A Lesson of Venezuela and the U.S. Primary Race


For a good, long while, I’ve offered the optimistic view about Rhode Island: that at some point of collapse prior to the adjective, “utter,” the people would awaken and insist that the corrupt games have to stop, aided by those in leadership positions whose consciences would no longer allow them to look the other way.  Any level of collapse is painful, of course, but reality and solutions are close enough to the surface, throughout the United States, that a reparable slash or broken bone should be a sufficient lesson to change behavior.

News out of Venezuela and reflections on the presidential primary are leading me to question my optimism.  On the former, Kevin Williamson gives a concise summary of the condition:

If you truly believe that Venezuela is suffering from electricity shortages because its economy is so successful, you should ask yourself why it is suffering from a toilet-paper shortage, too. And a shortage of rice, milk, cooking oil, and other basic foods. And water.

To which I’d add this from Richard Fernandez:

The lights didn’t go out in Caracas all at once.  The wiring was stolen bit by bit; the turbines had been neglected year by year; the engineers had departed plane by plane until Earth Day came down like a shroud and without apparent end.  Rioting and looting is now reported to be spreading as only 15 days of food are said to remain.

Read both essays and ponder that blithe assertion that “it can’t happen here.”  We’re watching it happen here.  Fernandez suggests Venezuela fell prey to the “curse of plenty,” wherein “easy money attracts the wrong kind of leaders and incentivizes the wrong kind of public behavior.”  A region can have easy money by sitting on a cornucopia of natural resources, or it can be a small state in a wealthy region of an economically dynamic country.

The reality is that most people just want things to continue as they are and perhaps improve incrementally, which makes them susceptible to herding in bad directions that serve special interests.  Head this way, and a loud, scary noise urges us back to the herd; meanwhile, the corral and slaughterhouse aren’t quite visible up ahead.

As the wrong leaders and wrong behavior make things more difficult, fewer people are willing to step forward in opposition, and fewer good people want the role of leadership even if they can get it.  Potential heroes are vilified, and the public’s confusion is exploited.

In this mix of diminished choice and distortion, politicians have no competition or too much, leading to uncontested seats or split votes that allow victory with relatively small pluralities of support.  Both special interests and cults of personality can therefore amass winning numbers.  Rhode Island elects a Chafee and then a Raimondo, while backing a Bernie and a Trump for president.

The outcomes are always predictable, and yet it seems impossible to correct course.  Small improvements require so much personal sacrifice of effort, while the status quo rumbles on effortlessly.

  • GaryM

    RI is significantly reliant on the system of federal transfer payments (handouts) to keep in-place obligations humming along. If the feds stop sending money (e.g. to Healthsource RI), the system doesn’t go away, it simply means that local taxpayers now have to foot the bill.

    RI keeps layering on feel-good obligations on the assumption that the feds will always provide the financial back up when things collapse. That’s what the state workers believed as they watched decades of pension mismanagement create an ultimate collapse of their own “state obligation”.

    A collapse is coming, it’s just a question of when.

    • Tommy Cranston

      Collapse is definitely coming.
      The article is wrong in one sense-I now no not one person left who is saying “it can’t happen here”.

  • Russ

    “For a good, long while, I’ve offered the optimistic view about Rhode Island…”

    Sorry, had to stop reading this one right there. I’m having a hard time thinking of a less optimistic writer in this state. The glass isn’t half full in “the world according to Justin.” It’s cracked, leaking, and probably the fault of a public union employee somewhere.

    • OceanStateCurrent

      That’s because you have no sense of humor or irony. Your response doesn’t surprise me in the least.