Cry for Argentina

With Obamacare at the Supreme Court, the presidential primary debates in full swing, and the federal government’s continued unwillingness to liberate the economy and thus allow it to create jobs, it’s easy to forget that there’s a world outside America, one with its own economic issues and presidential elections.

Take Argentina, for example, a country near and dear to my heart ever since I studied abroad there nearly 15 years ago. A century ago, Argentina was emerging from oligarchic rule to an ever-liberalizing democracy that was one of the richest countries in the world. By 1930 it had the seventh-largest economy, outpacing fellow new-world ex-colonies like Canada and Australia and attracting waves of immigrants from Italy, Spain, and Eastern Europe. How did a country so rich in natural and human resources fall from that peak to become the butt of economists’ jokes?  (There are four types of countries in the world: developed, developing, Japan, and Argentina.)

The answer is the autarkic corporatism that came from the rule of Juan Domingo Peron, imposing an industrial policy that destroyed the burgeoning export-import sector, nationalized railroads, and gave unions all the power they wanted (so much that they even began clashing with Peron - sound familiar?). Combine that macroeconomic insanity—leading inevitably to social unrest and repressive government reactions thereto—with an idiosyncratic ”Third Way” foreign policy and redistributionist welfare schemes, and the jewel of Spain’s former empire came back to the pack of faltering Latin American states.

Wild populist swings of both the left and the right followed, interrupted only by a string of coup d’etats—I recall the syllabus of my Argentine history class read, “primer golpe de estado; segundo golpe de estado; tercer golpe de estado…”—resulting in a Dirty War between the ideological extremes that ended in the tone-deaf military triumvirate’s disastrous excursion in the Falkland Islands.  (Case in point: they thought President Reagan would support them over Thatcher’s Britain.) Democracy returned for good in 1983 but, save for a brief illusory period in the 1990s, Argentina’s economic house has never been in order. Recall that the country was a poster-child for hyperinflation in the late 1980s and even now inflation runs north of 20 percent (nobody knows for sure because the official figures cannot be trusted).

After an economic crisis of Great-Depression proportions (labeled simply La Crisis) in the early 2000s gave the country an extremely painful but long-needed correction—unpegging the peso from the U.S. dollar among other long-needed reforms—an accidental president from the south, Nestor Kirchner, began reimposing his brand of Peronism. This included defaulting on sovereign debt, government control of the energy sector, expanded social programs, and rapprochement with the likes of Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez. Deciding not to run for reelection, Kirchner handed the presidency to his wife, Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner, who essentially continued his heterodox policies while governing with an increasingly heavy hand against protestors and the media.

A few weeks ago, Argentines overwhelmingly reelected Fernandez, easily beating back opposition groups that never coalesced into a single movement or candidate. This result wasn’t surprising because the economy is expected to grow by eight percent this year and the middle class has largely recovered from the crisis—though most economists consider the current situation to be unsustainable, with the country eventually headed to a reckoning akin to the one it faced at the end of the ’90s (recall the tragic cycles the country endures).

Argentina provides America a “teachable moment,” to use one of our president’s favorite expressions. Like Argentina has been many times over the last century, the United States is at a crossroads. Will it continue to stand for individual liberty, innovation, and social mobility, or will Americans trade their freedom for ever-larger entitlements and evanescent protections from life’s vicissitudes? As Mary Anastasia O’Grady wrote in a column that we can only hope fails to be prophetic:

On this, the experience of Mrs. Kirchner’s Argentina is instructive. It abandoned free markets, ostensibly in the interest of social justice. The predictable result has been greater injustice, more poverty, and increasing concentration of wealth and power in the hands of the political class and its friends. Efforts to make the economy competitive have repeatedly been defeated even as the standard of living declined.

Argentina tests the theory that democracies have a built-in capacity to correct the overreach of government. Not only has it been unable to extricate itself from the black hole of corporatism, it is getting sucked in further.

Or, as Cristina Fernandez put it on the eve of her reelection, “I don’t know if Obama has read Peron, but let me tell you, it sure seems like it.”

[Not coincidentally to the timing of this blogpost, I will be in Argentina all next week, a working vacation of sorts.  I’m currently scheduled for two public talks: in Buenos Aires on Nov. 24 at 7pm at the business/economics university ESEADE on the topic of rule of law and economic development and in Tucuman on Nov.25 at 6pm at the Catalinas Park Hotel at a conference marking the 20th anniversary of the fall of Soviet communism, sponsored by the think tank Libertad y Progreso. Both events will be in Spanish.]