Many politicians pretend to believe that poverty is caused by plutocratic greed. It suits them because it gives them an excuse to blame others for their inability to make life any easier for those foolish enough to take their rhetoric seriously. While Alberto Fernández and even Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, neither of whom are stupid, are surely aware that things are not as simple as some zealots would have it, they and their acolytes know it is in their interest to insinuate that porteños, who according to them are sybaritic parasites, manage to live in luxury by impoverishing their hard-working fellow-countrymen who are forced to lead a grim existence in dilapidated urban sprawls like La Matanza and outlying provinces such as Chaco, Santiago del Estero and Formosa.
This being the case, they feel duty-bound to make City Mayor Horacio Rodríguez Larreta, who hopes to be the country’s next president, hand a large chunk of federal money over to Buenos Aires Province Governor Axel Kiciloff who, as it happens, is busily looking for cash to fund his electoral machine and provide jobs for people he expects to vote for him in October.
On several occasions, Cristina has made it clear that in her view it is utterly scandalous that carefully-tended ferns and African blue lilies in the big city where she lives enjoy amenities which are denied to shantytown dwellers. Though declaring war on plants in this way must have raised some eyebrows among her ecologically-minded supporters, Alberto agrees with his boss when it comes to deploring the “opulence” which he says is typical of the nation’s capital. When inaugurating the new parliamentary sessions last Wednesday, he went on about how horribly unfair it was for the Supreme Court to let Buenos Aires City receive federal funds he thought should go to needier jurisdictions, of which, unfortunately, there are a great many, with most of them governed by politicians who share the views he adopted after Cristina offered him a stint in the Pink House.
By fuelling resentment in this way, pitting against the rest of the population the allegedly rich porteños who are so selfish that many of them are not merely fond of potted plants but even go so far as to support that dreadful man Mauricio Macri, the president and vice-president, accompanied by many other politicians, hope to distract attention from their own failings. They certainly do not want people to continue to ask why, after two decades of Kirchnerism interrupted by four years under Macri, so many Argentines continue to sink deeper into poverty; instead, they would like them to ask why, by and large, despite their strenuous efforts porteños are doing rather better than most others.
In public at least, both cling to the notion that economics is a zero-sum game and, since the pie is always the same size, all that matters is how you slice it up. This primitive way of thinking has always been popular among politicians in backward countries. For about three-quarters of a century, often buffoonish autocrats have regularly turned up in New York to make the most of a chance to tell the UN General Assembly that rich countries are hogging all the available wealth and by so doing are making it impossible for them to provide the local population with decent basic services. Such moral posturing still goes down well in some guilt-ridden quarters of the West but, as people started noticing that “development aid” tended to end up in the Swiss bank accounts of corrupt demagogues and their cronies, support for them has waned even in academe and the progressive media.
In Argentina, members of the political elite have long practised their own version of the scam. As, until fairly recently, it would have been difficult for them to demand reparations from North America, Europe and Japan because Argentina, along with Australia and New Zealand, had been an evident beneficiary of Western imperialism and inherited from it a huge amount of prime real estate, they concentrated on attacking Buenos Aires City. Why, they asked, was it better off than the rest of the country? What did it produce, apart from paperwork? For some, it has always been an alien implant put there to suck Argentina dry by siphoning off her wealth and sending it abroad.
Buenos Aires is far from being the only metropolis which boasts a higher per capita income than most of its hinterland and is widely suspected of achieving this by unacceptably devious means. The economic and cultural hegemony of London and Paris is greatly resented in their respective countries and there are quite frequent attempts to “decentralise” decision-making in order to bring them down a few pegs. Up to now, such efforts have proved unsuccessful, but thanks to the explosive growth of “telecommuting” this could soon change, with virtual cities in which physical proximity is unnecessary taking the place of the huge agglomerations that have sprung up in much of the world and are now home to more than half of the global population.
Big cities once thrived because powerful warlords made them their headquarters and pumped them full of loot taken from people they defeated, but this has not been the case for hundreds of years. While the presence of government departments certainly helped, the main ones owed their increasing prosperity to the talent, whether commercial, scientific or artistic, they attracted. In her way, Buenos Aires, like London, Paris, New York and Tokyo, is the equivalent of the head office of a giant corporation whose top executives, and to a lesser extent the people surrounding them, earn more, sometimes far more, than most of those who keep the concern going but remain remote from the places where major decisions are made.
As the relative value of brain-power increases, as it is bound to do if, as predicted, the “knowledge economy” gathers strength, so too will the gap between the incomes of people able to profit from it and those whose services will not be required. There are those who hope that, despite the revolution in communications which may help spread the wealth they predict will be generated, leading cities will in effect detach themselves from the countries they are located in and form a cosmopolitan community. For some, who like the British commentator David Goodhart distinguish between “people from somewhere” who have roots and “people from “anywhere” who flit from place to place, this is a nightmarish prospect, but in an increasingly competitive world in which applied intelligence matters most, reducing the gap between Buenos Aires City, say, and La Matanza or Chaco, will be all but impossible.