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OPINION AND ANALYSIS | 11-05-2019 11:43

Devil take the hindmost

For decades Argentina, whose school system was once highly regarded, has been slipping down the international league tables.

China’s transformation into an economic powerhouse has been great for hundreds of millions of people who, in the space of just one generation, left behind the appalling poverty that had been the lot of most of their ancestors. But for many others it has not been good at all. Thanks to the Chinese and neighbours whose countries were once in their sphere of influence and therefore share the same basic culture, the world has become a far more competitive place.

As a result, the urge to replace unreliable workers with smart machines that instantly obey orders and rarely make mistakes has become harder to resist, so even if outsourced jobs return home there will not be many for the men and women who, in less advanced times, earned a decent living doing repetitive tasks on an assembly line. For them, the outlook is grim.

The age of the average man, one in which for the first time in history almost all of us could enjoy a standard of living that even 19th-century aristocrats, let alone their predecessors, would have envied, is coming to an end. To stay more or less where you are, you have to run faster than before. Those who are unable to keep up risk dying by the wayside. This is true not only for individuals but also for entire countries.

Venezuela provides us with a good example of what can happen if a government mismanages the economy. These days, administrative incompetence is punished far more severely than was the case in the not-so-distant past when most undeveloped countries were far less dependent on technologically demanding power and communication systems than they are today and had less need of imports.

Venezuela is in a death spiral because her regime no longer has enough money to buy basic foodstuffs and medical supplies, let alone the electronic gadgetry that even in hard-up parts of the world has come to be considered essential. Nicolás Maduro is not entirely wrong when he blames the US for his country’s desperate plight; had it not been for all that fracking, an innovation hardly anybody else had thought of, the price of oil would be far higher than it currently is. Could much the same happen to Argentina? Probably not. Trying to make a go of self-sufficiency, an alternative that was enthusiastically recommended by a former economy minister, Aldo Ferrer, and which was discussed seriously when Raúl Alfonsín was in power and creditors were loudly banging at the door, would certainly be unpleasant, but it would be less so than the Venezuelan nightmare from which about five million people have already fled. Long before Hugo Chávez and his “21st-century socialism” arrived on the scene, Venezuelans had come to rely so much on the oil nature had given them that they stopped trying to produce anything else. They are now paying a heavy price for kidding themselves that the world owed them a living because they happened to be sitting on what are said to be the planet’s biggest oil reserves.

So too could most Argentines should enough voters, fed up with an unexciting government, slow growth, persistent inflation, rising unemployment and less money than they would like, decided to strike a blow against an unkind world by voting Cristina Fernández de Kirchner and her cronies back into office. Even if the former president decided to become a born-again neoliberal determined to do absolutely everything by the book, the initial reaction to her return would be likely to sink the already overburdened economy she helped bring to its present state. And if she lost to Mauricio Macri or someone much like him and the word got round that the resulting government would be unable to carry out the many “structural reforms” that are needed, Argentina could find herself isolated from the international economy. This would put paid to the notion that, after recovering from her present woes, she could start catching up with the frontrunners.

As we are frequently reminded, the world economy has already entered a stage in which brains matter much more than muscles and knowledge is far more useful than raw materials, helpful though these will continue to be. Argentina’s most valuable company is now Mercado Libre, a local version of Amazon which, at a cool US$28.5 billion, as far as Wall Street is concerned is worth five times as much as YPF. This mirrors the performance of a bevy of tech giants, most of them North American, which in the last few years have been piling up far money than the industrial firms or oil companies that used to be dominant.

The implications of this change are easy to discern. If economic success depends on people having bright ideas and the ability to put them into practice, countries with large numbers of welleducated inhabitants will enjoy even greater advantages than they did before. The Japanese made this clear soon after World War II; they are now being emulated by the Chinese and South Koreans who, like their neighbours, understand that education is of vital importance. Though in North America and Europe many share their viewpoint, in most Western countries academic standards have been falling of late for largely ideological reasons; progressives with a taste for social engineering think schools should be used to promote their egalitarian agenda rather than to encourage the naturally intelligent to make full use of their talents.

In few places has education suffered more than in Argentina. For decades the country, whose school system was once highly regarded, has been slipping down the international league tables and has even been overtaken by others in Latin America it had once outclassed.

This means that, were the country somehow to become economically competitive, the gaps between the knowledge workers, as they are sometimes called, and the rest would become even wider than elsewhere. In the US, the UK and, to a lesser extent, continental Europe, the increasing distance that is separating such “elites” from the common folk is causing much resentment; it certainly contributed to the rise of Donald Trump. Needless to say, Argentina has long been familiar with this phenomenon; Peronism and its Kirchnerite offshoot owe more to widespread dislike of what are left of the traditional elites than to the merits, let alone the performance in office, of their leaders.

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James Neilson

James Neilson

Former editor of the Buenos Aires Herald (1979-1986).

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