Unlike Mauricio Macri – who defied political convention by minimising the economic and social damage done by his predecessor because he wanted to persuade everyone that, now he was in charge, Argentina would soon start expanding at a blistering rate – Alberto Fernández is dead set on making people believe that everything that is wrong with the country is the fault of the man he has just replaced.
If this is what he really thinks, we are in deep trouble. Argentina’s woes have very deep roots. Some trace them all the way back to the Spanish Empire, others to the early years of the 20th century, and there are many who say the rot really set in with the rise of Juan Domingo Perón in the late 1940s. They forget that even then pessimism about the country’s future was rife.
What all this suggests is that unless a great deal changes, Argentina will continue to slide downhill towards a most unpleasant destination. Most people seem to understand this well enough, which is why the coalition backing Macri called itself “Let’s Change,” but as trying to bring about drastic reforms would oblige them to take on powerful interest groups, of which the corporatist “political class” is one, very little gets done.
The new government insists that widespread poverty is the country’s main problem and that tackling it by putting money in people’s pockets should be an absolute priority. For what President Fernández and his supporters say are moral reasons, they insist there is really no other choice. But while levelling down, as the government wants to do, may make Pope Francis happy, it is most unlikely to spur economic growth. On the contrary, it could make it even harder for Argentina to move forwards.
When, less than three quarters of a century ago, countries such as Japan and South Korea were in even worse shape than Argentina is today, their governments subordinated everything else to increasing productivity. They exhorted people to save more, invest more, export more, work more and, of course, study more. For decades, improvements in living standards lagged far behind the overall increase in economic prowess. In some respects, they still do, but even so, few would say the strategy chosen by the East Asian powerhouses – who in 1979 was joined by the biggest of the lot, China – was the wrong one.
Thanks largely to the Chinese and their neighbours, and to breakneck technological progress, the world is becoming a more competitive place by the day. Within each country, those who have what it takes are distancing themselves from the rest without politicians, who are getting blamed for what is happening, being able to do much about it. And in the international arena, some countries are doing far better than others. In Europe, the gap between the fiscally disciplined north and the allegedly feckless south continues to widen.
The many who find merely materialistic values hollow may feel the constant worrying about economic developments and the subordination of education to the labour market distasteful, but for the 40 percent or so of the Argentine population which is already below the poverty line to enjoy a better life, its members will need not just handouts paid for by money taken from the marginally better off but also the skills and aptitudes they will require to prosper in an ever more demanding world.
For much of Argentina’s existence as an independent country, international standards were by and large set by the English-speaking world, plus France, Germany and a few others with broadly similar ways of doing things. Despite Argentina’s many natural advantages, after having come close to the front-runners, thanks to farm exports to the British Empire, she found it impossible to stop the gap that separated her from them from widening. In recent decades, it has continued to do so.
With the East Asians setting the pace, keeping the advanced countries within sight will be even harder than it was before. What their countries lack in raw material resources is more than made up for by their cultural capital, which these days is what counts. While it may be true that, on the whole, they are less inventive than Europeans and North Americans who prize individual prowess far more than group cohesion, they are undeniably more diligent and, if test results are anything to go by, on average they tend to be brainier.
Cultural traditions matter. The transformation, in a remarkably short period of time, of China into an economic and strategic rival of the United States, like the changes that were brought about by the Meiji Restoration a century earlier which made Japan a world power and the measures taken after 1960, when South Korea’s product per capita was a measly US$79, which turned her into the high-tech dynamo she is today, can all be attributed to the three countries’ Confucian heritage.
As the PISA results keep reminding us, their inhabitants are addicted to education. Their successes in this key area are not due to any official decision to lavish money on schools but to the willingness of almost all parents, including the very poorest, to sacrifice their own wellbeing and to press their offspring into cramming as much information into their heads as is humanly possible, and then some. This is not something you see much of in either the Buenos Aires Province slums or in comfortably off middle-class districts.
In East Asia, the annual examinations give rise to as much excitement as
football matches in this part of the world. Traffic stops to prevent the noise
from distracting youngsters who know their marks could be decisive for their
own personal future and for that of their relatives. For days, television news
bulletins lead with the latest information about how the kids are doing. Distraught or jubilant mums and dads are interviewed. All this may strike outsiders
from more easygoing lands as downright weird, but they should take it just as
seriously as their great-grandfathers did – or, in most cases, did not – when
they saw on in the local cinema footage of tens of thousands of grim-faced
robotic soldiers drilling in what was then Nazi Germany. Whether they understand it or not, in the age of the “knowledge economy” East Asian youngsters are the equivalent of the conquering armies of former times.