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Posts Tagged ‘Statism’

I will occasionally pontificate about a demographic crisis in the developed world, but I usually feel guilty afterwards. After all, how can it be a bad thing that we’re living longer? And what gives me the right to grouse about the number of children other families decide to have?

What I should be saying instead is that demographic changes are forcing us to recognize that we have a crisis of bad public policy. To be more specific, the entitlement state has become too large.

That’s the message I tried to get across in an interview earlier this week.

At the risk of oversimplification, I basically stated that there are two crises in the world.

The first crisis, based in the industrialized world, is that tax-and-transfer welfare states were created back when there were lots of workers and relatively few old people, and most people assumed that demographic profile would always exist.

But now that the “population pyramid” is becoming a “population cylinder” (I was talking faster than I was thinking in the interview and reversed the two concepts at one point), there aren’t going to be enough workers to finance all the redistribution programs, particularly the ones that funnel money to the elderly.

This is a big reason why nations such as Greece and Italy already are in deep trouble and why it’s just a matter of time before the fiscal crisis spreads to France and Japan (and the United States if we don’t enact genuine entitlement reform).

Here’s a table, based on World Bank data, showing the 20 jurisdictions with the lowest fertility rates. Which means, of course, the places with the fewest future taxpayers to finance redistribution.

The second crisis, based in the developing world, is that pervasive statism suffocates growth.

And while I largely agree with the late Julian Simon about people being a resource rather than liability, if a nation has a bloated and intrusive public sector that stifles the private sector, then a growing population can be a bad thing.

But it’s not the growing population that’s bad, it’s the statist policies. Here’s a list of the 20 counties with the highest fertility rates. The majority of them are ranked in the “least free” quartile according to Economic Freedom of the World. And none of them are in the “most free” quartile.

But the most important part of the interview, at least when thinking about problems in the industrialized world, is when I pointed out that nations such as Singapore don’t face a big problem.

Yes, Singapore has one of the lowest fertility rates in the world, but it also doesn’t have a pervasive tax-and-transfer welfare state. People are responsible for saving for their own retirement and healthcare. So the absence of future taxpayers isn’t a major challenge because the system doesn’t need to be propped up with tax revenue.

And the same thing is true in Hong Kong, another jurisdiction that is in good long-run shape even though the fertility rate is extremely low.

P.S. Given the demographic changes that are now occurring, many governments with big welfare states now recognize that they have a problem. Unfortunately, many of them think the solution is to artificially encourage more babies rather than entitlement reform.

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If there was a ranking of international bureaucracies, the World Bank would be my favorite (or, to be more accurate, least unfavorite). Yes, it sometimes produces bad studies, but it also is the source of good research on topics such as government spending, Social Security reform, tax complexity, financial regulation, and economic liberty. And the rankings in Doing Business are a very helpful way of measuring and comparing regulatory burdens (which is why leftists are so hostile to the project). Moreover, it’s hard to dislike an organization that has a mission of fighting poverty (even if it sometimes thinks redistribution is the right strategy).

The United Nations would be next on the list. The good news is that it has many well-meaning people. The bad news is that is has some very misguided projects. But since it isn’t very effective, I confess that it doesn’t command much of my attention.

At the bottom would be either the International Monetary Fund (IMF) or the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD).

The IMF is notorious for supporting bailouts and advocating tax increases. Depending on my mood, it’s either the “Dr. Kevorkian of economic policy” or the “dumpster fire of the global economy.” Yes, I try to be fair and will acknowledge occasional good research (on taxation, government spending, financial regulation, spending caps, etc), but there’s no question that the net impact of the IMF is negative.

The OECD also is on the wrong side when looking at the big picture. Once again, I’ll admit that there are occasional good studies (on spending caps, tax policy, government spending, etc). But those glimmers of good news are overwhelmed by a statist agenda on a wide range of policies. Most recently, the Paris-based bureaucracy proposed more taxes and more spending for the American economy. And if you’re interested in other examples, I’ve attached a list of examples at the bottom of this column.

But the main purpose of this column is to review a new publication from the OECD. As part of its so-called “Bridging the Gap” project, the bureaucrats in Paris just issued a new report that reads as if it was taken from the campaign speeches of Bernie Sanders and Jeremy Corbyn.

Here are some of the lowlights, starting with a misguided fixation on inequality.

Fiscal redistribution through taxes and transfers plays a crucial role in containing the impact of market income inequality on disposable income… Policies aimed at promoting growth should consider how growth will have an impact on many other outcomes, and how to ensure that those policies avoid the “grow first, distribute later” assumption that has characterised the economic paradigm until recently. It is now clear that growth strategies need to consider from the outset the way in which their benefits will be distributed to different income groups. … Inequalities tear at the fabric of our societies. Inequality of incomes translates seamlessly into inequality of opportunities for children, including education, health and jobs, and lower future prospects to flourish individually and collectively. …inequalities are reaching a tipping point

I’m tempted to joke that the bureaucrats want a “distribute first, grow never” approach, but let’s focus on the fact that the real goal should be reducing poverty rather than reducing inequality.

If I’m poor, I want an opportunity to increase my income. And if there’s a policy that will help give me that opportunity, it doesn’t matter if that policy enables Bill Gates to increase his income at a faster rate.

That’s why there’s no substitute for economic growth if you really want to help the less fortunate.

But the not-so-subtle message of the OECD report is that poor people are poor because rich people are rich. The bureaucrats are concerned with how to re-slice the pie rather than how to expand the size of the pie.

The really troubling material is in the final chapter, but I can’t resist commenting on a few items that appeared earlier in the report.

Such as the fact that the bureaucrats were not happy when unemployment benefits in the United States were curtailed.

…redistribution helped cushion increases in market income inequality, but its role has since tended to fall in a majority of OECD countries in the most recent years…it reflects the phasing out of fiscal stimulus, as in the United States, where the extension of unemployment benefit duration carried out in 2008-09 was rolled back in 2011.

Too bad nobody told the authors that the job market improved in America when subsidies for joblessness were cut back.

But that kind of mistake is predictable since the OECD puts such a high value on coercive redistribution.

I’m also not surprised that the bureaucrats are upset that tax competition has resulted in lower tax rates.

Globalisation has increased the difficulty for governments in taxing mobile capital income. Increased levels of capital mobility have led to certain reductions in statutory income tax rates…, which has reduced the progressivity of tax systems… The distributional effects of these reductions in statutory tax rates, especially the reduction in top personal income tax rates, has been a contributing factor to the rise in inequalities.

And the OECD even regurgitated its bizarre hypothesis that inequality reduces growth.

Widespread increases in income inequality are a source of concern…for their potential impact on economic performance. …recent OECD work estimates that rising inequality between 1985 and 2005 might have contributed to knocking more than 4 percentage points off growth between 1990-2010.

The final chapter, though, is where the OECD unveils its Bernie Sanders/Jeremy Corbyn agenda. I guess young people might say that the bureaucrats were “letting their statism freak flag fly.”

Governments have a vital role to play…targeted social investment, redistributive fiscal policy and comprehensive labour market support…fiscal policy is the key mechanism for redistributing market incomes and it is important that it is set up to prioritise support for vulnerable population groups at all points in the economic cycle.

And what are some of these policies?

The OECD wants to expand the welfare state, even though such policies already have caused fiscal crises in many nations.

The size of means-tested programmes is relatively small in many countries and there is room for expansion, by either making those programmes more generous or by extending their coverage.

The bureaucrats also want more double taxation on income that is saved and invested.

…enhancing tax progressivity via savings tax reform. Income from savings is taxed progressively, though at lower rates than labour and with a lot of variation in taxation across asset types. …There is therefore scope to increase the fairness and the neutrality of the taxation of capital income…removing tax expenditures…strengthening progressivity of tax bases. …tax expenditures such as tax deductions for private pension contributions…are regressive since higher income taxpayers tend to save… Removing such tax expenditures could simultaneously reduce inequality and make the tax system more efficient.

There’s also an embrace of punitive property taxes.

Increased taxation of residential property could increase both growth and strengthen progressivity. …if designed well can fall mostly on high-wealth, high-income households.

Amazingly, the OECD even wants more onerous death taxes, even though such policies have a very negative impact on capital formation.

Strengthening inheritance and gift taxes can support inclusive growth. … Inheritance taxes can…help achieve intergenerational equity goals. …In order to be effective, inheritance taxes must also be combined with taxes on gifts and wealth transfers during the taxpayers’ lifetime, as well as with measures to address avoidance and evasion.

The bureaucrats want more subsidies for joblessness.

Sufficiently generous unemployment benefits and social-assistance systems with a wide coverage are also a key.

And they even endorse an idea that is so economically absurd that it was rejected by President Obama’s main economic adviser.

Promoting gender equality in access to employment and job quality is a key component of inclusive growth. …gender pay gaps remaining at about 15% across the OECD, on average, with little change in recent years.

Here’s another passage urging a bigger welfare state.

Compensatory policies that redistribute income also have a role to play in…lowering post-redistribution inequality. …strong and well-designed social safety nets programmes are all the more needed.

And here’s a specific policy for more housing subsidies.

Access to affordable housing is a challenge for inclusion, and solutions include not only better housing policies but also better urban planning and governance of land use. …Explicit policies to support access to housing include housing allowances, social housing arrangements and different kinds of financial support towards homeownership.

As you can see, that’s an impressive collection of statist policies, even for the OECD.

P.S. I wrote last year that some folks on the left enjoy very lavish incomes while crusading about inequality. The same is true of the OECD, where bureaucrats not only are lavishly compensated (a general rule for international organizations), but they also enjoy tax-free incomes while urging higher taxes on the rest of us.

P.P.S. Here are additional examples of very dodgy research from the OECD.

P.P.P.S. Don’t forget that the OECD’s statist agenda is financed by your tax dollars.

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As part of yesterday’s column about global growth, poverty, and inequality, I realized that I’ve written several columns about economic policy in China, but never once focused on overall policy in India.

Indeed, a quick look through the archives reveals only three columns that even addressed specific policies in India. And all of them were negative.

So it’s time to assess overall economic policy in India, which means this is an opportunity to point out that there are some positive developments in the world’s second-most populous nation.

One of my Cato colleagues, Swaminathan S. Anklesaria Aiyar, wrote an exhaustive study on India’s economy last year. The bottom line is that there’s been some progress, most of which took place in the 1990s.

India’s economic reforms over 25 years have transformed it from a low-income country to a middle-income one. But to become a high-income country, India must liberalize the economy much further.

At the risk of oversimplification, India has gone through three phases since its independence after World War II.

It began with a long period of statism and socialism.

Here are some additional excerpts from the study describing that grim period. And I’ve augmented those passages with India’s awful score from Economic Freedom of the World in 1975, when it only scored 4.33 on a 0-10 scale.

…until 1990, India was…hamstrung by a million controls, imposed in the holy name of socialism and then used by politicians to create patronage networks and line their pockets. …The public sector was supposed to gain the commanding heights of the economy. Nothing could be manufactured without an industrial license or imported without an import license, and those licenses were scarce and difficult to get. Any producers who exceeded their licensed capacity faced possible imprisonment for the sin of violating the government’s sacred plan targets. …Indian socialism reached its zenith in the 1970s, when the banks and several major industries were nationalized. The top income tax rate rose to 97.75 percent, and the wealth tax to 3.5 percent. …India’s poverty ratio did not improve at all between independence in 1947 and 1983; it remained a bit under 60 percent. Meanwhile, the population virtually doubled, meaning the absolute number of poor people doubled.

Now let’s look at some good news.

There was a small amount of reform in the 1980s, which became much more significant amount of reform in the 1990s.

In 1991 India embarked on major reforms to liberalize its economy after three decades of socialism… P. V. Narasimha Rao became prime minister in 1991. The Soviet Union was collapsing at the time, proving that more socialism could not be the solution for India’s ills. Meanwhile, Deng Xiaoping had revolutionized China with market-friendly reforms. And so Indian politicians turned in the direction of the market too. …After 1991 direct tax rates gradually came down substantially… The wealth tax on shares was abolished, making it possible to raise shareholder value without being penalized for it. …The corporate tax was cut from a maximum of 58 percent to 30 percent, yet corporate tax collections increased from 1 percent of GDP to almost 6 percent at one point. …Personal income tax rates also fell from 50 percent to 30 percent, but once again collections rose, from 1 percent of GDP to almost 2 percent.

Notice, by the way, that lower tax rates led to more tax receipts. Yet another piece of evidence for the Laffer Curve.

Though I’m much more interested in whether people benefited, not whether politicians collected more money.

And the paper reveals that the reform era generated significant dividends.

Twenty-five years later, the outcome has been an outstanding economic success. India has gone from being a poor, slow growing country to the fastest-growing major economy in the world in 2016. …Per capita income is up from $375 per year in 1991 to $1,700 today. India has long ceased to be a low-income country as defined by the World Bank, which uses a threshold of $1,045, and has become a middle-income country. …areas that were comprehensively liberalized saw the disappearance of corruption. Before 1991, bribes were needed for industrial licenses, import licenses, foreign exchange allotments, credit allotments, and much else. But economic reform ended industrial and import licensing, and foreign exchange became freely available. Lower import and excise duties ended most smuggling and excise tax evasion

There’s even been good news on poverty.

Now let’s shift to bad news. Simply stated, India needs a lot more reform, but it doesn’t seem to be happening.

As illustrated by this chart showing the country’s annual scores from Economic Freedom of the World, India is mired in a modern era of policy stagnation.

In other words, so much more is needed to help India become a rich nation. Yet the reform agenda has been spotty in the past two decades, or even nonexistent.

Here are some final excerpts, accompanied by India’s most-recent EFW scores.

Many old price and quantitative controls should be abolished, and yet more are being enacted. Extensive controls permeate the entire chain of agricultural inputs, outputs, and processed agricultural goods (notably sugar). New price controls have been clamped on seeds and even on royalties paid by seed companies to suppliers of technology. The tax regime is uncertain, and many cases of retrospective taxation have tarnished the investment climate. …Even as old controls have been liberalized, dozens of new regulations are issued every year relating to new areas like the environment, health and safety standards, forests, and tribal areas. As with the old controls, the new controls are issued in the name of the public good and are then used by politicians and inspectors to line their pockets. …The bureaucracy is notoriously corrupt and slow moving… Public-sector corporations remain large, wasteful, and unreformed. Government banks still control 70 percent of bank lending, have the worst record of bad loans and financial losses, and yet are such convenient cash cows for politicians that no party wants to privatize them. …To reach high-income status, India must become a much better governed country that opens markets much further.

The good news, if you compare the 1975 and 2014 EFW scores, is that India now enjoys much more freedom than it did at the peak of the socialist era.

That being said, there are 111 nations with more economic freedom, so there is a lot of room for improvement.

Let’s close with a very powerful factoid. America has many immigrant populations that earn above-average incomes. But, by far, Indian-Americans are the most successful.

Just imagine, then, how fast India would grow and how rich the people would be with Hong Kong-style economic liberty?

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Nations usually don’t suffer overnight economic collapse. Indeed, Adam Smith was right about the ability of a country to survive and withstand lots of bad public policy.

But at some point, as a nation gravitates in the wrong direction on the statism spectrum, it goes from prosperity to stagnation to decline.

Which is sort of what happened in Argentina because of Peronism (though Pope Francis learned the wrong lesson from his country’s big mistake).

But Venezuela is even worse. It’s going from prosperity to stagnation to decline to collapse.

In a must-read article for the Mises Institute, explains how cronyism and redistributionism helped to sap Venezuela’s economy way before Chavez and Maduro made a bad situation far worse.

While Chávez and his successor Nicolás Maduro deserve the brunt of the blame for Venezuela’s current economic calamity, the underlying flaws of Venezuela’s political economy point to much more systemic problems. …Years of gradual economic interventionism took what was once a country bound to join the ranks of the First World to a middle-tier developing country. This steady decline eventually created an environment where a demagogue like Chávez would completely exploit for his political gain.

But it wasn’t always this way. Indeed, Venezuela at one point was market-oriented and prosperous.

From the 1910s to the 1930s, the much-maligned dictator Juan Vicente Gómez…modernized an otherwise neocolonial backwater by allowing market actors, domestic and foreign, to freely exploit newly discovered oil deposits. Venezuela would experience substantial economic growth and quickly establish itself as one of Latin America’s most prosperous countries by the 1950s. In the 1950s, General Marcos Pérez Jiménez would continue Gómez’s legacy. At this juncture, Venezuela was at its peak, with a fourth place ranking in terms of per capita GDP worldwide. …A combination of a relatively free economy, an immigration system that attracted and assimilated laborers from Italy, Portugal, and Spain, and a system of strong property rights, allowed Venezuela to experience unprecedented levels of economic development from the 1940s up until the 1970s.

But the seeds of economic decline were planted during this time.

Pérez Jiménez did introduce some elements of crony capitalism, pharaonic public works projects, and increased state involvement in “strategic industries” like the steel industry. …social democrat political leader Rómulo Betancourt would…assume the presidency from 1959 to 1964. The Fourth Republic of Venezuela — Venezuela’s longest lasting period of democratic rule, was established… Venezuela’s Fourth Republic marked the beginning of a process of creeping socialism that gradually whittled away at Venezuela’s economic and institutional foundations. …Betancourt still believed in a very activist role for the State in economic matters. Betancourt was part of a generation of intellectuals and student activists that aimed to fully nationalize Venezuela’s petroleum sector and use petroleum rents to establish a welfare state… At its core, this vision of economic organization assumed that the government must manage the economy through central planning.

And policy went further left in the 1970s. And beyond.

in 1975, …Carlos Andrés Pérez’s government nationalized the petroleum sector. The nationalization of Venezuela’s oil industry fundamentally altered the nature of the Venezuelan state. Venezuela morphed into a petrostate, in which the concept of the consent of the governed was effectively turned on its head. Instead of Venezuelans paying taxes to the government in exchange for the protection of property and similar freedoms, the Venezuelan state would play a patrimonial role by bribing its citizens with all sorts of handouts to maintain its dominion over them. …Pérez would take advantage of this state power-grab to finance a profligate welfare state and a cornucopia of social welfare programs… Venezuela’s economy became overwhelmingly politicized. …the nationalization of the petroleum industry…laid the groundwork for institutional decay that would clearly manifest itself during the 80s and 90s.

Jose’s article is a valuable contribution to the discussion.

Indeed, if you peruse the historical data at Economic Freedom of the World, you’ll find that Venezuela enjoyed a high degree of economic freedom at late as the early 1970s.

And it’s no coincidence that Venezuela was much richer than its neighbors  at the time.

But bad policy has caused economic decline, and bad policy has accelerated as the country has shifted from cronyism and vote buying to explicit socialism (otherwise known as entering the fourth circle of statist hell).

Let’s look at what big government has produced in Venezuela.

An article in Foreign Policy sees parallels in the collapse of the Soviet Union and the disintegration of Venezuela.

Venezuela is not the first developed country to put itself on track to fall into a catastrophic economic crisis. But it is in the relatively unusual situation of having done so while in possession of enormous oil assets. …the Soviet Union’s similar devastation in the late 1980s…may be instructive for Venezuela… The Venezuelan government, though it doesn’t claim to be full-fledged in its devotion to Marxism-Leninism, has been pursuing as absurd an economic policy mix as its Soviet predecessor. It has insisted for years on maintaining drastic price controls… the government financed the budget deficit by printing money. The inevitable result was skyrocketing inflation. …The collapse of the Maduro regime will not be pretty, but it is difficult to see how it can be avoided.

Hopefully, the collapse will happen quickly.

A thoroughly depressing story in the Wall Street Journal reveals the suffering of the country’s poor people.

Jean Pierre Planchart, a year old, has…a cry that is little more than a whimper. His ribs show through his skin. He weighs just 11 pounds. His mother, Maria Planchart, tried to feed him what she could find combing through the trash—scraps of chicken or potato. She finally took him to a hospital in Caracas, where she prays a rice-milk concoction keeps her son alive. …Her country was once Latin America’s richest, producing food for export. Venezuela now can’t grow enough to feed its own people in an economy hobbled by the nationalization of private farms, and price and currency controls. …Venezuela has the world’s highest inflation—estimated by the International Monetary Fund to reach 720% this year—making it nearly impossible for families to make ends meet. Since 2013, the economy has shrunk 27%… Hordes of people, many with children in tow, rummage through garbage… People in the countryside pick farms clean at night, stealing everything from fruits hanging on trees to pumpkins on the ground, adding to the misery of farmers hurt by shortages of seed and fertilizer. Looters target food stores. Families padlock their refrigerators. …Dr. Machado and her team of doctors are seeing a dramatic increase in emaciated infants brought to the Domingo Luciani Hospital in Caracas, where they work. …The most recent Caritas study of 800 children under the age of 5 in Yare and three other communities showed that in February nearly 11% suffered from severe acute malnutrition, which is potentially fatal…nearly a fifth of children under age 5 in those four communities suffered from chronic malnutrition. …Nearly a third of Venezuelans, 9.6 million people, eat two or fewer meals a day…four of out five in the nation are now poor.

But not everyone is suffering, reports the U.K.-based Times.

Ministers in President Maduro’s government have been accused of hypocrisy by Venezuelans struggling to feed themselves after it emerged that many children and cronies of senior officials are living abroad in luxury. …The scandal has been likened to that of the “princelings” in China — the sons and daughters of Communist Party officials who have been exposed as leading lavish capitalist lifestyles. The recent series of outings of the children of Maduro’s inner circle began with the case of Lucía Rodríguez, daughter of Jorge Rodríguez, the hard-left mayor of Caracas, and niece of Delcy Rodríguez, the foreign minister. Both politicians routinely describe the opposition in Venezuela as the “bourgeoisie”. After Ms Rodríguez began posting images of her own bourgeois life in Sydney, where she is enrolled in a media studies course at the private SAE university, she was tracked down by an opposition activist to Bondi Beach, where she was photographed surfing and sipping cocktails. …Rumours have long surrounded the suspiciously lavish lifestyles of two of the daughters of Mr Maduro’s predecessor and mentor, Hugo Chávez. María Gabriela Chávez, the late president’s elder daughter, is the deputy ambassador to the United Nations. Opposition MPs claim that she is a billionaire. She has been likened to the socialite Paris Hilton… Many families linked to the Maduro government and former officials have moved to America, despite it being denounced as the evil “imperio” by the president.

While the socialist elite enjoy luxury, unimaginable misery spreads across Venezuela.

Thousands of babies died in Venezuela last year, new official data show, highlighting the tragic impact of the country’s economic crisis… The health ministry said deaths of infants under the age of one soared by 30 percent in 2016, a year when hospitals and protesters complained of severe  shortages of medical supplies. Deaths of mothers linked to childbirth soared by two-thirds meanwhile, according to the data published by the ministry — the latest such figures since 2015. …The Venezuelan Medical Federation says hospitals have only three percent of the medicines and supplies that they need to operate normally.

Given these horrifying and outrageous stories, is anyone surprised that this is happening?

There has been violence and widespread looting this week in Valencia, a once bustling industrial hub two hours from the capital by road. In an incident loaded with symbolism, a group of young men destroyed a statue of the late leader Hugo Chávez… Footage shows the statue, which depicts Chávez saluting and wearing a sash, being yanked down to cheers in a public plaza before it is bashed into a sidewalk and then the road as onlookers swear at the leftist, who died in 2013… “Students destroyed this statue of Chávez. They accuse him, correctly, of destroying their future,” the opposition lawmaker Carlos Valero said about the incident… Venezuela’s opposition…now enjoys majority support… Polls show the ruling Socialists would badly lose any conventional vote due to four years of economic crisis that has led to debilitating food and medicine shortages.

Or this?

Eugenio Vásquez Orellana, who was former Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez’s minister of public banking, probably shouldn’t have gone to a Venezuelan bakery in Miami, Florida. Shouts of “thief” and “rat” rang out as the crowd realized who this man was.

He should be grateful that he wasn’t tarred and feathered. Or worse.

Let’s review some additional examples of Venezuela’s misery.

The Wall Street Journal reports on the plight of  low-level government security officials.

Ana, a five-year veteran of the national police, …and her colleagues use tear gas and rubber bullets against increasingly desperate protesters armed with stones, Molotov cocktails and even bags of feces. The showdowns take place in scorching heat, and she says the authorities provide her with no food, water or overtime pay. …She and many of her exhausted colleagues say they are wavering as protests enter a seventh week with no end in sight. “One day I will step aside and just walk away, blend into the city,” she said. “No average officers support this government anymore.” …loyalty…has largely given way to demoralization, exhaustion and apathy amid an economic collapse and endless protests, said eight security officers from different forces and locations… Most of them say they want only to earn a steady wage amid crippling food shortages and a decimated private sector. Others say fear of a court-martial keeps them in line.

While I feel some empathy for poorly paid cops, who are doing bad things but mostly trying to keep their jobs, I have zero sympathy for these elites who merely want to wind up on the winning side.

…as Venezuela sinks into chaos, with clashes between protesters and the police escalating, why have its powerful political and military elites stuck by President Nicolás Maduro? …Demonstrators have overwhelmed city streets, so far undeterred by a police crackdown in which hundreds have been arrested and dozens killed. The violence deepens a monthslong crisis marked by food shortages, economic collapse and Mr. Maduro’s fumbling attempts to consolidate authority. In quasi-democratic systems like Venezuela’s, such pressures have often led elites to force a change, and have provided them an excuse to do so. …splits are beginning to emerge, as a few figures in major institutions signal opposition to Mr. Maduro, hinting at growing dissatisfaction and the government’s inability to silence it. Recent actions by both elites and the government suggest they take the possibility of fracture seriously — maneuvering in a high-stakes contest… Elite fracture operates as a kind of game… Stay loyal to a failing government too long and you risk going down with it. But if you break with the government and others don’t, you’ll pay a high price for disloyalty. …Mr. Maduro can also play this game. He has enabled loyalists to profit from corruption and patronage, giving them a financial stake in the government’s survival. …Drug and food smuggling also generate revenue, including for the military. But as the economy worsens, elites compete over a smaller pie. “When elites begin to compete among themselves, usually somebody defects,” Mr. Levitsky said

Which suggests – fingers crossed – that the regime may soon collapse.

In our 2017 forecast, we predicted that Venezuela’s government would not survive the year. …nationwide protests that seemed to be reaching a critical point, and the problem has not subsided. For more than a month now, large-scale protests against the government have taken place across the country nearly every day. The death toll continues to rise as protests show no sign of stopping. …foreign intervention either in support of the government or of the opposition is not a viable way to end this crisis. …International organizations could also intervene, but they lack the capability or political will to do so. …Without foreign support, the opposition will need to rely heavily on public protests to increase pressure on the Maduro government. …So far, Maduro has resisted resignation and a negotiated exit from power, believing he can withstand the protests against him. …If the military and other security forces can no longer keep the protests in check, it will be a game changer for the Maduro government.

Shifting from news reports to opinion journalism, Kevin Williamson of National Review shares his thoughts.

People are starving in Venezuela. That, too, is familiar enough to students of the history of socialism. The Ukrainian language contains a neologism—holodomor—necessitated by the fact that the socialist rulers of that country used agricultural policy to murder by starvation between 2 million and 5 million people who were guilty of the crime of resisting the socialists’ agricultural policy. In the 1990s, famine killed something on the order of 10 percent of the population of North Korea, where people were reduced to cannibalism. A recent study found that the average Venezuelan has lost nearly 20 pounds in the past year as food supplies dwindle. …Hayek and his colleagues in what has become known as the Austrian school of economics, …believed that the central-planning aspirations of the socialists were not simply inefficient or unworkable but impossible to execute, even in principle… Hayek believed that efforts to impose central planning on economies were doomed to fail, and that this failure would not be met with humility but with outrage. …which leads to outright political repression, scapegoating, and violence. …there is something about socialism itself that throws up monsters.

Having endured all these depressing snippets of information (as well as the 28 horrifying headlines I shared last month), your reward is some dark humor.

In a video for Reason, Remy promotes the highly successful Venezuela Diet.

Let’s close with a different type of humor.

It’s time to mock the leftists who went on record in favor of Venezuela’s totalitarian regime.

Recent figures show that a majority of Venezuelans go to bed hungry and 15 percent of people eat garbage to survive. The country desperately lacks basic resources, such as medicine and power. …Venezuela’s problems date back to 1999, with the election of socialist president Hugo Chávez, whose mass redistribution of wealth and financial mismanagement laid the groundwork for the country’s economic collapse. …Chávez’s regime received plaudits from numerous left-wing academics, politicians, and celebrities who have now gone quiet.

Here are a few examples.

  • The darling of the left, retired MIT professor Noam Chomsky was a supporter of Chávez’s Venezuela and his anti-Americanism, arguing that he brought forward the “historic liberation of Latin America” proving “destructive to the rich oligarchy.”

  • Actor Sean Penn met with Hugo Chavez on numerous occasions, describing him as a “fascinating guy” who did “incredible things for the 80% of the people that are very poor there.”

  • Film director Oliver Stone was such a fan of Chávez and the rise Latin American socialism that he made a film about it, entitled South of the BorderIn the film, he conducted interviews with the continent’s left-wing leaders, including Chávez, Cuba’s Raúl Castro, Argentina’s Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, and Bolivia’s Evo Morales.

  • Civil rights activist Jesse Jackson…said there was no evidence that Venezuela posed a threat to the United States, while praising Chávez for his “focus on foreign debt, debt relief, and free and fair trade to overcome years of structural disorder, unnecessary military spending, [and] land reform.” After Chávez’s death, Jackson also offered a prayer at his funeral while celebrating his socialist legacy.

  • …filmmaker Michael Moore…, after Chávez’s death, …praised him for “eliminating 75 percent of extreme poverty” while “[providing] free health and education for all.”

  • The leader of the British Labour Party Jeremy Corbyn, …thanked Chávez for allegedly insuring “that the poor matter and wealth can be shared,” adding he had made “massive contributions to Venezuela and the world.”

  • The economist Joseph Stiglitz, a recipient of a Nobel Laureate, praised Hugo Chávez’s socialist policies whilst on a visit to Caracas in 2007. Speaking at a World Economic Forum, Stiglitz said: “Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez appears to have had success in bringing health and education to the people in the poor neighbourhoods of Caracas.”

And speaking of cosseted left-wing elites, does anyone think Bernie Sanders feels remorse for his support of Venezuela’s evil government? If this interview is any indication, the answer is no.

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A couple of weeks ago, I reviewed the four major candidates running in the French presidential election and expressed general pessimism.

This Sunday, Emmanuel Macron and Marine Le Pen will face each other in the runoff election.

That’s a rather depressing choice. Macron is a former official in the disastrous big-government Hollande Administration and Le Pen is a big-government nativist who wants to preserve the welfare state (though not for immigrants).

Like choosing between Tweedledee and Tweedledum.

Not encouraging since the country needs a Ronald Reagan or Margaret Thatcher.

A column in the Wall Street Journal explains France’s untenable position.

The deeper question is whether French voters accommodate themselves to reality or cling tighter to their economic illusions. …“The French try to erase historical experience,” Pascal Bruckner tells me. The literary journalist is one of a very few classical liberals among French public intellectuals. He says his compatriots “have forgotten the experience of 1989 and only see the bad aspects of capitalism and liberal democracy.” The tragedy of France, Mr. Bruckner says, is that the country never had a Margaret Thatcher or Gerhard Schröder to implement a dramatic pro-growth program. …it wasn’t shadowy globalists who in 1999 imposed a 35-hour workweek to make overtime labor prohibitively expensive. The law was meant to encourage firms to hire more workers, but like most efforts to subjugate markets to politics, it ended up doing more harm than good. Now it’s the main barrier to hiring in a country where the unemployment rate is stuck north of 10%. Nor was it global markets that levied a corporate tax rate of 33% (plus surcharges for larger firms), a top personal rate of 45%, and a wealth tax and other “social fees” that repelled investors and forced the country’s best and brightest to seek refuge in places like London, New York and Silicon Valley. Nor did globalization build a behemoth French bureaucracy that crowds out the private economy.

Yes, France is in a mess because of statism. Hard to argue with that.

The question is whether Macron or Le Pen will make things better or worse.

With pervasive lack of enthusiasm, I suppose Macron is the preferable choice. There’s at least a chance he’ll be a reformer. Let’s look at how some observers view him.

We’ll start with George Will, who is not overly impressed by Macron.

The French…might confer their presidency on a Gallic Barack Obama. …Emmanuel Macron, 39, is a former Paris investment banker, untainted by electoral experience, and a virtuoso of vagueness. …This self-styled centrist is a former minister for the incumbent president, Socialist François Hollande, who in a recent poll enjoyed 4 percent approval. …In 1977, France’s gross domestic product was about 60 percent larger than Britain’s; today it is smaller than Britain’s. In the interval, Britain had Margaret Thatcher, and France resisted (see above: keeping foreigners’ ideas at bay) “neoliberalism.” It would mean dismantling the heavy-handed state direction of the economy known as “dirigisme,” which is French for sclerosis. France’s unemployment rate is 10 percent, and more than twice that for the young. Public-sector spending is more than 56 percent of France’s GDP, higher than any other European nation’s. Macron promises only to nibble at statism’s ragged edges. He will not receive what he is not seeking — a specific mandate to challenge retirement at age 62 or the 35-hour workweek and the rest of France’s 3,500 pages of labor regulations that make it an ordeal to fire a worker and thus make businesses wary about hiring. Instead, he wants a more muscular European Union , which, with its democracy deficit, embodies regulatory arrogance.

Joseph Sternberg of the Wall Street Journal is a bit more optimistic.

Optimistic pundits hope the impending victory of a fresh-faced reformer signals that France’s economy at last can be fixed. But for at least the past decade, France’s problem hasn’t been a lack of understanding in the political class of what the French economy needs. Mr. Macron is not so much a radical change-agent as a photogenic tribune for a political class that is increasingly, albeit belatedly, uniting behind the need for economic overhauls. Formerly of the center left, he won Sunday’s first round on a revitalization platform different more in degree than in kind from that of the main center-right candidate, François Fillon, on matters such as government spending cuts and labor-law reform. The global case of the vapors over Ms. Le Pen obscures how remarkable this pro-reform convergence is. …Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan…remade British and American politics for a generation not through the workings of their legislative programs but through their capacity to shape public opinion. They created a coalition of the optimistic…. If the Macron program is to stick, he’ll have to do the same. He isn’t off to an auspicious start. …His message to those workers—“Take the hit for the good of the country”—lacks a certain Reaganesque resonance.

A columnist for the New York Times offers the most positive spin, portraying Macron as a Reaganite reformer.

Emmanuel Macron…attributes the nation’s woes not to outsiders — European officials and immigrants — but on France’s own “sclerotic” and unsustainable welfare state. …Mr. Macron would work to slim down one of the world’s fattest welfare states, rather than build it up as Ms. Le Pen would do. Of course France has attempted welfare state reform before, without success. The latest effort came last year, when Mr. Macron was a minister in the Socialist government, and wrote the Macron laws, opening regulated industries to competition. Those plans set off mass protests, and were watered down, but Mr. Macron says there is a big difference now: Earlier governments were not elected with a mandate to downsize the welfare state, while his could be. …the case for change has grown more urgent. …Georges Clemenceau, who served twice as prime minister between 1906 and 1920, cracked that his country was very fertile: “You plant bureaucrats and taxes grow.” Over the last decade state spending has grown even more… It’s tough to say how much state spending is too much, but France has clearly fallen out of balance, and Mr. Macron is right that the trend is “no longer sustainable.” The public payroll is similarly bloated, and Mr. Macron aims to rebalance the economy by cutting 120,000 public sector jobs, streamlining the pension system and dropping state spending back to 52 percent of G.D.P. Mr. Macron leads an emerging centrist consensus that recognizes that — more than immigrants or the euro — the main obstacle retarding France’s economy is its attachment to a welfare state culture of short workweeks and generous benefits. …In recent years France’s high income taxes have been chasing artists, executives and entrepreneurs out of the country. Last year, 12,000 millionaires emigrated — the largest millionaire exodus from any country by far. Mr. Macron — who once said that stifling taxes threaten to turn France into “Cuba without the sun” — has strong support among young, professional urban voters who would prefer opportunity at home to an expat life in London.

I hope this last column is accurate.

And the chance of Macron being good are greater than zero.

After all, it was the left-wing parties that started the process of pro-market reforms in Australia and New Zealand.

And it was a Social Democrat government in Germany that enacted the labor-market reforms that have been so beneficial for that nation.

Heck, policy even moved in the right direction when Bill Clinton was in the White House in the 1990s.

So I guess we can keep our fingers cross that Macron plays a similar role in France.

By the way, I can’t resist citing Paul Krugman’s assessment. He actually thinks France is in fairly good shape.

…what’s going on. …how did things get to this point? …France gets an amazing amount of bad press — much of it coming from ideologues who insist that generous welfare states must have disastrous effects — it’s actually a fairly successful economy. …It’s true that the French over all produce about a quarter less per person then we do — but that’s mainly because they take more vacations and retire younger… France offers a social safety net beyond the wildest dreams of U.S. progressives: guaranteed high-quality health care for all, generous paid leave for new parents, universal pre-K, and much more.

That’s an interesting spin, but maybe French people would like to earn more, but don’t have the opportunity because of bad policy?

And if things are so good in France, why are so many French people escaping to other nations?

Moreover, to the extent there are problems, Krugman says the blame belongs to the supposed pro-austerity crowd in Brussels and Berlin.

Even though Brussels and Berlin were wrong again and again about the economics — even though the austerity they imposed was every bit as economically disastrous as critics warned — they continued to act as if they knew all the answers

Yet the nations that actually cut spending – such as the Baltics – have recovered strongly. It’s the big spenders in Europe who are dragging down the continent.

And since Macron’s supposed reform agenda would only reduce the burden of government spending to 52 percent of economic output (from about 57 percent today), that’s not exactly an example of vigorous budget cutting anyway.

But it would be nice to add France to my list of nations that have – for a last a couple of years – restrained the growth of the public sector.

P.S. I have a good track record in France. The candidate I “endorsed” in 2012 won the race.

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I wrote last year that Venezuela was entering the “fourth circle of statist hell.”

How else, after all, can you describe a government that is so venal and incompetent that it resorts to confiscating toys in an effort to strengthen its hold on power?

I also wrote last year that Atlas was “shrugging” in Venezuela.

But shrugging may soon turn to shrugged. It’s hard to see how Maduro’s despotic regime can hold power much longer. Consider this collection of horrifying stories.

The Washington Post reported:

With inflation spiraling out of control, food and medicine supplies dwindling and violent crimes on the rise, women as young as 27 are seeking out surgeons to avoid unwanted pregnancies. A study by PLAFAM, the biggest family planning clinic in the country, estimates that about 23 percent more Venezuelan women are being sterilized today as compared to four years ago, said the clinic’s director, Enrique Abache. “The financial crisis is one of the main causes for this,” he explained. Years of government mismanagement have fueled what is now a full-blown humanitarian crisis in a country where infant mortality has almost doubled in recent years. …mothers often spend whole days searching for milk powder or diapers. Those who can’t find them are simply forced to go without.

From a story in CapX:

How serious is Venezuela’s crisis? Bad enough that, in 2016, Venezuelans became the top US asylum-seekers… Venezuelan asylum claims increased by 150 per cent from 2015 to 2016.The Conversation Though Venezuela does not publicly circulate emigration information, estimates suggest that between 700,000 and two million Venezuelans have emigrated since 1999. …Sometimes, from here, it can seem as though the entire population – fed up with shortages of medicine and food, with crime and with the political trajectory of the nation – wants to leave.

Some grim news from the Japan Times:

Julio Noguera…spends his evenings searching through the garbage for food. “I come here looking for food because if I didn’t, I’d starve to death,” Noguera said as he sorted through a pile of moldy potatoes. “With things like they are, no one helps anyone and no one gives away meals.” Across town, unemployed people converge every dusk at a trash heap on a downtown Caracas sidewalk to pick through rotten fruit and vegetables tossed out by nearby shops. They are frequently joined by small business owners, college students and pensioners — people who consider themselves middle class even though their living standards have long ago been pulverized by triple-digit inflation, food shortages and a collapsing currency. …Nearly half of Venezuelans say they can no longer afford to eat three meals a day, according to a recent poll.

The Wall Street Journal opines:

cities around the country…have been hit hard by police, national guard troops and the regime’s paramilitary forces as the dictatorship of Nicolás Maduro tries to contain a wildfire of rebellion. …The government is running out of money to buy imports, and since it has crippled domestic production, privation is growing more profound. …Roving bands of government-sponsored militias terrorize civil society as they have for more than a decade. …a 16-year-old girl politely informed Mr. Maduro that students in her school often faint from hunger. …Mr. Maduro was pelted with stones as he left a military rally in Bolívar state… Meanwhile, Mr. Maduro is doubling down on centralized control of a shrinking food supply. …Those who do not support the regime can be cut off.

The thuggery will worsen according to the Washington Free Beacon:

The socialist leader of Venezuela announced in a speech to regime loyalists his plan to arm hundreds of thousands of supporters after a years-long campaign to confiscate civilian-owned guns. …The Venezuelan government justified the gun bans and confiscations by saying they were needed to combat the country’s violent crime and murder epidemic. However, statistics reported by the nonprofit Venezuelan Violence Observatory show the murder rate in Venezuela increased from 73 murders per 100,000 inhabitants the year the gun ban was instituted to 91.8 murders per 100,000 inhabitants in 2016. …As protests and unrest increase in Venezuela, Maduro’s regime has created a landscape where civilians are disarmed but his supporters are not. The latest round of mass demonstrations in the streets of Caracas have already claimed five lives.

Even zoo animals are suffering, as reported by the Miami Herald:

An apparently malnourished African elephant in a Venezuelan zoo — her ribs showing through her sagging skin — has become the latest symbol the deep economic crisis in what was once one of Latin America’s most prosperous nations. …Ruperta is suffering from diarrhea and dehydration after zoo officials only had squash to feed her for several days. According to the newspaper, when neighbors tried to bring food to the elephant over the weekend, the donations were turned away by zoo officials… in a nation where a grinding economic crisis is forcing many to skip meals and go hungry, Ruperta’s fate has touched a nerve. …Román Camacho, a local reporter who broke the story, said a whistle-blower within the park service alerted him that Ruperta had grown so hungry that she collapsed last Thursday. …Also last year, a horse at a local zoo was reportedly butchered by hungry Venezuelans.

The New York Times has noticed:

Venezuela was once one of Latin America’s economic powerhouses… A growing number of Venezuelans are going hungry in a food shortage, and dying from treatable ailments in squalid, ill-equipped hospitals. …Until political prisoners are released, the prospects for a restoration of democratic rule are very dim. …Inflation has soared to an estimated 700 percent, while people in this oil-rich nation are left digging through piles of trash for scraps of food.

Productive people are escaping, Bloomberg reports:

For Venezuelan exiles with money, Madrid has become a home away from home. They are increasingly turning to the Spanish capital as a place to invest as their home country falls further into economic chaos and the political mood turns more sour in U.S. havens such as Miami. The number of Venezuelans arriving in Spain rose more than 50 percent in 2015, according to the Spanish statistics office.

The monetary system is also a disaster reports the New York Times:

President Nicolás Maduro of Venezuela made a baffling announcement…, saying that his government intended to yank the 100 bolívar note from circulation… Venezuelans, who have endured months of chronic food and medicine shortages, mobbed banks and A.T.M.s in a desperate attempt to offload their stacks of the highest denomination bill, which has become so devalued it is now worth roughly 3 cents in American dollars. …the Maduro government…has spent years…imposing arbitrary currency controls that have made a once prosperous economy one of the world’s most dysfunctional. …Venezuela was expelled from the regional trade bloc Mercosur in early December.

The outflow of people is staggering according to Fox:

Along with basic food, medicine and even toilet paper, Venezuela now lacks the materials to meet to the soaring demand for new passports – making it almost impossible for those few Venezuelans with the monetary means of escaping the troubled Latin American nation to do so. While estimates of how many passport requests the socialist government received last year vary from between 1.8 million to 3 million, only 300,000 of the elusive documents were doled out. Everyday, hundreds of people line up outside the passport agency, known as Saime, in the capital of Caracas in the hopes of obtaining one. It’s an ironic, and yet sad situation, for a country that used to be one of Latin America’s wealthiest and one that was used to seeing people flock to, not away from. …Adding to the overall misery are a drastic rise in violent crime – especially in the capital city of Caracas – rolling blackouts and widespread and often times bloody protests against the government. …since Chávez took power in 1999 nearly 2 million Venezuelans have fled the country and hundreds of thousands are marking their time until they obtains the funds and the passport that will allow them to leave.

Government insiders are getting rich, as noted by the New York Post:

Venezuela is no longer a country with a government, institutions and a civil society. It’s a geographic area terrorized by a criminal enterprise that pretends to govern, with a civil society made up of two sets of people: accomplices and victims. More than 30 million of the latter. …The Hugo Chavez-led looting spree began in 2000. …More than $1 trillion has disappeared… Loving parents are putting their children up for adoption because they have nothing to feed them; the elderly are starving; patients with treatable conditions are dying in hospitals that lack basic medicine like insulin and oxygen, where vital equipment has been pilfered and emergency rooms operate without electricity. …Meanwhile, those in power can focus on what they do best: looting the country’s natural-resource wealth and manufacturing and trafficking illegal narcotics. In fact, Maduro just upped his game by appointing Tareck el-Aissami, a drug kingpin, as vice president.

CNN shares some bad news:

Venezuela only has $10.5 billion in foreign reserves left, according to its most recent central bank data. For rest of the year, Venezuela owes roughly $7.2 billion in outstanding debt payments. In 2011, Venezuela had roughly $30 billion in reserves. In 2015, it had $20 billion. The trend can’t persist much longer, but it’s hard to know exactly when Venezuela will run completely out of cash. …The thinning reserves paint a scary financial picture as the country faces a humanitarian crisis sparked by an economic meltdown. Venezuelans are suffering massive food and medical shortages, as well as skyrocketing grocery prices. Massive government overspending, a crashing currency, mismanagement of the country’s infrastructure and corruption are all factors that have sparked extremely high inflation in Venezuela. Inflation is expected to rise 1,660% this year and 2,880% in 2018, according to the IMF.

A dour column from Real Clear World:

Socialist economic policies and government corruption have destroyed a once-thriving economy sitting on the world’s largest oil reserves. …Index of Economic Freedom…looks at the economic freedom of countries throughout the world. In that period of time, Venezuela’s score has declined the most out of any country, going from 59.8 to 27.0 (on a scale of 1-100). It is now in second-to-last place, right behind Cuba and better only than North Korea. …The World Health Organization estimates that there are shortages for 75 percent of necessary medications and medical supplies such as antibiotics, vaccines, and scalpels. Blackouts resulting from a crumbling energy infrastructure are a daily occurrence. The death of newborns has become a common phenomenon… All the while, Venezuelan government officials have been using oil revenues to line their own pockets.

The Washington Post opines on the disaster:

Venezuela, which was once Latin America’s richest country, has become an unwilling test site for how much economic and social stress a modern nation can tolerate before it descends into pure anarchy. …Venezuelans have struggled with mounting shortages of food, medicine and other consumer goods, as well as triple-digit inflation that has rendered the national currency, the bolivar, worthless. … President Nicolás Maduro, an economically illiterate former bus driver, …also closed Venezuela’s borders with Colombia and Brazil, on the theory that traders were hoarding currency in those countries. …the president is doing his best to blame the United States for the fiasco… Venezuelans no longer believe such nonsense. A survey released this month by pollster Alfredo Keller showed that only 1 percent said the United States was to blame for the country’s crisis, while 76 percent blamed Mr. Maduro and the regime founded by Hugo Chávez. …Only 19 percent said they still supported the regime.

Investor’s Business Daily piles on:

Want to lose weight fast? …Just move to Venezuela. There, the new Socialist Diet has caused the population to lose millions of pounds in 12 months. Unwillingly, of course. …A new study of Venezuela’s stunning decline under Hugo Chavez’s socialist model…reports that the average Venezuelan lost 19 pounds in the last year. Today, the 2016 Living Conditions Survey finds, 32.5% of Venezuelans eat only once or twice a day, up from 11.3% just one year ago. And 93.3% of all people don’t earn enough to buy sufficient food. …Bring socialism to your country, and you bring misery. It’s the one thing that socialism produces an abundance of. …formerly middle-class Venezuelans scavenge for food — some even stooping to dumpster diving and eating formerly beloved pets just to stay alive — socialists allied with Maduro have changed nothing. …rule of law has been rejected for the rule of one tyrant. Children aren’t spared; they’re dying by the hundreds from curable diseases, a lack of medicine, electricity outages and no incubators for newborns.

Some heartbreak from the New York Times:

Kevin Lara Lugo…died on his 16th birthday.He spent the day before foraging for food in an empty lot, because there was nothing to eat at home. Then in a hospital because what he found made him gravely ill.Hours later, he was dead on a gurney, which doctors rolled by his mother as she watched helplessly. She said the hospital had lacked the simplest supplies needed to save him on that day last July. … Inflation has driven office workers to abandon the cities and head to illegal pit mines in the jungle, willing to subject themselves to armed gangs and multiple bouts of malaria for the chance to earn a living. Doctors have prepared to operate on bloody tables because they did not have enough water to clean them. Psychiatric patients have had to be tied to chairs in mental hospitals because there was no medication left to treat their delusions. Hunger has driven some people to riot — and others into rickety fishing boats, fleeing Venezuela on reckless journeys by sea. But it was the story of a boy with no food, who had gone searching for wild roots to eat but ended up poisoning himself instead, that seemed to embody everything that had gone wrong in Venezuela.

Peak socialism, as reported by Foreign Policy:

A fleet of rundown Venezuelan oil tankers carrying some 4 million barrels of oil and other fuels is wallowing in the Caribbean Sea. Not because of bad weather, or mechanical problems, but because Venezuela’s state-owned oil company, Petróleos de Venezuela SA, doesn’t have the cash to get them to their final destinations. …it’s doubly bad news for Venezuela, a country in dire economic straits and full-fledged crisis, with a political impasse, looting, dangerous food and health supply shortages, and massive protests. Venezuela is massively reliant on oil exports to bankroll government services. But the cash-strapped country can’t even find the money to service the vessels that carry its exports. …Venezuela, once Latin America’s most powerful petrostate, is on the brink of collapse after decades of economic mismanagement.

More on insider corruption, exposed by the Washington Post:

Formerly a stable, sophisticated, middle-income country awash in oil wealth, Venezuela has experienced a dizzying downward spiral over the past two years. Today, Venezuela’s is arguably the world’s worst-run economy. Food shortages are pervasive, and food prices are rising fast — a deadly combination that has left millions unable to find enough to eat. …Why doesn’t the army rebel? …we have the genuinely shocking answer: Far from rebelling, Venezuela’s armed forces actively profit from their countrymen’s hunger.This year, President Nicolás Maduro granted the armed forces virtually unlimited authority over the nation’s food imports and distribution. Domestic food production is down sharply in the wake of a botched land reform program, meaning imports now account for most of the nation’s food. But putting the military in charge of this delicate domain has led to an explosion of corruption, as well-connected officers mercilessly prey on every part of the distribution chain, from the initial contracts and the foreign currency needed to fund them to storage, transportation and distribution. …A government that bills itself as radically pro-poor in fact drips with contempt for the poor.

More tragic sadness, this time from Reuters:

Struggling to feed herself and her seven children, Venezuelan mother Zulay Pulgar asked a neighbor in October to take over care of her six-year-old daughter, a victim of a pummeling economic crisis. …”It’s better that she has another family than go into prostitution, drugs or die of hunger,” the 43-year-old unemployed mother said… With average wages less than the equivalent of $50 a month at black market rates, three local councils and four national welfare groups all confirmed an increase in parents handing children over to the state, charities or friends and family. …the trend highlights Venezuela’s fraying social fabric and the heavy toll that a deep recession and soaring inflation are taking on the country with the world’s largest oil reserves. …most economists pin the responsibility on socialist policies introduced by former president Hugo Chavez, which his successor Nicolas Maduro has doubled down on… Two-thirds of 1,099 households with children in Caracas, ranging across social classes, said they were not eating enough in a survey released last week by children’s’ rights group… In some cases, parents are simply abandoning their kids. Last month, a baby boy was found inside a bag in a relatively wealthy area of Caracas and a malnourished one-year-old boy was found abandoned in a cardboard box in the eastern city of Ciudad Guayana, local media reported. …There are also more cases of children begging or prostituting themselves

Even Vox is aware of the problem:

…new data capturing the woes of the once well-heeled South American nation is shocking: According to new results from an annual national survey, nearly three-quarters of respondents reported losing an average of 19 pounds between 2015 and 2016. …Shortages of food, medicine, and many basic items abound in what was once the richest country in South America per capita in the 20th century. Malaria is ravaging a country that was the first in the world to eliminate the disease in its populated areas. Now there’s evidence that the economic chaos is translating into a malnutrition crisis… Alejandro Velasco, a scholar of Latin American history at New York University, believes Chávez’s model of socialism…”strangled the already meager productive apparatus of Venezuela,” he explained during an interview in January. …Chávez’s spending regime also left the country acutely vulnerable to emergency. Ricardo Hausmann, director of the Center for International Development at Harvard’s Kennedy School, notes…that Chávez’s government.. “over-spent and quintupled the public foreign debt.”

The Economist has given up on Venezuelan statism:

Every weekday morning, a queue of several dozen forlorn people forms outside the dingy headquarters of SAIME, Venezuela’s passport agency. As shortages and violence have made life in the country less bearable, more people are applying for passports so they can go somewhere else. …As desperation rises, so does the intransigence of Venezuela’s “Bolivarian” regime, whose policies have ruined the economy and sabotaged democracy. The economy shrank by 18.6% last year, according to an estimate by the central bank, leaked this month to Reuters… Inflation was 800%. …In 2001 Venezuela was the richest country in South America; it is now among the poorest.

Venezuela is even begging at the UN according to the Associated Press:

Venezuela’s President Nicolas Maduro has asked the United Nations for “help” boosting medicine supplies as he struggles to combat crippling shortages. …acknowledging that Venezuela needs outside help is a telling sign of how far the nation sitting atop the world’s largest petroleum reserves has fallen under Maduro. …Venezuelans…have been suffering from widespread shortages and triple-digit inflation… OAS Secretary General Luis Almagro is pushing to expel Maduro’s government from the group for breaking the country’s democratic order and violating human rights. Maduro’s government disavowed a landslide loss to the opposition in legislative elections in 2015, and then suspended a recall campaign seeking to force him from office before the 2018 election.

Bloomberg notes that an oil-rich nation even has shortages of gas:

…drivers lined up at filling stations amid a worsening shortage of fuel. While Petroleos de Venezuela SA says the situation is normalizing and blamed the lines on transport delays, the opposition says the company has had to reduce costly fuel imports as it tries to preserve cash to pay its foreign debt. …As the company’s crumbling refineries fail to meet domestic demand, imports have become a financial burden because the country buys fuel abroad at market prices only to sell it for pennies per gallon at home. … “It’s unbelievable that this is happening in an oil producing country.” …The hunt for gasoline is just the latest headache for consumers after years of severe economic contraction and triple-digit inflation have produced shortages of everything from bread to antibiotics.

The Miami Herald reports the government is making it even harder for hungry people to get fed:

Facing a bread shortage that is spawning massive lines and souring the national mood, the Venezuelan government is responding this week by detaining bakers and seizing establishments. In a press release, the National Superintendent for the Defense of Socioeconomic Rights said it had charged four people and temporarily seized two bakeries as the socialist administration accused bakers of being part of a broad “economic war” aimed at destabilizing the country. …The government said bakeries are only allowed to produce French bread and white loaves, or pan canilla, with government-imported flour. …The notion that bread could become an issue in Venezuela is one more indictment of an economic system gone bust. The country boasts the world’s largest oil reserves but it has to import just about everything else. …President Nicolás Maduro launched “Plan 700” against what he called a “bread war,” ordering officials to do spot checks of bakeries nationwide.

And there’s always more bad policy, as Reuters reports:

Venezuela’s socialist President Nicolas Maduro announced on Sunday a 50 percent hike in the minimum wage and pensions, the fifth increase over the last year… “In times of economic war and mafia attacks …we must protect employment and workers’ income,” added Maduro, who has now increased the minimum wage by a cumulative 322 percent since February 2016. …critics say his incompetence, and 17 years of failed socialist policies, are behind Venezuela’s economic mess. They say the constant minimum wage hikes symbolize Maduro’s policy failures… Venezuela’s inflation hit 181 percent in 2015, according to official data, though opponents say the true figure was higher. There is no official data for 2016, but…inflation was more than 500 percent in 2016, while the economy shrank 12 percent.

Which means, per the AP, more people want to leave:

Venezuelans for the first time led asylum requests to the United States as the country’s middle class fled the crashing, oil-dependent economy. Data from the U.S. government’s Citizenship and Immigration Services show that 18,155 Venezuelans submitted asylum requests last year, a 150 percent increase over 2015 and six times the level seen in 2014. …The vast majority leaving are middle-class Venezuelans who don’t qualify for refugee status reserved for those seeking to escape political persecution, according to Julio Henriquez, director of the Boston-based nonprofit Refugee Freedom Program, which has been drawing attention to the trend. “The pace at which requests are increasing is alarming,” said Henriquez, whose group obtained the still-unpublished data in a Feb. 8 meeting between U.S. officials and immigration lawyers.

And the government is engaged in more looting, MSN reports:

General Motors said it has been forced to stop operating in Venezuela on Wednesday after one of its plants was illegally seized by local authorities. The seizure, in the country’s industrial hub of Valencia, comes amid a deepening economic and political crisis that has sparked weeks of deadly street protests. …The auto giant did not provide any details about its plant being seized, other than saying it “was unexpectedly taken by authorities, preventing normal operations.” It said other assets, “such as vehicles,” had also been stripped from the site. …Venezuela’s car industry has been in freefall, hit by a lack of raw materials stemming from complex currency controls and stagnant local production, and many plants are barely producing at all. Venezuela’s government has taken over factories in the past. In 2014 the government announced the “temporary” takeover of two plants belonging to U.S. cleaning products maker Clorox Co.

Last but not least, here’s a column from the Week:

Venezuela cannot wake up from its socialist nightmare. …across the country, people are starving. Venezuela, a beautiful, oil-rich country, once one of the wealthiest nations in the Southern Hemisphere, is only sinking further into economic devastation and chaotic, corrupt authoritarianism. …Meanwhile, the economy keeps rotting. Venezuela has topped Bloomberg‘s Economic Misery Index, a benchmark whose title is self-explanatory, for three years running. The economy shrank by 18 percent last year, with unemployment at 25 percent, and inflation slated to be 750 percent this year and 2,000 percent the next…there are outbreaks of scabies, a disease easily prevented with basic hygienic practices; hospitals are running out of even basic drugs. Caracas is the murder capital of the world. Corruption has infected the country wholesale even as it has created a new class of kleptocratic oligarchs linked to the security services. …The whole of Venezuelan society is breaking down at a fundamental level. …It is truly heartbreaking. …And I blame socialism. …And now it’s Venezuelans, especially the poorest and more marginal among them, who are paying the price for this madness.

Let’s close with a video on the tragic situation in Venezuela.

I wonder if Bernie Sanders still thinks this is a system worth supporting?

P.S. I have to confess that this huge collection of 28 stories accumulated because I was dating someone who is a fervid supporter of Maduro’s government (a lovely but misguided lass), and I decided that it wouldn’t be very diplomatic for me to write about the mess in that country. Now that the relationship is over, there’s no downside if I vent my spleen on that cesspool of corrupt statism.

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The last time there was a presidential election in France, I like to think my endorsement made a difference in the outcome.

Now that another election is about to take place, with a first round this Sunday and a runoff election between the top-2 candidates two week later, it’s time to once again pontificate about the political situation in France. But before looking at the major candidates, let’s consider a couple of pieces of economic data to get a sense of the enormous challenges that will have to be overcome to boost France’s anemic economy.

We’ll start with this measure of implicit pension debt (IPD) in various European nations. France, not surprisingly, has made commitments to spend money that greatly exceed the private sector’s capacity to generate tax revenue.

By the way, the accompany article notes that the numbers for France are even worse than suggested by the chart.

Most tax and accounting codes require companies to report such implicit debts on the liability side of the ledger as obligations. Not so with governments, whose accounting practices would under normal circumstances be considered as falsifying public accounts. …According to a recent study, six European countries – Austria, Finland, France, Germany, Italy and Poland – have an IPD exceeding 300 percent of gross domestic product. …And the kicker? The data cited above are based on the present value of future pensions as of 2006. More up-to-date figures probably won’t be available until the end of 2017. …The issue is no longer when France goes bankrupt, but when Europe does. The level of debt declared in the national accounts is already worrying. With implicit pension liabilities a multiple of that, it appears that a systemic implosion is unavoidable.

Here’s another sobering visual. France is doing a very good job of scaring off the geese that lay the golden eggs. It is losing more millionaires than any other country.

The combined message of these two visuals is that the already-enormous burden of spending in France will get worse, yet the country is chasing away the people who finance the lion’s share of the government’s budget.

And lots of young entrepreneurs also are escaping, which further exacerbates the nation’s long-run troubles.

Now that we’ve looked at where France is heading, let’s contemplate whether the politicians running for President will make the situation better or worse.

We’ll start with this helpful table summarizing the views of the major candidates (though the hard-left vote apparently has consolidated behind Mélenchon, so Hamon can be ignored).

What’s not captured in this table, however, is that the presidential race pits two outsiders (Mélenchon and Le Pen) against two establishment candidates (Macron and Fillon).

And this is leading to some interesting analysis. The establishment point of view is captured by Sebastian Mallaby’s column in the Washington Post. He is very opposed to Fillon, Le Pen, and Mélenchon, and also rather concerned that his preferred candidate – Emmanuel Macron – won’t make it to the runoff.

In the first round of its presidential election, to be held on Sunday, some three-quarters of the French electorate are expected to back candidates who stand variously for corruption, a 100 percent top tax rate, Islamophobia, Russophilia, Holocaust denial, the undermining of NATO and the traumatic breakup of Europe’s political and monetary union. France was once the cradle of the Western Enlightenment. Now it threatens to become a spectacle of decadent collapse.

I disagree with some of Mallaby’s analysis, but enjoyed his depiction of Mélenchon, who bizarrely thinks Venezuela is a role model.

Jean-Luc Mélenchon, the Communist-allied candidate who styles himself after Venezuela’s Hugo Chávez and promises a “citizens’ revolution.” No prizes for guessing that he’s the one who proposes a 100 percent top tax rate… Oblivious to the fact that France has taxed and regulated its way to a 25 percent youth unemployment rate and a government-debt trajectory that threatens Armageddon, he wants further cuts to the French workweek, an additional 10,000 civil servants and a shift in the retirement age from 62 to 60.

To put it in simple terms, Mélenchon is appealing to voters who think Hollande didn’t go far enough.

CNN reports that Mélenchon is even more fixated on class warfare than Bernie Sanders.

Instead of a 90 percent top tax rate, he wants to steal every penny from the supposedly evil rich.

Jean-Luc Mélenchon, who has been endorsed by the French Communist Party, says he would introduce a 100% tax on income above €400,000 ($425,000). …France already has some of the world’s highest rates of income tax, and previous attempts to push them even higher have failed. …Around 10,000 millionaires left the country in 2015, followed by 12,000 last year, according to New World Wealth.

Though maybe he’s the French version of Obama, who also got support from communists.

And, like Obama, he thinks he should get to decide when someone has earned enough money.

“I believe that there is a limit to the accumulation [of wealth],” Mélenchon said in March. “If there are any who want to go abroad, well, goodbye!”

Though at least he has the courage of his convictions. He doesn’t mind if upper-income taxpayers leave. Though I wonder if he’s given any thought to who will then pay the bills?

Anyhow, the 100 percent tax is just one of many crazy ideas.

He also wants to limit pay for CEOs to 20 times the salary of their worst-paid employee. …Here’s a quick look at Mélenchon’s other economic policy proposals: Cut France’s working week to four days…More vacation days for workers…Raise minimum wage by 16%…Increase the tax on inherited wealth…100% renewable energy by 2050…No new free trade agreements…Nationalize French energy company EDF and gas provider Engie.

Now let’s shift to other candidates. I’m irked that Macron generally is portrayed as a centrist and even more irked that Le Pen is portrayed as being on the right.

Prince Michael of Liechtenstein is a very astute observer of European political and economic affairs and his analysis is more accurate. We’ll start with what he wrote about Le Pen’s support for statism.

Ms. Le Pen’s…socialist economic program will continue the ongoing destruction of the French economy, its competitiveness and public finances. …Such a scenario would, however, only accelerate a disaster that was already looming. The present government’s socialist policies, which have shied away from reform and preserved France’s oversized public sector, will eventually bear the same results.

To augment that analysis, Le Pen is considered on the right simply because of her anti-immigrant policy. But on economic policy, she is very much on the left.

Prince Michael also exposed Macron’s support for a more burdensome government.

Mr. Macron…claims that he will bring France’s budget deficit below the European benchmark of 3 percent. …The candidate’s plan…does not appear plausible in light of his intention to further increase government spending. Mr. Macron’s pronouncements indicate an adherence to the Keynesian economic policy approach at the EU level. According to him, Europe should end austerity and introduce a growth model in which additional spending – on top of the already lavish outlays planned by European Commission chief Jean-Claude Juncker – ought to be implemented. The Macron policies boil down to more state and more EU centralization. At the heart of the scheme is the creation of a European Ministry of Finance and Economy, an all-powerful body to plan and monitor the EU economy. …Macron intends to continue treating the French cancer with aspirin and transmit the disease to Germany and the rest of the EU, while demanding that they pay for France’s subsistence in the meantime.

In other words, Macron wants this cartoon to be official French policy. Yet some people actually think of him as a pro-market reformer. Wow.

Let’s conclude with these wise words from an editorial in today’s Wall Street Journal, which is very worried that the runoff may feature two pro-big government outsiders.

All four major candidates are polling at around 20%, but Mr. Mélenchon has momentum and the highest personal favorability. A Le Pen-Mélenchon finale would be a political shock to markets and perhaps to the future of the EU and eurozone. …Mr. Hollande’s Socialists have made France the sickest of Europe’s large economies, with growth of merely 1.1% in 2016, a jobless rate above 10% for most of the past five years, and youth unemployment at nearly 25%. His predecessor Nicolas Sarkozy and the Republicans talked a good reform game but never delivered. …the stage is set for candidates who appeal to nativism or a cost-free welfare state. Let’s hope a French majority steps back from the political brink.

By the way, it’s not yet time for me to make an official endorsement, though I’ll share my leanings.

I confess that I’m torn between Fillon and Mélenchon. By French standards, Fillon is apparently very pro-free market. So I should like him. He could be the Ronald Reagan or Margaret Thatcher of France.

But what if he turns out to be another Sarkozy, a big-government fraud?

If I support Mélenchon, by contrast, at least I can say with great confidence that I will be able to continue using France as an example of bad public policy. I realize that’s not an ideal outcome for the French people, but you know what they say about omelets and eggs.

In any event, I’ll wait until the runoff election before selecting a candidate.

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