One of the most popular, and most ridiculous, social media discussions of the past year is the big Capitalism-versus-Socialism Debate. Thanks to President Trump’s right-wing demonization of socialism, and Bernie Sanders’ left-wing demonization of capitalism, folks in America – and in Latin America, thanks to Sanders’ recent kudos to Cuba – have decided it’s an either-or issue.
It’s not, of course. The best societies are always a hybrid of free wealth production and fair wealth redistribution. And the coronavirus pandemic, from São Paulo to Seattle, may finally affirm that commonsense reality across our absurdly polarized hemisphere.
Starting, let’s hope, in Venezuela – where this week the disastrous socialist regime, led by disastrous President Nicolás Maduro, got a humiliating comeuppance from the International Monetary Fund (IMF).
With the new coronavirus gaining a foothold in Venezuela – and with the country’s healthcare system decimated – Maduro has had to put his citizenry on quarantine lockdown. That’s deepening Venezuela’s catastrophic economic collapse. And so is the coronavirus-related plunge in global oil prices, which means Venezuela is now selling the crude its economic survival depends on at a loss.
So Maduro asked the IMF for a $5 billion emergency line of credit. But what really makes your eyes pop out is the part where his letter calls the IMF an “honorable organization.” Yeah, the same IMF that Maduro recently condemned as an “inhumane, exclusionary and impoverishing” tool of “savage” capitalism.
That would be the capitalism Maduro and his loony leftists in Caracas have done everything they could to cripple. Except until now, when the sort of reasonable market reforms the IMF has been urging from Venezuela suddenly don’t look so savage anymore. The IMF told Maduro to take a hike because his authoritarian abuses have prompted almost 60 countries, including the U.S., to disavow him as Venezuela’s legitimate president. Best, it decided, not to give five billion bucks to a guy who can’t produce credentials – and may end up squandering it.
But on the flip side this week we have Trump’s trillion-dollar stimulus package meant to keep coronavirus from decimating the U.S. economy.
Just last month Trump, whose recklessly massive 2017 tax cut left the U.S. in much worse fiscal shape to absorb this crisis, was tweeting insults at former President Barack Obama and his “failed” economic policies. Those included an $800 billion stimulus that helped dig America out of the worst crisis since the Great Depression – but which Tea Partiers and the rest of the MAGA tribe that elected Trump vilified then as “socialist.”
So, gosh, what do we call the Keynesian government airlift their president just signed off on? Well, the same thing they would have called Obama’s if they’d had an ounce of common sense: a recognition that capitalism, like socialism, can’t fix everything – and in the harrowing moments when it can’t fix anything, you’ve got to open the socialist toolbox to make things work again. Even if it means pumping U.S. Treasury cash directly into Americans’ mailboxes.
If there is any silver lining in the COVID-19 plague – and the epic mistakes that fed it, like gutting federal agencies meant to fight it – it’s that the U.S. may finally regain a sense of societal balance in that regard. An acknowledgement that the individual, capitalist good we’ve come to deify really is tied to the common, socialist good we’ve come to demean.
Likewise, Venezuela may make its own return to societal sanity – its own appreciation that the individual, capitalist good is the only reliable way to fund the common, socialist good.
That will be especially true if this emergency finally dislodges Maduro’s rotted regime. And that’s perhaps the other corona-consequence to wish for: that the pandemic helps resuscitate democracy in the Americas by discrediting right-wing demagogues like Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro and left-wing demagogues like Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador.
Both men have performed irresponsibly if not shamefully during this pestilence. Over the weekend, when there was no doubt left that governments had to discourage crowds and encourage social distancing, Bolsonaro promoted and attended a (what else?) pro-Bolsonaro rally in Brasília where he robustly shook hands. López Obrador was doing the same – and kissing voters to boot – in towns around Mexico.
As coronavirus cases in their countries mushroom – Brazil’s have leapt almost 20-fold in the past week and produced their first deaths – they’ll have as much to answer for as Trump has in the U.S. for originally downplaying the outbreak.
We can debate economic thought during this crisis. But not political thoughtlessness.
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