Sliding Scale Contentment

As I think I’ve mentioned before, Karen was the first blogger I met in person. (Last night I was to meet a group of webloggers here in Monterrey, but sadly the bar we were going to meet at had been closed down for a month.) You would never guess it from her weblog which is minimalist and restrained, but meeting Karen is like walking into an atom bomb. She has an opinion about everything: design, programming, politics, literature, culture, media, religion, psychology, art, nueroscience, knitting, photography, you name it. She’s like an audible encyclopedia without a mute button. Which, depending on your point of view, is either a good or bad thing.

I was delighted and only wished I was able to absorb more of what she said. A few nuggets of wisdom persist though and one is what she had to say about wealth.

“Our financial contentment,” she started, “is based on a sliding scale. No matter how much money you make, it’ll never be enough because you start comparing yourself to those who have more.”

I thought that was pretty smart. And it reminds me of a comment Peter left a few posts ago saying we could easily live a comfortable life – according to the standard and comforts of a century ago – by just working 3 – 4 hours each day. So seriously, why don’t we?

Pinche Populismo

This is all on my mind because last night we had our first “employee fiesta” at my new job. Most of the other teachers are in their late 20’s, early 30’s, well traveled, and well read. When the conversation turned to politics, I was surprised by how conservative every single person was. HP woulda had an ear to ear grin.

A Venezuelan – English teacher by day, self-described rock star at night – explained that he left Venezuela because Chavez had made life unbearable there. He went on to describe how he risked his life in an anti-Chavez march while hundreds of people were gunned down by government soldiers and hired assassins. He said the government then covered up many of the homicides.

I have no reason to doubt what he says, but what really surprised me was the immediate reaction of everyone in the room: “It’s exactly what’s happening here in Mexico with this damned Lopez Obredor and his damned populism.”

Mexican Politics in One Paragraph

Since the Mexican Revolution wrestled power away from the authoritative dictator, Porfirio Diaz in the 1920’s, it has been ruled by one party – the PRI – in a pseudo-democratic system saturated with corruption and fraudulent elections. In 2000, after 80 years of the same bullshit and five years of a combined indigenous revolt and economic recession, Mexicans were sufficiently disillusioned to vote into office the current president, Vincente Fox of the conservative party, PAN. The whole country was abuzz with optimism at the beginning of the term, but for a tome of reasons, that optimism is now gone and much most of Mexico has lost faith in Fox and the party he represents. Which brings us to today’s political muscling in anticipation of next year’s presidential elections.

Te Presento “El Peje

With a loss of faith in Fox and a lingering distrust of the “old guard” of the PRI, the leftist mayor of Mexico City, Andrés Manuel López Obrador, was (until yesterday) the obvious favorite in next year’s upcoming presidential election. But, reminiscent of Santiago, Chile in 1970, the Mexican business community started shitting its pants over the prospect of a populist candidate.

And so it did some scheming:

In a 3-1 vote, the panel said López Obrador should stand trial for ignoring a court order to halt building a road. The move hands the final decision, and the mayor’s political future, to Congress, which is expected to vote next week. A “yes” vote takes López Obrador out of the 2006 presidential elections, as the Constitution bans candidates from running if they have been prosecuted for a crime in the previous two years, even if they were found not guilty.1

Now talk about some silly rules. Remember that old MTV program where running captions would list all the various state and federal laws broken throughout the music video? This is worse. The idea that you can prevent a candidate from running just by bringing a charge against her/him regardless of their guilt is ridiculous. This is obviously pure politics … and dirty politics.

“This is the worst case of electoral fraud since 1988,” said storeowner Graciela Vegas, 43, referring to the presidential elections where the PRD founder Cuauhtémoc Cárdenas lead the vote count until the computer system crashed to be rebooted with a PRI victory and Carlos Salinas as president. “But this time we didn’t even get a chance to vote they stopped our champion before he’d even registered as a candidate.”

So many people are plotting against Obrador for the same reason he has gathered so much support:

His opponents call López Obrador’s social programs that give food vouchers to the elderly and single mothers “populist,” pointing out that he has increased the capital’s debt to fund them. The mayor’s policies, combined with his hard talk about what he will do, make investors nervous. Merrill Lynch researcher Carlos Peyrelongue wrote in a report: “Concerns by Mexican investors have been increasing in the last few months as a result of (López Obrador’s) rhetoric confronting the interests of the poor versus those of the rich, and due to the uncertainty as to what economic program and cabinet he would choose if elected president.”

Obrador still believes in the New Deal idea of a government caring for its citizens. And not just some of its citizens, but all of them. This goes against the central tenet of foreign investors and everyone who depends on foreign investment to write their paychecks (such as the entire city of Monterrey)

Back to the Work Party

So I probably shouldn’t have been surprised at the work party when everyone insisted that Obrador would ruin the country and send it back 30 years. Even my girlfriend is against Obrador – she says his support of the unions is too strong and that workers will become lazy and keep demanding more and more.

I wasn’t in the mood to jump into the foray, but I did ask my co-workers one simple question when they kept referring to populism as if it made their crotch itch. I simply asked what populism was and they fought to reply – without hesitation – that populism was government by the majority and that in Mexico the majority had no idea what was good for them; that they were backward people who needed to be educated first in how free markets work and how they would be benefited.

I mention this because, though as of late the Latin American left seems to be making a comeback, there is a strong and young constituency that is absolutely against social spending and the calls for equality. Development to them means opening markets, not providing health care and social security.

I started this post off mentioning Karen’s idea of sliding scale financial contentment because that’s exactly what is at the foundation of the thinking of everyone at my work party last night. These are well traveled people and well informed people and their idea of success is to elevate Mexico to the same standard of living (freeways, malls, cars, clothes) as they’ve come across in their travels throughout the United States and Mexico. That is happening here in Monterrey and there are several neighborhoods, shopping areas, and commercial malls that are just as extravagant as anything you’d find in San Diego, Seattle, or New York. But it’s coming at the cost of leaving millions of rural and southern Mexicans in poverty without offering programs that enable social mobility or access to education and improving livelihood.

One small example of this is that the import tax on corn syrup (known as the soda tax) will expire in 2008 and send thousands of sugar farmers in Vera Cruz and Yucatan into bankruptcy. (Mexican sodas are still made with sugar while American sodas are made with corn syrup) Agriculture is one of the unfortunate victims of free trade, but these sugar farmers (who have been cultivating the same crop for generations) need to be trained in a new crop (such as bamboo) or a new skill or else they will be bought out by foreign investors who will bring in Maquilas and former proud land-owning farmers will be forced to work 8 – 10 hour days making uniforms or auto parts.

Obrador would come up with a government program to help train those sugar farmers where as the PAN and PRI would toss it aside as collateral damage in exchange for a continued inflow of foreign investment.

Lopez Obrador’s fate still hangs in the hands of congress, but if votes are along party lines – which they almost always are here – it looks like he’ll be forced out of the 2006 election.