Foreign Policy at the State of the Union

On foreign policy, the State of the Union was classic Donald Trump.

There were the usual expansive promises which could actually move American foreign policy in a better direction. The president promised to withdraw troops from Syria, open negotiations with the Taliban in Afghanistan, and praised the growth in spending by NATO allies. He even criticized America’s excessive military intervention in the Middle East.

Venezuela: The Biggest Humanitarian Crisis That You Haven’t Heard Of

Venezuelans are fleeing their home country in large numbers due to the economic failure of socialism as well as the increasing authoritarianism of the Venezuelan government.  The economic collapse there, inflation reached tens of thousands of percent this year, and the escalating brutality of the Maduro dictatorship are creating a crisis unlike any faced in South America in decades – if ever.  This blog post will provide some information on the scale of the Venezuelan exodus and some suggestions for what other countries can do to mitigate problems caused by the flow of refugees and asylum seekers.   


The roots of the current collapse of Venezuela run deep. Hugo Chavez became the president of Venezuela in 1999 and immediately set about concentrating economic power in the government and political power in himself personally.  He instituted tight government controls on capital, exchange rates, and started a more irresponsible monetary policy that created chaotic financial market conditions that further justified his nationalizations of business and confiscations of private property.  Revenues from the Venezuelan oil industry helped keep the government and economy afloat while the private economy suffered under increasingly harsh and punitive restrictions.  Chavez died in 2013 and was succeeded by Nicolas Maduro who continued Chavez’s economic policies and accelerated the concentration of political power in himself.  The collapse of oil prices beginning in 2014 exposed the economic damage wrought by Chavez and Maduro as inflation took off, GDP shrank, and Maduro’s regime responded with increasingly brutal police crackdowns that are continuing to today.  Most watchers of Venezuela conclude that the current death spiral began in 2015, the year after the decline in oil prices.    

The Scale of the Exodus

The number of people who have left Venezuela is staggering.  Estimates usually range from 1.6 million to 4 million Venezuelans have left their home country.  The International Organization for Migration (IOM) estimates that about 2 million Venezuelans are living outside of Venezuela as of June 2018, a number that has increased by more than a million since 2015 but is still likely an underestimate.  For instance, the number of Venezuelans living in Columbia, Peru, Chile, Brazil, Ecuador, Argentina, and Uruguay in June 2018 was over 1.85 million, up by a little less than one million since 2017. 

A ‘Venezuela’ Gas Price Spike?

Talk of oil sanctions is in the air. Some would like the Trump administration to ban the importation of crude oil from Venezuela in response to that country’s recent fraudulent election. And some are predicting that if such a boycott were implemented, gasoline prices would increase by 10–15 percent, or 25–30 cents a gallon.

Venezuelan production is about 800,000 barrels a day, approximately 1 percent of the 80.4 million barrels a day world output. If 1 percent of world output were suddenly and permanently removed from the world market, then a 10 to 20 percent increase in price would certainly be a reasonable prediction, given what economists know about the relationship between reduced quantity and increased price in oil markets in the short run.

But boycotts are not true supply reductions; they are supply rearrangements. The United States and Venezuela both purchase and sell oil on a world market. In such a large market, country-of-origin and country-destination information quickly become blurred as crude oil and its refined products slosh from buyers to sellers, oftentimes via third parties. And even if the United States could somehow be a stickler at tracking and avoiding Venezuela-originated products, they would simply get re-routed to some other buyer—perhaps China or India—while other oil products would reroute to the United States.

Socialist Catastrophe in Venezuela

Journalists are now reporting regularly on the crisis in Venezuela, with shortages of everything from toilet paper to food and now daily street protests. What the news reports too often miss is, Why? Why is a formerly middle-class, oil-rich country now so desperately poor?

Venezuela’s Inflation: The Wall Street Journal’s Reportage is Off, Way Off

Recent reportage in the Wall Street Journal by Matt Wirz, Carolyn Cui, and Anatoly Kurmanaev states that Venezuela’s annual inflation rate is 500 percent. The authors fail to indicate the source for that 500 percent figure. Knowing that the most accurate estimate of Venezuela’s current annual inflation rate is 55 percent, I concluded that the Journal was way off and set out to determine the source for its incorrect figure.

Economic Freedom and Infants’ Lives

Recent reports that infants now die at a higher rate in Venezuela than in war-torn Syria were, sadly, unsurprising—the results of socialist economics are predictable. Venezuela’s infant mortality rate has actually been above Syria’s since 2008.


The big picture, fortunately, is happier. The global infant mortality rate has plummeted. Even Syria and Venezuela, despite the impact of war and failed policies, saw improvements up to as recently as last year. From 1960 to 2015, Syria’s infant mortality rate fell by 91% and Venezuela’s by 78%. This year (not reflected in the graph above or below), Syria’s rate rose from 11.1 per 1,000 live births to 15.4, while Venezuela’s shot up from 12.9 to 18.6. Meanwhile, infant mortality rates have continued to fall practically everywhere else, and have declined even faster in countries that enjoy more freedom and stability. Consider Chile.

Venezuela’s Death Spiral, Dollarization Is The Cure

With the arrival of President Hugo Chávez in 1999, Venezuela embraced Chavismo, a form of Andean socialism. In 2013, Chávez met the Grim Reaper and Nicolás Maduro assumed Chávez’s mantle.

Chavismo has not been confined to Venezuela, however. A form of it has been adopted by Rafael Correa – a leftist economist who became president of a dollarized Ecuador in 2007.

Even though the broad outlines of their economic models are the same, the performance of Venezuela and Ecuador are in stark contrast with one another.

Economic Lessons from Muhammad Ali

Since the passing of Muhammad Ali, the establishment has been working in overdrive to convince us that the great boxer was a member of their club. In doing so, the wisdom and wit of Ali has been on display.

Muhammad Ali’s lessons on economics, however, have been absent. Economics? Yes. The lessons were developed in a most edifying book by Donald Sull, The Upside of Turbulence: Seizing Opportunity in an Uncertain World. New York: Harper Collins, 2009 – a book that Mohamed El-Erian recommended to me.

The economic lessons are summarized in “The Boxer Matrix.” A boxer’s fate is determined by a combination of his absorption capacity (read: can he take a punch?) and agility (read: can he avoid a punch?). In the Boxer Matrix, the ideal position to be in is the Northeast quadrant: where Ali and Joe Louis boxed. But, while Ali always had terrific agility, he had to train and think his way to an above average absorption capacity. This capacity was on display in his “Rumble in the Jungle” bout with George Foreman. It was then that Ali’s “rope-a-dope” tactic was executed to perfection.

This brings us to Ali’s message on economics, with particular reference to countries that are heavily dependent on the production of oil. In turbulent times (read: oil price plunges), countries like Saudi Arabia, Venezuela, and Nigeria experience a great deal of pain because their oil-dependent economies aren’t diversified. In short, they lack agility. This is reflected in their position in the lower half of the Boxer Matrix.


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