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Posts Tagged ‘Venezuela’

Socialism is a very bad concept. It deserves mockery rather than respect.

But that’s true of all statist ideologies.

Last year, as part of a column on the collapse of the Soviet Empire, I put together a statism spectrum showing the degree to which various nations allow economic liberty.

I thought this effort was useful because it shows, for instance, that the United States, France, and Hong Kong are all on the right side, but that there are nonetheless obvious differences in the amount of economic freedom for those three jurisdictions. Likewise, it’s not good to be Mexico, China, or North Korea, but there are degrees of statism and it’s worse to be farther to the left.

Speaking of left, not all advocates of bigger government are the same. So earlier this year I created another spectrum showing that there are various strains of statism, especially among true believers.

The value of this spectrum is that it shows the differences between totalitarians, genuine socialists, and run-of-the-mill hard-core leftists like Bernie Sanders.

And both of these spectrums were implicit in my interview yesterday about Venezuela. I pointed out that Venezuela technically isn’t socialist, but also suggested that doesn’t matter because the country is definitely on the wrong part of the statism spectrum.

And Venezuela definitely is proof that being on the wrong side of the spectrum is a recipe for collapse (or, in the case of North Korea, a recipe for never getting off the ground in the first place).

Since we’re discussing statism, let’s close with some really good news. Matt Yglesias of Vox likes big government. A lot. But he’s also capable of dispassionately analyzing what works and doesn’t work for his side. And he writes that “socialism” is a bad word for those who want to expand the size and scope of government.

Bernie Sanders refers to his ideology — which I would characterize as social democracy or even just welfare state liberalism — as democratic socialism, a politically loaded term that seems to imply policy commitments Sanders hasn’t made to things like government ownership of major industries. …the socialist branding seems to have offered Sanders some upside…earning him enthusiastic support from a number of politically engaged people who seem to really be socialists… Against this, though, one has to weigh the reality that socialism is really unpopular in the United States.

How unpopular? Yglesias shares some new polling data from Gallup.

This is great news. Not only is socialism unpopular, but it ranks below the federal government (which traditionally gets low marks from the American people). And the supposed Sanders revolution hasn’t even translated into a relative improvement. This poisonous ideology is actually slightly more unpopular than it was in 2010 and 2012.

Here’s what Yglesias wrote about these numbers.

Any form of left-of-center politics in the United States, frankly, is going to have a problem with the fact that “the federal government” is viewed so much less favorably than cuddly targets like “small business,” “entrepreneurs,” and “free enterprise.” Even big business does better than the federal government. And both big business and capitalism do far better than socialism.

As I said, this is excellent news.

A few closing thoughts.

  • First, Yglesias and I don’t agree on very much (he’s referred to me as insane and irrational), but we both think that a socialist is someone who believes in government ownership of the means of production, not simply someone who believes in bigger government.
  • Second, the Gallup data reinforces what I wrote back in April about “free enterprise” being a much more appealing term than “capitalism.”

The bottom line is that economic liberty works while left-wing ideologies (all based on coercion) don’t work, so let’s use whatever words are most capable of disseminating this valuable message.

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I feel sorry for the Venezuelan people, but I’m perversely glad that the country is collapsing.

That’s because it’s nice to have proof that Margaret Thatcher was right when she famously warned that the problem with socialism is that you eventually run out of other people’s money.

To be sure, we already had proof from Greece, France, the Soviet Union, Brazil, and many other places. But it’s still nice to have another piece of evidence that big government eventually produces very dire results.

I also confess that I’m enjoyed Venezuela’s economic decay because I get a warm feeling of Schadenfreude when watching leftists try to explain what’s happening in that formerly rich nation.

Even the New York Times feels the need to report on the mayhem in Venezuela.

The courts? Closed most days. The bureau to start a business? Same thing. The public defender’s office? That’s been converted into a food bank for government employees. Step by step, Venezuela has been shutting down. …Venezuela keeps drifting further into uncharted territory. …that is only the start of the country’s woes. Electricity and water are being rationed, and huge areas of the country have spent months with little of either. …the Mexican company that bottles Coke in the country, has even said it was halting production of sugary soft drinks because it was running out of sugar.

And why is the economy in free fall? Is it possible that the left-wing policies the NYT wants for the United States are failing when tried elsewhere?

Not according to the story. It’s the fault of external forces. Or maybe even rich people.

The growing economic crisis — fueled by low prices for oil, the country’s main export; a drought that has crippled Venezuela’s ability to generate hydroelectric power; and a long decline in manufacturing and agricultural production. …Venezuela’s government says the problems are the result of an “economic war” being waged by elites who are hoarding supplies.

Finally, in the 27th paragraph, there’s a mention that maybe, just maybe, some of the blame belongs to government.

…most economists agree that Venezuela is suffering from years of economic mismanagement, including…price controls that led many businesses to stop making products.

Hmmm…, I guess we can safely assume that “most economists” does not include Joseph Stiglitz.

Another story in the New York Times specifically examines how this mess was created. Finally, an opportunity to learn how leftist policies are a recipe for economic failure, right?

Hardly. The report starts by pointing out the obvious. Yes, the economy is a disaster.

Supermarket shelves in Venezuela are chronically bare, and power shortages are so severe that government offices are now open only two days a week. The health care system has collapsed, the crime rate is one of the world’s worst, and inflation is rapidly eroding what remains of the currency’s value.

It then addresses the question of how this happened.

And as you can see, we’re supposed to believe it’s the result of falling oil prices and drought, even though many other oil-producing jurisdictions are avoiding economic chaos and droughts in other nations normally don’t lead to societal collapse.

The price of oil, Venezuela’s only significant export, has plummeted, which means revenue could fall by 40 percent this year. The government’s huge borrowing, partly a legacy of the years when oil prices were far higher, has helped bring the crisis to a head because Venezuela now has far less money to repay its foreign debt, forcing Mr. Maduro to slash imports in order to avoid default. On top of that are the consequences of a drought, which has shriveled the country’s hydropower generation, a critical source of electricity.

Farther down the article, in the seventh paragraph (of a much shorter story), there’s a grudging admission that at least some economists blame statist policies.

…many economists say his policies of state ownership, unfettered spending, subsidies and domestic price controls are at least partly responsible for the crisis today.

Gee, how generous of the NYT to acknowledge that some people have this strange belief that big government doesn’t work.

The column also notes that price controls are causing shortages, which is a nice admission even if there’s no clear conclusion in the article that the policy is bad.

Subsidized food and fuel sold by state-run stores are priced far lower than they are really worth. This has created enormous lines of shoppers for goods that quickly sell out.

While it’s amusing the dissect the verbal gymnastics of the New York Times, it’s even more fun to observe the dour reaction of Comrade Bernie Sanders when asked about the issue.

The folks at Newsbusters have the video, and here’s the relevant transcript if your stomach’s not strong enough to actually watch the Vermont Senator on screen.

Huh, the guy’s been waxing poetic about the glories of socialism and big government his entire life, so much so that he reportedly was kicked out of a Marxist commune for being too much of a blowhard, but now he’s suddenly so “focused” on his campaign that he can’t comment on the biggest story about socialism since the fall of the Berlin Wall?!?

Yeah, right.

Too bad the reporter didn’t ask the logical follow-up question: “So what makes you think the policies that have failed in Venezuela will work in the United States?”

Heck, I would like some journalist to present Sanders with my two-part challenge for leftists and see if he can name a single successful statist jurisdiction.

Though I’m guessing Comrade Bernie would inaccurately claim Sweden or Denmark, even those two nations got rich first and then adopted big government.

P.S. Interestingly, the Washington Post does not appear to be as reflexively left wing at the NYT.

At least if these blurbs from an editorial last year are any indication.

…one of the worst crises of governance Latin America has seen in modern times. The country’s collapsing economy, soaring crime… Mr. Maduro…inherited the mess created by the late Hugo Chávez and then greatly worsened it… Venezuelans are furious about endemic shortages, triple-digit inflation and a poverty rate that exceeds that of 1999, when the Chavista movement first came to power. …That Mr. Maduro…threatens violence probably is a reflection…of the regime’s deep-seated criminality. Two of the president’s nephews are being held in New York on drug-trafficking charges, and U.S. authorities are reportedly investigating numerous other senior figures, including the current president of the National Assembly, Diosdado Cabello, who is considered the regime’s second most powerful official.

To be sure, the Post editorial doesn’t explicitly tie the wretched conditions in Venezuela to left-wing policy, but at least there’s no ambiguity about the fact that Maduro is a bad guy.

Now if we can get the Post to cease being reflexively supportive of statism in the United States, that will be real progress.

P.P.S. Since it’s Memorial Day in the United States, let’s close with a feel-good story about an immigrant achieving the American Dream.

As 2nd Lt. Alix Schoelcher Idrache stood at attention during the commencement ceremony at West Point, N.Y., on Saturday, he was overcome with emotion. Tears rolled down both cheeks, but his gloved left hand held firm on his white, gold and black “cover,” the dress headgear that Army cadets wear. The photograph of Idrache, by Army Staff Sgt. Vito T. Bryant, was published Tuesday on the Facebook page of West Point’s U.S. Military Academy, and it almost immediately went viral. …Idrache’s background: He worked his way through one of the nation’s most prestigious military schools after immigrating to the United States from Haiti, earning his citizenship and serving for two years as an enlisted soldier…Idrache wrote Tuesday on Facebook. “I am humbled and shocked at the same time. Thank you for giving me a shot at the American Dream and may God bless America, the greatest country on earth.”

P.P.P.S. And I can’t resist adding a bit of humor about Sen. Sanders and Venezuela.

Yes, socialism breeds misery, but it also generates some clever humor. More examples here, here, here, and here.

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Venezuela is falling apart. Decades of bad policy have produced economic stagnation and misery.

On the other side of South America, Chile has enjoyed comparatively strong growth since reforms began in the 1980s.

Can we learn lessons by comparing these two nations?

Yes. More than five years ago, I compared three decades of data to show that pro-market Chile grew somewhat faster than mixed-economy Argentina and much faster than statist Venezuela.

Now we have some new data.

My colleague at the Cato Institute, Marian Tupy, has an article in Reason that compares Chile and Venezuela.

He starts by noting that the two nations have moved in dramatically different directions when measuring economic freedom.

Chile’s success starts in the mid-1970s, when Chile’s military government abandoned socialism and started to implement economic reforms. In 2013, Chile was the world’s 10th freest economy. Venezuela, in the meantime, declined from being the world’s 10th freest economy in 1975 to being the world’s least free economy in 2013.

Here’s a sobering chart on the changes.

Some may believe that economic freedom as merely an abstraction.

What’s more important, they argue, is results. Is a nation enjoying good economic performance, or is it stagnating?

Well, it turns out that the abstraction of economic freedom is very important if you want good performance. Here’s another chart from Marian’s article. You can see that Venezuela has stagnated while Chile has boomed.

Chile is not a perfect role model, to be sure, because of an unsavory period of military rule.

But the good news, Marian points out, is that economic liberty has led to political liberty. Whereas the opposite has happened in Venezuela.

…as the people of Chile grew richer, they started demanding more say in the running of their country. Starting in the late 1980s, the military gradually and peacefully handed power over to democratically-elected representatives. In Venezuela, the opposite has happened. As failure of socialism became more apparent, the government had to resort to ever more repressive measures in order to keep itself in power.

Here’s a chart showing the remarkable progress in Chile..as well as the deterioration of rights in Venezuela (please note that “1” means strong political rights and “7” means low or nonexistent political rights).

All this data seemingly is slam-dunk evidence for the Chilean model over the Venezuelan model.

Yet there have been a number of leftists who actually praised the statist policies of Venezuela’s authoritarian rulers. Here are some excerpts from an exposê in the Daily Caller.

Socialist Venezuelan dictator Hugo Chavez was praised throughout his life by many figures in academia, journalism and Hollywood despite his brutal regime. This praise included Salon writer David Sirota’s piece after the leader’s death, titled “Hugo Chavez’s economic miracle.” In British publication The New Statesman, a headline as Chavez was nearing death in January 2013 was “Hugo Chavez: Man against the world,” and its sub-headline read “As illness ends Hugo Chavez’s rule in Venezuela, what will his legacy be? Richard Gott argues he brought hope to a continent.” This praise of Chavez by so many who enjoyed the benefits of living in a capitalist society while looking at the economic record of the late leader, as well as what his successor President Nicolas Maduro, has come undone.

And Joe Stiglitz gushed about Venezuela’s economic performance back in 2007.

Nobel Prize winning economist and former vice-president of the World Bank, Joseph Stiglitz, praised Venezuela’s economic growth and “positive policies in health and education” during a visit to Caracas on Wednesday. “Venezuela’s economic growth has been very impressive in the last few years,” Stiglitz said during his speech at a forum on Strategies for Emerging Markets sponsored by the Bank of Venezuela. …Venezuela has taken advantage of the boom in world oil prices to implement policies that benefit its citizens and promote economic development. “Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez appears to have had success in bringing health and education to the people in the poor neighborhoods of Caracas, to those who previously saw few benefits of the countries oil wealth,” he said. In his latest book “Making Globalization Work,” Stiglitz argues that left governments such as in Venezuela, “have frequently been castigated and called ‘populist’ because they promote the distribution of benefits of education and health to the poor.” “It is not only important to have sustainable growth,” Stiglitz continued during his speech, “but to ensure the best distribution of economic growth, for the benefit of all citizens.”

Wow, this is a remarkable case of ideological blindness. Stiglitz presumably allowed his statist views to drive his analysis.

But let’s focus on one part of that excerpt. Yes, it’s very desirable for all citizens to benefit from economic growth.

But if you look at the chart from Marian’s article comparing GDP per capita in Chile and Venezuela, it’s abundantly clear which nation is producing better outcomes from average citizens.

This is a fundamental flaw of statists. By fixating on redistribution and equality, this leads them to policies that re-slice a shrinking economic pie.

The evidence from all over the world is that this is not a recipe for convergence with rich nations.

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I don’t care whether it’s called socialism, fascism, or communism, statism is evil and destructive. And going partway down that path with “democratic socialism” may avoid brutality, but the end result is still economic misery.

In hopes of getting this point across, I utilize everything from humor to theoretical analysis.

But my favorite approach, based on decades of experience with one-on-one meetings, public speeches, and private briefings, is to share cross-country comparisons. Such real-world evidence seems to be most persuasive.

So it’s time to add to that collection.

Let’s go back to 2011, when Catherine Rampell was with the New York Times and she wrote a column about a book by World Bank economist Branko Milanovic. She focuses on a powerful visual.

My favorite part of the book was this graph…on the vertical axis, you can see where any given ventile from any country falls when compared to the entire population of the world. …take a look at America. Notice how the entire line for the United States resides in the top portion of the graph? That’s because the entire country is relatively rich. In fact, America’s bottom ventile is still richer than most of the world: That is, the typical person in the bottom 5 percent of the American income distribution is still richer than 68 percent of the world’s inhabitants. …America’s poorest are, as a group, about as rich as India’s richest.

Here’s the graph that grabbed her attention.

I agree with everything Ms. Rampell wrote about that graph, but let me expand the focus by explaining why this is yet another piece of evidence for the proposition that policy makers should focus on growth rather than (in)equality.

From a leftist perspective, the ideal line for such a graph is horizontal because that represents complete income equality. And they naturally think that statist policies are more likely to produce an outcome closer to that redistributionist ideal (hence, their support for politicians such as Obama, Clinton, and Sanders).

But the graph shows why they are so wrong to support ever-larger government.

For instance, ponder the question of which nation produces better outcomes for poor people? Obviously, per-capita output for all income levels is higher in the United States, but the gap is especially huge for those with low incomes.

There doubtlessly are many reasons for the output gap in the chart, but one logical explanation is that the overall burden of government is much lower in the United States (#16 in the economic freedom rankings) than in China (#111), India (#114), and Brazil (#118).

By the way, some people may say it’s unfair to compare the United States with nations from the developing world. But the entire point of this comparison is that these other countries aren’t part of the “first world” in part because their economic policies are characterized by statism rather than capitalism.

But for those who want comparisons among developed nations, I’ve reviewed evidence from the United States and Europe on many occasions and the results always show that the relatively more market-friendly policies in the United States produce higher levels of prosperity than the more statist policies of Europe.

And if you want a more apples-to-apples comparison involving one of the most successful European nations, consider this chart showing the relative prosperity of different income levels in the United States and Sweden.

The bottom line is that it’s very difficult to find any evidence to suggest that any group of people enjoys more prosperity in a nation with a larger burden of government.

Which is why I’m still waiting for a leftist to successfully respond to my two-question challenge (and they actually only need to give an answer to one of the questions).

Another good way of determining whether markets work better than statism is to see how fast nations grow over time.

James Pethokoukis of the American Enterprise Institute shares a chart from Max Roser showing long-run changes in per-capita economic output for South Korea and Venezuela.

The amazing takeaway is that Venezuela was about three times richer than South Korea about fifty years ago, but now that ratio is almost reversed.

This is an amazing ratification of the all-important principle that sustained differences in growth have an enormous impact on a nation’s long-run prosperity.

And it shows that nations from the developing world can experience “convergence” and join the first world if they adopt good policies.

They don’t even need great policies. The key is simply to keep the burden of government at modest levels so the private sector has room to grow.

P.S. For those wondering about my juvenile title, I probably watched Homeward Bound: The Incredible Journey over 100 times when my kids were young and I’m borrowing a very appropriate line from that film.

P.P.S. For those who want more information about South Korean growth, check out this comparison of that country with its northern neighbor.

P.P.P.S. And for those who want to learn more about Venezuela’s lack of growth, see how that country compares to Chile and Argentina.

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According to a “Happy Planet” index put together by some leftists a few years ago, Venezuela is supposed to be one of the world’s best nations.

But I strongly suspect that the vast majority of these people would be horrified if they actually had to live there.

That’s because Venezuela is proving that Margaret Thatcher was right when she said socialists eventually run out of other people’s money.

But what’s really killing the country, above and beyond the government being out of money, is pervasive statism. There are so many forms of regulation and intervention that the private sector, for all intents and purposes, has gone on strike. Venezuela is like a real-world example of Ayn Rand’s famous novel, Atlas Shrugged.

I was writing about the Venezuelan disaster six years ago, but it’s even gotten to the point that left-leaning establishment media outlets are finally recognizing the handwriting on the wall.

The Economist has a very gloomy assessment.

…around 120 people are queuing for food at government-controlled prices from a state-run supermarket. The food queue starts at 3am. “Sometimes there’s food and sometimes there isn’t,” one would-be shopper says. In this district of Caracas, once a Chávez stronghold, his aura is fading amid the struggle for daily survival. …his “Bolivarian revolution”, a mishmash of indiscriminate subsidies, price and exchange controls, social programmes, expropriations and grand larceny by officials…has exposed the revolution as a monumental swindle.

Needless to say, the government elite still enjoy very comfortable lives.

But for average people, statism has created untold misery.

Real wages fell by 35% last year… According to a survey by a group of universities, 76% of Venezuelans are now poor, up from 55% in 1998. …Many pills are unavailable; patients die as a result. In Caracas food queues at government stores grow longer by the week. …Violent crime is out of control. …Violent scuffles in food queues and localised looting are everyday occurrences.

Sounds like fun, huh? Maybe it’s Atlas Shrugged mixed with Lord of the Flies.

In any event, it’s gotten so bad that even the Washington Post has taken notice. Here are some excerpts from that paper’s story.

…the country of 30 million people is facing an economic collapse and a humanitarian disaster. Venezuela already suffers from the world’s highest inflation rate — expected to rise from 275 percent to 720 percent this year — one of its higher murder rates and pervasive shortages of consumer goods, ranging from car parts to toilet paper. Power outages and the lack of raw materials are forcing surviving factories and shops to close or limit opening hours. …the U.S. dollar is worth 150 times more on the black market than it is at the official rate.

Wait, did the Washington Post acknowledge that Venezuela has a very high murder rate? But how can that be when there are strong gun control laws, just like the Post wants to impose on America?

I’m being sarcastic, of course, because I couldn’t resist a momentary digression.

Let’s get back to Venezuela’s economic mess.

Here are some examples of what it’s like to be an imploding statist economy. The U.K.-based Times reports on the surreal details.

Shopping centres across Venezuela have cut their trading time by four hours a day because of electricity rationing ordered by the Socialist government. President Maduro has suggested that people grow their own food to survive a possible economic collapse, after revealing last month that he and his wife kept 50 chickens at home. …Inflation is estimated at more than 700 per cent, there are endless queues outside shops, and crime rates have soared — leading some analysts to report that Venezuela’s economy is in a “death spiral”. …the state-subsidised supermarkets, where thousands of people line up to get their meagre ration of basic supplies every day, and fights are common. …The nation’s health services are breaking down.

At the risk of (further) outing myself as a typical libertarian, a core premise of Atlas Shrugged was the economy entering a death spiral because the political class kept figuring out new ways to expand the size and scope government.

So I guess it’s nice that Venezuela is giving us a real-world example of what happens when government places too many straws on the camel’s back.

Last but not least, here’s some of what the New York Times has reported.

In the capital, water is so expensive and scarce that residents wait for hours with bottles at the side of a mountain where it trickles out onto the highway. In the countryside, sugar cane fields rot, and milk factories stand idle, even as people carry bags of money around to buy food on the black market in every city and town. …And it is all about to get much worse. …Ransoms are a business across this country.

The entire story is filled with heartbreaking stories of suffering families and maddening anecdotes about how unconstrained government has wrecked a potentially rich nation.

Which gives me a good reason to make the most important point of this article.

All the bad policies in Venezuela were imposed because politicians supposedly “cared” about ordinary people. That was the rationale for higher welfare payments, minimum wages, price controls, subsidies, and all sorts of other “compassionate” policies.

Yet the news reports above show that it’s regular people who are now suffering the most because excessive government is causing an economic collapse.

Which is why this chart comparing Venezuela, Argentina, and Chile is so powerful. Ordinary people did the best in the nation with a government that did the least.

P.S. Since I’ve already used it when writing about France, Greece, and Detroit (as well as what happens in Washington), I probably be careful about going back to the well too often with the Atlas Shrugged comparison.

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Over the years, I’ve had many arguments about economic policy with my statist friends. I put them into three categories.

  • The completely unreasonable statists blindly assert, notwithstanding all the evidence around the world, that bigger government and more intervention are actually good for growth.
  • The somewhat unreasonable statists acknowledge that bigger government and more intervention might have some minor “efficiency” costs, but those costs are acceptable and affordable in the pursuit of more “equity.”
  • The semi-reasonable statists admit that bigger government and more intervention hurt growth, but they argue that “libertarian types” must somehow be wrong because our predictions of economic chaos never materialize.

The folks in the last category have a point. For decades, advocates of limited government and free markets have warned about the economic cost of bad policy, yet where’s the collapse?

Why hasn’t Atlas shrugged, as libertarians have warned? Why have predictions of economic dystopia (examples here and here) been wrong?

I have two responses to these questions.

First, the economic damage caused by an expanding welfare state has been offset by improvements in other types of economic policy.

Second, maybe dour libertarians have been right, but got the timing wrong because it takes a long time and a lot of bad policy to destroy an economy.

And that’s today’s topic, because it certainly looks like both Greece and Venezuela have finally reached the end of the road. Let’s call it the Thatcher Inflection Point.

Here are some excerpts from a very grim New York Times story about the economic misery in Greece

Bulldozers lie abandoned on city streets. Exhausted surgeons operate through the night. And the wealthy bail out broke police departments. A nearly bankrupt Greece is taking desperate measures to preserve cash. …In a society that has lived off the generosity of the government for decades, the cash crisis has already had a shattering impact. Universities, hospitals and municipalities are struggling to provide basic services… Greece is already operating as a bankrupt state. …For a generation of Greek politicians who saw government spending (and borrowing) as a national birthright, the idea of deploying only the money at hand has been jarring.

Egads, imagine the horror of only being able to consume what you’re able to produce. Obviously a violation of human rights!

Though some people apparently are learning the right lesson.

…for other Greeks who are eager to break from the country’s tradition of dispensing political favors to the well-connected, these years of imposed restraint have also provided a valuable lesson. “There are no free rides in this country anymore,” said Kostas Bakoyannis, 37, the governor of the Central Greece administrative region. “…Now we have to live on what we can make and produce.”

By the way, don’t cry too many tears for the Greeks. Yes, they’ve had to make genuine budget cuts since outlays peaked near the end of last decade. But government spending in Greece, after adjusting for inflation, is about the same level it was in 2000.

And that wasn’t an era of “harsh austerity.”

In other words, Greece wouldn’t be in trouble today had politicians simply obeyed my Golden Rule.

Besides, how can you feel sorry for a nation that subsidizes pedophiles and requires…um…stool samples to set up online companies.

When it comes to bizarre government policy, Greece truly is special.

Now let’s look at Venezuela, where economic buffoonery is an art form. My Cato colleague Steve Hanke has a new column about that nation’s grotesquely reckless monetary policy.

I estimate Venezuela’s annual inflation rate at 335%. That’s the highest rate in the world. For those holding bolivars, it amounts to: “no rule of law, bad money.” …Facing this inflationary theft, Venezuelan’s have voted with their wallets. Indeed, they have unofficially begun to dollarize the economy.

Here’s John Hinderaker’s summary of the overall situation.

When a country can neither produce nor buy toilet paper, you know the end is approaching. …Venezuela’s regime is long past eating its seed corn; now it’s selling the furniture. Will Maduro’s government default on the country’s debt, some of which carries 30% interest? …The IMF is helping to keep Venezuela’s economy afloat, and if oil prices rise, the Maduro regime might be able to buy a little more time. But the end game is obvious: economic collapse.

I’ll add one modification (and I’m sure John would agree), which is that economic collapse is obvious if policy stays on the current path.

Venezuela (or Greece, or any other nation) could save itself by shifting to a policy of free markets and small government. But I’m not holding my breath.

By the way, I suppose we could also use the example of the Soviet Union. That was a collapse of turbo-charged big government.

But let’s close instead with a point about richer nations in the western world because some readers understandably are thinking that countries such as Germany, Japan, and the United States will never suffer the fate of nations such as Greece, Venezuela, and the Soviet Union.

That’s probably true, but keep in mind that demographic changes are a wild card. Simply stated, aging populations and poorly designed entitlement programs are a very unpalatable combination.

And if governments wait too long to implement reforms, the political obstacles may be too great. Restoring good policy is a lot harder once the people in the wagon outnumber the folks pulling the wagon (as illustrated by these cartoons).

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Last year, I shared some libertarian humor relating to Valentine’s Day.

This year, we’re going to be a bit more on the wonky side.

Using roses as an example, we’re going to explore how the invisible hand of the market produces amazing results.

Here’s a great new video from Marginal Revolution University. Narrated by Professor Alex Tabarrok of George Mason University’s economics department, it explains how consumers have amazing access to millions of roses even though (actually because) there’s no agency or department in charge of Valentine’s Day.

And here’s a related video from MRU elaborating on the role of the price system.

The moral of the story in these videos is that a free and unfettered market is far and away the best method of allocating resources.

And the flip side of that lesson is that you get very bad results when politicians replace the invisible hand of the market with the visible foot of government.

Here’s some of what I wrote, for instance, when discussing proposals to give politicians power over wage levels.

…what’s really at stake is whether we want resources to be allocated by market forces instead of political edicts. This should be a no-brainer. If we look at the failure of central planning in the Soviet Union and elsewhere, a fundamental problem was that government officials – even assuming intelligence and good intentions – did not have the knowledge needed to make decisions on prices. And in the absence of a functioning price system, resources get misallocated and growth suffers. So you can imagine the potential damage of giving politicians, bureaucrats, and courts the ability to act as central planners for the wage system.

And here are some excerpts from a post about the damaging impact of subsidies to higher education.

Interfering with the price system is an especially pernicious form of intervention. When functioning properly, prices enable the wants and needs of consumers to be properly channeled to producers and suppliers in a way that promotes prosperity and efficiency. Unfortunately, governments hinder this system with all sorts of misguided policies such as subsidies and price controls. One of the worst manifestations of this type of intervention is the system of third-party payer, which occurs when government policies artificially reduce the perceived prices of goods and services.

And I could cite lots of other examples on issues such as the minimum wage, health care, housing, and agriculture.

Simply stated, you get all sorts of perverse results when politicians interfere with prices.

And that means lower living standards over time as the economy operates less efficiently.

Especially if a government really goes overboard and tries to regulate and control the entire economy rather than “just” interfere with a few sectors. Let’s look at the case of Venezuela. I’ve already written about how first Chavez and now Maduro have turned that nation into an economic hellhole.

It’s so bad that even the establishment media are taking notice.

Here are some passages from Matt O’Brien’s Wonkblog column in the Washington Post.

Venezuela…has the largest oil reserves in the world. It should be rich. But it isn’t, and it’s getting even poorer now, because of economic mismanagement on a world-historical scale. The problem is simple: Venezuela’s government thinks it can have an economy by just pretending it does. That it can print as much money as it wants without stoking inflation by just saying it won’t. And that it can end shortages just by kicking people out of line. It’s a triumph of magical thinking that’s not much of one when it turns grocery-shopping into a days-long ordeal that may or may not actually turn up things like food or toilet paper.

The government is trying to paper over its incompetence by printing money.

…the Bolivarian regime is to blame. The trouble is that while it has tried to help the poor, which is commendable, it has also spent much more than it can afford, which is not. Indeed, Venezuela’s government is running a 14 percent of gross domestic product deficit right now, a fiscal hole so big that there’s only one way to fill it: the printing press. But…paying people with newly printed money only makes that money lose value, and prices go parabolic. It’s no wonder then that Venezuela’s inflation rate is officially 64 percent, is really something like 179 percent, and could get up to 1,000 percent, according to Bank of America, if Venezuela doesn’t change its byzantine currency controls. Venezuela’s government, in other words, is playing whac-a-mole with economic reality.

And there’s also a pervasive system of price controls.

Venezuela’s government wants to wish away the inflation it’s created, so it tells stores what prices they’re allowed to sell at. These bureaucrat-approved prices, however, are too low to be profitable, which is why the government has to give companies subsidies to make them worthwhile. Now when these price controls work, the result is shortages, and when they don’t, it’s even worse ones. …it’s not profitable for the unsubsidized companies to stock their shelves, and not profitable enough for the subsidized ones to do so, either.

In the ultimate triumph of big government, Venezuela is even imposing controls on rationing!

…shortages, which had already hit 30 percent of all goods before the central bank stopped keeping track last year, have gone from being a fact of life to the fact of life. …People have lined up for days to try to buy whatever they can, which isn’t much, from grocery stores that are even more empty than usual. The government has been forced to send the military in to these supermarkets to maintain some semblance of order, before it came up with an innovative new strategy for shortening the lines: kicking people out of them. Now they’re rationing spots in line, based on the last digit of people’s national ID cards.

But you won’t be surprised to learn that all the problems are the fault of the private sector.

It’s a man-made tragedy, and the men who made it won’t fix it. Maduro, for his part, blames the shortages on the “parasitic” private sector.

It goes without saying, of course, that Maduro and the rest of the political elite avoid the consequences of bad economic policy. They all enjoy luxurious lifestyles, financed at the expense of ordinary Venezuelans. Moreover, I’m sure that Maduro and his cronies all have big bank accounts in New York or London.

So I can understand why they like the current system.

I’m genuinely mystified, though, why there are still people who think statism is better than capitalism.

I guess it’s mostly naiveté, a triumph of good intentions over real-world results.

Even though most of these leftists presumably would go crazy if they had to live without the products made possible by capitalism.

Just as portrayed in this video. And this satirical image.

Those of us who reside in the real world, by contrast, already understand the difference between capitalism and statism.

P.S. Venezuela is an economic basket case, but that apparently means it ranks higher than the United States on the “happy planet index” put together by some clueless statists.

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I’ve written a couple of serious posts about the death panels at the VA’s government-run health facilities.

I think it’s particularly important to understand that the problem has nothing to do with funding levels. Instead, it’s about the chronic inefficiency of government.

But sometimes mockery is more effective than analysis, and this Remy video, produced by Reason TV, is definitely worth sharing.

Enjoy.

By the way, if you like the Remy videos from Reason TV, here’s one about Sandra Fluke and the birth control mandate, one about the TSA Hokey Pokey, and two more Christmas-themed songs about the TSA (here and here).

But I want to spend the rest of today’s column celebrating the fact that America is not Venezuela. No matter how much we complain about the inefficiency, waste, and corruption in Washington, things could be worse.

Much worse.

Here are three stories to give you an idea what total statism produces.

First, I’ve written about how government intervention is causing toilet paper shortages and food shortages in Venezuela (also in Cuba). Well, there’s also a shortage of water, as reported by Bloomberg.

The rationing of tap water amid a drought and a shortage of bottles because of currency controls are forcing people to form long lines at grocery stores and bottle shops as soon as deliveries are made. …a government-mandated water rationing plan in Caracas and hot weather are fueling demand as supply shrinks. “I haven’t been able to find 5-liter bottles of water in the supermarket for the past two weeks, and there haven’t been half-liter bottles this week,” Maria Hernandez, a 36-year-old secretary, said in an interview in Caracas today. “I have four at home, but I’m afraid that they’ll run out and that I won’t be able to find more. They ration water at my house on Wednesdays.”

Though maybe water rationing is a good thing. At least when you live in a nation where the water that does (sporadically) materialize is contaminated.

Some areas of the city receive water service only three days a week, with most neighborhoods going without water at least one day a week. When water does flow, few residents dare to drink it because of contamination.

So why is there a problem? Because the government doesn’t let the market operate.

Regulated prices for bottled water have not been raised since November 2011, industry association Anber said in a May 19 statement. Since then, consumer prices have risen 110 percent, according to central bank data, while the bolivar has lost 87 percent of its value on the black market, according to dolartoday.com, a website that tracks the value on the Colombian border.

Our second story also comes from Bloomberg. It’s about the one thriving sector of the Venezuelan economy.

The arrival of a Liberian-flagged freighter with Ukrainian, Arab and Filipino sailors spells one thing for Elena — dollars. And greenbacks are king in Venezuela, the 32-year-old prostitute says. …Prostitutes more than double their earnings by moonlighting as currency traders in Puerto Cabello. They are the foreign exchange counter for sailors in a country where buying and selling dollars in the streets is a crime — and prostitution isn’t. Greenbacks in the black market are worth 11 times more than the official rate as dollars become more scarce.

Indeed, some women may be turning to prostitution because the government is doing so much damage to the economy.

Prostitution has become the only boom industry in Venezuela’s biggest port. …“Before I was working to support my kid and my mom; now I support my entire family,” said Paola, a prostitute who like Elena comes from Zulia and declines to give her real name. “Dollars are the only way to get by. The bolivar wages of my uncles and cousins barely mean anything now.” …“We can make more in two hours here than working in a shop in a month,” said a prostitute who calls herself Giselle. …For women like Giselle, Elena and Paola, prostitution for dollars has become a lifeline keeping them from poverty. “We haven’t studied, we have no education. What would we do now if we stopped?” said Giselle. “Work for a minimum wage that doesn’t even pay for food? If we wouldn’t be here working the scene, we would be living on the streets.”

Amazing. Venezuelan women are famous for their beauty, but the economy is such a mess that they earn twice as much money by trading currency. Way to go, big government!

Last but not least, our third story shows that government intervention is even making death more difficult. Here are some excerpts from a report in the UK-based Guardian.

…even in death, Venezuelans are afflicted by shortages. Coffin production has dropped between 20% and 30% this year for lack of materials, forcing funeral and burial delays… Pedro Navarro, former president of Venezuela’s funeral parlor association, has blamed lagging production at the state-run foundry Sidor. …Demand for coffins has grown in recent years. Venezuela has one of the world’s highest murder rates. People have been coping with shortages since 2006, long before the death from cancer last year of the pro-socialist president, Hugo Chávez.

The moral of the story is that government interventions such as price controls and government policy mistakes such as inflation have very negative consequences for ordinary people. It’s not just shortages of water and a prostitution-encouraging desire to escape the local currency.

The entire economy is a mess.

Empty shelves in shops and long queues have become a fixture of the daily hunt for staples such as milk, cooking oil and flour. Pharmaceuticals and medical supplies are also scarce. The anti-government street protests that began in February by an emboldened opposition have grown with the shortages.

So when someone tells you that big government is good for people, ask them for an example of successful statism.

And if they’re open to rational evidence, show them this chart. It shows that Venezuela used to be twice as prosperous as Chile.

But Venezuela has stagnated because of statism and Chile has boomed because of free markets. Kind of hard to argue with these facts (though Chile’s current crop of politicians apparently don’t like success and are seeking to expand the burden of government).

Let’s close with some very accurate humor. This poster nicely summarizes the difference between capitalism and statism.

Or the parable of the two cows also does the job.

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I’ve heard of sore losers, but never sore winners.

“El Presidente, it is best to steal all the money, not just 39.6 percent of it”

But that’s what popped into my mind when reading how the dictator of Venezuela supported Obama, yet already is second-guessing the President for paying insufficient attention to domestic affairs.

Yup, the thug who is presiding over an economic nightmare is presuming to give advice about domestic policy to the White House.

If you can believe it, Obama is being nagged for insufficient redistributionist zeal!

Here’s some of what Reuters wrote about the topic.

Hugo Chavez of Venezuela, has advised newly re-elected U.S. President Barack Obama to…concentrate on fixing internal problems. “He should reflect first on his own nation, which has a lot of economic and social problems. It’s a divided, socially fractured country with a super-elite exploiting the people,” the socialist president said late on Thursday in his first reaction to Obama’s victory this week… The 58-year-old Chavez, a quieter figure these days after a year of debilitating treatment for two bouts of cancer, had backed Obama over Republican challenger Mitt Romney in the White House.

As a nonpartisan patriot, I think it’s time to rally behind the President.

Chavez is a despicable thug and an economic illiterate. So if he’s whining about Obama, that at least means the President isn’t moving the country rapidly in the wrong direction.

Is that damning with faint praise? Of course.

But however much I criticize Obama’s policies, I am 99 percent sure that it is a good thing that Hugo Chavez is disappointed.

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Haiti may be the poorest nation in the Americas. Cuba may have the dictator with the longest lifespan. But Venezuela arguably has the worst government.

Not the clownish dictator, Hugo Chavez, is trying to repeal the laws of economics. How’s that working out for him?

Well, here’s some of what the New York Times wrote.

By 6:30 a.m., a full hour and a half before the store would open, about two dozen people were already in line. They waited patiently, not for the latest iPhone, but for something far more basic: groceries. …Venezuela is one of the world’s top oil producers at a time of soaring energy prices, yet shortages of staples like milk, meat and toilet paper are a chronic part of life here, often turning grocery shopping into a hit or miss proposition. Some residents arrange their calendars around the once-a-week deliveries made to government-subsidized stores like this one, lining up before dawn to buy a single frozen chicken before the stock runs out. Or a couple of bags of flour. Or a bottle of cooking oil. The shortages affect both the poor and the well-off, in surprising ways. A supermarket in the upscale La Castellana neighborhood recently had plenty of chicken and cheese — even quail eggs — but not a single roll of toilet paper. Only a few bags of coffee remained on a bottom shelf. Asked where a shopper could get milk on a day when that, too, was out of stock, a manager said with sarcasm, “At Chávez’s house.” At the heart of the debate is President Hugo Chávez’s socialist-inspired government, which imposes strict price controls that are intended to make a range of foods and other goods more affordable for the poor. They are often the very products that are the hardest to find. …many economists call it a classic case of a government causing a problem rather than solving it. Prices are set so low, they say, that companies and producers cannot make a profit. So farmers grow less food, manufacturers cut back production and retailers stock less inventory. Moreover, some of the shortages are in industries, like dairy and coffee, where the government has seized private companies and is now running them, saying it is in the national interest.

Here’s a chart that I’ve used before, using international data to compare living standards in Venezuela, Argentina, and Chile since 1980. One nation (take a wild guess) has tried statism, one nation has tried a mix of statism and capitalism, and the other has tried capitalism.

And just in case you need one more reason to despise Chavez’s despotic government, the regime is copying Hitler, Stalin, Mao, and other murderous tyrants in imposing gun control.

(h/t: Greg Mankiw)

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If you click here, you’ll see the best poster ever produced on gun control. It shows the various tyrants that have disarmed citizens as part of their oppressive rule.

But it’s missing one face, Hugo Chavez, the hopefully-soon-to-die dictator of Venezuela.

Here’s the key part of an excellent column for Business Insider.

In recent remarks to the Latin American Herald Tribune, Venezuelan Interior and Justice Minister Tareck El Aissami announced that the government will begin suspending firearm importation, effective this month. Furthermore, local gunsmiths will no longer be able to market or sell firearms and ammunition. According to El Aissami, “As of March, every last gun shop remaining in Venezuela – and there are less than 80 – should be closed. That is to say, in Venezuela, the perverse chapter of the commercialization of firearms and munitions is over.”

If you support the 2nd Amendment, you’ll enjoy these gun control posters (here,hereherehere, and here). And here are some amusing images of t-shirts and bumper stickers on gun control (herehere, and here). In addition, I’ve posted three different videos on gun control (herehere, and here). And here’s my interview on NRA-TV. Last but not least, you’ll like this powerpoint presentation on Firearms and the Second Amendment.

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Okay, the title’s an exaggeration, but this chart is rather revealing. It shows how per-capita GDP has changed between 1980 and 2008 in Chile, Argentina, and Venezuela.

As you can see, Chile used to be the poorest of the three countries and now it is comparatively rich. Argentina has enjoyed a bit of growth. Venezuela, by contrast, used to be the richest of the three nations but has stagnated and now is in last place.

So what accounts for these remarkable changes in relative prosperity? The answer, at least in part, is the difference between free markets and statism. Simply stated, Chile has reduced the burden of government a lot in the past three decades, Argentina has reduced the burden of government a little, and Venezuela has gone in the wrong direction and increased the burden of government.

The following numbers come from the Economic Freedom of the World, which looks at all facets of economic policy, including regulation, trade policy, monetary policy, fiscal policy, rule of law, and property rights.

* Chile’s score jumped from 5.6 in 1980 to 8.0 in 2008, and the country now ranks as the world’s 4th-freest economy (ahead of the United States!).

* Argentina’s ranking has improved a bit, rising from 4.4 to 6.0 between 1980 and 2008, but that still only puts them in 94th-place in the world rankings.

* Venezuela, by contrast, is embarrassingly bad. The nation’s score has dropped from 6.3 to 4.4, and its ranking has plunged from 22nd-place in 1980 to 121st-place in 2006.

The simple lesson is that nations have the ability to create prosperity, but they have to follow a simple recipe. Adam Smith is reported to have written several hundred years ago that, “Little else is requisite to carry a state to the highest degree of opulence from the lowest barbarism but peace, easy taxes, and a tolerable administration of justice.”

Since Adam Smith probably never imagined a world filled with things such as OSHA, the Department of Energy, the IRS, agriculture subsidies, and fiat money, his recipe might be a bit dated, but the general idea still holds.

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Hugo Chavez is a palpably evil thug, and he confirms this status with a new proposal to issue cards that almost certainly will be used to ration food. Left-wing despots claim that their policies put “people above profits,” but they never can explain why people (especially the masses) have much higher living standards in countries where “capitalist greed” runs rampant.

Presented by President Hugo Chávez as an instrument to make shopping for groceries easier, the “Good Life Card” is making various segments of the population wary because they see it as a furtive attempt to introduce a rationing card similar to the one in Cuba. The measure could easily become a mechanism to control the population, according to civil society groups. “We see that in short-term this could become a rationing card probably similar to the one used in Cuba,” Roberto León Parilli, president of the National Association of Users and Consumers, told El Nuevo Herald. “It would use more advanced technological means [than those used in Cuba], but when they tell you where to buy and what the limits of what you can buy are, they are conditioning your purchases.” Chávez said Tuesday that the card could be used to buy groceries at the government chain of markets and supplies. …In theory, the government could begin to favor the import of products to be sold through the government chains and have more control over the type of products purchased and the people buying them. Jaime Suchlicki, director of the University of Miami’s Institute for Cuban and Cuban-American Studies, said that Venezuela’s current problems of scarce supplies are very similar to those Cuba faced when Fidel Castro introduced the rationing card. “The card emerged when goods began to become scarce,” Suchlicki said. “The government had seized many companies that did not work because the government managed them poorly. Then they decided to distribute groceries through those cards.” And although the cards were introduced as a mechanism to deal with scarcities, Suchlicki said, they later became an instrument of control.

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In an amusing coincidence, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and I were both in Latin America this week offering fiscal policy advice. But it won’t surprise you to know that Mrs. Clinton’s suggestions are radically different than the advice I provided. She spoke in Ecuador and, according to an AFP report, said it was time for “the wealthy across the Americas to pay their ‘fair share’ of taxes in order to eliminate poverty and promote economic opportunity for all.” She also claimed that “her appeal to overhaul tax systems did not amount to ‘class warfare’ and was instead a recognition that the ‘winner-take-all-approach’ was a drag on progress.” The AFP story concludes with Mrs. Clinton asserting, “We can’t mince words about this. Levels of tax evasion are unacceptably high,”

By contrast, in my remarks to the Fundacion Libertad in Panama and in my speech to the Chamber of Commerce in El Salvador, I explained that academic research shows that better tax compliance is best achieved by lowering tax rates and eliminating inefficient and corrupt spending programs so that taxpayers have more confidence that their money is not being wasted. But let’s touch on something even more important than economics. I also made a moral argument about the danger of giving national tax authorities too much power and information – especially in a region where governments oftentimes are the source of oppression, expropriation, and tyranny. Simply stated, there are some things that are more important than obeying tax laws. This Center for Freedom and Prosperity video explains that so-called tax havens are an extremely important refuge for people who are subject to persecution and other forms of government malfeasance.

Let’s consider some Latin American examples. Imagine a political dissident in Venezuela. Hugo Chavez has turned that country into a thugocracy and opponents of his sinister regime are vulnerable to having their assets expropriated (and worse). Thankfully, many Venezuelans are able to protect themselves from socialist tyranny by putting their money in Cayman, Panama, or Miami (the U.S. is a tax haven for non-U.S. people). But if Mrs. Clinton got to make the rules, tax havens would no longer exist and Chavez would be empowered.

Or what about families in Mexico, who rightfully are afraid that if they keep their money in the country and report it on their tax returns, corrupt bureaucrats in the national tax office will sell their names to criminal gangs and suddenly their children will be kidnapped and they will have to deal with the horror of getting a ransom note accompanied by a child’s finger. Fortunately, many Mexicans can guard against this horrific possibility by placing their assets in Cayman, Panama, or Miami. But in Mrs. Clinton’s ideal world, those options would not exist and many more people would experience the nightmare of vicious crime.

And consider the plight of Argentinians. A few years ago, the nation’s venal government stole the private pension assets of the people. This is in addition to radical currency devaluations that have wiped out a big chunk of people’s savings. Prudent Argentinians have avoided these forms of back-door thievery by moving funds to Cayman, Panama, and Miami. In the Orwellian world envisioned by Mrs. Clinton, however, tax havens wouldn’t exist and governments would have carte blanche to engage in bad policy.

This is not the first indication of Mrs. Clinton’s government-über-alles mindset as Secretary of State. Let’s remember that she urged class-warfare tax policy for Pakistan and more recently said Brazil was a role model for soak-the-rich tax policy (a strange assertion since the top tax rate there is only 27.5 percent). If nothing else, at least we can give her credit for being consistent.

But if I have to choose between Mrs. Clinton’s consistent statism and protecting the liberty and freedom of oppressed and persecuted people, it’s no contest. Politicians and senior government appointees all over the world act as if folks in the private sector are nothing more than serfs and peasants who have an obligation to pay ever-higher tax burdens, so we should be happy that so-called tax havens offer a refuge – even if we don’t live in failed states such as Venezuela, Mexico, and Argentina. Actually, since Obama is trying to turn us into Greece, maybe this issue will be important for Americans even sooner than we think.

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