Category Archives: Uncategorized

The Agenda

Luis Rubio

The objectives that defined the agenda and electoral proposal of now President López Obrador are THE problems of Mexico: poverty, corruption, inequality and insufficient growth. The strategies to defeat these wrongs can be argued, but  no one can dispute their transcendence in today’s national reality. The true dilemma lies elsewhere: it concerns structural and systemic problems that must be understood in their dimension because, contrariwise, the president -and the country- will be in pursuit of nothing more than another mirage. Another of the many that accumulate at each morning presidential-press-conference.

“Many of the problems are systemic, says Charles Murray in his new book,* but they will not be solved by going after their appearance. They will be solved, or ameliorated, by going after systemic educational problems, systemic law enforcement problems, systemic employment problems.” That is, instead of claiming that a better teacher or a better textbook is going to transform the system of education (or the equivalent in matters of Rule of Law), the only way to achieve the sought-after transformation is recognizing its structural nature and conceiving public policies expressly designed for such a purpose.

In Mexico, the latter implies beginning with the objectives of the educational system, which were never about the education of the population, equalizing opportunities, or training for life. Education in the post-Revolutionary era was always an instrument of political action oriented toward control of the citizenry and manipulating their way of thinking to construct aideological hegemony. Rather than it being a transformative factor, education was always conceived for control, due to which it not only tolerated the growth of powerful teachers’ unions, but this also was an express objective of corporativist Mexico. Just as procuring control of industrial-sector workers, control of teachers and subordination of the populace was sought through an educational system tailored with that objective in mind. In this, the Mexico of the XX century was much more like the old Soviet Union than the rest of the Latin-American nations and nothing more contrasting with the emphasis adopted by the Asian nations to convert education into the transformative factor of their societies.

In Asia, especially in countries such as Korea, Japan, Singapore and Taiwan, education became the transformative instrument of their societies. Nations without great natural resources, all of them viewed education as the means through which they could raise the productivity of their economies, improve the incomes of their populations, and enter triumphantly into the developed world. It is not by chance that the second wave of governments dedicated to the same objective -like China and Vietnam- have regarded education as the key element in their economic project. The rapid rise in their per-capita rates of income speaks for itself.

Try as the diverse educational reforms from the nineties up to those of the Peña government might, the tangible fact, measured by results, is that the country remains stagnant in this matter. Now, with a president who thinks that the sole legitimate objective of a government is political, -that is, ignoring any technological or analytical consideration- Mexico has returned to the logic of the seventies in which the express purpose of education (not merely de facto) is control of the citizenry. Moved by the notion of throwing overboard anything that does not contribute to the concentration of power and the subordination of everything and everyone to the president, the current government threatens to remit thecountry to neolithic political post-Revolutionary times.

Why educate Mexicans if all that is needed to employ Colonial-era technologies is, at most, basic education? In other words, instead of bringing about the elevation of the population’s income levels and their opportunities to make it in life, starting with the most impoverished, the government of President López Obrador is in the quest of equalizing down: for everyone to be poor. That may not be its avowed objective, but it is the one toward which its policies are advancing, and its result will be decades of lagging behind, in addition to amassed resentments that will do nothing other than complicate the panorama. Additionally, this is the reason for an enormous growth in the number of Mexicans migrating to the United States.Instead of pursuing the development of Mexico, the aim appears to be having a hand in the development of our neighbors.

Inequality and poverty are a palpable reality, the product of an entire system devoted to preserving those circumstances. Even the most ambitious governments in developmental matters omitted the attacking of structural problems -social, political, petty fiefdoms- the daily bread in the lives of most Mexicans. It is paradoxical, but above all pathetic, that the most radical government in its rhetoric in these affairs is also the most reactionary, one that will contribute most over the last half century to increasing poverty, inequality and, why not say it, corruption. Life is full of surprises.

 

*Facing Reality

www.mexicoevalua.org
@lrubiof

Alliances

Luis Rubio

Ideological coherence or political pragmatism: the eternal dilemma of alliances. These last as long as their members continue to find greater benefits in participating and remaining in them than in denouncing them and breaking away. From Marxist theoreticians to the most seasoned political operators, alliances are the heart of politics. In the Netherlands there has not been a single majority government in seventy years: coalitions are a permanent factor and key element in their politicians’ civility because no one knows with whom they will associate in the future. As this year makes its debut, the alliance forged for the 2021 mid-term election will be put to the test for the grand event of 2024.

Motivations to form alliances are many and very diverse, but the principal one is always need. A political party that has an extensive majority lacks the incentive to ally itself with another; when it needs partners to achieve power, it seeks potential allies with whom to affiliate. This is customary in parliamentary systems, has been an unabridged vicissitude in Mexico, but does not for this reason discard involving an impeccable logic.

Political parties are cast with an ideological content, but their central function is that of procuring political power, engendering their flexibility at the time of setting up legislative or electoral coalitions or alliances. A party can be pristine in its objectives and fastidious in its manner of proceeding, but if it is not in power, its circumstance impedes it from being anything more than a witness to the nation’s happenings. An alliance among forces as diverse as the PAN, PRI and PRD (and, potentially, Movimiento Ciudadano [MC]) leads many to break out in hives (beginning with this latter), but it is the rational response to the quest for power.

Without doubt, an alliance entails costs owing to that on allying itself a political party it surrenders freedoms, starting with that of nominating its own candidates. When it concerns, as it did last year, an alliance for legislative power, the sacrifices are relatively minor, in that there are many seats to fill; however, this year six governorships will come into play in which there can be only one candidate from the alliance per state, which in turn will produce at least three potential losers per entity. The following year there will be two more and in 2024, the mother of all battles.

Each party that incorporates itself into an alliance does so because it sees in it a better way to advance its own interests. However much each of these political institutes perceives itself as pure and chaste, all exhibit deficiencies, corruptions and an abysmal record in terms of democratic procedures at their core. Haley Barbour, a U.S. politician, said that “in politics, purity is the enemy of victory.” Whoever allies themself with other parties does so because they entertain the objective of transcending their own individual capacities.

With a powerful president who still retains a relatively high level of popularity, an alliance is the sole mechanism offering an opportunity to the political parties that are found today among the opposition. And each of those parties encounters distinct challenges on looking at itself in the mirror. For the PAN, the party that has always assumed itself to be an unsullied entity that contrasted with the corruption of the PRI, now must recognize that its time in power was not too distinct from that of its historical nemesis. For the PRI the problem is one of survival: be extinguished if it allows itself to be absorbed by Morena or renovate itself and find a new platform and political support base. Regarding the PRD, the smallest of the alliance’s political parties, its challenge is to not disappear despite the caliber of its adherents. MC did not wish to join the alliance for the mid-term election because it did not want to “contaminate” itself with the costs of the “Pact for Mexico,” which ravaged the other three.

Undeniably, the risk of contagion is high, but so is the pigheadedness. As the authors of Éloge de la trahisonwrite, this is a fragile equilibrium in that the objective is not merely to stay in power. If the objective of the political parties is power, the question is how to structure an alliance that possesses the greatest probability of this being attained. María Matilde Oilier, the Argentinean scholar, states this in candid fashion: those who wanted to respect the norms never attained the ability to govern and those who achieved governance never respected the norms.

The reality is that for a long time Mexico has needed a political transformation because the entire political apparatus and the system of government has stagnated, as evidenced by crisis-ridden pathways of economic growth, insecurity, corruption and poverty. The way that López Obrador governs forced the opposition to unite to have the opportunity to access power. The 2021 Alliance showed that it can indeed function, but the true test does not lie in the pragmatism of joining together for an election, but in agreeing on a strategy of political transformation. Without a rationale for allying themselves that transcends the fact of a short-term electoral triumph, alliance members would experience what their constituents suffered, respectively, in 2000, 2006 and 2012: failure and the ensuing twilight.

In politics, wrote Camus, it is the means that justify the end. The alliance is a means, but its relevance and capacity of convincing the electorate depends on the quality of the project brandished by the alliance andits members.

www.mexicoevalua.org
@lrubiof

Vestiges

Luis Rubio

The pandemic has ended, but its aftereffects are visible everywhere. An epidemic, Ambrose Bierce wrote in 1906, is “a disease having a sociable turn and few prejudices.” Indeed, science responded with medicines that helped allay the symptoms of those who fell ill, while vaccines began to show a path forward, even though the exit, due to the enormous complexity of the logistics involved, will take time to materialize for the whole of humankind.

Through this period, I gathered a large quantity of anecdotes and quotes about pandemics through history. Here go a few that I found particularly relevant.

In his novel Death in Venice (1912), Thomas Mann tells how the pesthouse of the Ospedale Civico had filled and commerce had become very active between the port and the cemetery island of San Michelle. But there was ear of a general drop in prosperity. The recently opened art exhibit in the public gardens was to be considered, along with the heavy losses that in case of panic or unfavorable rumors would threaten businesses, the hotels, the entire elaborate system for exploiting foreigners… The policy of silence and denial was upheld… The chief health officer had resigned from his post in indignation and been promptly replaced by a more tractable personality. Nothing new under the sun.

Humanity has but three great enemies: fever, famine, and war; of these, by far the greatest, by far the most terrible, is fever

William Osler, 1896

After the epidemic began, I basically didn’t go home. I lived separately from my husband and family. My sister helped take care of my children at home. My youngest child didn’t recognize me, didn’t react to me when he saw me on video. I felt lost. My husband told me that things happen in life, and you’re not only a participant, you’re choosing to lead a team to fight this epidemic. That’s also a very meaningful act, he said, and when everything returns to normal, you’ll know it was a valuable experience to have had.

Interview with Dr. Li Wenliang, who died in Wuhan

Plagues are as certain as death and taxes

Richard Krause, 1982

When one remembers under what conditions the working people live, when one thinks how crowded their dwellings are, how every nook and corner swarms in the same room, in the same bed, the only wonder is that a contagious disease like this fever does not spread yet farther. And when one reflects how little medical assistance the sick have at command, how many are without any medical advice whatsoever, and ignorant of the most ordinary precautionary measures, the mortality seems actually small.

Friedrich Engels, The Conditions of the Working Class in England, 1844

Death from the bubonic plague is rated, with crucifixion, among the nastiest human experiences of all

Guy R. Williams, 1975

A number of people were still unpersuaded that there really was a plague. And since some victims had actually recovered, “it was said” (the final arguments of an opinion defeated by the evidence are always strange to hear), by the common people, and also by many biased doctors, that it was not a true plague, because otherwise everyone would have been dead

Alejandro Manzoni, The Betrothed, 1827

The most important consideration in the causation of disease is the body constitution that becomes afflicted. Therefore, not all people will die during an epidemic

Moses Maimonides, c 1190

The illness was so dreadful that no one could walk or move. The sick were so utterly helpless that they could only lie on their beds, like corpses… A great many died from the plague, and many others died of hunger. They could not get up to search for food, and everyone else was too sick to care for them, so they starved to death in their beds. Some people came down with a milder form of the disease; they suffered less than others and made a good recovery. But they could not escape entirely. Their looks were ravaged, for wherever a sore broke out, it gouged an ugly pockmark in the skin. And a few of the survivors were left completely blind.

Bernardino de Sahagun, Florentine Codex, 1545-1590

He who dies of epidemic disease is a martyr

Muhammad, c 630

Amid the confusion the plague spread rapidly, encouraged both by the misery and lawlessness of the people… The mayor reported that in Monte Lupo “twenty five houses had been closed, and we continually found more people sick with the contagious disease.” On June 4, Mayor Francesco della Stufa “passed to a better life,” and the gravediggers who had caused hem so much trouble in his life buried him after his death “in the cemetery of Cacciacane, because he had died of the plague…

Carlo M. Cipolla, Faith, Reason, and the Plague in Seventeenth-Century Tuscany, 1977

 

www.mexicoevalua.org

@lrubiof

Technology

Luis Rubio

Every year brings its surprises and opportunities, but some can leave us speechless in the face of what happened. In March 2020, all the inhabitants of the planet found us before an unknown world: that of fear and seclusion due to the risk implied by a pandemic, a phenomenon that, with local exceptions, was only known by historical reference. However, it took no more than a few weeks for vaccines capable of fighting the virus to emerge, vaccines whose technology had been in development for years, but which suddenly found practical application. The rest is history: the testing stages of these vaccines began immediately, followed by their accelerated vaccination rolldown through the year that is now ending. One cannot help but marvel at what technology makes possible -and the risks involved.

As in other years, I take this moment to quote some of the great thinkers, this time regarding the issue of the moment: technology.

“All of our exalted technological progress, civilization for that matter, is comparable to an ax in the hands of a pathological criminal.” Albert Einstein, 1917

“Where the telescope ends, the microscope begins. Which of these two has the grander view?” Victor Hugo, 1862

“Intelligence will become more and more collective; innovation and order will become more and more bottom up.” Matt Ridley 2019

“Every civilization has been grounded on technology. What makes ours unique is that for the first time we believe that every man is entitled to all its benefits” Jacob Bronowski, 1972

“The real problem is not whether machines think but whether men do.” B.F. Skinner, 1969

“Think of this: When they present you with a watch, they are gifting you with a tiny flowering hell, a wreath of roses, a dungeon of air. They aren’t simply wishing the watch on you, and many more, and we hope it will last you, it’s a good brand, Swiss, seventeen rubies; they aren’t just giving you this minute stonecutter that will bind you by the wrist and walk along with you. They are giving you -they don’t know it- they are gifting you with a new, fragile and precarious piece of yourself, something that’s yours but not a part of your body, that you have to strap to your body like your belt, like a tiny, furious bit of something hanging on to your wrist. They gift you with the job of having to wind it every day, an obligation to wind it, so that it foes on being a watch; they gift you with the obsession of looking into jewelry-shop windows to check the exact time, check the radio announcer, check the telephone service. They give you the gift of fear, someone will steal it from you, it’ll fall on the street and get broken. They give you the gift of trademark and the assurance that it’s a trademark better than the others, they gift you the impulse to compare your watch with other watches. They aren’t giving you a watch, you are the gift, they are gibing you yourself for the watch’s birthday.” Julio Cortazar, Cronopios, 1962

“Inventor, n. A person who makes an ingenious arrangement of wheels, levers, and springs and believes it civilization.” Ambrose Bierce, 1911

“If the human race wants to go to hell in a basket, technology can help it get there by jet.” Charles M. Allen, 1967

 

“Without slavery there is no cotton; without cotton there is no modern industry. It is slavery that has given value to universal commerce, and it is world trade which is the condition of large-scales industry.” Karl Marx, 1846

“Sometimes I wonder. I’m making explorations. I don’t know where they’re going to take me. My work is designed for the purpose of trying to understand our technological environment and its psychic and social consequences. My purpose is to employ facts as tentative probes, as a means of insight, of pattern recognition, rather than to use them in the traditional and sterile sense of classified data, categories, containers. The better part of my work on media is actually somewhat like a safecracker’s. I don’t know what’s inside; maybe it’s nothing. I just sit down and start to work. I grope, I listen, I accept and discard; I try of different sequences -until the tumblers fall and the doors spring open.” Marshall McLuhan, 1969

“The real problem of humanity is the following: we have Paleolithic emotions, medieval institutions, and godlike technology.” Edward O Wilson, 2009

“Where there is the necessary technical skill to move mountains, there is no need for the faith that moves mountains.” Eric Hoffer, 1955

“The main ingredient in the secret sauce that leads to innovation is freedom. Freedom to exchange, experiment, imagine, invest and fail; freedom from expropriation or restrictions by chiefs, priests and thieves; freedom on the part of consumers to reward the innovations they like and reject the ones they do not” Matt Ridley, 2020

 

www.mexicoevalua.org

@lrubiof

My Readings

Luis Rubio

The year 2021 has been quite strange. It began with nearly exponential growth in the number of contagions and ended with a downward trend. While other nations acted to quell the pandemic with perfectly structured vaccination programs, such as those that Mexico accomplished systematically and successfully some years ago for terrible diseases like smallpox and polio, the obsession to politicize everything led to an uncertain outcome: instead of capitalizing on the prime opportunities it possesses, starting with the China–U.S. controversy whose natural beneficiary, were the government to know where it is going, would be Mexico.

China has not ceased being an issue of analysis and discussion because it breaks with the patterns expected by the social sciences, opening a favorable window for serious scholars as well as charlatans to try out and build hypotheses ranging from the sublime to the ridiculous. The problem is that only time will tell who was correct in their estimates regarding the solidity of the institutions and economy of that nation.   The literature on the topic is endless; a truly interesting one, entitled The China Nighmare by Dan Blumenthal, proposes the existence of a contradiction at the heart of the strategy of the General Secretary of the CCP, Xi Jinping. On the one hand, he has displayed extraordinary geopolitical ambition with all that implies in terms of military expenditure and subsidies for the construction of a project to interconnect China at the center of its logistic corridors through Asia to Africa and Europe. Nonetheless, on the other hand, the Secretary has dismantled the mechanisms engineered by his predecessors, above all Deng Xiaoping, for the accelerated development of his economy, creating an enormous internal weakness that cannot support the politico-military project. This is a must-read, due to the immense transcendence and importance, embracing all orders, of the Asian giant.

Perhaps the most simulating reading I encountered this year was Open: The Story of Human Progress, by Johan Norberg. The central premise of the work is that, throughout history, the world has advanced whenever there is an open mindset in the broadest sense of the word: an opening to ideas, to commerce and to exchange. Moments of ascent are the product of that opening, retrograde moments occur when societies retreat toward tribalism. In this manner, history is a constant struggle between cooperation and cloister. One of the best examples and one that the book describes in detail is that of China, the nation that led the world in technology, science, and wealth during the era that it stayed open to the world, only to sustain poverty at the time it retracted. The main paradox that the author recounts in multiple examples is that of the propensity to protect the status quo which, originally, was achieved due to the existence of an open regime. Fascinating reading.

A heretical and iconoclastic book on the predominant dogma is Capitalism, Democracy, and Ralph’s Pretty Good Grocery. John Mueller argues that, despite its bad image, what allows for stability, development and life in society is the economic system that generates affluence:  capitalism. For its part, democracy, which enjoys prodigious recognition, is more an ideal than an effective mechanism for problem solving and improving the population’s quality of life. The reference to Ralph’s grocery is an allegory forged by a humorist who affirms that “if you can’t find it in that store, you probably don’t need it.” The idea is that, despite their image problems, democracy and capitalism have carried the day because people have accepted that those systems cannot provide everything but that, in conjunction, the populace acknowledges that if they can’t provide you with it, you probably don’t have need of it.

Few things are as heart-rending as the so-called “dirty wars” when governmental and paramilitary forces overturn the society to “cleanse it” of the evils of those who think differently. Daniel Loedel pens Hades, Argentina, a novel on the disappearance of his half-sister in the seventies, where hell is as much a metaphor as the context within which life transpires. Excellent reading.

Mariana Mazzucato, an Italian economist, has been writing a series of critical texts on the political economy of the last decades. In her most recent book, Mission Economy, she posits that the model to follow is the Apollo space program that rendered possible placing man on the moon, the program in which the government addressed itself, via an industrial policy, to erecting the conditions for this to happen. Her critique sounds reasonable in view of the better performance exhibited by nations that pursue this type of strategy, notably China. But, in the last analysis, her model sounds more like the failed Soviet Union than a map toward the future, especially because it does not demonstrate that its schema is the most effective one for the development of the technologies that, as Matt Ridley illustrates, only take place stochastically in an ambience of freedom and competition produced by the markets. As Ridley brilliantly maintains in his most recent book, How Innovation Works, no one can foretell from whom or from whence progress will materialize.

www.mexicoevalua.org
@lrubiof

 

 

Paradoxes

Luis Rubio

The discourse, body language and tone are increasingly more intolerant and revealing of a growing despair. Verbal radicalization was on the rise throughout last year, culminating in indiscriminate attacks against educational institutions, journalists and individuals, many of whom, paradoxically, have been the bulwarks and even backers of the President himself and certainly of his causes. The change in his demeanor with respect to the beginning of the government is plain and, however, none of that has altered the devotion bestowed on him by his electoral base.

Specialists in surveys bend over backward to explain the phenomenon of the elevated popularity despite such pathetic results and, especially, the distance between the numbers that his government receives with respect to those of his own. In the words of Francisco Abundis, one of the most accurate forecasters, “the perception of the economy, the critical variable traditionally employed to consider presidential approval, does not appear to be a determinant indicator. It seems that the population pays attention to other indicators such as social programs… The phenomenon is very similar to that which was observed with ex-President Fox. When supporters of the present Mexican head of state are questioned on his administrative errors, the response frequently is to pin the responsibility on his team or on those around him, but never on the president.”*

In his three-year midterm “report,” the President exhibited what could be a new strategy for the remainder of his administration: if what matters to his base (and to his popularity) are not tangible results measured by traditional gauges (such as growth, employment, security, etc.), then what proceeds is personal promotion, exactly the content of the massive convocation to Mexico City’s Zocalo on December 1. That is to say, the presidential rationale gives the impression of metamorphosing toward a consecration not of the project but of the person as a myth.

The response and reaction of those present at that massive act in the Capital’s center, as well as the popularity tallies, suggest that this is not a bad gamble. Conventional yardsticks do not appear to apply to this president because he has achieved identification as the champion of certain causes and as the incarnation of accumulated resentments that transcend the demand for the usual material or tangible satisfiers. The electoral base does not exact those results because its devotion entails a more religious explanation, one fundamentally more faith-based than rational. In a word, it is a distinct phenomenon that should be categorized in its own terms.

In the history of the world more leaders aspire to become mythical figures than those who attain it. Some are converted into myths for erroneous reasons (such as the Kennedy assassination), others for having transformed their societies, for good or ill, such as Mandela, Mao or Stalin. The excessive power conferred by Mexico’s political system on their presidents often lead them to believe that they can be transformer leaders who come to resolve, with or without an adequate project, all of the country’s problems in less than a six-year term of office. Many attempted it and practically all ended up in history’s dustbin, if not worse.

A few decades ago, Thomas Frank* argued that people vote against their interests: people grant privilege to values above interests and associate with leaders who promote causes that are not material, immediate or necessarily “rational”. In the specific case, the electorate of regions such as Kansas prefer to vote for candidates who reject abortion and favor the availability of arms for personal use rather than those who promote economic development, education, better jobs and other time-honored benchmarks.

The point is that not all electoral preferences can be codified, or even understood, with established categories of analysis. Heads of state who are effective employ myths to advance their enterprise and oftentimes win over the loyalty of the population not due to their programs but to factors that would appear “irrational” under the prevailing measures. Fidel Castro became a mythical figure despite impoverishing his population and keeping it oppressed for more than a half century. Xi Jinping governs an extremely successful nation and, nonetheless, resorts to Mao, another mythical ruler who oppressed the citizenry, as a source of ideological support.

In contrast with those nations (and many more), the moment of AMLO is not propitious for the consecration of a mythical figure. Access to information and the grandiosity of the population’s expectations that this information permits create a point of comparison that renders it very difficult to preserve coherence between poor results and grandiloquent holding-forth. What is certain is that three years are in the offing of unredeemed self-promotion. That may end up consecrating the myth. But as suggested by the evaluation of Abundis cited at the beginning of this piece, what happened to Fox can happen again, this time to AMLO. Fox unleashed extraordinary expectations and hopes that, on not materializing, had the effect of drastically demythologizing the figure, turning him into the very opposite of a myth: a fiction, a sophism or, simply, a failure…

*Milenio, December 1, 2021, **What’s the Matter with Kansas?

www.mexicoevalua.org
@lrubiof

Till When

Luis Rubio

The evidence of economic stagnation and social regression is overwhelming. Programs of social transfers to the president’s clienteles, although politically motivated, do not compensate for the impact of the pandemic nor for the lack of growth that Mexicans have experienced in these last years. It’s not as if things were perfect before and suddenly collapsed, but instead that Mexico has gone through a period of constant and systematic deterioration that is evident to everyone and, however, it seems that it is the world of Alice in Wonderland where everything is backwards. It is really?

 

“One of the saddest lessons of history, writes Carl Sagan,* is this: if we have been bamboozled long enough, we tend to reject any evidence of the bamboozle.  We’re no longer interested in finding out the truth. The bamboozle has captured us. It’s simply too painful to acknowledge, even to ourselves, that we’ve been taken. Once you give a charlatan power over you, you almost never get it back.”

 

A little while ago I read a new history of the German Occupation of France during the Second World War; the lasting image I took from this is of the deterioration that is evident, but frequently imperceptible even for experienced observers. The factors that permit some degree of well-being grind down, employment sources dry up, the salaries that the workers receive in fact diminish (and that without considering the purchasing power), the social milieu takes on an innuendo of naturality that is everything but natural. Corruption flourishes or, rather, stays on course in all ambits but now is perceived as understandable and is justified as if it were an inherent part of a purported transformation. The presence of the military in the streets and in charge of all sorts of projects, previously intolerable, abruptly acquires an elevated level of legitimacy, as if it were desirable. Parochial speeches in the highest forums of the international concert are extolled, even by observers in the know, as pieces of transcendental oratory, as if delivered by Demosthenes, Cicero or Churchill declaiming at moments fraught with extraordinary emergency. What had before been unacceptable -and that was, in Mexico’s case, in contrast with the example of France- what led to the election of a movement that yearned to attack those evils, became not only acceptable, but normal.

 

In a recent article in The Atlantic, Anne Applebaum says about the Taliban that their objective is not a prosperous Afghanistan, but instead of an Afghanistan in which they themselves are in power and she raises the obvious question: how is such impunity possible?  That is the question that we Mexicans must ask ourselves.

 

And that is the question that many formulated some months ago in the midterms, thus the urban defeat of Morena. It was that too which made an alliance among strange bedfellows and once competitors possible, even inevitable. It is clear to me that their legitimate objective, as with any political party in the world, is power, but the pragmatism that they have exhibited is not contemptible, in that it shows a capacity of response in the face of the deterioration that represents them, evidently, and opportunity.

 

Nothing is further from my spirit than defending the “old order” that Morena supposedly dismantled with the president’s rallying cry “we’re doing well.” Those who have done me the favor of reading me over the past decades know that I believe in a liberal order in the economic as well as in the political, but what Mexicans had before the election of Lopez Obrador fell far from that paradigm. The avowed objectives were of a liberal order, but the reality was a very far cry from that. Nonetheless Mexicans had at least, first, spaces of freedom that the current government erodes day to day and, second, the geographical half (more or less) of the country advanced systematically. None of that justifies the lack of opportunities that has characterized the inhabitants of the states of Chiapas, Oaxaca, and other Mexicans for centuries, but the present fancied success consists of everyone losing. The old and unequal order now continues being unequal, but worse. Some progress, that.

 

The face-to-face discourse of Mexico’s president before the U.S. President and the Prime Minister of Canada brings to mind a floating bubble cut off from the reality. Yes, the president of Mexico embraces the reality of the regional trade agreement (USMCA) and the U.S.-China moment, but that contradicts his initiatives for the interior (such as electricity and transparency), where he backs off minute by minute from matters of globality, a globality, it cannot be repeated enough, that constitutes, in the form of exports, the main source of growth and income that Mexico can rely on.

 

A government of lost opportunities, the greatest of which is that of not correcting, well, not even attempting to confront, the woes that ushered the present government to its 2018 electoral triumph. Like the Taliban, everything was about power, not about the true ills that afflict the country.

 

“The crucial fact, says Sowell, is that it is far easier to concentrate power than to concentrate knowledge.” Regarding the concentration of power, there is no doubt; nor is there any doubt with respect to the well-being or the quality of life of Mexicans. And even less so when one of the traits of our time is the destruction of the knowledge which allows for the ending of the impunity. The evidence is resounding; now the only thing lacking is the waning of self-deceit.

 

* Carl Sagan, The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark

 

 

www.mexicoevalua.org

@lrubiof

 

How This Ends

Luis Rubio

The problem with bets is that they are binary: all or nothing. When a government plays the betting game, as when one plays with fire, it can end up badly. For three years, the Mexican president has placed odds on a series of factors that to date and despite the pandemic, have come out essentially well. What no one knows is whether those same factors will continue to be favorable. Bets can come out well, but they do not cease being bets. And they can also come out badly…

The government of President López Obrador has made three fundamental bets: first, the infrastructure projects (the refinery, the train and the airport), as sources of economic growth, to which one must add the attempted revitalization of Petróleos Mexicanos (Pemex). These initiatives have advanced against sea and deluge, the pandemic and recession, thanks to the conviction of the president that this is the way to the future to ensure the consolidation of his eagerly awaited transformation.

The second bet is on improving the standard of living of the population that has been his electoral base (not always the poorest or most needy), which he trusts will guarantee the politico-electoral continuity of his (historic) project of government. That population reiterated its support at the recent midterms, but proved insufficient for achieving the ultimate objective of underwriting the project’s continuity or its legitimacy.

The third bet is on the country’s economic and financial stability, measured principally by the steadiness of the exchange rate. What many consider this an obsession, particularly those who argue insistently (many of them with legitimate and persuasive approaches) for greater expenditure in the context of the pandemic, is the product of a cold political calculation summed up in the celebrated phrase “the president who devaluates is devaluated.” For the president it is obvious that this variable is transcendental for the entire Mexican society and that it, therefore, comprises a fundamental factor in his assessment.

Beyond the boos and ovations, the presidential project has been successful on its terms. While the issues that drove his candidacy have not been corrected (such as insecurity, corruption, growth or poverty), the mere fact that the country has been able to navigate the turbulent waters of the pandemic with the acute impoverishment that it implied, earned the president an infinitely less pernicious electoral result for his party than could have been.

The problem of the second half of the six-year presidential term is that it is the time of harvesting what was sown during the previous years and this government will not have many fruits to gather. The infrastructure projects are not particularly solid nor do they have multiplier-effect benefits for the economy as a whole, and it is even possible that they will end up as white elephants; for its part, instead of being a source of demand and growth as it was during in the seventies, Pemex is an interminable drain of fiscal resources and, in any case, it no longer entertains (nor will it ever entertain) the relative weight it had a half century ago and even less so in today’s, ever more digital economy. The complexity characterizing the Mexican economy of the XXI century is such that no government can pretend to control all its variables or conduct all of its processes. Worse still, the concentration of power that lies at the heart of the governmental strategy constitutes a damper on investment and growth. To top the overall picture, the government has done nothing to combat evils such as corruption or insecurity, factors that, had they diminished, would have held, in themselves, enormous political and social appeal for the country’s long-term development.

In addition to the latter, much of what facilitated the stability of the past three years has less to do with the internal management than with the international financial markets, which have been especially favorable. I have no doubt that much of the support that the president continues to enjoy depends on that economic stability, but this is combined with the deep-seated nature of the electorate. Mexicans understand how limited their options are; thus, they respond to the largesse dispensed by politicians with electoral motives (particularly transfers to the president’s base), corroborating the wisdom of Mexican voters, but not necessarily their convictions: it winds up being an exchange, pure and simple.

In a word, electoral support is more volatile than politicians suppose, and the president has acted under the assumption that he can eliminate much of the traditional expenditure (such as in health or childcare centers) to dedicate these monies to his clienteles while simultaneously expecting the international context to favor him. The question is: What happens if these premises turn out to be in error?

Today it is not inconceivable for the Federal Reserve, to begin to raise interest rates at some point, which would immediately have repercussions on the Mexican peso–U.S. dollar exchange rate. In the same fashion, remittances from Mexicans living in the U.S. may begin to diminish to the degree that the huge transfers that the U.S. government has made due to the pandemic begin to wind down. On the other hand, given the unfavorable environment for investment, there are no reasons to anticipate that the Mexican economy improve its performance. Furthermore, the issue security, which has not been a priority of the president’s, could further deteriorate.

At the end of the day, everything will continue to depend on bets, as always.

www.mexicoevalua.org
@lrubiof
a quick-translation of this article can be found at www.luisrubio.mx

Awkward Partner

Luis Rubio

Brexit is not the sole challenge that the European Union (EU) faces. Although the United Kingdom was always an awkward partner, there are other nations that engender permanent tensions. Some obvious cases include those of regions seeking autonomy, such as Catalonia, but in recent years it is the Eastern European nations that have become the headaches. Hungary long ago broke with the protocol of democratic civility, which is perhaps the heart, at least in the emotional sense, of the EU, but presently Poland is the nation that has been at the forefront in terms of challenging the key supports of the regional organization. To become a member of the EU, an aspirant must homologate its entire legal, even constitutional, structure, with the rules dictated by Brussels; however, of late, the Supreme Court in Warsaw (which no one considers independent of its government) emitted a decree that diverse European regulations were not in agreement with the Polish Constitution. The Polish government has no intention whatsoever of abandoning the EU but its ongoing permanence clashes with the essence of the European project. While the U.K. split off with a single stroke, Poland is seen as an increasingly awkward and incompatible partner. I wonder whether Mexico is beginning to appear this way to our two North American partners.

The European project is very different in structure and nature from the North American Trade Agreement. The explicit objective of the nations that made up the European Economic Community (EEC) with the Treaty of Rome in 1957 was that of advancing toward political integration under the premise that constant interaction on all planes -economic, labor, and political- would eliminate the propensity to incur in bellicose aggressions such as those the continent had already undergone twice in the 20th century.

The North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) and its successor, the United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement (USMCA), espouses no greater pretension or purpose than that of integrating industrial processes, establishing clear regulations for commercial exchange and for investments among the three countries. To this end, the contract that unites the three nations establishes the mechanisms for the functioning of the border crossings, as well as the resolution of controversies and disputes.

The sphere in which both regions, Europe and North America, indeed do share a common aspiration lies in strengthening institutions and capacities for developing their newest and most vulnerable partners. Nations previously forming part of the Soviet bloc that applied for their incorporation into the EU perceived that access as a way of transforming themselves, consolidating their economies and securing an anchor for their democracy. In the same dimension, the Mexican proposal to negotiate a schema like that which the United States had agreed on with Canada was understood by the U.S. as an opportunity to serve as a bulwark for the transformation that Mexico had undertaken in prior years and to contribute to its consolidation.

Independently of the contrasting aims, the original nations that assumed these regional mechanisms shared a similar history and levels of development (Germany, France, The Netherlands, Belgium, Italy and Luxembourg, and Canada and the U.S., respectively). Notwithstanding this, both regions responded to the emergence of the right set of circumstances to underpin neighboring nations with eminently distinct characteristics. They did so out of self-interest: they also gained by having stronger neighbors.

The discussion among the original members within the European Union is what to do with nations like Poland and those that will accumulate over time. With the experience that already exists of a nation that withdrew from the bloc, the U.K., European politicians are starting to address the contrast between a bad marriage and a good divorce. Though many deplore the exit of England, they now are beginning to see it as a lesser evil when faced with the inherent complexity of a partner that does not take its leave but that constitutes a perennial pain in the neck, in addition to its being susceptible to infecting other nations in the vicinity.

For three decades, Mexico maintained, at least formally, the goal of expediting integration as a mechanism to elevate productivity and, with that, the population’s incomes, and the country’s development. Not much was done in this respect -not even providing incentives for ever more regions, activities and enterprises to actively participate in the regional mechanism- but, until recently, there has been no divergence in the general vision of the future.

Lopez Obrador’s government does not share this view of the future and each of its acts and initiatives points to an ever-greater divergence. There’s no doubt that legislation in matters like electricity could come to be the straw that broke the camel’s back, consecrating Mexico as the region’s awkward partner. No one is in search of a divorce, but they despise the inability and unwillingness of the Mexican government to confront and resolve its problems or of further adding to them. Inevitably, Mexico’s partners will protect their companies from the arbitrary (and counterproductive) measures of the government and will devote themselves to preventing insecurity, corruption and migration from crossing their borders.

Instead of respect that the Mexican President so much craves, Mexico will see blockages, and rather than cooperation a strategy of defense. Hand in hand will come further poverty and less economic growth. Some success.

www.mexicoevalua.org
@lrubiof
a quick-translation of this article can be found at www.luisrubio.mx

Elections: When Do They Become Too Costly?

Luis Rubio

The confusion is justified because a good part of the population lives in a world of fear or anger, both poor counsels but that, in the era of social media, are not only ubiquitous, but dominant. Worse yet, while previously each of these -anger and fear, respectively- would allow the attenuation of the other, the effect of living in self-contained digital communities that do not communicate among each other to a great extent have the effect of reinforcing the emotions and the community.  How, in this context, can the great matters before the nation be elucidated?

The National Electoral Institute (INE) is an object of permanent criticism and opprobrium. From its formalization as an autonomous entity in 1996, there is practically no government that has not interfered in the electoral complex, usually to adjust the rules to their interests, for the exercise of vengeance against the members of the boards of the respective institutions (INE and the Federal Electoral Tribunal [TEPJF]) or to pacify a certain actor in particular. Now there comes along precisely that actor who wants to stick his nose in one more time.

The complaint with respect to the INE is a triple one: first, that it is very costly; second, that it applies the rules in a biased way; and, third, that it does not subordinate itself to whomever obtains the highest number of votes. Symptomatic of the profound nature of this third element is that then-president Felipe Calderón in 2006 like Andrés Manuel López Obrador in 2018 rebuke it exactly the same and for the same reasons. However much the clamor, this fact alone is a convincing proof of the impartiality of the electoral arbiter. In addition, compared with the federal government, INE is a model of efficacy and probity and is recognized thus by the citizenry.

On the financial side, it is evident that the cost of the electoral system is enormous, but one must remember that the reason why the system was created, that which led to its being consolidated in the constitutional text so that its financing would not be politicized. The cost of the electoral system encompasses the structure of the two entities as well as the subsidies to the political parties, the latter the product of replicating the European outline in which the government finances the parties, in contrast with that of the United States in which all financing is private. Under this rubric, one must not lose sight of that one consequence of the system financed by the State is that it renders it possible for the political parties to distance themselves from the citizens, in that they do not need them for anything, except on voting day. Not very democratic, but very real.

In countries with a high level of trust among the citizens and of these with their institutions (I’m thinking of the majority of European nations), the electoral systems are very simple and they work with already existing administrative apparatuses. In the U.S., each state has its own system and the disputes in recent years are   interminable, reminiscent of the eighties in Mexico.

The origin of the electoral framework lies precisely in the enforcement of the rules. The independent INE was the answer designed to guarantee clean elections and to confer certainty on the citizenry in the face of a sea of electoral disputes (usually post-electoral) that characterized the eighties and the nineties. The complexity of this framework was the product, as duly noted at that time, of the huge mistrust harbored by the diverse political parties among themselves, which AMLO has now brought back.

The tangible fact is that, except for the year 2006, there have been practically no disputes regarding this matter since 1997. Contrary to what the president asserts, the impartial application of the rules is what has avoided a political conflagration.

The nature of these circumstances explains the nature of the present attack: control and revenge. Vengeance due to the inflexibility of the IFE Board, that is, because of not giving in to the president; and control because that is what is compatible with the model of concentration of power that drives the president’s thrust. As the party in power, Morena and its head want to procure control of INE to stay in power, that is, to reproduce the old PRIist scheme of the XX century.

The problem is that this is the XXI century. The political dispute is increasingly complex, it is occurring in ever more arenas (including the digital ones) and involves many more actors, among these the “informal” actors (i.e., organized crime) who intervene without reserve to impose their will, all of this with the acquiescence of the president. Instead of the actors accepting the rules of the game, they compete to redefine them. In the extreme, this leads to the law of the jungle.

Przeworski,* a scholar in these issues, argues that elections are a civilized and pacific form of settling conflicts “that always take place in the shadow of a civil war.” Without the INE, Mexicans would be at the brink of war all the time, principally when each party, but especially Morena and its leader, which consider that Mexico is a democracy exclusively when they win.

The perception is understandable that it is necessary to reduce the cost of electoral institutions. Before our esteemed political heroes in the Congress proceed, it would be worthwhile to consider the scenarios of conflict (and violence) that could be unleashed. Governing an erupting volcano would be much more complex than they imagine and would provoke just what they say they fear.

 

*Why Bother With Elections?

 

www.mexicoevalua.org
@lrubiof