Better Times

Luis Rubio

Nostalgia is pernicious as a guide for action for government, but that does not seem to dissuade many. The notion that a past can be recreated that, in retrospect, seems idyllic, has such an obvious appeal, that invites prospective rulers to create mental utopias and proposals that capture emotions, which does not make them any less deceptive. In this, the electoral protagonist in the current electoral cycle is not very different from those of other latitudes (Trump, Brexit, etc.). By its nature, political discourse always seeks to appeal to emotions, because what is sought is to captivate the voter without having to explain anything other than: the “I am” the solution. It is not necessary to say how or why.

The proposal is simple but powerful: the country worked better when the federal government centralized and controlled everything, but now, due to the reforms of the last decades, corruption was generated an this explains all deviations. No matter the issue (criminality, economic growth, poverty or relations with the United States), the solution is to end corruption through the election of Andrés Manuel López Obrador, whose person is imposing and, therefore, liable to end corruption merely by his election. All the rest is commentary.

The approach is emotional: it seeks to attract those who have not joined, or have not been able to incorporate, to the digital economy, the victims of crime and the old corporate sectors, to make possible the recreation of a nostalgic past, despite the obvious: the past is not repeatable.

About twenty years ago I had the opportunity to talk with Mr. Antonio Ortiz Mena, secretary of finance in one of the most stable and fastest growing economic eras of Mexico (1958-1970). The talk revolved around his strategy as the author of the “Mexican miracle.” His explanation continues to resonate in my head until today: in essence, he told me that there was no possible similarity with the time when he had been responsible for the country’s finances, because before, things were comparatively very easy: the government was almighty, exchange rates were fixed, the economy was closed, control over unions, businesses and the press enormous and, in short, that the key to his success in those years had been the willingness of the government to control itself. In other words, a world absolutely contrasting with the current one, in every sense. I was impressed by his humility and his mental clarity, which led him to visualize the current world as radically different from the one he had led.

The government of President Peña arrived determined to recreate the past but never could achieve it and it is there where it got stuck. López Obrador is convinced that it is not only possible but necessary to go back and, therefore, his proposals are all retrospective and nostalgic. Unless he is willing to destroy everything that exists, there is no reason to think that he will do any better.

The current electoral times compel the voters to elucidate between the options, those that seek to resolve the wrongs that remain or accept the nostalgic solution, each one with its consequences.

I wonder if it would be possible to deal with emotions and, at the same time, advance the development of the country. Part of the reason why nostalgia is so attractive is the fact that, despite having advanced on some fronts, the population feels harassed and paralyzed. Faced with criminality and the apparent absence of options, nostalgia becomes extraordinarily seductive.

The only way to break the vicious circle is to get out of there: to confront nostalgia with a different project that, building on what exists, proposes solutions rather than a return to what stopped working, opportunities instead of utopias. This may involve a new political arrangement, social reforms of various kinds or political and economic initiatives that make it possible to launch a new era of high-quality educational, infrastructure and health paradigms. Above all, a new vision.

Until now, for several decades, the entire government strategy, regardless of person or party, has focused on marginally improving what exists, but always without breaking the political status quo. Maybe it’s time to rethink the political arrangement, because that’s where everything has got stuck. A new political regime does not imply the destruction of the what exists, but it does involve fundamental changes: first and foremost, modifying the purpose of the government and, therefore, its priorities.

If the priority is no longer the preservation of the status quo at any cost, the opportunities become endless and the promises, which appeal to the emotions, become credible. Everyone knows what’s essential: physical and patrimonial security, legal certainty, elimination of the causes of corruption, high quality education and infrastructure (in the broadest sense) for a great future. Everybody knows it but one government after another has shirked that responsibility. The key lies in breaking with the vicious circles in which Mexico has been plunged for decades and that, despite real advances, many enormous ones, keep the country paralyzed and demoralized. This is no rocket science, but its implications almost are.