The Chicken or the Egg

A person’s perspective on public affairs determines the way of acting. Joseph de Maistre, a strategist and critic of the French Revolution at the end of the XVII Century, wrote: “Opinion is so powerful in war that it can alter the nature of the same event and give it two different names, for no reason other than its own whim. A general throws his men between two enemy armies and he writes to his king, ‘I have split him, he has lost’. His opponent writes to his king, ‘He has put himself between two fires, he is lost.’ Which of the two is mistaken? Whoever is seized by the cold goddess of fear… It is imagination that loses battles.”

In Mexico we are living through a war of perspectives, visions, and opinions. All of this combines to complicate decision-making and to confuse the society, which is, it would appear, an express objective. As we come within close range of this year’s electoral contest the level of confusion can’t go anywhere but up. And there are good reasons for this.

When institutions are strong and limit the sphere of action, –that is, they restrict the effective power- of whoever currently occupies the presidency, the person of the president becomes important but not crucial. In this manner, independently of the natural differences between parties and candidates, no British or Canadian citizen perceives that their country will live or die as a result of an election.

The contrary is true in nations with weak institutions, in which the person occupying the presidency exerts a colossal impact on the future of his/her country. It is sufficient to contrast the demarche of Hugo Chávez in Venezuela with that of Luis Ignacio Lula da Silva in Brazil to make the result evident. The person matters.

Mexico is confronting fundamental challenges that will have to be attended to in the upcoming years. The problems of security, economic growth, and political stability will require responses that can no longer be evaded. Whoever occupies the presidency will be required to take innovative action on these matters. The obvious question is who will achieve the necessary transformation without affecting, but rather consolidating, the rights of the citizen and without causing a financial or economic crisis along the way. The intrinsic strength and clarity of course of whoever becomes president will be transcendental.

In 2010, when England was approaching the election of its prime minister, the weekly periodical The Economist posed a question on the three contenders. Who will have the skills to resolve and eliminate the obstacles impeding economic growth? In its analysis, the publication concluded that some candidates understood the challenges but did not have the skills or they had an inadequate proposal of the solution, and vice versa: some had the vision or the skills but did not have the correct diagnosis.

Assuming this perspective, in recent years the notion has taken hold that Mexico is overdiagnosed, that all of the problems are known and that it would be enough for Congress to agree to emerge from the present gridlock with no further ado. I beg to differ. While it is apparent that the problems besetting the country are quite clear, it doesn’t seem obvious to me that a consensus exists re the causes of these; thus, it is impossible for all of the proposals for a solution to be competent. In addition, we are very prone to intermingling causes and symptoms.

In nominal terms, the problems facing the country are sufficiently clear and concern, in great measure, impediments to the growth of the economy and the dysfunctionality of the political system. The mixture has created the scenario in which we have experienced poor economic development, a substantial informal economy, the security crisis, and the permanent political din.

The proposals for solutions to these wrongs are many and very diverse, but not all respond to their causes and not all are equally appropriate to resolving the core problems. Just for illustration, among the proposals currently on the table for confronting the growth problem, two that exemplify contrasting ways of conceiving of the problem stand out: some propose greater State rectorship and an active participation of the State through the public expenditure as a source of stimulation for growth. The other proposes attacking the causes of the problem on the microeconomic plane, that is, for example, procuring a rise in the national content of exports in order to drive internal market growth or resolve regulatory problems in order to formalize the informal economy now subsisting outside of the legal framework. These are two radically distinct perspectives in terms of diagnosis as well as of the government’s role in the economy.

An incorrect diagnosis can lead to counterproductive strategies, as we have observed so many times with the financial crises of the past decades. On the other hand, a correct diagnosis can lead to the resolution of the problems without a fuss. What’s the difference? The difference involves the sturdiness of the decision maker, his/her disposition for grasping the inherent complexity of the problems that we are confronting and his/her relentlessness in separating preferences and ideologies from relevant analysis.

It is in the political sphere where perhaps the greatest problems and main source of contradictions lie that, sooner or later, manifest themselves in decisions and actions that impact the economy and other ambits entailing governmental action. For a political system to function, all actors must feel themselves to be participants and perceive benefits in participating. The PRI system resolved this issue of power in the thirties of the last century with the carrot and the stick duo: the promise of access to power and/or wealth for whoever remained loyal to the system and the president. That system collapsed, giving way to the era of unsuccessful encounters and conflicts that we live in today.

Today the country requires a new political arrangement that is inherently compatible with an active citizenship, regular electoral competition and democracy. The system that was forged eighty years ago ceased to function because it did not adapt and needs to be with a new power arrangement on how to establish relationships among the powers that be: the political parties, the political forces, the citizenship,  that makes it possible to make decisions and implement them, while simultaneously diminishing the incentive for conflict. The paradox is that achieving this exacts great clarity of vision and operational capacity that leads to the institutionalization of power. That is, agreements on power do not come about by osmosis, but instead are the result of effective leadership that translates into capacity for political action. This does not happen then other way around: institutionalization is the product of coherently articulated agreements.

The person who wins the presidency matters and even more so because of the fragility of the moment we’re living through at present.