Monday, April 21, 2008

The Facts Strike Back for Chavez

There's nothing like a bit of cut and thrust with facts and figures to shake up your prejudices.

In a recent post I cited former economist to the Venezuelan national assembly, Francisco Rodriguez, as casting doubt on the achievements of the Hugo Chavez government, and even suggesting that his image of being oriented towards helping the poor is mostly a public relations coup.

However, I've since discovered a substantive riposte from Mark Weisbrot, economist at US progressive think tank Center for Economic and Policy Research. Weisbrot pulls apart the arguments of Rodriguez, showing how they make distinctly selective use of available data.

These are the specific claims from Rodriguez that Weisbrot disputes:

Inequality has increased under Chavez, with the Gini coefficient going from 0.44 in 200o to 0.48 in 2005

Weisbrot reveals this as cherry picking, with the two figures taken by Rodriguez from different data sources, and no good reason for these two years being chosen. In fact, when the available measures of inequality from various sources (UN Economic Commission for Latin America, the World Bank and Venezuela's National Statistics Institute) are seen over their full periods, there appears to be a decrease in inequality under Chavez. Weisbrot notes that by comparison the Gini index in the US has gone from 40.3 to 46.9 during 1980--2005, a large upward distribution of income.

Other countries have reduced poverty by two percentage points for every percentage point of GDP growth (as opposed to one point in Venezuela)

I did point out in my original post the Rodriguez hadn't named any of these countries. Weisbrot makes the point that if Venzuela had reduced poverty by two percent for every point of GDP growth, it would have completly eradicated poverty -- an implausible achievement in four years.

Chavez has not increased the proportion of government spending on health education and housing

Again, Rodriguez has been selective in his choice of indicators. Weisbrot questions why he only mentions central government spending when there have been large allocations from the National Development Fund run by PDVSA (the state oil company). And the social spending from central government has increased in absolute terms, from 8.2 percent of GDP in 1998 to 13.6 percent in 2006. Overall, social spending is now 20.9 percent of GDP, and in real per capita terms has increased by 314 percent in this period.

Certain indicators such as low birth weight, access to piped water, and number of dwellings with dirt floors have worsened under Chavez

More cherry picking. Showing the full range of social indicators, Weisbrot demonstrates that most have improved over the past few years, with a notable improvement in access to sanitation and a steady decline in infant mortality. Seen alongside the rest of the data, it's possible that the indictators cited by Rodriguez could be measurement anomalies.

There's no evidence that the Robinson literacy programme has had any effect

There's some discussion of the methodology used by Rodriguez to draw this conclusion. Weisbrot says he relies on a survey that wasn't designed to measure literacy. He concludes that there's not enough evidence either way.

Chavez's big spending and the rise in imports threatens to cause a balance of payments crisis

Weisbrot points out that while imports might be increasing, Venezuela still has a very significant balance of payments surplus of around 8% of GDP, which, if it were applied to the United States, would see a surplus f $1.1 trillion rather than their actual $739 billion deficit.

Weisbrot does accept a couple of the Rodriuguez criticisms as reasonable. For one, the exchange rate is over valued, subsidising imports and making non-oil exports too expensive. At 25 percent inflation is also too high, though Weisbrot notes that it was 40 percent when Chavez came to power, and 100 percent in 1996. Finally, there are shortages of basic foods, although Weisbrot sees no reason why Venezuela can't import plenty more, being a very long way from having a balance of payments crisis. He denies that Venezuela is in anything like the situation of previous Latin American governments (Alan Garcia's 80s regime et al) described in The Macroeconomics of Populism.

Weisbrot also argues that social progress would have been a lot better if it hadn't been for the economic crisis caused by the oil company's strike in 2003, at a time when it was controlled by the Venezuelan opposition. The statistical tables show this caused a blip in many indicators, including a temporary leap in poverty. Weisbrot concludes:

"While it is useful to discuss the imbalances in the Venezuelan economy and what might be done to correct them, there is little use in presenting such a grossly exaggerated picture of an economy as if it were on the brink of ruin, and pretending that Venezuela's poor have not benefited from the economy's most rapid economic expansion in decades, and from the government's large increases in social spending and programs."

Against the weight of evidence, it seems clear that Francisco Rodriguez has set out with a pre-formed conclusion about lack of progress under Chavez, and has set out to fit the evidence around that. The reasons may be ideological, or they may date from his personal frustrations in working with the Chavez government, disapproval of its methods, or a belief that the country is headed down the wrong track.

In any case, it's a reminder of how easy it is for basic facts and figures to be politicised. For me, with pre-existing scepticism towards Chavez based on his buffoonery, authoritarian tendencies, and clumsy attempts to interfere in other countries, it's all too easy to just accept claims like those of Rodriguez at face value.

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