Costs and Reckonings

Myshkin, the hero of Dostoyevsky’s novel “The Idiot”, -erudite, coarse, naïve- arrives at an important party, obsessed with not breaking the Chinese vase in mid-salon. He attempts to maintain his distance from it, but, no matter how much he tries, ends up destroying it. The episode could be a photograph of the political transition that we have experienced. The objective was to construct an idyllic democracy that would foster development of the country and civility in Mexican society. The result has been political paralysis, a rising level of social conflict, ill-will, an abysmal economic performance, and, to top it all off, generalized pessimism. The issue is not about establishing guilt, but rather, of the pressing need to recognize that there have been unanticipated consequences, many very serious, with which we have to deal.

Beyond objectives or good intentions, the political change that we have undergone has mainly manifested itself in decentralization of power. From the erstwhile omnipotent presidency, we proceeded to a new political reality: that of actors, formal as well as informal, stockpiling power and resources with no responsibility whatsoever and without even minimal checks and balances. The principal characteristic of the transition has been the transfer of the resources and power of the Federal Government and of the presidency itself to state governors, de facto powers, and actors of the most diverse stripes, all having in common their distance from the citizenry, not being accountable and, for all practical purposes, without any checks and balances.

The consequences of this new reality can readily be noted in all ambits, but are particularly patent in the pathetic performance of our economy, lack of public safety, and the conflict that brews in permanent fashion in all public forums. The country benefited from the transition because the sources of systematic abuse inherent in the centralized government of yesteryear disappeared. However, costs have not been minor and risks are on the rise.

Costs in the economic milieu have been extraordinary. Decentralization of power, a circumstance that mushroomed over the past three decades and that was precipitated by the defeat of the PRI, was accompanied by the transfer of public resources. Conceptually, no one can dispute the fact that in a democratic system, resources are administered by the representatives of the populace and, without doubt, the state governors and municipal presidents are the public officials closest to the citizenry. The problem is that the concept does not square with our reality. In the first place, the overwhelming majority of revenues are collected by the federal government and not by state and municipal governments; secondly, real, effective mechanisms for checks and balances do not exist for the state and municipal governments: this was always a problem at the federal level, but now it has multiplied. Finally, resource allocation has translated into much less efficient and impacting expenditure, thus a lower rate of economic growth.

Before, in the Golden Age of centralization of fiscal resources, Mexican Department of the Treasury had at its disposal enormous resources that it profusely applied to projects of development. The so-called “bolsas”, residual monies left over after satisfaction of current overhead expenditures (salaries, rents, administration costs), constituted an enormous portion of public funds and were employed to promote regional development, essentially through the construction of infrastructure. One year, the decision was made to electrify the southeastern region of the country, another, to build a highway to Queretaro, and another, to construct Cancun. The Federal Government conducted cost-benefit analyses of each project and generally decided in favor of those offering the best potential for raising the general economic growth rate. The dispersion of resources, which is the norm at present, possesses very distinct characteristics: there are very few governors who do economic cost-benefit studies. Rather, their criterion comprises personal, electoral, and political benefit, usually in that order. The result has been much greater corruption and opacity (which benefits the governors) and much less economic growth (the only way that more jobs can be gained for the average Mexican). That is, the population has lost, whereas the politicians have won.

The security crisis is a second consequence of decentralizing power and resources. The resources, functions, and responsibilities that were decentralized to the states were never adopted by the governors as their own. This is not to say that the former security scheme worked well, but decentralization had the effect of destroying what existed without anything substituting for it, with certain trifling exceptions. The result is the chaos in security that we are presently experiencing; its essence has nothing to do with narcotrafficking proper, but instead, with the fact that organized crime plagues the entire nation without the effective intervention of any police or judicial institution.

No agreement exists on when the political transition began or of what it consisted, but it is evident that the successive electoral reforms between 1978 and 1996 had the effect of favoring increasingly even-handed electoral competition, until the PRI was defeated at the polls. If the objective of the transition was to defeat the PRI, the transition complied. If by transition we wish to say the founding of a modern, more egalitarian and civilized, country, the transition has been a disaster. It suffices to read the newspaper or watch the newscasts in order to observe a nation progressively bitter and in conflict with itself. The problem lies precisely in that the transition confined itself to the electoral, leaving everything else to chance.

The big question is how to correct the present situation. If one observes similar countries that have been successful, such as South Africa and Brazil, we urgently need a strategy and leadership. The transition should have been an institutional commitment, but was nothing more than a collection of good intentions and remarkable arrogance. We must now deal with the consequences. On one occasion, Montesquieu affirmed that “there is no crueler tyranny than that which is perpetuated under the shield of law and in the name of justice.” In Mexico, we must start by eradicating the tyranny of excess, abuse, and the absence of checks and balances for the reign of the law to begin.