Friday, December 10, 1999

Democracy a la venezolana

At this moment in time, everything is black or white. It is either "yes" or "no". There is no possibility for a "yes plus" or a "no minus". Normally, when hesitant, one is the target of all type of efforts to win you over. Currently one is ignored and irrevocably branded as an enemy by both sides

In these circumstances, to put one’s head into today’s debate about the constitution is risky unless this is done firmly within the traditional Venezuelan concept of neither one, nor the other, but just the contrary.

At an interesting conference by Alberto Rial on competivity in times of crisis which I attended, the eternal conflict was raised once again about how to straighten out our path to the future. In this sense, in order to plot a proper course, which we wish to do, it would be necessary to leave by the wayside a series of cultural values which could lead to the possibility of becoming irreversible Swiss, which we do not wish to do.

One of the few sectors that has showed incredible vitality in these times of economic recession is the lottery. It has now become the most important capital market in the country, to the point that it has probably also become the nation’s biggest creator of jobs after the consolidated public sector.

In order to rise to the occasion and to find democratic solutions that fit within the framework of our reality and our national values, the following occurs to me:

The Parliamentary Lottery Law

Art. 1 – Of Congress. Congress should be composed of 200 members, of whom 40, whose five-year term expires, should be retired every year on the 19th of April. A new group of 40 would be elected to replace them.

Art. 2 – Of the Election of Members of Congress. The election of the new members of Congress will be done by way of a lottery among all Venezuelans who have achieved an academic degree above Bachillerato (High School). They must also have expressed their desire to participate and to serve the Nation as a Member of Congress and have purchased a ticket worth Bs. 25,000.

Since some people may question the seriousness of this proposal, I would like to highlight some of its more favorable aspects.

Anyone that has studied finance should remember the story of the blindman throwing darts against a board on which are pasted the names of all stocks traded on Wall Street. By investing on the first 100 he hits, he has a much better chance of striking it rich, than someone who spends even 1$ looking for the sage advice of a banker on share selection.

None of the Members of Congress that are selected will have had to invest one single minute, or dime, in the task of cementing those relationships of dependence and conflict of interest that induce action by authorities that so often harm national interest.

The limited duration of Congress (five years), without a real chance of hitting the lottery again, will stimulate the members to do the best they can during their tenure. On top of this, the cost of the ticket to participate will cover the cost of the process.

If we did this, we would undoubtedly have much better representation of the country’s good intentions. Evidently, as in every average, many would be useless. This is most common today. However, those that do cut the mustard, would be able to work in a much healthier environment.

With today’s systems it is perfectly possible to insure a truly random selection in which the only innocent hand is God's.

Finally, much to my sorrow, I realize that the prospects that this proposal will be implemented are very slim. The reason for this is that in many ways, democracy has become a business, and in this sense all those participating, such as fund raisers, bus drivers taking people to meetings, political analysts, publicity firms will oppose the elimination of the traditional electoral system.

Of course, I propose we use the lottery method only in those cases where the results mean we can and must live with an average. In the case of the President, for example, in which only one person is finally elected, there is definite advantage in going the traditional, straightforward election route.

When I analyze the advantages of the lottery system, as any proud father would do, I am convinced that its democratic characteristics are such that there must be more than one Swiss national who must be thinking about the possibility of applying for Venezuelan citizenship. Irreversibly.

Friday, December 03, 1999

The world’s real petro-pirates!

When, as a citizen of an oil producing country, Venezuela, I see oil being valued by the market at US$ 150, and we only receive about US$ 20, I believe that I have the right to feel a bit let down by all those who promised us a rose garden if we duly signed up on all the international commercial agreements peddled by GATT; and lately by the World Trade Organization WTO. What do I mean? 

From one barrel of oil, one can approximately and simultaneously obtain 84 liters of gasoline, 12 of jet fuel, 36 of gas oil, 16 of lubricants and 12 of heavy residues. In Britain today, educated consumers are paying (voluntarily and out of their own pockets) US$ 1.38 per liter of gasoline (sorry, petrol) using the traditional way of establishing a product's value. Even if we just consider the gasoline, we obtain a value of about US$ 116 per barrel of oil and then by adding the rest of the products, we should be close to US$ 150 since refining and distribution costs are fairly small. 

I am well aware that the value US$ 150 is achieved by the taxman forcing himself in at the point of sale of gasoline, as an extremely expensive middleman, keeping 85% of the gross. But, was this not exactly the things that world governments agreed not to do, in order to foster free trade and growth ... and that which we believed when we signed up on all those reductions of protectionist duties, accepting to lend the developed world a hand, collecting, their pretensions of royalties for intellectual property rights? 

Today's result is therefore that, when an oil producing country is selling it's non-renewable and scarce resource to the world, it's only getting a fraction of the real value. 

The hurt and pain I feel at seeing so much poverty in my country, that could be alleviated by just a little bit more of justice by the developed consumer countries themselves, is made worse by adding salt to the wound in many ways.

Their bankers sold us on the idea, in the mid-seventies, that oil was going to increase in value, and therefore that we could calmly take on the responsibility for servicing a huge country debt ... they never told us that all the increase in the value of oil, which has actually occurred since then, was going to be confiscated by their taxmen.

We producers were, and still are, the remaining scapegoat for all inflationary pressures derived from any price increase in gasoline and other derivatives ... even when these were just the result of higher taxes.

We oil producers were, and still are, branded as the most wanted criminal in environmental issues when, in fact, we are the ones paying 100% of the cost of all the protection plans that through their taxes reduce world demand for oil.

Today we hear of even higher future oil taxes when Germany (for example) announces a plan of annual increases as a way to reduce their workers' social security payments and discriminate against us by not taxing coal and other energy sources.

For what it's worth, I would like to remind the developed world in good conscience that, when you're giving generous assistance to the under-developed world, much of it is with money properly belonging to the oil producing nations. 

When I see the suffering of my more destitute fellow countrymen I blame myself, I blame all those lousy governments we have had ... but I also rightly blame the taxmen in the consumer countries, who are the true petro-pirates of the world.