Truth is Stranger than Fiction, or just another day in Venezuela

Hugo Chavez’s 60th birthday would have taken place on July 29th.  What’s his desperate, flailing, untalented successor to do?  Celebrate the day anyway of course!  Besides the sheer fact of celebrating a birthday for a dead guy with a cake and candles, here are some of the more bizarro parts of the festivities:

1. People actually showed up.  And not just Venezuelans.  Some Latin American leaders (Morales, Ortega, Sanchez Ceren) showed up to join in the fun.  I assume they are either bat-shit crazy or are desperate suck-ups hoping for cheap Venezuelan oil.

2. Maduro led the singing of Happy Birthday to the dead comandante and blew out the candles on the cake. According to a Chinese report, “people marked the day with book readings, concerts and other activities.”  I wonder if the government counted everyone going to a club that night as a celebration of Chavez’s spirit.  I seriously doubt much of the population marked the day with book readings.  I also wonder what the “other activities” are…

3. A group of “anti-imperialists” (you really cannot make this stuff up) came out with a new computer font that mimics Chavez’s handwriting.  It is appropriately titled the “ChavezPro font.”  One article humorously (to me) points out that “Chavez’s bold scrawl became famous to Venezuelans as he used to spend hours on national TV writing and drawing on boards and papers to explain policies, develop ideas and sign deals.”

 4. And, lastly, saving the best for last, the little bird is back.  Last year Maduro claimed the Chavez came to him in the form of a little bird. So what does the bird have to say for himself now?  Maduro says it best: “A little bird approached me again,” he told relatives of Chavez and officials at the event, imitating a bird whistle. “The little bird said ‘El Comandante’ was happy, full of the love and loyalty of his people. He must be proud, happy.” LOL indeed.
I figured the little bird must be red since it is Chavez’s spirit. Here is my guess as to what it looked like:
Here is someone else’s idea of what the bird looks like:

But Maduro beat us to the punch by commemorating the little bird on his own headgear (which I guess represents a nest?).  It would be even funnier if this goofball wasn’t the head of state.



The Constitution-Free Zone of the US


Chris Rickerd, Policy Counsel with the ACLU, recently wrote a depressing but important piece on US immigration policies that included the stark map above.

The Department of Homeland Security constantly refers to its “recent border crossers,” which as Rickert notes, gives the public the idea that DHS is actually apprehending would-be immigrants in the act of trying to cross.  The truth is much murkier.  In the Orwellian world that makes up the DHS, a “border removal” occurs “whenever ICE deports an individual within three years of entry – regardless of whether the initial entry was authorized – or whenever an individual is apprehended by Customs and Border Protection.”

Declaring people border crossers allows the Border Patrol to “bypass deportation hearings before a judge,” which would help to determine whether these people are legally in the US.

And in this Orwellian world, where language becomes meaningless, we should remember that “border” in Border Patrol-speak encompasses any part of the US that is “100 miles from any land or sea border, [which] includes entire states like Florida and Maine as well as almost all of the country’s top metropolitan areas.”

Here’s one of many sad examples of our immigration policies:

“After 8 years living in New Mexico, 16-year-old Sergio was picked up by Border Patrol on his way to harvest lettuce, 70 miles from the border. That morning his widowed mom, Esperanza, sent him out the door with a lunch. The next time she spoke with Sergio, he was more than a thousand miles away in Central Mexico, a country he knows little about. Sergio’s deportation hit his two younger brothers hard, especially six-year-old Israel. When he sees one of Sergio’s belongings around the house, he picks it up and asks Esperanza when she’ll bring Sergio back.”

For more on this, I’d again highly recommend Todd Miller’s Border Patrol Nation: Dispatches from the Front Lines of Homeland Security.

Hi, my name is……Slim Shady

Carlos Slim, the first or second richest man in the world depending on exchange rate fluctuations, is not widely known as a social activist or philanthropist. In fact, he is most widely known for gaining control of the Mexican national telephone company in a shady privatization and strangling the Mexican public for decades afterwards with high prices and almost inconceivably shitty service.

But perhaps Slim’s inner owl of Minerva has started to take flight, as he’s recently proposed a 3 day work week because,

“With three workdays a week, we would have more time to relax; for quality of life,” Slim said, according to The Financial Times. “Having four days [off] would be very important to generate new entertainment activities and other ways of being occupied.”

We know that Homer Simpson is down for this, but what about the rest of us? Well here comes Slim’s other shoe:

“People are going to have to work for more years, until they are 70 or 75, and just work three days a week – perhaps 11 hours a day,”Slim said, according to Slate.

Ah, yes. 75 years old working 3 straight 11 hour days. Nice work if you can get it, eh? Maybe you’ll get lucky and your job could be to brush the food crumbs out of the crevices of Slim’s second and third chins.

One easy way to see this is a bad idea is to note that Richard Branson has endorsed it.

Another way is to take a moment of self-reflection.

What about if you have kids? What about if your job requires constant use of physical strength or constant mental acuity? What about the issues of how pay works when you switch from a 40 hour week to a 33 hour week?

For pete’s sake Slim, the 5 day workweek is not a law. If people wanted to work 3 days a week and firms got something out of it, there’s been plenty of time for that practice to evolve in the labor market.

Slim, if you want to make people happy, shut your gob and pass out say half of your net worth of $80 billion.

Dude, you could give 4 million people $10,000 apiece and still have over $40 billion left for your own sweet self.

I’m just sayin, shut up and write some checks!



How not to privatize

S.P. Chakravarty and Jonathan Williams have a working paper called “Privatisation of Banks in Mexico and the Tequila Crisis.” I’ve read about the problems of bank privatization in Mexico before, but the paper does a good job of detailing what should have been some serious red flags in the process.  For instance:

a. “A successful bidder would use this grace period to source funds from various investors, and sometimes the acquired bank itself. In one case, 75 per cent of the cost of acquiring a privatised bank came from a loan from that bank, for which the collateral was the shares being acquired.”

b. Since the rationale for privatisation and the desire for raising money for the exchequer were not kept separate, the offer was made attractive by signalling to prospective buyers that they could “expect only very limited competition between banks”

c. “Lastly, three banks were acquired by bidder groups that lacked any financial sector experience.”

The authors demonstrate the conflict of interest present when governments are focused so exclusively on maximizing short term revenues.  Specifically, they find in the Mexican case that the “liberalisation process contributed to the subsequent financial crisis entailing the re-nationalisation of banks after a short period of three years at a cost to the exchequer which was five times greater than the money raised at privatization.” Obviously there were a lot of other factors involved in the tequila crisis, but the fragility of the banking sector didn’t help.


A Blueprint for Future Travel?


I used to accuse Kevin of choosing only deadly places to vacation, ones where there were low-level ongoing conflicts and you needed at least 11 vaccinations before going (Madagascar, Uganda, Rwanda, Cambodia, Sri Lanka, Congo).  I was reassured that he didn’t have life insurance on me (that I know of…)

Now the Washington Post has posted the above map, showing all of the no-fly zones for US airlines.  Most of the places didn’t surprise me, although I was shocked to see Kenya on the map.  Kenya is one of the places we’ve thought of visiting; I hope the map doesn’t give Kevin any more ideas.

h/t Tom Murphy @viewfromthecave

Oil and Water DO mix

Great post over at the Monkey Cage by our ex-colleague and friend Ariel Ahram.

ISIS has gained control over major oil supplies in Iraq and major water infrastructure in Syria and Iraq and is working to build an actual, profitable, functioning “state”.

As Ariel puts it, Oil and water, unlike diamonds or drugs, contribute to the coherence to the Islamic State and the discipline of its governance.”

It’s not just about punishing the infidels.

In fact, the only thing standing between ISIS and the largest Iraqi oil field is the Kurdish army!

Why do I get the feeling that Iraq as we knew it is toast?




Non-markets in everything: Sudanese edition

While we in the US complain about taxi monopolies and root for services like Uber and Lyft, some folks in Khartoum Sudan are struggling with a similar, but more existential, local monopoly: the wheelbarrow syndicate!

(I am not making this up).

Supported by the local government, there appears to be a private sector monopoly on wheelbarrows in Khartoum, at least according to the BBC. Local porters are banned from owning their own wheelbarrows and face a monopoly in the rental market.

The video link above implies that the local government is doing this to help offset the revenue loss that came from the independence of South Sudan and its oil. People those wheelbarrow monopoly enforcement fees must be REALLY HIGH.


We are sending more than kids back to Central America

In the “truth is stranger than fiction” category, it turns out that the US is also shipping burros to Guatemala.  The Bureau of Land Management is in charge of dealing with wild horses and burros in the US.  Wayne Pacelle, president of the Humane Society, argues that instead of putting into place a feasible plan of dealing with fertility issues in these wild populations, the government has decided it’s easier to just ship them to Central America.

Pacelle, for one, is not amused.  He notes that the program is “at odds with the provisions of the Wild Free-Roaming Horse and Burro Act, which requires that the BLM’s first priority has to be the humane treatment of wild burros in their care.”

He also sensibly adds that “Guatemala has burros of its own, and does not need shipments of burros compliments of the BLM.”  I’ve read many cases of odd foreign aid practices over the years, but this is one of the strangest.  Or maybe it’s not foreign aid.  Perhaps we are selling the burros to cover the cost of their airfare!



Mexican Sub-National Growth

Viridinia Rios posted an interesting map of economic growth across states in Mexico in the last year.  Click on the map to make it more readable, but some of the most interesting parts I think are that:


1.  Much of the country is in red, which indicates negative to barely positive economic growth of between -14.4% and 0.4%.  I don’t know enough about Campeche to know why the income fell by more than 14% there last year.  Anyone have an idea?

2. There are states that grew quite fast,including several near the US border.  Despite the economic fallout of the drug war, those states still posted really good numbers.

3. I’m curious how Baja Sur and Quintana Roo grew so quickly, especially with the latter being so close to Campeche.  Most of what I read looks at Mexican aggregate conditions, so this is really interesting to see a state-by-state breakdown of what is going on.  It also makes me realize that I don’t have a good understanding of some of the complexities of the regional economies in Mexico.


There is no great stagnation, Venezuelan edition

Why are American airline companies fleeing Venezuela when the air there is so clean?  At least in the airport!  BusinessWeek has an article giving us the details.

First, the facts (plus conjecture).  Flights from the US are down “by more than 80 percent.” Jesus Ernesto Ortiz, president of Caracas travel agency Happy Tour Group argued that “Venezuela is going to receive less flights than Cuba or Haiti.”  The drop in the number of flights is being blamed by the President’s decision to place currency controls on international airlines, preventing them “from repatriating what they make from selling tickets in Venezuela.”   Definitely not a well-thought out policy.

Second,  “from July onwards, anyone flying to or from Simon Bolivar International Airport of Maiquetia in Caracas is going to have spend 125 bolivars — roughly $20, depending on the highly variable exchange rate — on what the airport has called a “breathing tax.”

As the article notes, the tax is supposed to pay for the “state-of-the-art” air purification system, which “deodorizes” and “sanitizes” the building.”  Awesome.  I’m sure tourists will be lining up to come to Venezuela for the clean airport air.

I love the understatement of the second part of the following sentence: “The move has caused a furor on social media in Venezuela, where people are already pretty unhappy with the government of Nicolas Maduro.”

Indeed, they are pretty unhappy!