I’m just back from a trip to Antarctica that, incidentally, required staying a few days in Argentina. Considering that the country was the fourth richest in the world it is shocking how far it has fallen in the last 100 years. The CIA Factbook puts per-capita purchasing-power adjusted GDP somewhere in the middle of the world’s nations, but the statistic doesn’t square up to the realities of life in a country where people have to stare at the ground whenever walking down the sidewalk (to avoid tripping over broken pavement, stepping in dog poop, or tripping over discarded bags of trash). Also, now that the government is a little over a year into its money-printing campaign it is hard to know what things cost. Do you use the official required-by-law exchange rate of 5 pesos to the dollar or the real one of 8? The CIA says that Chile has about the same per-capita income but in fact material life in Chile seems much richer, with newer cars, functional systems, etc.
I last visited Argentina about 10 years ago, shortly after the “peso crisis”, and the country does not seem to be in better shape now than then.
Things that don’t work in Argentina:
- Internet: incredibly slow in most hotels; a hotel owner in Buenos Aires told me that he has connections from both the cable company and the phone company so as to have a good chance of being able to use one. “It will go out for a few days at a time and I’ll call and they say they’re working on it.”
- Post Office: Hotel clerks didn’t know how to send a postcard. There are no mailboxes on street corners. I asked an Argentine friend how this could be and he replied “you should know the mail system doesn’t work! people don’t use mail there, they walk to banks to pay bills and use couriers for the rest. I haven’t seen a letter come or go in decades. If you mail something (from there or to there) it goes to /dev/null”
- Domestic airline flights: The roughly 180 people on our Antarctica cruise suffered a variety of sudden schedule changes, delayed checked luggage (for which there were no explanations and the fancy bar coded tags were never scanned in at the origin airport so they couldn’t be tracked), unexplained late departures, etc.
- Getting out: On a Monday night it took almost two hours of standing in line to check in at United Airlines (1 hour; the airline was operating a total of two flights that night), get through security (30 minutes; four metal detectors working and one idle), and be photographed and fingerprinted at passport control (20 minutes).
It is not hard to see why people would be unenthusiastic about doing business here.
I’d be interested to know readers’ thoughts on how Argentines have managed to accomplish this economic nosedive.
One theory would be to blame the political system. Argentina has a democracy, a system for handing out the fruits of economic growth to political cronies, in an economy with minimal growth. In order to get elected or remain in power, politicians are forced to hand out massive amounts of public wealth to various interest groups. This results in a huge drag on folks who are trying to earn money without political connections.
Another theory would be to blame a nationwide attempt to get something for nothing. It seems that Argentina has tried virtually every possible method of getting wealthier except working harder. The current government has currency controls, an official exchange rate, laws against changing money at the real rate, a variety of export and import controls, etc. Graffiti demands “Bread. Work. Justice.” This theme has been echoed in demonstrations since the 19th century and is depicted in a 1934 oil painting by Antonio Berni at the MALBA art museum (see accompanying photo album). It is hard to think of a country where mass demonstrations of people demanding that they be made wealthier has resulted in an actual increase in average wealth (the Greeks are trying this right now!).
Finally one could look at the Argentines themselves. The government didn’t throw trash in the streets. It was in each case an individual who was too lazy to walk a block or so to a dumpster. Nor did the government decide to walk a dog without carrying a pick-up bag. On my 2003 trip to the country I remember a young man telling me that the American government, especially the CIA, was responsible for keeping Argentina down. I pointed out that the U.S. government had been unable to get rid of Fidel Castro, 90 miles off the Florida coast, despite four decades of trying. What made him think that the same government was somehow able to stop him, 5000 miles farther south, from going to college or manufacturing a product and selling it to the Chinese?
I’d be interested to hear from readers who’ve lived in Argentina. Meantime, check my photo album.
[I do recognize that Argentina's comparative material poverty does not mean that the U.S. is a better place to live. The life of the soul can be richer in Latin American countries, as I note in http://philip.greenspun.com/non-profit/. In a society where it is more difficult to get ahead with hard work people generally spend more time with friends and family. Also, the layout of Latin American towns fosters easier social connections than the U.S. with its bleak lonely suburbs.]