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The Bait-and-Switch Behind Economic Populism – Article by Nicolás Cachanosky

The Bait-and-Switch Behind Economic Populism – Article by Nicolás Cachanosky

The New Renaissance Hat
Nicolás Cachanosky
May 26, 2015

Argentina will hold elections this year, and a number of provinces will be electing governors. Buenos Aires, the capital city, is holding elections for mayor, and Mauricio Macri, who is stepping down as mayor, is a favorite to become the next president. Toward the end of the year, a presidential election will be held and Cristina Kirchner, after two consecutive mandates, will have to step down because she cannot be re-elected.

Like Chávez and Maduro in Venezuela, Argentina can be described as a country that fell victim to extreme populism during the Nestor and Cristina Kirchner administrations, which began in 2003. Twelve years later, this populist political project is about to end.

The economic policy of populism is characterized by massive intervention, high consumption (and low investment), and government deficits. This is unsustainable and we can identify several stages as it moves toward its inevitable economic failure. The last decade of extreme populism in Argentina can be described as following just such a pattern.

After observing the populist experience in several Latin American countries, Rudiger Dornbusch and Sebastián Edwards identified four universal stages inherent in populism in their article “Macroeconomic Populism” (1990). Even though populism can present a wide array of policies, certain characteristics seem to be present in most of the cases.

Populism usually fosters social mobilization, political propaganda, and the use of symbols and marketing practices designed to appeal to voter’s sentiments. Populism is especially aimed at those with low income, even if the ruling party cannot explain the source of its leaders’ high income. Populist rulers find it easy to use scapegoats and conspiracy theories to explain why the country is going through a hard time, while at the same time present themselves as the saviors of the nation. It is not surprising that for some, populism is associated with the left and socialist movements, and by others with the right and fascist policies.

The four stages of populism identified by Dornbusch and Edwards are:

Stage I

The populist diagnosis of what is wrong with an economy is confirmed during the first years of the new government. Macroeconomic policy shows good results like growing GDP, a reduction in unemployment, increase in real wages, etc. Because of output gaps, imports paid with central bank reserves, and regulations (maximum prices coupled with subsidies to the firms), inflation is mostly under control.

Stage II

Bottleneck effects start to appear because the populist policies have emphasized consumption over investment, the use of reserves to pay for imports, and the consumption of capital stock. Changes in sensitive relative prices start to become necessary, and this often leads to a devaluation of the exchange rate, price changes in utilities (usually through regulation), and the imposition of capital controls. Government tries, but fails, to control government spending and budget deficits.

The underground economy starts to increase as the fiscal deficit worsens because the cost of the promised subsidies need to keep up with a now-rising inflation. Fiscal reforms are necessary, but avoided by the populist government because they go against the government’s own rhetoric and core base of support.

Stage III

Shortage problems become significant, inflation accelerates, and because the nominal exchange rate did not keep pace with inflation, there is an outflow of capital (reserves). High inflation pushes the economy to a de-monetization. The local currency is used only for domestic transactions, but people save in US dollars.

The fall in economic activity negatively affects tax receipts increasing the deficit even more. The government needs to cut subsidies and increases the rate of the exchange rate, depreciation. Real income starts to fall and signs of political and social instability start to appear. At this point the failure of the populist project becomes apparent.

Stage IV

A new government is swept into office and is forced to engage in “orthodox” adjustments, possibly under the supervision of the IMF or an international organization that provides the funds required to go through policy reforms. Because capital has been consumed and destroyed, real wages fall to levels even lower than those that existed at the beginning of the populist government’s election. The “orthodox” government is then responsible for picking up the pieces and covering the costs of failed policies left from the previous populist regime. The populists are gone, but the ravages of their policies continue to manifest themselves. In Argentina the expression “economic bomb” is used to describe the economic imbalances that government leaves for the next one.

Economic Populism is Alive and Well

Even though Dornbusch and Edwards wrote their article in 1990, the similarities to the situation in countries like Venezuela, Bolivia, and Argentina is notable. In recent years, to keep populist ideas going in the minds of voters, Venezuela created the Ministry of Happiness, and Argentina created a new Secretary of National Thought.

These four stages are actually cyclical. The populist movement uses the fourth stage to criticize the orthodox party, and argues that during the populists’ tenure, things were better. The public opinion discontent with stage IV allows the populist movement to win new elections, receive an economy in a crisis or recession and the cycle starts over again from stage I. It is not surprising that populist governments usually appear following the hard times caused by economic crisis. A more bold populist government could avoid stage IV by finding a way to remain in office, calling off elections, or creating fake election results (as was the case in Venezuela). At such a point, the populist government succeeds in turning the country into a fully authoritarian nation.

Nicolás Cachanosky, a native of Argentina, is assistant professor of economics at Metropolitan State University of Denver.

This article was published on and may be freely distributed, subject to a Creative Commons Attribution United States License, which requires that credit be given to the author.

Economies are Not Destroyed in a Day – Article by Nicolás Cachanosky

Economies are Not Destroyed in a Day – Article by Nicolás Cachanosky

The New Renaissance Hat
Nicolás Cachanosky
October 26, 2013

Earlier this month, Argentina’s leading conservative paper, La Nación published an unsigned editorial comparing the economies of Argentina and Venezuela. The editorial concluded that as economic freedom declines in Argentina, and as Argentina adopts more of what Chavez called “twenty-first century socialism,” it is becoming increasingly similar to Venezuela. Is this true? Will Argentina suffer the same fate as Venezuela where poverty is increasing and toilet paper can be a luxury?

The similarities of regulations and economic problems facing both countries are indeed striking in spite of obvious differences in the two countries. Yet, when people are confronted with the similarities, it is common to hear replies like “but Argentina is not Venezuela, we have more infrastructure and resources.”

Institutional changes, however, define the long-run destiny of a country, not its short-run prosperity.

Imagine that Cuba and North Korea became, overnight, the two most free-market, limited-government countries in the world. The two countries would have immediately gained civil liberties and economic freedom, but they would still have to accumulate wealth and to develop their economies. The institutional change affects the political situation immediately, but a new economy requires time to take shape. For example, as China opened parts of its economy to international markets, the country started to grow, and we are now seeing the effects of decades of relative economic liberalization. It is true that many areas in China continue to lack significant freedoms, but it would be a much different China today had it refused to change its institutions decades ago.

The same occurs if one of the wealthiest and developed countries in the world were to adopt Cuban or North Korean institutions overnight. The wealth and capital does not vanish in 24 hours. The country would shift from capital accumulation to capital consumption and it might take years or even decades to drain the coffers of previous accumulated wealth. In the meantime, the government has the resources to play the game of Bolivarian (i.e., Venezuelan) populist socialism and enjoy the wealth, highways, electrical infrastructure, and communication networks that were the result of the more free-market institutional realities of the past.

Eventually, though, highways start to deteriorate from the lack of maintenance (or trains crash in the station killing dozens of passengers), the energy sector starts to waver, energy imports become unavoidable, and the communication network becomes obsolete. In other words, economic populism is financed with resources accumulated by non-populist institutions.

According to the Fraser Institute’s Economic Freedom of the World project, Argentina ranked 34th-best in the year 2000. By 2011, however, Argentina fell to 137, next to countries like Ecuador, Mali, China, Nepal, Gabon, and Mozambique. There is no doubt that Argentina enjoys a higher rate of development and wealth than those other countries. But, can we still be sure that this will be the situation 20 or 30 years from now? The Argentinean president is known for having said that she would like Argentina to be a country like Germany, but the path to becoming like Switzerland or Germany involves adopting Swiss and German-type institutions, which Argentina is not doing.

The adoption of Venezuelan institutions in Argentina, came along with high growth rates. These growth rates, however, are misleading:

First, economic growth, properly speaking, is not an increase in “production,” but an increase in “production capacity.” The growth in observed GDP after a big crisis is economic recovery, not economic growth properly understood.

Second, you can increase your production capacity by investing in the wrong economic activities. Heavy price regulation, as takes place in Argentina (now accompanied by high rates of inflation), misdirects resource allocation by affecting relative prices. We might be able to see and even touch the new investment, but such capital is the result of a monetary illusion. The economic concept of capital does not depend on the tangibility or size of the investment (i.e, on its physical properties), but on its economic value. When the time comes for relative prices to adjust to reflect real consumer preferences, and the market value of capital goods drops, capital is consumed or destroyed in economic terms even if the physical qualities of capital goods remains unchanged.

Third, production can increase not because investment increases, but because people are consuming invested capital, as is the case when there is an increase in the rate that machinery and infrastructure wear out.

I’m not saying that there is no genuine growth in Argentina, but it remains a fact that a nontrivial share of the Argentinean GDP growth can be explained by: (1) recovery, (2) misdirection of investment, and (3) capital consumption. If that weren’t the case, employment creation wouldn’t have stagnated and the country’s infrastructure should be shining rather than falling into pieces.

Most economists and policy analysts seem to have a superficial reading of economic variables. If an economy is healthy, then economic variables look good, GDP grows, and inflation is low. But the fact that we observe good economic indicators does not imply that the economy is healthy. There’s a reason why a doctor asks for tests from a patient that appears well. Feeling well doesn’t mean there might not be a disease that shows no obvious symptoms at the moment. The economist who refuses to have a closer look and see why GDP grows is like a doctor who refuses to have a closer look at his patient. The Argentinian patient has caught the Bolivarian disease, but the most painful symptoms have yet to surface.

NOTE: This is a translated and expanded version of an original piece published in Economía Para Todos (Economics for Everyone).

Nicolás Cachanosky is Assistant Professor of Economics at Metropolitan State University of Denver. See Nicolás Cachanosky’s article archives.

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This article was published on and may be freely distributed, subject to a Creative Commons Attribution United States License, which requires that credit be given to the author.