Friday, December 2, 2022

OPINION AND ANALYSIS | 21-09-2019 10:52

Politicians are part of the problem

For what presumably are tribal reasons, plenty of people regularly vote for individuals they know to be incompetents, demagogues or outright scoundrels.

It is generally agreed that generations of politicians should shoulder the blame for Argentina’s many disastrous economic failures. Unless you take seriously the conspiracy theories that leftists and nationalists have produced – according to which the outside world, led first by the perfidious British and then by their North American cousins, ganged up against Argentina in order to prevent her from becoming an industrial powerhouse – there is no other plausible explanation.

Nonetheless, despite their manifest inability to manage the country’s affairs with a minimum of efficiency, politicians of similar views to those of their predecessors keep getting elected to office. For what presumably are tribal reasons, plenty of people regularly vote for individuals they know to be incompetents, demagogues or outright scoundrels. There is no sign that any are about to change their ways. So, once again, the people entrusted with the task of saving Argentina from the fate that would await her should she slide over a cliff just happen to be the men and women who pushed her to the very edge of one that is big, rocky and very steep.

To judge by their collective performance over the last 80 years or so, Argentine politicians are the least successful in the Western world. In relation to the country’s income per capita, they are also among the most expensive. A couple of days ago, Roberto Cachanosky, an economist with a disquieting fondness for home truths many would rather leave unmentioned, made three legislators – the ruling coalition Senator Esteban Bullrich and the now Kirchnerite lower house lawmakers Daniel Arroyo and Victoria Donda – squirm with embarrassment when, during a television talk show, he pointed out to them that the extraordinary amount of money the taxpayer has to cough up to allow politicians to live in the style they think fitting has a great deal to do with the country’s many social woes.

Opposition politicians, disgruntled former supporters of the government, unctuous clerics and many others have decided that it is entirely due to Mauricio Macri that a third of the population is sunk in extreme poverty and some, perhaps many people, are going hungry. Had it not been for him, everyone would have plenty of money, so it is perfectly reasonable for politicians, judges, trade union heavies and others to live in comfort. That is what Arroyo and Donda clearly wanted to go on about.

Cachanosky reminded them that, at the current rate of exchange, here a deputy costs twice as much as his or her Spanish counterpart and a senator no less than 10 times as much, despite the obvious fact that – in comparison with Argentina – Spain is doing fairly nicely. He also pointed out that here municipal jurisdictions are on average considerably smaller than in the United States, which means that they provide low-level politicians with far more openings per head than would be available up north.

Political inflation has long been a big problem in Argentina, but efforts to deal with it are always shot down before they get off the ground. This is because anyone who gripes about the huge amounts of money which legislative bodies allegedly need in order to function properly and the habit politicians have of surrounding themselves with bevies of underlings who draw taxpayer-funded salaries, is immediately accused of seeking to undermine democracy.

Twenty or so years have gone by since it was reported that the legislative budget of one of the country’s poorest provinces, Formosa, was higher than that of Bavaria in Germany, whose gross product was over 150 times bigger, while Chaco spent more on politics than Catalonia, which was then only about 40 times wealthier than Elisa ‘Lilita’ Carrió’s home turf. Since then Germany and Spain have grown richer; here nothing much has changed.

Thanks to the combined efforts of politicians of all stripes, much of what was once widely regarded as one of the most promising countries on the face of the earth has been reduced to poverty. The way things are going, it could be about to suffer a cataclysmic implosion similar to the one that has turned Venezuela into a violent, famine-stricken and disease-ridden inferno.

However, despite the evident shortcomings and the unappealing reputation of the local “political class,” there are plenty of people who are eager to join it. Most say they are driven by a strong desire to serve the poor and make the country a better place (or something like that), but for all but a small-ish minority the real reason is surely that, once you start moving up the political ladder, you can expect to get within reach of a decent income that can supplemented by dozens of perks.

This means that when, as is usually the case, the economy looks likely to nosedive yet again, even more men and women than before want to become politicians, even if it only means finding a job thanks to the good offices of some municipal or provincial boss and then, with luck, getting their name on a party list. It is not that they feel they have what it takes to confront the huge challenges the country’s leaders and their aides will have to face in the near future, it is that they want to protect themselves from the hard times they know are fast approaching.

Politicians enjoy squabbling among themselves and much is made of the supposedly irreconcilable differences between Peronists and liberals, fans of Macri and the folk who idolise Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, but none of this prevents them from acting like members of a single corporation. They are more than willing to close ranks when they feel a parliamentary privilege is under threat. On occasion, they will throw one of their number to the wolves – as happened to the former planning minister and then deputy Julio de Vido – but that is about all.

Politicians have never been reluctant to vote themselves pay increases though the cannier among them wait until they think the citizenry will overlook what they are up to. They justify their generous pay packets and all those extras by insisting that, unless they are suitably rewarded for their services, politics will be monopolised by people who are already wealthy which, of course, would be most undemocratic. Would they behave in a more responsible fashion if they understood that they too will see their incomes slashed whenever the country suffers yet another terminal crisis? Perhaps, but providing them with convincing personal reasons for trying to do a bit better does not seem to be on anyone’s agenda.

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James Neilson

James Neilson

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


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