Life is always a balance between the half-full and the half-empty glass. Attitude with regard to life, work and the economy is basic not only for the development of countries, but also for political stability. Keynes spoke of animal spirits as the source of the conduct of economic agents and the manner in which these are moved by instinct, attitudes and perceptions. That observation from the thirties has done nothing other than erupt in importance in the era of ubiquitous communications that generate uncontainable expectations.
In recent dates, great debate has ensued with respect to the pessimism that appears to determine the country’s collective attitudes. How is it possible, some argue, that consumption is growing at the speed that it has during the last months (consumption being, at the end of the day, the objective of economic activity) and, however, people continue to view everything through lenses of pessimism? The entrepreneurs themselves, say government officials, affirm that their companies (excluding the oil sector) are going well and, yet, it would be difficult for their perceptions to be more negative.
The big question is whether things have gotten better or worse. The ills and the problems that Mexicans suffer from are obvious and there is no doubt that the incapacity to deal with some of them generates profound frustration and emboldens the pessimistic view. How can one explain, for example, that Mexico has for nearly a quarter century experienced abductions, extortions and homicides and that there is not yet even consensus with respect to the diagnosis of the problem, not even to mention a solution? How can one explain the incapacity of a succession of governments during these decades to see to the most elemental problems in terms of services, infrastructure, the now famous “permitology”, that is, the process of acquiring permits (for construction, opening a business, etcetera), or education? Each and every one of the problems has an explanation, often a logical one, but in conjunction, they furnish a poorly advisable legacy for the local and national governments of the three political parties. There’s no possible excuse.
And, notwithstanding this, an objective measurement of the reality shows enormous improvements in the last decades. The real price, after inflation, of innumerable basic goods has diminished; the number of families with their own home has grown dramatically; individual freedoms are incomparably superior to those that existed some decades ago; the quality of the goods and services that we consume and employ is superior beyond comparison. With all of the avatars, improvement in life levels is tangible.
In his extraordinary reflection on his father, and on himself, Federico Reyes-Heroles (Orfandad) recalls that on Sundays, he would accompany his father to a grocery store that sometimes stocked foreign goods to “see what there was to be found”, that is, to see what the shop had gotten in or imported that week. Today’s young people have no idea of what a closed economy means or of the inexistence of a certain article: everything today is available and at once.
If the objective reality has improved indisputably, why the reigning pessimism? Everyone has a theory but I believe that there are two immediate factors and one preponderant and absolute one that allow us to understand the phenomenon.
One without doubt is the corruption, associated with the perception that this has escalated in dimension. Another is the absence of governmental leadership and, simultaneously, the nearly visceral rejection of any exercise of governmental leadership. These elements are interconnected.
The reforms that began in the eighties required tremendous exercise of leadership, without which that first great effort would have been impossible, but the crisis of 1994-95 and its poor political management put an end to credibility in the reformist project. The “entrance of democracy” in 2000 stirred up the fire because of its inability to solve problems and the dreadful leadership that accompanied it. The current government promised to govern effectively, only to find itself without the magic wand that would have permitted it to achieve this.
The second great issue is doubtlessly that of corruption, which has exacerbated citizen ire. I do not know whether, in volume, corruption is now greater or lesser, but it is obvious that the citizenry’s perception is that it has exploded. Part is the mere fact that it is increasingly visible and that evidence of it is disseminated instantaneously. Another part is that, in the past, politicians were not as crass in their manner of engaging in acts of corruption: they took care with appearances because they knew that the matter had become explosive. At present there is no restraint in the least.
The absolute factor that has changed is the instantaneous information that generates unstoppable expectations. Formerly, information was controlled vertically and flowed according to governmental preferences from the top down. Today, information is ubiquitous and horizontal: it is generated and disseminated everywhere and no one controls it. Although there is evident capacity of manipulation, no one has the monopoly on it.
In his acceptance speech for the American Film Institute’s Lifetime Achievement Award, Sean Connery noted that his childhood was not promising but “I did not know we lacked anything because we had nothing to compare it to. And there is some freedom in that”. The big problem of governing in today’s world is that, as David Konzevik says, “The poor of today are rich in information and are millionaires in expectations”. Under these circumstances, “the art of governing is the art of managing expectations”. The country has improved, but with respect to the management of expectations our governments over the last decades have been appaling.