Chávez in danger

Chávez has little more than four months - perhaps even less - to come up with a solution to a very d

On 5 July, Venezuelans celebrated the 197th anniversary of their Declaration of Independence from Spain.

On that day in 1811, a group of rebel criollos (those born in the Spanish colonies but of Iberian descent), gathered in the Santa Rosa Lima Chapel in Caracas to found a new Republic, the American Confederation of Venezuela.

It would take another decade of bloody warfare war before the republican rebels, famously led by Francisco Miranda and Simón Bolívar, could declare victory over their Royalist foes.

Almost two centuries on, another kind of rebel is in charge in Venezuela, a mestizo (a person of mixed race) this time round, inspired as much by his criollo ancestors’ determination to rid themselves of foreign domination, through another, more recent ideal, also partly of European “descent”: Socialism.

However, victory for Chávez’ Bolivarian Project is by no means guaranteed. If anything, it is in more danger of being derailed, both from internal rifts and external pressures, than at any other time in its ten year existence.

Later this year, on 23 November, Venezuela will hold regional and municipal elections to elect state governors in 22 of its 23 federal states, 219 members of regional parliaments, 332 mayors, 2 city mayors, and 13 city councillors. These elections will be the most decisive since Chávez came to power in 1999.

In Venezuela, regional elections always carry great weight reflecting the extensive powers of state governors. In fact, what here is called “the old geometry of power” – the territorial divisions of a decentralised system of public administration going back to colonial times – is a core axis of political and economic clientelism. This is preoccupied with the capture of shares of Venezuela’s huge oil rent for regionally and locally based family clans.

One of the central objectives of the constitutional reform project, defeated in a referendum on 2 December 2007, was precisely to lay the legal foundations for a gradual replacement of the “old” with a “new geometry of power”, designed to hand power to a parallel structure of new communal organisations.

More importantly perhaps, the November regional elections come at a time, at which the internal tensions and contradictions of the Bolivarian Project to transform Venezuela from a rentist oil state into a productive and participative developmental state are coming to a head: Chávez has little more than four months (and perhaps even less than this) to come up with a solution to a very difficult equation.

One central variable in this equation is the private business sector. On 11 June, Chávez announced a series of economic measures to revive private sector participation in long-term productive investment projects.

Stopping short of “pro-market” measures, such as a devaluation of the Bolivar and a wholesale lifting of capital controls, his olive branch included the abolition of a recently introduced tax on financial transactions, a government finance initiative for public-private investment projects and a significant flexibilisation of capital controls for imports worth up to US$50,000 by already registered companies. In addition, Chávez also announced a wide-ranging programme of subsidies for small agricultural producers.

The smirking faces of the leading members of Venezuela’s business community – mainly bankers - lined up in a neat row to face their president, said it all: They are not falling over themselves to take up the offer, and they don’t have to. Sky-high profit rates in the financial and service sectors make relatively lower and much more long-term returns from productive investment unattractive.

For more than 50 years, per capita value added in the private-dominated agricultural and manufacturing sectors has remained stagnant. Private investment in high value added activities in the country’s oil and mining sectors remains foreign controlled.

That the local business community can content itself with siphoning off quick returns from the ever increasing oil rent and with profits from the distribution of imported merchandise, is down to its multi-fold political alliances with a very large and growing middle class, itself a product of the rentist oil state and deeply embedded in the day-to-day running of the state apparatus.

These powerful alliances change political colours, ranging from the varying colours of the old oligarchic political parties to Chavista red and military olive-green, with great ease. Whichever their predominant colour, these alliances have the organisational power to threaten the government of the day with political and economic destabilization, and to demand their share of the oil rent in return for not mobilizing.

Not only do these clientelist demands fuel inflation, in a context of low productivity and large redistributive programmes to the poor classes. This behaviour is also likely to result in a serious banking crisis in the coming months. For many years now, state revenue from oil exports has been mainly deposited in private banks who, instead of channelling this into producer credits, have engaged in often unsound and, at any rate, obscure financial investment strategies. These now threaten to backfire, exposing the banking sector to serious refinancing risks.

In view of this state of affairs, another economic policy of recent Chávez governments looses much of its apparent radicalism: Many of the nationalisations carried out since early 2007 and announced with great pomp and scare in the international press, simply reversals of economically and/or socially disastrous privatizations of the 1990s. Not only did the private owners of telecommunication, electricity, cement, some strategically central foodstuff companies as well as most likely of Latin America’s largest steel plant – Ternium-Sidor – receive generous pay-offs for their troubles. More importantly, governments saddled with the kind of unproductive, yet powerful, alliances between the local business community and a large consumerist middle class, have little choice but to nationalise, if productivity performance and reasonable working conditions are a serious concern.

The second vital variable in the equation Chávez has to solve is “el bravo pueblo”. The Spanish word “bravo” means both “fierce” – as in courageous – as well as “angry”. This very aptly describes the situation: The poor and lower middle classes of Venezuela, Chávez’ traditional constituency, are both empowered by his decade-long rule as well as profoundly outraged by the inertia of the Bolivarian Project, blocked by those colourful private sector – cum – middle classes alliances, and in danger of falling prey to decades-old mechanisms of rentist corruption.

Perhaps ironically, their protest vote through abstention (rather than migration to the opposition) in the referendum on a socialist constitutional reform on 2 December 2007 was essential for its marginal defeat, and thus, for the current sense of empowerment of those very alliances.

This tension between, on the one hand, a strong determination not to give way, and a lack of orientation, organization and immediate purpose, on the other, in the rank-and-file of Chavista supporters finds its clearest expression in the travails of the foundation of a new political party in Venezuela, the United Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV).

Between April and May of last year, more than 5.7 million people – equivalent to 36 per cent of the national election registry and close to 80 per cent of the votes Chávez obtained in the 2006 presidential elections – inscribed themselves as “aspirants” to join the new socialist party.

This broad mass of Chavistas of very varying degrees of militancy were subsequently organised in more than 14,000 local organisations, called “battalions”, with up to 300 members. Between January and March 2008, the founding congress of the new party, constituted of close to 100,000 spokespeople and commissioners of the “battalions”, drew up the party’s constitution and elected its National Directorate.

The first signs of tension between radical grassroots groups and the “new Chavista elite” – one more of those private sector/middle class alliances mentioned above – surfaced during these elections for the National Directorate of the PSUV: Big names popularly associated with Chavista corruption did not make it.

Subsequently, these very names pushed their way into the party leadership, not by popular support, but by means of appointments “from above”. The wide-spread disaffection and outrage caused by these appointments amongst the Chavista base forced a truly democratic and bottom-up party-internal election of candidates for the regional elections scheduled for 23 November. This has produced a mix of truly popular candidates and some rather less popular candidates who were backed because of a lack of suitable rivals.

To date, the dinosaurs of the “new Chavista elite” can declare victory in terms of their control of the state apparatus, shared with other rentist alliances, and in terms of their control of government. They have not managed to take control of the newly founded socialist party.

Whether this party will manage to rebuilt popular confidence in the Bolivarian Project and a sufficient degree of determination of the “bravo pueblo” to carry it to victory in the November elections, remains to be seen.

The final variable in Chávez’ difficult equation concerns foreign relations. The recent liberation of Ingrid Betancourt, along with 15 other hostages of the FARC (Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia), has a profound effect on Venezuela’s negotiation powers in an international context.

The operation is the culmination of a long-standing process of infiltration of the FARC high command, carefully planned and prepared by French, Israeli and US secret services, working along-side Colombian military. Following on the assassination, death and defection of core members of the FARC high command over the past months, this operation signals the final decline of the FARC. Whatever one’s ethical views on the legitimacy of guerrilla warfare and kidnappings, the final dismantling of the FARC beyond a peasant resistance army does away with a guerrilla force that, for decades, engaged the US to the extent of limiting its immediate control of Latin American territories to the space ranging from the Northern Frontier of Mexico to the Southern Colombian boarders.

From 3 July, this is no longer the case, and Chávez’ Venezuela is very obviously on top of the list of US officials concerned with the defence of their country’s hegemony in the Southern Hemisphere. From June, after almost 60 years on standby, the Fourth US fleet has once again been reactivated and dispatched to the Caribbean Sea, sending a clear signal that has not been missed. The most persistent rumours are of plans to “do a Noriega” on Chávez, meaning a design to kidnap him to face trial in the US – for what exactly is not as yet clear.

Finally, with Ingrid Betancourt at last and thankfully escaping from capture, and only negligible Venezuelan oil exports to Europe, there is no hope for an “enlightened Europe” stepping in to offer a pragmatic helping hand.

It would be deeply unfair to blame Chávez for this state of affairs. His hero – Simón Bolívar – failed, certainly in terms of his ideal vision of a united and egalitarian Latin American continent but not because of any specific mistakes he made.

Two centuries on, Chávez has, and always had, limited options. So far, he has played his cards impressively well, if not always elegantly.

But, perhaps inevitably, by now the game is up and the cards are on the table: Today´s equivalent of the powers of reaction of the Vienna Congress of 1815 are calling in their debtors. The poor of Venezuela and their revolutionary leader are largely on their own, backed only by idealist internationalists, the poor of Latin America, and some of its lesser influential nations.

As with their ancestors, they might not make it, and today’s Simón Bolivar will find himself hauled up before the modern equivalent of the Spanish Inquisition. However long the list of mistakes committed and of confusions incurred, it is worth remembering that a failure of the Bolivarian Project will be to the detriment of ordinary people in Latin America and all around the world.

Dr Stephanie Blankenburg is Lecturer in International Political Economy in the Economics Department at the School of Oriental and Social Studies (SOAS), London. She is currently on secondment to Venezuela as an economic advisor and analyst. This article reflects her personal analysis and is unrelated to any government views or policies.

MILES COLE
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The new Brexit economics

George Osborne’s austerity plan – now abandoned by the Tories – was the most costly macroeconomic policy mistake since the 1930s.

George Osborne is no longer chancellor, sacked by the post-Brexit Prime Minister, Theresa May. Philip Hammond, the new Chancellor, has yet to announce detailed plans but he has indicated that the real economy rather than the deficit is his priority. The senior Conservatives Sajid Javid and Stephen Crabb have advocated substantial increases in public-sector infrastructure investment, noting how cheap it is for the government to borrow. The argument that Osborne and the Conservatives had been making since 2010 – that the priority for macroeconomic policy had to be to reduce the government’s budget deficit – seems to have been brushed aside.

Is there a good economic reason why Brexit in particular should require abandoning austerity economics? I would argue that the Tory obsession with the budget deficit has had very little to do with economics for the past four or five years. Instead, it has been a political ruse with two intentions: to help win elections and to reduce the size of the state. That Britain’s macroeconomic policy was dictated by politics rather than economics was a precursor for the Brexit vote. However, austerity had already begun to reach its political sell-by date, and Brexit marks its end.

To understand why austerity today is opposed by nearly all economists, and to grasp the partial nature of any Conservative rethink, it is important to know why it began and how it evolved. By 2010 the biggest recession since the Second World War had led to rapid increases in government budget deficits around the world. It is inevitable that deficits (the difference between government spending and tax receipts) increase in a recession, because taxes fall as incomes fall, but government spending rises further because benefit payments increase with rising unemployment. We experienced record deficits in 2010 simply because the recession was unusually severe.

In 2009 governments had raised spending and cut taxes in an effort to moderate the recession. This was done because the macroeconomic stabilisation tool of choice, nominal short-term interest rates, had become impotent once these rates hit their lower bound near zero. Keynes described the same situation in the 1930s as a liquidity trap, but most economists today use a more straightforward description: the problem of the zero lower bound (ZLB). Cutting rates below this lower bound might not stimulate demand because people could avoid them by holding cash. The textbook response to the problem is to use fiscal policy to stimulate the economy, which involves raising spending and cutting taxes. Most studies suggest that the recession would have been even worse without this expansionary fiscal policy in 2009.

Fiscal stimulus changed to fiscal contraction, more popularly known as austerity, in most of the major economies in 2010, but the reasons for this change varied from country to country. George Osborne used three different arguments to justify substantial spending cuts and tax increases before and after the coalition government was formed. The first was that unconventional monetary policy (quantitative easing, or QE) could replace the role of lower interest rates in stimulating the economy. As QE was completely untested, this was wishful thinking: the Bank of England was bound to act cautiously, because it had no idea what impact QE would have. The second was that a fiscal policy contraction would in fact expand the economy because it would inspire consumer and business confidence. This idea, disputed by most economists at the time, has now lost all credibility.

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The third reason for trying to cut the deficit was that the financial markets would not buy government debt without it. At first, this rationale seemed to be confirmed by events as the eurozone crisis developed, and so it became the main justification for the policy. However, by 2012 it was becoming clear to many economists that the debt crisis in Ireland, Portugal and Spain was peculiar to the eurozone, and in particular to the failure of the European Central Bank (ECB) to act as a lender of last resort, buying government debt when the market failed to.

In September 2012 the ECB changed its policy and the eurozone crisis beyond Greece came to an end. This was the main reason why renewed problems in Greece last year did not lead to any contagion in the markets. Yet it is not something that the ECB will admit, because it places responsibility for the crisis at its door.

By 2012 two other things had also become clear to economists. First, governments outside the eurozone were having no problems selling their debt, as interest rates on this reached record lows. There was an obvious reason why this should be so: with central banks buying large quantities of government debt as a result of QE, there was absolutely no chance that governments would default. Nor have I ever seen any evidence that there was any likelihood of a UK debt funding crisis in 2010, beyond the irrelevant warnings of those “close to the markets”. Second, the austerity policy had done considerable harm. In macroeconomic terms the recovery from recession had been derailed. With the help of analysis from the Office for Budget Responsibility, I calculated that the GDP lost as a result of austerity implied an average cost for each UK household of at least £4,000.

Following these events, the number of academic economists who supported austerity became very small (they had always been a minority). How much of the UK deficit was cyclical or structural was irrelevant: at the ZLB, fiscal policy should stimulate, and the deficit should be dealt with once the recession was over.

Yet you would not know this from the public debate. Osborne continued to insist that deficit reduction be a priority, and his belief seemed to have become hard-wired into nearly all media discussion. So perverse was this for standard macroeconomics that I christened it “mediamacro”: the reduction of macroeconomics to the logic of household finance. Even parts of the Labour Party seemed to be succumbing to a mediamacro view, until the fiscal credibility rule introduced in March by the shadow chancellor, John McDonnell. (This included an explicit knockout from the deficit target if interest rates hit the ZLB, allowing fiscal policy to focus on recovering from recession.)

It is obvious why a focus on the deficit was politically attractive for Osborne. After 2010 the coalition government adopted the mantra that the deficit had been caused by the previous Labour government’s profligacy, even though it was almost entirely a consequence of the recession. The Tories were “clearing up the mess Labour left”, and so austerity could be blamed on their predecessors. Labour foolishly decided not to challenge this myth, and so it became what could be termed a “politicised truth”. It allowed the media to say that Osborne was more competent at running the economy than his predecessors. Much of the public, hearing only mediamacro, agreed.

An obsession with cutting the deficit was attractive to the Tories, as it helped them to appear competent. It also enabled them to achieve their ideological goal of shrinking the state. I have described this elsewhere as “deficit deceit”: using manufactured fear about the deficit to achieve otherwise unpopular reductions in public spending.

The UK recovery from the 2008/2009 recession was the weakest on record. Although employment showed strong growth from 2013, this may have owed much to an unprecedented decline in real wages and stagnant productivity growth. By the main metrics by which economists judge the success of an economy, the period of the coalition government looked very poor. Many economists tried to point this out during the 2015 election but they were largely ignored. When a survey of macroeconomists showed that most thought austerity had been harmful, the broadcast media found letters from business leaders supporting the Conservative position more newsworthy.

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In my view, mediamacro and its focus on the deficit played an important role in winning the Conservatives the 2015 general election. I believe Osborne thought so, too, and so he ­decided to try to repeat his success. Although the level of government debt was close to being stabilised, he decided to embark on a further period of fiscal consolidation so that he could achieve a budget surplus.

Osborne’s austerity plans after 2015 were different from what happened in 2010 for a number of reasons. First, while 2010 austerity also occurred in the US and the eurozone, 2015 austerity was largely a UK affair. Second, by 2015 the Bank of England had decided that interest rates could go lower than their current level if need be. We are therefore no longer at the ZLB and, in theory, the impact of fiscal consolidation on demand could be offset by reducing interest rates, as long as no adverse shocks hit the economy. The argument against fiscal consolidation was rather that it increased the vulnerability of the economy if a negative shock occurred. As we have seen, Brexit is just this kind of shock.

In this respect, abandoning Osborne’s surplus target makes sense. However, there were many other strong arguments against going for surplus. The strongest of these was the case for additional public-sector investment at a time when interest rates were extremely low. Osborne loved appearing in the media wearing a hard hat and talked the talk on investment, but in reality his fiscal plans involved a steadily decreasing share of public investment in GDP. Labour’s fiscal rules, like those of the coalition government, have targeted the deficit excluding public investment, precisely so that investment could increase when the circumstances were right. In 2015 the circumstances were as right as they can be. The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, the International Monetary Fund and pretty well every economist agreed.

Brexit only reinforces this argument. Yet Brexit will also almost certainly worsen the deficit. This is why the recent acceptance by the Tories that public-sector investment should rise is significant. They may have ­decided that they have got all they could hope to achieve from deficit deceit, and that now is the time to focus on the real needs of the economy, given the short- and medium-term drag on growth caused by Brexit.

It is also worth noting that although the Conservatives have, in effect, disowned Osborne’s 2015 austerity, they still insist their 2010 policy was correct. This partial change of heart is little comfort to those of us who have been arguing against austerity for the past six years. In 2015 the Conservatives persuaded voters that electing Ed Miliband as prime minister and Ed Balls as chancellor was taking a big risk with the economy. What it would have meant, in fact, is that we would already be getting the public investment the Conservatives are now calling for, and we would have avoided both the uncertainty before the EU referendum and Brexit itself.

Many economists before the 2015 election said the same thing, but they made no impact on mediamacro. The number of economists who supported Osborne’s new fiscal charter was vanishingly small but it seemed to matter not one bit. This suggests that if a leading political party wants to ignore mainstream economics and academic economists in favour of simplistic ideas, it can get away with doing so.

As I wrote in March, the failure of debate made me very concerned about the outcome of the EU referendum. Economists were as united as they ever are that Brexit would involve significant economic costs, and the scale of these costs is probably greater than the average loss due to austerity, simply because they are repeated year after year. Yet our warnings were easily deflected with the slogan “Project Fear”, borrowed from the SNP’s nickname for the No campaign in the 2014 Scottish referendum.

It remains unclear whether economists’ warnings were ignored because they were never heard fully or because they were not trusted, but in either case economics as a profession needs to think seriously about what it can do to make itself more relevant. We do not want economics in the UK to change from being called the dismal science to becoming the “I told you so” science.

Some things will not change following the Brexit vote. Mediamacro will go on obsessing about the deficit, and the Conservatives will go on wanting to cut many parts of government expenditure so that they can cut taxes. But the signs are that deficit deceit, creating an imperative that budget deficits must be cut as a pretext for reducing the size of the state, has come to an end in the UK. It will go down in history as probably the most costly macroeconomic policy mistake since the 1930s, causing a great deal of misery to many people’s lives.

Simon Wren-Lewis is a professor of economic policy at the Blavatnik School of Government, University of Oxford. He blogs at: mainlymacro.blogspot.com

 Simon Wren-Lewis is is Professor of Economic Policy in the Blavatnik School of Government at Oxford University, and a fellow of Merton College. He blogs at mainlymacro.

This article first appeared in the 21 July 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The English Revolt