Moises Naím, Devalued Oracle

The Bible warns that much will be asked of those to whom much has been given.

Moises Naím’s interview in El Nacional yesterday (much too enthusiastically translated into English by Miguel and Daniel) brings to mind this divine warning.

Naím is about as close as we get in Venezuela to an economic deity, an oracle à la Paul Krugman: outstanding academic credentials, a history of analysis of the Venezuelan reality, hands-on experience with the inner trappings of the Venezuelan state, knowledge of key movers and shakers the world over.

All of which makes his failure to articulate a single original thought or useful diagnosis of the situation all the more shocking.

Naím was asked to give a diagnosis of the country. Right off the bat, he whiffs at the ball by saying his expert diagnosis is “the same as all Venezuelans have.” Right then and there, the reporter should have said – “ok, sorry to have wasted your time, and mine!”

Not content with his non-answer, he goes on a riff, counting off the many ways in which he thinks the Venezuelan economy is screwed up. We have lots of energy but no electricity. We have money but we give it away. We have inflation, unemployment, and murders.

He must be reading my mom’s e-mails.

What Naím failed to do was answer the question. An economist, when asked to give a diagnosis of a country, needs to bring to the task the clarity of mind and conceptual precision that his training affords him. He needs to talk about indicators, about trends, about what the key variables are. He needs to tell you something you don’t already know, something about the fiscal situation, productivity, competitiveness, and the way the cross-cutting links between them affect the country’s prospects.

But Naím has probably been playing wonk for too long to think like an economist anymore. Either that or he thinks he doesn’t need to address the issues in a professional manner. Perhaps he holds an old grudge against El Nacional’s readers. Or perhaps the mauling he got when he debated José Miguel Insulza, of all people, left him discombobulated. 

It only gets worse from there. When asked to choose between capitalism (market) or socialism (state), he punts, giving an inconsequential, intellectually timid response. He basically believes in having a strong state that provides things that the private sector is not so good at – namely, public goods (would it kill him to call them that?).

Well, not even the most rabid right-wingers of the world would argue that there is no role for a strong state that provides security, education, and justice. Instead of taking the chance to defend the role of the private sector and the role a strong state that ensures property rights plays in a capitalist society, the main author of Venezuela’s sole capitalist experiment refuses to defend his half-baked record, and instead folds like a paper minotaur, cowering behind awful cliches.

When asked to assess the result of Chávez’s policies, Naím surprises us yet again by concluding the obvious: we will realize we squandered a golden opportunity. When asked what should be done instead, he skirts the question by saying it’s “not even worth talking” about what should be done, and that this constitutes some sort of “paradox.”

Throughout, Naím also manages to trip up by saying Chávez’s policies have increased poverty. This is false, and Naím knows it, because while Chávez’s policies are increasing poverty now, it is also true that Chávez had a run of four or five good years where poverty fell. You might say these are just subtleties, but if we can’t expect our brightest minds to deal with subtleties, then who can we expect them from?

The high (low?) point comes when Naím is asked why Chávez is committed to policies that, according to him, don’t work. Naím answers something about Chávez being committed to “ideological necrophilia,” and somehow this is the part that a lot of people liked the most.

Instead of discussing weird sexual deviations, what Naím should have answered is the obvious truth: that Chávez’s policies do work because they keep him in power! That is Chávez’s sole objective, and if there is anything we have learned from post-1920s Venezuela, it’s that petro-populism works as long as you have the funds for it.  Did Naím not learn that from CAP? 

In that regard alone, Chávez hasn’t been a failure. His is a smashing, earth-shattering success.

Seriously, folks. The statement of the obvious and the ducking of the responsibility to formulate an intelligent opinion should not be applauded.

Granted, the hapless reporter is also at fault, although I find it hard to lay much of the blame at her feet. She went to the Delphic Oracle looking for answers, and what she got had the intellectual weight of the fortune you find inside a cookie. There is only so much fabric you can spin with that amount of thread.

The real blame lies with us: those of us who don’t demand more than a “discusión de carrito por puesto” from our elites, and those of us who should know better than to propagate such drivel as if it was interesting or relevant.

Hapless interviews and boring one-liners are a dime-a-dozen in Venezuela. But Moisés Naím is no ordinary schmo. The guy who blazed a trail by co-authoring Una Ilusión de Armonía, the founder of Iesa, the guy who opened up Venezuelan markets for one brief moment, the editor of Foreign Policy … transmorgified into Marialejandra López de Briceño.

Well, that’s just too much for me to take. We are mired in a sea of mediocrity and intellectual laziness, and if you don’t believe me, take a look at the Twitter feeds of Elías Pino Iturrieta, Simón Alberto Consalvi or Maruja Tarre, to name a few.

But ultimately, the blame lies with us, for heaping greatness on what is nothing more than average.