February 21, 2008

The Theory and Practice of Revolutionary Metabullshit

Quico says: Hats off to Tibisay Lucena. The head of the National Elections Council is more ambitious than she seems. First, she pulled off a feat that seemed virtually impossible: she managed to announce that Chávez had lost a popular vote without increasing the CNE's credibility in the eyes of the opposition. Considering that the whole reason the opposition didn't trust CNE in the first place was that we doubted that they would ever accept a Chávez defeat, that took talent.

How did she do it? Her formula is simple: galloping opacity barely covered up with blatant lying and seasoned with undisguised contempt for those who question her.

The two official referendum results announcements Lucena has made so far (one on the night of the vote, the second a few days later) are not just incomplete, they're patently incompatible with one another. That hasn't escaped the attention of oppo activists, whose calls for clarification she has consistently met with sneering dismissal.

Now, Lucena's kicking it up a notch: not just lying about the referendum results, but lying about her previous lies about the referendum results.

In an interview on VTV, she admitted CNE would never release the complete results of December's vote, claiming this was "normal" because a few votes go unreported "in every election." How few is "a few"? Tibisay said just 3% of tables remain outstanding, so we're talking about more than a quarter of a million votes: the population of Punto Fijo, give or take.

There's something frankly stomach turning about the whole question of precisely how many votes it's OK not to count. But now that the principle's been established, lets haggle over the price: it's a lie that only 3% of voting tables are still outstanding. CNE's second bulletin covered just 94% of voting tables, not 97% as she's now claiming. So we'd be talking more about a Puerto Ordaz than a Punto Fijo, in terms of how many people it's "normal" to disenfranchise.

But it gets worse, because that second bulletin wasn't broken down geographically, and implied an improbable 98%+ abstention rate in some areas. In fact, we lack verifiable referendum results for 13.6% of voting tables. That's over a million votes: more like the population of Valencia.

So what we have here is no mere lie. It's a lie about a lie about a lie.

Think of it as higher-order mendacity: Tibisay's seminal contribution to the theory and practice of revolutionary metabullshit.

Caption competition:
What is she saying here?

February 19, 2008

Coming soon in Foreign Affairs

Quico says: It's great fun to watch Francisco Rodríguez run an analytical bulldozer through a mountain of chavista bullshit. Choice bit:
One would expect [the consensus abroad that chavismo has been good for the poor] to be backed up by an impressive array of evidence. But in fact, there is remarkably little data supporting the claim that the Chávez administration has acted any diffrently from previous Venezuelan governments—or, for that matter, from those of other developing and Latin American nations—in redistributing the gains from economic growth to the poor.

One oft-cited statistic is the decline in poverty from a peak of 54 percent at the height of the national strike in 2003 to 27.5 percent in the first half of 2007. Although this decline may appear impressive, it is also known that poverty reduction is strongly associated with economic growth and that Venezuela’s per capita GDP grew by nearly 50 percent during the same time period — thanks in great part to a tripling of oil prices. The real question is thus not whether poverty has fallen but whether the Chávez government has been particularly effective at converting this period of economic growth into poverty reduction.

One way to evaluate this is by calculating the reduction in poverty for every percentage point increase in per capita income — in economists’ lingo, the income elasticity of poverty reduction. This calculation shows an average reduction of one percentage point in poverty for every percentage point in per capita GDP growth during this recovery, a ratio that compares unfavorably with those of many other developing countries, for which studies tend to put the figure at around two percentage points.

Similarly, one would expect pro-poor growth to be accompanied by a marked decrease in income inequality. But according to the Venezuelan Central Bank, inequality has actually increased during the Chávez administration, with the Gini coefficient (a measure of economic inequality, with zero indicating perfect equality and one indicating perfect inequality) increasing from 0.44 to 0.48 between 2000 and 2005.

Poverty and inequality statistics, of course, tell only part of the story. There are many aspects of the well-being of the poor not captured by measures of money income, and this is where Chávez’s supporters claim that the government has made the most progress—through its misiones, which have concentrated on the direct provision of health, education, and other basic public services to poor communities.

But again, social statistics show no signs of a substantial improvement in the well-being of ordinary Venezuelans, and in many cases there have been worrying deteriorations. The percentage of underweight babies, for example, increased from 8.4 percent to 9.1 percent between 1999 and 2006. During the same period, the percentage of households without access to running water rose from 7.2 percent to 9.4 percent, and the percentage of families living in dwellings with earthen floors multiplied almost threefold, from 2.5 percent to 6.8 percent.

In Venezuela, one can see the misiones everywhere: in government posters lining the streets of Caracas, in the ubiquitous red shirts issued to program participants and worn by government supporters at Chávez rallies, in the bloated government budget allocations. The only place where one will be hard-pressed to find them is in the human development statistics.
On the whole, the piece is pretty devastating. Look for it in the March/April issue of Foreign Affairs.

Update: Calvin wants to know if I really don't agree that the misiones have had a startling impact on barrio life, thus giving me an entry point into this rant:
Listen, I have no doubt that for some people and some communities some of the time, the misiones have made a huge difference. The question is, looking at the big picture, how many people and how many communities?

I suppose you've been to Venezuela, observed some of those people and places, filtered them through those thick ideological spectacles of yours, and come away certain that what you (thought you) saw was the norm across the country.

But how can you be sure? How can you tell whether you were witnessing the exception or the norm? If you're honest with yourself, what can make you so sure that what you saw wasn't a Potemkin Mission?

There's only one way to be sure, Calvin, and that's to look at the data. There's really no choice, because for every bit of anecdotal evidence you find of a misión going well, I can find one of a misión going poorly. We can play that game all day, but it won't get us any closer to a resolution.

So, on aggregate, the question is whether the government has relieved poverty above and beyond what any petrostate could've done facing a massive oil boom.

Thing is, these days it's hard to find any petrostate that isn't going through a consumption boom. From Russia to the gulf states to Sudan, oil is pouring out, money is pouring in and people are buying stuff. That makes people feel good about the nature of the times, and when people feel good about the nature of the times, governments are popular. That's true whether they have a left wing government, a right wing government, a monarchy, or, hell, even a genocidal regime.

In Venezuela the consumption boom was accompanied by a massive propaganda campaign geared very specifically at getting people to attribute the feel good factor to government actions via the misiones. Until the economic distortions started to build up to intolerable levels, that gambit paid off quite handsomely.

Why? Because the Intentions Heuristic took hold: people in general tend to attribute to governments outcomes that they perceive to be aligned with their intentions. Chávez was widely perceived as very concerned for the poor, the misiones were highly visible, and poverty was falling fast. The inference that poverty was falling because of the misiones and the misiones were happening because of Chavez's intentions is both perfectly natural and just plain wrong.

Or, to put it differently, if you want to say that the misiones' popularity ipso facto demonstrates that they have made a substantial improvement to the lives of the Venezuelan poor, you'd have to accept that the popularity of Putin's government automatically means it has been even better for Russia's poor. After all, Putin wins elections by huge margins. As far as petrostates go, losing an election with oil at $90 a pop is a feat only Chavez has managed to pull off.

In the end, though, what I say isn't interesting. What the data say is interesting. If you have a good explanation for why the income elasticity of poverty reduction has been lower in Venezuela than in the rest of the region, lets have it. Otherwise, all we're doing is contributing to global warming via massive emissions of hot air. Cuz we can sit here and talk out of our bums all day and all night about who feels how about what, but basically all that does is ventilate pre existing prejudices. At some point you have to choose: your anecdotal experience of a handful of misiones filtered through a mountain of propaganda, or the data. Which are you going to believe?

Anyway, Francisco Rodríguez's article is really very good, but way too long to post more than a snippet of it here. Look for it in the magazine, it's well worth a read.

Fidel Castro resigns!

Quico says: Newsrooms rush to tweak his obituary!

February 18, 2008

Empire of Doublethink

Quico says: I'm a bit late to this story, but I don't want to let it go without comment. The way Chávez justified his decision to raise milk prices last month really was something else. Here (edited for clarity) is what he said on Aló back on January 20th:
I know and I'm aware that the price of milk at Bs.1,100 has fallen short, and I'm willing to raise it a bit to benefit the primary producers, although of course we have to think of the consuming public so the price doesn't keep rising. I'm willing, and I announce it to the milk producers of the country, [to raise the price of] farm gate milk from Bs.1,100 to Bs.1,500, and I hope all the producers will respond as we need, instead of just making cheeses or taking it out to Colombia, which I consider treason - they are betraying their own pueblo. Milk must first of all be for Venezuelans...so we are revising the price of milk...because we know production costs have risen.
Did you catch it? It goes by so fast it's easy to miss but, within a single soundbite, the guy both accepted that price controls lead to shortages and blamed shortages on producers' treachery.

In the same breath, he both concedes the utility maximization model of producer behavior - that cornerstone of mainstream microeconomics with its upward-sloping supply curves and its producers who rationally respond to price hikes by expanding production - and he rejects it in favor of a normative explanation. So when producers respond to high prices by increasing supply they're acting rationally, but when they respond to low prices by decreasing supply they're betraying the people.

This makes no sense. And I mean that in the strictly formal sense. If something is true, it cannot simultaneusly be not-true. Either the supply curve slopes upward or it doesn't.

The rest is doublethink. That's what Orwell called it. As usual, he had this stuff pegged decades ahead of the game. In Nineteen Eighty-Four, he wrote about:
...the labyrinthine world of doublethink. To know and not to know, to be conscious of complete truthfulness while telling carefully-constructed lies, to hold simultaneously two opinions which cancelled out, knowing them to be contradictory and believing in both of them; to use logic against logic, to repudiate morality while laying claim to it, to believe that democracy was impossible and that the Party was the guardian of democracy; to forget whatever it was necessary to forget, then to draw it back at the moment when it was needed, and then promptly to forget it again: and above all, to apply the same process to the process itself. That was the ultimate subtlety: consciously to induce unconsciousness, and then, once again, to become unconscious of the act of hypnosis you had just performed. Even to understand the word 'doublethink' involved using doublethink.
Orwell's prescience is scary. I mean, that passage reads like it came straight out of Andrés Izarra's manual...just straightforward chavista S.O.P.

What's terrifying is the way doublethink has become routinized in the Chávez era. Nobody bats an eyelash anymore. Chávez's inner circle long ago understood that taking the boss to task over this kind of thing is an excellent way to cut short your political career. The oppo commentariat gave up, understandably exhausted. Doublethink became "normal."

You know things have come to a head when it becomes a dangerous, counter-revolutionary thing to say, but I'll say it anyway:

There. That's a weight off my shoulders.

I'll expect my CIA check in the mail any time now.