"Pundits should have fixed terms," left-wing author Naomi Klein recently told the BBC. Awarded "jobs for life," most professional commentators — whether opining in newspaper columns like this one or blathering on television — suffer no consequence for making predictions that turn out "spectacularly wrong." Klein's (partly tongue-in-cheek) solution? Hold our pundits to account by making them reapply for their sinecures every four years, banishing those whose prognostications prove most wide of the mark.
The socialist Klein's embrace of market forces, however selective, is welcome. Might I offer the unfolding horror in Venezuela as the first litmus test of her proposal?
On Sunday, Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro claimed victory in a referendum designed to rewrite the country's constitution and confer on him dictatorial powers. The sham vote, boycotted by the opposition, was but the latest stage in the "Bolivarian Revolution" launched by Maduro's predecessor, the late Hugo Chavez. First elected in 1998 on a wave of popular goodwill, Chavez's legacy is one of utter devastation.
Thanks to Chavismo's vast social welfare schemes (initially buoyed by high oil prices), cronyism and corruption, a country that once boasted massive budget surpluses is today the world's most indebted. Contraction in per capita GDP is so severe that "Venezuela's economic catastrophe dwarfs any in the history of the U.S., Western Europe or the rest of Latin America" according to Ricardo Hausmann, former chief economist of the Inter-American Development Bank. Transparency International lists Venezuela as the only country in the Americas among the world's 10 most corrupt.
Socialist economic policies — price controls, factory nationalizations, government takeovers of food distribution and the like — have real human costs. Eighty percent of Venezuelan bakeries don't have flour. Eleven percent of children under 5 are malnourished, infant mortality has increased by 30% and maternal mortality is up 66%. The Maduro regime has met protests against its misrule with violence. More than 100 people have died in anti-government demonstrations and thousands have been arrested. Loyal police officers are rewarded with rolls of toilet paper.
The list of Western leftists who once sang the Venezuelan government's praises is long, and Naomi Klein figures near the top.
In 2004, she signed a petition headlined, "We would vote for Hugo Chavez." Three years later, she lauded Venezuela as a place where "citizens had renewed their faith in the power of democracy to improve their lives." In her 2007 book, "The Shock Doctrine," she portrayed capitalism as a sort of global conspiracy that instigates financial crises and exploits poor countries in the wake of natural disasters. But Klein declared that Venezuela had been rendered immune to the "shocks" administered by free market fundamentalists thanks to Chavez's "21st Century Socialism," which had created "a zone of relative economic calm and predictability."
Chavez's untimely death from cancer in 2013 saw an outpouring of grief from the global left. The caudillo "demonstrated that it is possible to resist the neo-liberal dogma that holds sway over much of humanity," wrote British journalist Owen Jones. "I mourn a great hero to the majority of his people," said Oliver Stone, who would go on to replace Chavez with Vladimir Putin as the object of his twisted affection.
On the Venezuelan regime's international propaganda channel, Telesur, American host Abby Martin — who used to ply her duplicitous trade at Russia Today — takes credulous viewers on Potemkin tours of supermarkets fully stocked with goods. It would be inaccurate to label the thoroughly unconvincing Martin, who combines the journalistic ethics of Walter Duranty with the charm of Ulrike Meinhof, a useful idiot. She's just an idiot.
Most of Chavismo's earlier adherents have maintained a conspicuous silence in the face of the Venezuelan calamity. Those who do speak up, rather than apologize for getting things so wrong, blame collapsing oil prices for the country's fate. Yet the decline in the value of petroleum has not led to rioting on the streets of Oslo. The tragedy of Venezuela is the predictable result of what happens when a strongman wages, in Chavez's own words, "economic war on the bourgeoisie owners," cracks down on media, prints money with reckless abandon and implements all manner of harebrained socialist schemes.
In the age of Trump, Brexit and a wider backlash against globalization, left-wing economic populists are enjoying a resurgence in mainstream credibility by railing against free trade and "neoliberals." This is a scandal. For in the form of the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela, the world has a petri dish in which to judge the sort of policies endorsed by Jones, Klein, British Labor Party leader Jeremy Corbyn, homegrown socialist Sen. Bernie Sanders and countless other deluded utopians.
There, the ghastly failures of their ideas are playing out for everyone to see; a real-time rebuke, as if another were needed, to socialism. That these people are considered authorities on anything other than purchasing Birkenstocks, much less running a country, is absurd.
So yes, let's put term limits on pundits. And let's start with anyone who praised the Venezuelan model.
James Kirchick is filling in for Doyle McManus. He is a visiting fellow with the Brookings Institution and author of "The End of Europe: Dictators, Demagogues and the Coming Dark Age." Follow him on Twitter @jkirchick.
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