Waylaid Dialectic

March 9, 2013

What are we to make of Hugo Chavez?

Filed under: Governance — terence @ 12:28 pm

I guess the fact that the stakes were so high — revolutionary socialism brought back from the dead! — explains why so few people ever seemed able to do anything other than take sides on the phenomenon that was Hugo Chavez. Beyond a point somewhere to the left of mainstream US liberalism Chavez was a saint. If you sat anywhere to the right of the point he became something you scared you children citizens with when they wouldn’t eat their greens.

Here’s Greg Grandin doing the Chavez as saint thing. And here’s a pretty good piss-take of how Chavez gets portrayed in the mainstream media.

Me, being the good dithering left-liberal that I am, always wondered whether it wasn’t a bit more complicated than all that, and wanted for some sort of split the difference type analysis.

Here, free for a short time only, is what I thought to be a reasonable academic analysis, albeit one that I read as containing something of a anti-Chavez bias in owing to the fact that it made little mention of the anti-democratic impulse amongst Chavez’s opponents in the Venezuelan elite. And here if you scroll down, is some quite good critique of the same article.

Here, is Human Rights Watch taking Chavez to task.

And here is CEPR doing a very good job of showing Chavez’s positive socio-economic legacy.

Here’s Lula. And here, while still on the subject of people who I respect, is Rory Carroll offering a nuanced but fairly critical take in Mother Jones.

Here (via comment’s at CT) is an interesting looking (haven’t finished reading it) left wing political economy type analysis of what Chavez meant. And here’s my old, blog sized, investigation of Chavez’s achievements (or not) on inequality.

One charge levelled at Chavez is that he has presided over a dramatic rise in crime in Venezuela. I’ve just done some data digging on this too. With the chart below coming from this UNODC database. Data used are homicide rates (generally good for cross-country comparison of crime because there are fewer reporting issues.)

Chavez and Crime

Three things stand out:

1. Crime has gotten *a lot* worse. There is no denying this.2. Chavez was elected in early 1999 so the upward trend was born before his time. And therefore unlikely his fault. At the same time he has done very little to get on top of crime, except…
3. Things have started trending for the better since 2009.

So, what are we to say about Chavez?

My best guess as a conclusion is that:

1. There is some radical democracy in his participatory schemes but there is also patronage too.
2. His achievements in tackling poverty and under-development were impressive, although they arguably could have been better still given his oil revenues.
3. Some aspects of the state, such as policing, remained terrible under Chavez.
4. Even as he strengthened new democratic mechanisms he weakened the classic checks and balances. Even so, his regime was still a democracy, albeit an imperfect one.

Or, in other words, he was a net force for good, but also a deeply flawed one. And yet, in a country such as Venezuela with such high political inequality, and a state apparatus that was already corrupted by clientelism, what did we expect? Perfection certainly wasn’t happening. So least worst alternative doesn’t seem that bad.

And, ultimately, more important still is not assessing Chavez as a man, but rather figuring out those aspects of his political programme that we can learn from while at the same time abandoning the autocratic bits along with the bundle that didn’t work.

[Update: Acemoglu and Robinson discuss Chavez here, doing a nice job of making clear something that Mainwaring basically missed, that Venezuela was a very politically unequal society pre-Chavez. Formally a democracy but with a vast gulf existing between the ability of elites to influence policy and the ability of the masses to do so. At the same time I think A&R would be more use still if they didn’t just focus on Chavez’s formal democracy restricting reforms at the national level, and had a close look at what his supporters claim are successful participatory political initiatives at other levels. Also, the mere fact that his movement has mobilised the Venezuelan poor as never before, seems with noting. If they become an ongoing political countervailing force, and if they are freed from the shackles of patronage politics, then everything changes in Venezuela — but it’s a big if though.]

January 21, 2012

Violence in Venezuela

Filed under: Governance,Inequality,Social Justice — terence @ 10:09 am
Tags: ,

I’ve blogged before about what I call the Hugo Chavez Polarity Inversion Level (the Hug-PIL!)- that is, the strange, differentiated effect Chavez has on almost everyone’s thinking. To the right of a line that falls somewhere amongst left liberals and in a portion of the political sphere that includes most liberals (in the American sense of the term) and definitely all conservatives, Chavez is a Really Bad Dude, a despot in disguise who is ransacking his country’s economy and who can not possibly be doing anything good. Nothing. To the left of the line, amongst lefter left-liberals, socialists and the like, Chavez is a Very Good Guy, the future of anti-capitalism, a model for us all, and a man who can do no wrong.

This frustrates me – by inclination I suspect that not all of what he does is great, and not all of what he does is bad. And it would be very helpful to separate the good from the bad, and the successful from the unsuccessful. And then, who knows, maybe we might learn a bit. It wouldn’t be as exciting as re-staging the cold war, but it would be useful from a development perspective.

And so: if you know of any impartial and intelligent writing on Chavez which attempts to do this please do let me know.

Also, if you’re a Chavez fan, have a crack at explaining the following:

Venezuela’s homicide rates are among the highest in the hemisphere — twice those of Colombia and three times those of Mexico — despite largely escaping the world’s attention. Rates were rising even before Hugo Chávez assumed power. But under his 12 years they have skyrocketed, from 4,550 in 1998 to 17,600 last year. The victims are predominantly poor young men — killed for as little as a mobile phone, caught in gunfire between gangs, or even subject to extrajudicial killings by security forces. (from here)

How can this be commensurate with the rise of socialist utopia? And how can criminal violence be rising amidst social progress and falling inequality?

If there is a good explanation I am genuinely interested in hearing it.

August 12, 2010

Inequality in Latin America

Filed under: Inequality — terence @ 4:14 pm
Tags: , ,

Some time ago I took a dig at uncritical supporters of Hugo Chavez, arguing on the basis of a chart from VoxEU, that Chavez was a relative under-performer when it came to reducing inequality.

My certainty on such a claim was shaken by this post at Duncan Green’s blog, which seemed to show the opposite, that Venezuela was doing particularly well at reducing inequality. Green then argued that, say what you might about Chavez, he should be given some credit for his achievements in this area.

Was I wrong?

The first thing I noticed was that Duncan’s post was based on data that spanned from 1990 to 2008. Possibly, I thought, he was giving Chavez credit for inequality which had declined before his time in power. Nevertheless, in penance for my original smearing of the Great Socialist Hope, I decided to devote an afternoon up to my arms in World Bank data to see what was actually going on with inequality in Latin America.

In a moment, I’ll tell you what I found, but first, let’s recap: what’s actually wrong with inequality?

First, everything else being equal, inequality is bad simply because, for any given level of national income, a more unequal country will do a worse job in lifting it’s people out of poverty than a more egalitarian country on the same income level. Of course everything else isn’t equal and a key way that people are lifted out of poverty is through economic growth (growing national income effectively). And it’s always possible that higher inequality might be more conducive to higher growth and, over time this will lead to lower levels of absolute poverty in poorer countries.

However, there’s also some pretty good research to suggest that high levels of inequality actually undermine economic growth. Seminal papers by Engerman and Sokoloff (see here and here) as well as research by William Easterly, point to this being the case. Of course, this doesn’t mean that absolute equality will be optimal for growth or that all attempts to reduce inequality will help growth. However, the evidence does seem to show that high inequality is not good for economic development.

On top of that, there is evidence best summarised by Richard Wilkinson in his book The Impact of Inequality (which is more statistically rigorous, albeit duller, than his other book Spirit Level) to suggest that more unequal societies are beset by all manner of problems including worse crime, lower levels of trust, and worse health outcomes. Wilkinson’s work is most emphatically not beyond critique (as David Runciman points out he’s stretching it a bit to suggest everyone will be worse off in unequal countries; while Claude S Fischer offers excellent critique in the Boston Review). Quite possibly the biggest flaw is that Wilkinson does not, from my recollection, convincingly cover for omitted variables in his analysis – for example: perhaps it’s poor governance that causes countries to both be less trusting and more unequal. Inequality might merely be an effect not a cause. Nevertheless, there remains enough evidence in Wilkinson’s work to at least plausibly suggest that high inequality leads directly to social harm.

Finally, if you’re not a Consequentialist you might also object to high levels of inequality because they seem patently unjust.

To me, the above reasons are, one way or other, good cause to think that reducing inequality (so long as you don’t resort to draconian measures or ransack your economy to do so) is a good thing. So, has anyone being doing this in Latin America?

First, let’s show the obvious: Latin America is a very unequal part of the World (all inequality information in the following charts is in the form of a Gini Index (Gini coefficient * 100)). All numbers come from World Bank data, except those numbers for Sweden, the UK, the USA, and Australia, which come from the CIA World Fact Book; and the figure for New Zealand, which is from New Zealand’s ministry of social development.  Please bear in mind that there are other ways of measuring inequality (such as decile ratios) which might return different results, and that my numbers here are only as good as their imperfect source data.

Inequality 2006 Selected Countries

The Latin American countries on the chart are all significantly more unequal than my selection of developed countries (the difference between Colombia and Sweden is staggering!), with the only exception being the USA, which actually (according to the CIA World Fact Book) was more unequal than Venezuela in 2006. However, it’s worth noting that, according to the OECD, the Gini index for the USA is actually 38, not 44. If this is right, then the US remains more equal than Venezuela.

So much for today’s figures, what about trends.

Inequality Selected Latin American Countries 1980 to 2006

That’s quite a ride for a number of the Latin American Nations. For simplicity’s sake let’s look at more recent years.

Inequality in Selected Latin American Countries 1990 to 2006/7

A few interesting points to notice: Brazil has seen a steady decrease in inequality since democractisation, with good progress in the Lula years. It’s to early to really tell the impact of Morales in Bolivia and Correra in Equador (although it seems positive for Morales). In general in the countries on this graph at least the current millennium has been one characterised by falling inequality, with the big exception being Columbia.

And as for Chavez, yes, he has presided over a good fall in inequality (the change in trend may have predated him perhaps but he deserves credit). That 2005/2006 change is especially impressive, assuming it’s correct and that it’s not just the result of the wealthy freeing the country. Quite possibly the VoxEU chart that I linked to didn’t have 06 info in it, which might explain Venezuela’s poor performance in it.

Finally, two charts showing change as columns, the first from 1990 (or closest year) to 2006 (or closest year), the second from 2000 (or closest year) to 2006 (or closest year).

Change in Inequality Selected Latin American Countries 1990 to 2006

Change in Inequality Selected Countries 2000-2006

To conclude: from the numbers I have, Chavez seems to have done a pretty good job in reducing inequality in Venezuela. I think a lot of what he is doing is very questionable, but in this area at least the results to-date fall in his favour. As, it should be said, do they fall for a number of left-wing reforming regimes in Latin America, such as those in Chile and Brazil over the time studied.

June 10, 2010

Wither (Bolivarian) Socialism?

Filed under: Social Justice — terence @ 3:18 pm

Eons ago, on my old blog, I uttered the following lament:

And at the end of the day this is what bugs, as well as fascinates, me about the whole Chavez phenomenon. Once you get close enough towards the Centre (and particularly the centre of the US foreign policy establishment) it’s like some weird tractor beam operates which drains the pundit of any form of capacity for unraveling contradiction or displaying subtlety. Chavez is bad. Everything he does must be bad!

Meanwhile, if you travel away from the centre you don’t have to get too far to the left before a competing tractor beam starts up and leaves you surrounded by a bunch of people to whom Chavez is a revolutionary hero who couldn’t possibly do anything bad. Onwards the revolution etc.

You’d think that the first cold war would have removed everyone’s enthusiasm for blind idealism. The whole Chavez debate suggests not – quite a few people out there are just itching for the sequel.

The rest of that post was mostly directed at the anti-Chavez squad. And so, in the interest in fairness, the following is for all those on the radical left who think that Chavez is teh revolution incarnate.

From VoxEu – trends in inequality in Latin America.


If Bolivarian Socialism was so wonderful, and so clearly preferably to the incrementalism of Lula and Bachelet you’d think that the first thing we would see would be a more rapid reduction of inequality than elsewhere…

Wouldn’t you?

[Update: corrected the spelling mistakes – thanks Andy!]

[Update 2: or maybe I’m just totally wrong: see this – http://www.oxfamblogs.org/fp2p/?p=3016 ]

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