Fri, 26 August 2016
Today's guest is Francisco Toro, he is the blog editor at The Caracas Chronicles, a group blog about Venezuela.
Venezuela has all the markings of a paradise. It has a lush, tropical climate and access to vast oil reserves. And yet, the Venezuelan government has run the country into the ground. As of now, all but the wealthiest Venezuelans struggle to eat. What went wrong?
It might surprise you, given Venezuela's current state, that the country was for many years a model Latin American country. Before 1989, Venezuela had a stable, two-party democracy. Its economy functioned when the price of oil was high, and it was free of much of the violence that plagued other Latin American nations. That changed in 1989 with an event known as El Caracazo.
El Caracazo refers to a series of riots that occurred in February and March of 1989, and their brutal repression by the Venezuelan army. The details surrounding El Caracazo remain deeply controversial among Venezuelans.
Before 1989, the Venezuelan economy was characterized by cronyism. Many industries were protected from competition both by tariffs on foreign goods and restrictions on entry by new firms. This arrangement could continue so long as oil prices stayed high, but with the fall of oil prices in the 1980s, the economy sunk into a malaise. The government was deeply indebted, and the incoming government tried to implement neoliberal reforms to save both the economy and the government's balance sheet.
Within weeks of the reforms, the riots that would become El Caracazo began. Here's where the controversy lies: Chavez and his supporters on the far left point to these riots as the people rising up against capitalism. But Venezuelans on the right point out that the reforms hadn't had time to take effect when the riots occurred, and therefore they were more likely a reaction against the ongoing economic malaise than the reforms.
In any case, Caracazo marked a turning point for Venezuela that would lead to the rise of socialist president Hugo Chavez, who would control the country until his death in 2013. Chavez' brand of Marxism was a throwback to the socialist regimes of the Cold War. His Venezuela was a mixed economy with very heavy restrictions on its capitalist elements. For instance, Chavez made it illegal to fire an employee for any reason. He imposed price controls throughout the economy. When oil prices were high, they propped up the rest of the economy. When they were low, the regime could borrow to paper over critical shortages. During this time, Chavez received praise from Western intellectuals on the left. Even as late as 2013, Salon was praising Chavez' "economic miracle."
In 2013, Chavez died and was succeeded by Nicolas Maduro. In 2014, the price of oil collapsed, causing Venezuela to default on its debts. The government has attempted to print its way to solvency, causing high inflation. The Chavez and Maduro regimes have kneecapped the capitalist system and replaced it with nothing. Toro argues that even Soviet-style central planning would be an improvement at this point.
There are clear pragmatic reforms Maduro could make to reduce the impact of the crisis. Yet he doesn't, and members of his government who speak out in favour of market-led reforms of any kind are summarily fired. Maduro listens to the advice of a Marxist economist named Alfredo Serrano, who is a mix between a hard-core Stalinist and a utopian campus liberal.
Yet despite the continually worsening economy, Maduro holds on to power. He also maintains the support of about a third of the population. Maduro's regime has managed to place the blame for the crisis on sabotage by a nefarious capitalist conspiracy.
Businesses that hold inventory for any length of time are at risk of having their warehouses raided and filmed as proof that the ongoing shortages are the work of capitalists hoarding goods. Maduro also scapegoats the many people who earn their livings re-selling price-controlled goods, a group that now encompasses one in six Venezuelans. As dubious as these claims are, the government controls the media and seems to have convinced a third of the population of this narrative.
Wed, 17 August 2016
Pierre Desrochers returns to the podcast to discuss the fossil fuel divestment movement in higher education. He recently co-authored a paper titled "Blowing Hot Air on the Wrong Target? A Critique of the Fossil Fuel Divestment Movement in Higher Education" with Hiroko Shimizu.
The fossil fuel divestment movement seeks to combat the environmental damage done by the fossil fuel industry by preventing university endowments from investing in fossil fuel stocks. More than 1,000 universities have divested themselves of fossil fuel stocks because of this movement's influence. There are a number of problems with this approach:
1. University endowments can't budge stock prices unilaterally.
University endowments are small potatoes in the world economy. Even if they could affect the stock prices of oil companies, they would just create an arbitrage opportunity for other investors to buy those stocks at discounted prices. This more than anything makes divestment an exercise in futility.
Camerer (1998) tried to influence prices in a horse betting market by placing large bets and then pulling them out at the last minute. He found that he was unable to budge prices even little. Divestment activists are trying to do what Camerer was trying to do, and they won't have any more success.
Some activists have internalized this criticism, and instead argue that divestment is important for symbolic moral reasons.
2. Universities will face higher risk if they choose to divest.
If university endowments divest themselves of fossil fuel stocks, they will be less diversified. Having a wide range of different (and uncorrelated) stocks allows a university endowment to hedge itself against risk.
Since oil stocks haven't given particularly high returns in recent years, activists have been able to argue that divestment makes sense from an investment perspective. But you can't predict future returns based on past ones. The prices of these stocks reflect the expected value investors place on them, so to the extent that the future profitability of oil companies can be predicted, the prices already reflect those trends.
Furthermore, if student activists are allowed to direct universities' investment activities, it may be difficult for universities to hire the most talented fund managers.
3. The movement is hypocritical.
While activists can't affect fossil fuel production by manipulating stock prices, they could affect it by demanding less fossil fuels themselves. And yet they attend their anti-petroleum protests in kayaks made from petroleum.
Activists want change without personal sacrifice. A round-trip flight from New York to Europe releases between 2 and 3 tons of carbon into the atmosphere, but few environmental activists are willing to skip their exotic vacations in favour of less carbon-intensive activities.
4. The alternatives to fossil fuels are not so great.
There's a lot of focus on solar and wind power as replacements for fossil fuels. But an electrical grid needs to work even when it is neither windy nor sunny, and storing power is costly. You need other sources of power to take up the slack when wind and solar can't deliver.
In a misguided attempt to appease environmentalists, Germany shut down many of its nuclear plants to replace them with wind and solar power plants. In order to keep consistent power, Germany has had to burn coal. But what would they do if they couldn't use coal to produce power when the sun and wind aren't working?
The UK's solution has been to burn wood pellets, which is arguably worse than petroleum for producing power.
An advantage of fossil fuels is that humans have been able to substitute them for energy that would have, in the past, been produced on the surface of the Earth. The more we extract from underground, the less of the Earth's surface needs to be dedicated to producing for humans. Indeed, global forestation has been increasing, not decreasing, over the past few decades.
5. The global transportation system depends on fossil fuels.
Fossil fuels offer a highly concentrated form of energy that is vital to transportation. While electric cars have made great advances in recent years, even the best can't travel nearly as far as a gas-burning car with a full tank. Electric cars are also prohibitively expensive for most people, and must be subsidized to compete with cheaper-to-produce gas-powered cars.
And of course, we drive around on asphalt, which is itself a petroleum product.
The advantage of having a well-functioning global transportation system powered by fossil fuels is that it allows regions to specialize in what they're good at producing. Pierre's book, The Locavore's Dilemma, deals with issues of food security. If you can produce tomatoes in fertile Mexico and ship them to frigid Canada, you don't have to expend the energy of building and heating greenhouses in places where tomatoes wouldn't grow naturally.
Camerer, C. F. (1998). Can asset markets be manipulated? A field experiment with racetrack betting. Journal of Political Economy, 106(3), 457-482.
Desrochers, P., & Shimizu, H. (2012). The locavore's dilemma: in praise of the 10,000-mile diet. PublicAffairs.
Desrochers, P., & Shimizu, H. (2016). Blowing hot air on the wrong target? A critique of the fossil fuel divestment movement in higher education. Frontier Centre in Public Policy.