issue” — a proposal with little policy merit that nonetheless retains great political charm because it can be explained to voters in under two sentences. Which may be good enough for a presidential candidate. But it’s not nearly good enough for the country.

China is Losing the New Cold War

In contrast to the Soviet Union, China’s leaders recognize that strong economic performance is essential to political legitimacy. Like the Soviet Union, however, they are paying through the nose for a few friends, gaining only limited benefits while becoming increasingly entrenched in an unsustainable arms race with the US.

When the Soviet Union imploded in 1991, the Communist Party of China (CPC) became obsessed with understanding why. The government think tanks entrusted with this task heaped plenty of blame on Mikhail Gorbachev, the reformist leader who was simply not ruthless enough to hold the Soviet Union together. But Chinese leaders also highlighted other important factors, not all of which China’s leaders seem to be heeding today.
.. But overseeing a faltering economy was hardly the only mistake Soviet leaders made. They were also drawn into a costly and unwinnable arms race with the United States, and fell victim to imperial overreach, throwing money and resources at regimes with little strategic value and long track records of chronic economic mismanagement. As China enters a new “cold war” with the US, the CPC seems to be at risk of repeating the same catastrophic blunders.
.. China spent some $228 billion on its military last year, roughly 150% of the official figure of $151 billion.
.. the issue is not the amount of money China spends on guns per se, but rather the consistent rise in military expenditure, which implies that the country is prepared to engage in a long-term war of attrition with the US. Yet China’s economy is not equipped to generate sufficient resources to support the level of spending that victory on this front would require.
If China had a sustainable growth model underpinning a highly efficient economy, it might be able to afford a moderate arms race with the US. But it has neither.
.. China’s growth is likely to continue to decelerate, owing to rapid population aging, high debt levels, maturity mismatches, and the escalating trade war that the US has initiated. All of this will drain the CPC’s limited resources. For example, as the old-age dependency ratio rises, so will health-care and pension costs.
.. while the Chinese economy may be far more efficient than the Soviet economy was, it is nowhere near as efficient as that of the US. The main reason for this is the enduring clout of China’s state-owned enterprises (SOEs), which consume half of the country’s total bank credit, but contribute only 20% of value-added and employment.
.. the CPC is that SOEs play a vital role in sustaining one-party rule, as they are used both to reward loyalists and to facilitate government intervention on behalf of official macroeconomic targets.
.. Dismantling these bloated and inefficient firms would thus amount to political suicide. Yet protecting them may merely delay the inevitable, because the longer they are allowed to suck scarce resources out of the economy, the more unaffordable an arms race with the US will become – and the greater the challenge to the CPC’s authority will become.
.. The second lesson that China’s leaders have failed to appreciate adequately is the need to avoid imperial overreach. About a decade ago, with massive trade surpluses bringing in a surfeit of hard currency, the Chinese government began to take on costly overseas commitments and subsidize deadbeat “allies.”
.. Exhibit A is the much-touted Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), a $1 trillion program focused on the debt-financed construction of infrastructure in developing countries.
.. An even more egregious example of imperial overreach is China’s generous aid to countries – from Cambodia to Venezuela to Russia – that offer little in return.
.. from 2000 to 2014, Cambodia, Cameroon, Côte d’Ivoire, Cuba, Ethiopia, and Zimbabwe together received $24.4 billion in Chinese grants or heavily subsidized loans. Over the same period, Angola, Laos, Pakistan, Russia, Turkmenistan, and Venezuela received $98.2 billion.
.. Like the Soviet Union, China is paying through the nose for a few friends, gaining only limited benefits while becoming increasingly entrenched in an unsustainable arms race. The Sino-American Cold War has barely started, yet China is already on track to lose.