The Little Things

Luis Rubio

The first vacation I remember was at the then new Oaxtepec Center of the Mexican Social Security Institute, a paradise in the state of Morelos that had just been inaugurated by the outgoing President of Mexico. There was a block of rooms for guests where we stayed and practically all of the rest of the center was still under construction or semi-abandoned. Notwithstanding this, at the entrance there was an enormous plaque commemorating the inauguration that, surely, had been only one of many Pharaonic acts that are a fixation of our political class: what is important is not the result but the intention. That malady can be appreciated in everything around us, for example, the preference for “great” reforms instead of solutions to little problems that, oftentimes, are more important and transcendent, albeit accompanied by less bogus applause.

Of course, epic reforms that can transform sectors, activities and lives are necessary for creating new conditions for the functioning of the economy, the development of society or the adoption of novel ways to solve problems. A country with such timeworn forms, structures and institutions (that were never designed to be adaptable or for transformation and development but for control and pillage) evidently requires many reforms of the most diverse nature. However, although some of the reforms of the last decades have produced great benefits, many have got stuck due to the haste with which they were conceived –and the purchasing of votes in the Legislative Branch-, which limit their capacity to delivering their entire potential. Above all, because of the manner of advancing the reforms, they tend to alienate rather than connect with the population.

Perhaps the weightiest of the absences in the reform processes has been the lack of social agreement with respect to their goodness or, even, the need for the latter. The reforms are evidently necessary, but what matters is not hanging an engraved nameplate (in the figurative sense) of the reform but that the reform gets underway and benefits the citizenry. There are countries, like India, where the negotiating process is arduous and complex because it involves all kinds of parties, groups and interests, but once a settlement is reached, the obstacles have been removed. Contrariwise, in China reforms are implemented from the seat of power. What is interesting here is that, beyond the method, in both nations reforms have been achieved that not only benefit the population, but have met with its approval. Our case has been very distinct.

Mexico has made many reforms, some ambitious and profound but, only exceptionally, has there has been the least attempt to join with the population or convince it of their potential benefits, even in the long term. The boons of many of those reforms are evident in the lower real prices (after inflation) of innumerable products, in the increased availability of high-quality goods and in general, in better life levels for the lower-income population.  However, in contrast with China and India, in Mexico pessimism and malaise abound.

My impression is that the differences lies in a very concrete factor: in addition to great reforms and with multidimensional impact, in those nations there has been the understanding that it is necessary to tend to matters that appear little but that are the ones that afflict the population day to day and that have permitted perceptions to improve swiftly. For a homemaker it can be difficult to perceive that the shoes that her children wear cost less in constant pesos, because in current pesos they cost more.   However, her perception would change radically if suddenly, a person had access to an IMSS (social security) physician in less than thirty minutes, instead of having to wait hours, and sometimes months, to be treated. Something similar could be said about public transportation: on any given morning one can observe the torrents of people arriving from places like Chalco or Ecatepec to work in Mexico City, a process to which they devote up to three and four hours every day. Resolving these problems that the population suffers through may seem like something minor, but it is much more important for the ordinary person than the “great” reforms.

How long have we been discussing public insecurity without having defined the character of the problem? Rather than recognizing the momentousness of the problem and identifying its causes, politicians strive for solutions –such as the single chain of command- that they do not recognize such simple causes, for example, as the hugely rampant corruption in the State Police. That is, instead of understanding the extraordinary and disruptive impact of insecurity on families and the daily lives of the population and the urgency of seeing to the phenomenon, those who pretend that they are “governing” seek control of municipal presidents and the population in general.

The point is that solutions are required for improving everyday life and that is much more important, and often many times over, than all the extremely consequential reforms put together. Of course, one is not a substitute for the other, but the absence of those little things helps to explain in great measure the reason that the current government is so unpopular: the worst is not only the absence of solutions, but the lofty contempt from on high.