Here at Useful Stooges we’ve spent a lot of time covering the misadventures of former Argentinian president Cristina Fernández de Kirchner.
We’ve examined economist Joseph Stiglitz’s intimate (and profitable) relationship with the Kirchner clan. We’ve pondered hedge funder Kyle Bass’s foolish championing of Cristina’s disastrous economic polities. Then there’s Wall Street hotshot Georges Ugeux, who blamed Argentina’s fiscal problems not on Kirchner corruption but on the country’s sovereign-debt creditors. And economist Mark Weisbrot, who looked at an Argentina headed for financial disaster and proclaimed that it was doing “remarkably well.”
We met Kirchner crony José Francisco López, who was turned in to the cops by a bunch of nuns who caught him trying to throw plastic bags stuffed with crookedly acquired cash over their convent wall.
On December 17, 2015, we congratulated Argentina on electing as its new president the candidate who was not Cristina’s chosen successor. And on December 31, 2016, we celebrated New Year’s Eve by noting that a federal judge, Julian Ercolini, had ordered Cristina put on trial for corruption, along with her former Planning Minister, Julio de Vido, and her former state secretary for public buildings, the above-named José Francisco López.
That was the last time we checked in with Cristina. Since then, the former President has been a full-time professional defendant. On March 23 of this year, another judge, Claudio Bonadino, also ordered her to stand trial, this time for instructing her country’s central bank “to sell dollar futures at artificially low prices, causing Argentina to lose hundreds of millions. Also indicted was her former Economy Minister, Axel Kicillof. In April she racked up her fourth criminal charge, this one for engaging in real-estate transactions for the purpose of money laundering. On that occasion her passport was confiscated, and her two children, Florencia and Maximo, were also indicted.
In June, in a desperate effort to acquire immunity from prosecution, she filed to run for Senate as the candidate of a new party she had founded just for that purpose. In the August elections, despite her massive corruption record, she actually won. At an October inquiry, Cristina “defended a secret pact negotiated by her government with the Iranian regime in 2011. And in November, her former VP, Amado Boudou, was arrested on charges of embezzlement and illicit association.
Now, despite her senatorial immunity, it may soon be Cristina’s turn to sample prison food. On December 7, Judge Bonadino asked the Senate to waive her immunity and allow her to be arrested and tried on charges of treason. The specific crime: covering up Iran’s role in the fatal 1994 bombing of a Jewish center in Buenos Aires. We’ll see what happens. Non-fans of the Kirchner clan may again have reason to celebrate on New Year’s Eve.
Well, it’s happened again. On Tuesday, a federal judge in Argentina, Julian Ercolini, ordered a trial of Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, who was president of that country from 2007 to 2015, on charges of corruption.
Also ordered to face trial were Julio de Vido, Kirchner’s sometime Minister of Federal Planning, and José Francisco López, former state secretary for public buildings.
According to the indictment, all three former officials are accused of forming an illegal association that was “created to commit crimes” involving the theft of “funds that were assigned to road works” – specifically, 52 projects in Santa Cruz province, where Kirchner’s late husband, Néstor Kirchner, served as governor before preceding her as president.
Already in court is contractor Lázaro Báez, whose company Austral Construcciones profited from the corruption scheme. Austral, it is reported, received over $4 billion in road-construction contracts from the Kirchner administration; of that amount, about $1 billion is estimated to have constituted illegal surcharges.
Judge Ercolini also froze $893 million in Kirchner’s personal assets.
It’s the second time this has happened since she left office: in May, Kirchner, along with her former Economy Minister Axel Kiciloff and former Central Bank head Alejandro Vanoli, was indicted on charges of making illegal contracts to sell U.S. dollars at below market rates, supposedly with an eye to strengthening the peso. Instead of helping the Argentinian economy, these hijinks are said to have damaged it.
Inveterate readers of this site may recall that López, a longtime crony of Nestor Kirchner and “right-hand man” to de Vido, was arrested in June while trying to hide plastic bags full of money at a Buenos Aires convent. In addition to the plastic bags, he had a suitcase full of money, and he had driven these bags and suitcase to the convent in a car whose trunk was also full of money. The total stash: about $7 million dollars in the form of U.S. dollars, euros, yen, and other denominations. He also had a bunch of jewelry and several watches. And was packing a gun.
Apparently, all that dough was just a fraction of the massive sum fleeced from Argentinian taxpayers by by Kirchner, de Vido, López, Báez and company.
Kirchner, who was indicted in May for incompetent administration, was not taken into custody.
Okay, this one is kind of funny. But first you need to know who José Francisco López is.
Who is he? He’s a civil engineer and a longtime member of the sleazy Kirchner circle in Argentina. In 1991, when Nestor Kirchner became governor of the state of Santa Cruz, he put López on the administrative board of the state’s roads authority. Later he named López to executive positions in other state agencies. When Kirchner was elected president in 2003, he took López with him to Buenos Aires, appointing him to serve as the federal Minister of Public Works. As such, López was the “right-hand man” of the notorious Julio de Vido, the Minister of Federal Planning.
In this position, which López retained under the presidency of Kirchner’s wife, Cristina, he wielded enormous power, had control of massive amounts of money, and was (along with de Vido) an object of widespread suspicion. Both were accused of a range of corrupt acts, such as pressuring construction firms for bribes and kickbacks and using federally funded construction projects to reward friends or punish enemies. One of de Vido’s and López’s associates, Ricardo Jaime, was eventually arrested, tried, and imprisoned for stealing evidence.
Which brings us to what happened this past June 14. On that day, in a district of Buenos Aires known as General Rodriguez, López was arrested while in possession of approximately $7 million dollars in cash in a range of denominations, including U.S. dollars, euros, and yen. The money was distributed among six large plastic bags, a suitcase, and the trunk of López’s car. In addition, López had on him an unidentified amount of jewelry, a receipt from a Beijing bank, and several high-end watches, including Rolexes and Omegas.
Oh, and he was packing a gun.
There’s more. According to reports, López tried to hide the bags of money at a convent called Our Lady of the Rosary of Fatima; it was, in fact, the resident nuns who fingered him, phoning the cops and reporting that (no kidding) some man was throwing plastic bags over their convent wall. When officers arrived at the scene, the ever-intrepid López tried to hide in the convent, where he endeavored in vain to persuade the nuns, who were obviously no fools, that he’d brought all that dough to donate it to them and that the police were trying to steal it.
It was unclear from news reports whether López also claimed to have intended to give the nuns the jewelry and watches.
In any event, the nuns didn’t buy it. When the cops turned up, López offered them bribes. That didn’t work, either.
Anyway, so it goes in Argentina in these immediate post-Kirchner days. Another day, another name added to the long roster of Kirchner functionaries being investigated for money-laundering –Néstor and Cristina’s favorite indoor sport.
This week we’ve been perusing the writings of highly prolific Salon contributor Ben Norton, who in a career that is now barely three years old has established himself as a leading American champion of Islam and hard-core socialism and a major detractor of the U.S., Israel, and “neoliberalism.”
Before we say goodbye to Norton, let’s take a quick look at another frequent topic of his work – namely Latin America. Unsurprisingly, he’s heaped praise on socialist leaders – such as Nicolás Maduro in Venezuela and Cristina Kirchner in Argentina – who’ve damaged economies, arrested opponents, and suppressed civil liberties (after all, their hearts are in the right place!), while predictably demonizing “neoliberal” leaders who’ve brought their countries freedom and prosperity. Citing such far-left sources as Noam Chomsky and Glenn Greenwald, Norton has referred to the impeachment of Brazil’s leftist president, Dilma Rousseff, as a “right-wing coup.” In May, he attackedNew York Times editorial-board member Ernesto Londoño, who in a recent article had done two things of which Norton disapproved.
What two things? First, Londoño had committed the unpardonable act of “bashing Venezuela’s elected leader.” In fact, what Londoño had done was simply to criticize the human-rights violations committed by the government of President Maduro – who, as Londoño truthfully noted, had become “a petty dictator.” Second, Londoño had praised the man Norton referred to as “Argentina’s new right-wing [read: non-socialist] President Mauricio Macri,” whom Norton criticized for having “capitulated to vulture funds” and for “forcing through brutal neoliberal cuts.” In reality, Londoño, in commenting about Marci, had merely noted with obvious admiration Macri’s longstanding criticism of chavista human-rights abuses.
What about those “vulture funds” – the Kirchner crowd’s disparaging term for the U.S. hedge funds to which Argentina owned billions of dollars, but that Cristina Kirchner refused to pay a single peso, preferring instead to vilify her creditors and let her country default on its sovereign debt for the second time in fourteen years? Londoño hadn’t said a word about those funds; but Norton apparently couldn’t forgive Macri for having decided to pay his country’s debts and move beyond Cristina’s disastrous default. As for those “brutal neoliberal cuts”? Londoño hadn’t mentioned them, either. Of course, to Norton, neoliberalism is a dirty word, and budget cuts are by definition brutal. But the plain fact is that Macri – who appears to understand economics a good deal better than Norton does (and better, for that matter, than Chávez or Maduro or Kirchner or Rousseff) – is simply trying to keep Argentina from heading down the same road that has led Venezuela to utter economic ruin.
But what does Ben Norton know or care about such realities and responsibilities? Or about the long-term impact of capitalist vs. socialist economics on the everyday lives of ordinary people? Or, again, about the reality of day-to-day life in free, democratic societies vs. day-to-day life under putatively progressive autocrats or Islamic totalitarians? Again and again, he has shown that the lessons of the twentieth century are lost on him. He seems to bang away at his articles in a child’s little corner of world, sheltered from the ugly, distant realities of theocracy and despotism and clueless about how fortunate he is to be living in a free, prosperous country that he’s been taught to regard as the planet’s chief purveyor of evil. In every word that he writes, in short, Ben Norton comes across as an utter naif – which is to say that he is every bit as callow about the way the great world operates as he appears to be in his photographs.
We’ve devoted this week to Mark Weisbrot, who for years has served as an economic advisor to and ardent defender of the most notorious, incompetent, and corrupt regimes in South America. Since he’s the founder and grand poobah of something called the Center for Economic and Policy Research (CEPR), it’s not unreasonable to ask a few questions. For example: who, exactly, is providing the funds to pay Weisbrot’s salary and keep his “center” afloat? And who are the other powerhouses who make up this “center,” which represents itself as a hotbed of serious economic analysis?
Well, as it turns out, most of CEPR’s staffers and directors have more of a background in organized left-wing activism on issues like global warming and women’s rights than in economics. No fewer than three members of CEPR’s small staff (John Schmitt, Deborah James, and Alexander Main) used to work for the “Information Office” of the Venezuelan government – which isn’t exactly famous for its world-class economic acumen. As for CEPR’s “board of directors,” it includes Filipino congressman Walden Bello, a critic of capitalism and globalization who’s written such books as Capitalism’s Last Stand?: Deglobalization in the Age of Austerity (2013). In a piece on free trade, Bello put the word “free” in scare quotes. In November 2010, Bello called Néstor Kirchner “remarkable,” “an exemplary figure in the Global South when it came to dealing with international financial institutions.” Pronounced Bello: “Along with Hugo Chavez of Venezuela, Lula of Brazil, Evo Morales of Bolivia, and Rafael Correa of Ecuador, Kirchner was one of several remarkable leaders that the crisis of neoliberalism produced in Latin America.”
Also on the CEPR’s board is Julian Bond, an activist and former NAACP head who’s compared the Tea Party to the Taliban. Neither Bello nor Bond is a trained economist. The most familiar name on the list is Danny Glover – yes, that Danny Glover, of Lethal Weapon fame, whose love for Hugo Chávez, for Fidel Castro, and for Communism generally we’ve already discussed on this site. Needless to say, Glover isn’t an economist either.
Then there’s CEPR’s International Communications Director, Dan Beeton. In August 2014, he wrote a paean to Cristina Kirchner’s newly appointed Minister of the Economy that read less like the work of a sober economist than of an overly gushing publicist. Excerpt: “Alex Kicillof, the telegenic economy minister famous for his Elvis-style sideburns, has emerged on the international stage as a heroic figure championing the Argentine people. Kicillof is perhaps reminiscent of another bold, young economy minister in a different South American country: Ecuador’s Rafael Correa, whose public sparring with the World Bank in 2005 helped to launch his political career.”
Finally, check out CEPR staffer Robert Naiman, who, after Néstor Kirchner’s death, eulogized him at the Daily Kos website for “defying Washington and the International Monetary Fund.” Naiman also recommended Oliver Stone’s documentary South of the Border, which represented Kirchner as a hero – and which, as we’ve seen, was written by Weisbrot. Who’s Naiman? In addition to his work at CEPR and his writing for sites like Daily Kos and the Huffington Post, he’s served as Policy Director for a website called “Just Foreign Policy,” and as head of the board of the “progressive” news website Truthout, as a member of the steering committee of Gaza’s Ark (which is all about repeatedly violating Israel’s sea blockade of the Palestinian territories).
A few months after Cristina Kirchner’s October 2011 re-election as president of Argentina, American economist Mark Weisbrot – whose career as a sycophant of socialist despots we’ve been charting the last couple of days – cheered her decision to nationalize her country’s largest oil company, the Spanish-owned YPF. This move was roundly condemned by other economists, who quite rightly recognized that it would drive sensible investors away from Argentina, at least until Kirchner was out of office. “Investors don’t like this, but does that matter?” Weisbrot asked, insisting that foreign investment isn’t “an essential ingredient of economic growth.” Indeed, he claimed, Cristina’s re-election was the result of a “success story” that’s “rarely told, mostly because it involved reversing many of the failed neoliberal policies…that brought the country to ruin in its worst recession of 1998-2002.” Her triumph, Weisbrot pronounced, was part of a process by which Latin America had “achieved its ‘second independence.’”
And that’s really what Weisbrot’s enthusiasm for both Venezuelan chavismo and Argentina’s Kirchnerism is all about. When he’s written about those two countries, he hasn’t served up objective economic analysis but propaganda against Western (especially American) capitalism. He doesn’t want to see South Americans thrive; he wants to see them win their “independence” from the international capitalist system – the “colonialists,” the “imperialists” – even if their so-called “independence” means that the people live under the thumb of a petty tyrant who’s made him- or herself the center of a personality cult.
For Weisbrot, loyalty to these autocrats comes first. After Hugo Chávez’s death in 2013, Weisbrot eulogized him not only in print but at a February 2014 propaganda-fest, entitled “The Legacy of Hugo Chávez: At Home And Abroad,” at Venezuela’s D.C. Embassy. A month later he was in Caracas to head up another tribute sponsored by the Venezuelan government, this one called “Chávez, Communicator of the 21st Century.” Weisbrot also poured out the praise after Nestor Kirchner’s death in 2010, gushing that history would remember Kirchner “not only as a great president but also as an independence hero of Latin America.” Never mind that more and more Venezuelans and Argentinians felt that these leaders – far from giving them any kind of independence – had in fact been steadily robbing them of their freedoms.
Given his obvious sycophancy and ideological enthrallment to these characters, what gives Weisbrot’s economic pronouncements any validity, any authority? Why should anybody take them seriously? Well, as we’ve noted, he’s associated with something called the Center for Economic and Policy Research (CEPR), which is based in Washington, D.C. Certainly sounds legitimate, no? In fact, this “center” is something Weisbrot founded himself, in the way that your gardener or garbageman might appoint himself head of something called, say, the World Council of Cardiology or the International Center for Nuclear Research.
It may or may not be a coincidence, moreover, that the name of Weisbrot’s “center” closely echoes that of a respected British institution, the Centre for Economic Policy Research (no “and”), with which it has absolutely no connection. As one commentator puts it, Weisbrot’s “center” provides him with “an aura of credibility to journalists in the mainstream media who, when writing about Venezuela, want to get both sides of the story — including the leftist pro-Venezuela version that Weisbrot provides. And so they go to Weisbrot, an able propagandist.”
Indeed, when you come right down to it, CEPR is precisely what that commentator suggests – nothing more or less than a propaganda factory, an outfit that isn’t about carrying out responsible economic research but about churning out PR for the Venezuelan and Argentinian regimes.
Yesterday we began taking a long look at Mark Weisbrot, whose enthusiasm for chavista economics appears to know no bounds. In November 2013, he ruled out the possibility of a “Venezuelan apocalypse” of the kind that is now well underway. Then came last December’s parliamentary elections, when, as we’ve seen, the Venezuelan electorate registered its loathing for President Nicolás Maduro’s incompetent handling of the economy, his increasing restriction on civil rights, and other outrages. But Weisbrot hadn’t given up the fight. In an article headlined “What Next For Venezuela?”, he started out by trying to put a good face on the people’s verdict. For one thing, he applauded Maduro for accepting the results of the vote. (In short, he praised the prez for doing the right thing and not violating the constitution; one might, in the same way, give somebody a pat on the back for not committing murder or rape.) For another, he attributed the heavy anti-Maduro tally to the opposition’s supposedly greater financial resources and to media support.
Weisbrot strove throughout, in fact, to paint the chavista regime as responsible, law-abiding, and prepared to work harmoniously with its critics to fix the economy; meanwhile, he depicted those critics as violent, polarizing extremists who, unreasonably, refused to cooperate with the government in the interest of bringing the economy around. He also persisted in his now utterly ludicrous claim that life in the Bolivarian Republic had “changed substantially for the better” under Chávez and Maduro. Yes, he felt obliged to acknowledge the current economic crisis; but what he wouldn’t admit was that it was the predictable result of policies he himself had supported and helped devise. Nor did his pretty picture of the Maduro regime take into account such violations of human rights as the jailing of opposition leader Leopoldo López.
All right. So who is Mark Weisbrot? He’s an economist who’s associated with the Washington, D.C.-based Center for Economic and Policy Research (CEPR). Sounds impressive, right? But his pronouncements on Venezuela and Argentina make it clear that Weisbrot is just about as far from the consensus on these nations’ economies as possible. Serious, objective members of his profession have been warning for years that Chávez, Maduro, and the Kirchners were leading their countries down the garden path. In September 2014, for example, The Economist ran an article about Venezuela subtitled “Probably the World’s Worst-Managed Economy.” It began: “A big oil producer unable to pay its bills during a protracted oil-price boom is a rare beast. Thanks to colossal economic mismanagement, that is exactly what Venezuela, the world’s tenth-largest oil exporter, has become.” A few months earlier, the same periodical ran a piece headlined “The Tragedy of Argentina: A Century of Decline.” A sampling: “Its standing as one of the world’s most vibrant economies is a distant memory….it trails Chile and Uruguay in its own back yard…. It has shut itself out of global capital markets…Property rights are insecure….Statistics cannot be trusted.”
Such, more or less, is the verdict of virtually all respected economists on these two countries. But Weisbrot sings a different tune. In 2007 – five years after Argentina defaulted on its sovereign debt – he toasted Cristina Fernández de Kirchner’s victory in that year’s election, calling it “not difficult to explain” given her husband’s glowing performance in office during the previous four years. In 2011, with the country’s inflation rate hovering at around 25%, Weisbrot – under the headline “Cristina Kirchner and Argentina’s Good Fortune” – assuredreaders of the Guardian that Argentina under Cristina, who was then running for re-election, was doing “remarkably well” and undergoing a “remarkable expansion.”
It’s all happening at once. Venezuela’s socialist economy is crashing and burning; Brazil’s socialist president is being impeached for doctoring budget figures to make that country’s faltering economy look better; Argentina’s socialist ex-president is on trial for defrauding her economic basket case of a country to the tune of five billion dollars.
All of these corrupt, incompetent, and ideologically misguided regimes – as we’ve pointed out time and again on this website – have had their share of foolish celebrity admirers north of the border, from Oliver Stone to Sean Penn. But as these economies have nose-dived, the gushing has tended to die down, and the fans have tended to scatter. In late May, we focused our gaze on Nick Dearden, a full-time anti-capitalist activist and one of the few stooges who’ve continued to be lured by the siren song of South American socialism. He’s recently blamed Argentina’s woes on its creditors, and in January he actually described Venezuela as an economic “beacon of hope.”
Another member of this curious club is Mark Weisbrot. The difference between the two men is that while Dearden, who runs a group called Global Justice Now, is pretty much what he presents himself as being – namely, a far-left street-agitator type who never quite seems comfortable without a protest sign in his hand or his fist in the air – Weisbrot actually poses as a serious economist of the first order.
Is he? Well, put it this way. Some stooges are more useful than others; Weisbrot is a really useful one. Want a defense of the indefensible from somebody whose credentials as an economic expert sound legit? Want an economist whose loyalty to the creeps in the Milaflores Palace and to the sticky-fingered czarina who recently vacated the Casa Rosada outstrips the devotion of the most zealous fan of Lady Gaga or Justin Bieber – no matter how dismal the latest quarterly results? Look no further. Weisbrot’s your man.
We’ll spend this week probing Weisbrot’s history of defending socialist regimes in South America. But let’s start with a couple of his more recent pieces on Venezuela, which he wrote during a period when other enthusiasts for the Bolivarian Republic were heading for the hills. Take an article he wrote for The Guardian in November 2013. Its headline: “Sorry, Venezuela haters: this economy is not the Greece of Latin America.” Its subtitle: “Predicting a Venezuelan apocalypse won’t make it happen.”
“For more than a decade,” Weisbrot sneered, “people opposed to the government of Venezuela have argued that its economy would implode.” For years, he stated, the predictions had failed to come true. But now Venezuela was “facing economic problems that are warming the cockles of the haters’ hearts” – as if the critics of chavista economics hated the Venezuelan people, when in fact what they hated was the socialist policies that were gradually destroying those people’s lives.
Noting that supplies of consumer goods were shriveling, that consumer prices had risen 49% in the last year, and that the U.S. dollar was worth seven times the official rate on the black market, Weisbrot might have acknowledged a degree of personal responsibility for the way things were going. Instead, he slickly made the critics of his approach into the bad guys: “Will those who cried wolf for so long finally see their dreams come true?”
His answer: no. While Maduro’s opponents saw Venezuela as being “caught in an inflation-devaluation spiral,” Weisbrot insisted that “a government with more than $90bn in oil revenue” could not – and would not – “end up with a balance-of-payments crisis…..This government is not going to run out of dollars.” Nor, he maintained, was the country in serious danger of hyperinflation; notwithstanding the current problems, Venezuela was “very capable of providing healthy growth even while bringing down inflation.” While the country was “facing serious economic problems,” they weren’t the kind of problems that were being experienced by Greece and Spain.
Even last December, by which time Venezuela was clearly circling the drain, Weisbrot maintained his boosterish take on chavismo. Tune in tomorrow.
Yesterday we met Nick Dearden, head of an anti-capitalist British group called Global Justice Now and frequent contributor to the Guardian. As recently as January of this year, Dearden described Venezuela as a “beacon of hope.” He’s also blamed the poverty of countries like the Democratic Republic of the Congo on American “vulture funds.”
The word vulture appears frequently in Dearden’s work. In a 2011 piece, he wrung his hands over the economic plight of Argentina, which, again, he blamed not on the Kirchner regime’s massive corruption and financial irresponsibility but on the creditors who actually dared to expect the Buenos Aires government to honor its debts. Dearden gave a thumbs-up to Argentina’s 2001 default (which “was undoubtedly the right thing to do”) and slammed creditors (a.k.a. “vulture funds”) for refusing to walk away meekly and let Kirchner & co. screw them over. He further accused Argentina’s main creditor, NML Capital, of “harassing” Argentina – by which he meant that NML, in order to try to collect the money it was owed, had had to take the Kirchner government to court .
Meanwhile, the closest he would come to admitting the deep, endemic problems afflicting the Kirchner regime was to say that “Everything is not perfect in Argentina to this day.” He acknowledged that Argentina shouldn’t have borrowed such massive sums in the first place – but instead of criticizing the Kirchner regime for taking out loans, he blamed the banks for making them. Fighting poverty, Dearden asserted, requires profound systemic change: “The financial system…needs to be directed for the benefit of people everywhere.” And part of this change is that “[c]reditors must accept the downside when investments go wrong just as they happily accept the upside when they go right.” Meaning, apparently, that when debtors choose not to pay their debts, creditors should just shrug and walk away.
We’ve written at length about Joseph E. Stiglitz, the economist, who, among other things, is a big U.N. booster, championing the idea that the U.S. and other countries should effectively hand over their sovereignty to the international organization. Dearden is in the same camp, contrasting the G8 – which he views as a gang of imperialist, colonialist bullies that “should by rights be dead and buried” – with the U.N. itself, which he see as a compassionate force for the world’s poorer and less powerful countries.
In a 2009 article for the Guardian, Dearden cited Stiglitz approvingly and at length on the need for thoroughgoing “reform” of “the international trade and financial system,” including extensive debt cancellation, a “new reserve currency to replace the dollar.” Dearden also quoted, with hearty agreement, the then-president of the General Assembly, Nicaraguan priest Miguel d’Escoto Brockmann, to the effect that “[t]he anti-values of greed, individualism and exclusion should be replaced by solidarity, common good and inclusion” and that our “profit-centred economy” should give way to “a people-centred economy.”
Presumably like the terrific, robust one in Nicaragua. Or Venezuela, that “beacon of hope.”
Back in October we spent a few days pondering the Nobel Prize-winning economist Joseph E. Stiglitz, whose curious views are taken far more seriously in the corridors of power than they deserve. Stiglitz, as we pointed out, has called for a socialist U.N. superstate; so preoccupied is he with income inequality, moreover, that he views the Great Depression more fondly than he does the 1980s. Financial analyst Peter Tenebrarum has legitimately ridiculed Stiglitz’s claim that corporate tax rates have “little effect on investment,” observing that only “a life-long leftist academic and bureaucrat who has never created one iota of real wealth in his life” could ever utter such drivel.
Then there are Stiglitz’s deep and longstanding ties to the corrupt Argentinian President Néstor Kirchner (2003-7) and his wife and successor, Cristina Fernández de Kirchner (who left office in December). Stiglitz, who’s been a paid Kirchner advisor and consultant, filed an amicus curiae brief when Argentina defaulted on its debt in 2001; when it did so again in 2014, he once more took the Kirchners’ side.
Quite admirably, Argentina’s new president, Mauricio Macri, is trying to clean up the mess that his crooked predecessors created. To this end, he’s reached an agreement with his country’s major creditors that will set Argentina back on the road to fiscal responsibility and international respectability. Any sensible observer who respects the rule of law would applaud.
Not Stiglitz. In an April 1 New York Times op-ed, co-written with his protégé and frequent collaborator Martin Guzman, Stiglitz slammed Macri’s move – and Argentina’s creditors.
The very title of the op-ed was a lie: “How Hedge Funds Held Argentina for Ransom.” Ransom? When a government run by thugs – kleptocrats who’ve looted their country’s treasury – refuses to pay debts ruled legitimate by two U.S. courts, it’s not ransom. It’s the rule of law.
Let’s parse the op-ed’s first sentence. “Perhaps the most complex trial in history between a sovereign nation, Argentina, and its bondholders – including a group of United States-based hedge funds – officially came to an end yesterday when the Argentine Senate ratified a settlement.” Readers might assume, quaintly, that since this piece appeared in America’s so-called newspaper of record, there must’ve been some fact-checking. But apparently not.
First of all – and this is hardly a tiny detail – there has been no trial.
A trial generally indicates that there is some dispute over the facts of a case involving evidence that must be examined, typically by a jury. But no one ever disputed that Argentina defaulted on more than $80 billion in 2001 and refused to pay certain creditors in violation of their contractual agreements. The lawsuits over Argentina’s bonds were not disputes over these indisputable facts, but rather processes to determine the proper remedies for these violations. Furthermore, lest we be accused of being nitpicky about the terminology, it is also incorrect to say that this litigation “came to an end” last week. In fact, the litigation is ongoing, with important legal questions about Argentina’s settlement offers still pending before a U.S. Court of Appeals.
Second, the mention of hedge funds was a slick move, plainly intended to set knees jerking among anti-capitalist types for whom hedge funds are, by definition, pure evil. Never mind that there are other people – some of them citizens of Argentina – who also hold Argentinian bonds. In fact, it is precisely these small Argentinian bondholders who continue to litigate against Argentina due to the fact that Argentina has for some reason offered them less than it offered the hedge funds. (Stiglitz and Guzman would know this if they bothered to read the news sections of … the New York Times!) Thus, these small bondholders are doubly inconvenient for Stiglitz and Guzman – their existence both contradicts the pair’s erroneous declaration that the Argentinian debt saga has ended while simultaneously undermining their blatant attempt to blame the “evil” hedge funds for all of Argentina’s problems.
Third, the Argentinian Senate did not ratify a settlement. What it did was agree to lift the Kirchner-era laws that were intended to frustrate U.S. court rulings – and that led New York District Judge Thomas Griesa to hold Argentina in contempt.
The op-ed’s first sentence, then, was a minor masterpiece of misrepresentation. Perhaps we should thank Stiglitz and Guzman for making it clear from the git-go that what followed wasn’t going to be factually reliable.
“The resolution,” Stiglitz and Guzman went on to say, “was excellent news for a small group of well-connected investors, and terrible news for the rest of the world, especially countries that face their own debt crises in the future.” No: it was excellent news for the health of the international credit market, and terrible news for irresponsible governments that are inclined to pursue serial defaults.
Stiglitz and Guzman proceeded to describe Argentina as “[u]nable to pay its creditors” (a questionable contention) and to describe holdout investors as having “earned the name vulture funds.” Funny way to put it: these investors didn’t “earn” that name; it was coined by their debtor, the Argentinian government, and was taken up by Stiglitz and his ilk as a glib way of smearing creditors who’ve asked only to be paid what they’re owed. By obscuring the origins of the term “vulture funds,” of course, Stiglitz and Guzman were giving legitimacy to it – and providing themselves with a veneer of justification for repeatedly (and childishly) hurling this slur throughout their piece.
In what was perhaps the most dishonest part of their op-ed, Stiglitz and Guzman purported to sum up Griesa’s 2012 ruling. As they put it, he “threw the game in the vulture funds’ favor” by “blocking Argentina from paying” creditors who’d agreed to reduced settements “until it had paid the vultures in full.” The ruling “gave the vultures the weapon they needed: Argentina had to either pay them off or renege on the default they had negotiated, ruining the country’s credit in the future and threatening its recovery.” Omitted entirely from this tendentious summary – which makes it sound as if Griesa did something shady – is Griesa’s rock-solid legal reasoning: under the pari passu (or “equal footing”) clause in the bond agreement, Argentina was strictly forbidden from paying off some creditors while stiffing others. What Stiglitz and Guzman neatly sidestepped, in other words, is the fact that if Argentina had honored the pari passu clause, all its creditors could have been paid. The point, quite simply, is that Cristina Kirchner didn’t want to pay.
The op-ed’s mendacity continued with the claim that Macri’s deal “will carry a high price for the international financial system, encouraging other funds to hold out and making debt restructuring virtually impossible.” Nonsense. In fact, the market has already adjusted: in place of paripassu clauses, sovereign-debt agreements now include collective-action clauses. Stiglitz and Guzman would have us believe that nations like Argentina can’t protect themselves and can’t structure loans as they wish; instead of worrying about that, we should be concerned about those nations’ continued ability to default and force terms on bondholders.
“Most countries,” maintained Stiglitz and Guzman, “are intimidated by the creditors and accept what is demanded.” Intimidated? Was Cristina Kirchner intimidated when she maligned her creditors as “vultures” and basically gave Judge Griesa the finger? Our heroes then called sovereign-debt restructurings destructive – after all, they’re are often “followed by another restructuring or default within five years.” And what example did they cite? That of Greece, which underwent restructuring in 2012 and is already “in desperate need of more relief.” But the case of Greece doesn’t prove anything about restructuring; all it proves is that if a country is economically irresponsible on a colossal scale, the chickens will eventually come home to roost.
How, then, to resolve sovereign-debt conflicts? Easy: Stiglitz and Guzman touted a set of sovereign-debt “principles” that they themselves proposed to the U.N. General Assembly, which approved them overwhelmingly last September. Among those “principles”: that indebted nations should be immune from foreign courts’ verdicts and that creditors should be compelled to accept restructuring deals approved by a majority of their fellow debt holders. Predictably, the six countries that voted against the resolution were those whose citizens tend to be on the creditor end of these arrangements – Canada, Germany, Israel, Japan, Britain, and the U.S. The countries that approved the measure were, in effect, asserting their own right to dodge repayment of debts – not just debts owed to hedge funds, but debts owed to mom-and-pop investors, too. Some justice.
“Many countries have bankruptcy laws,” concluded Stiglitz and Guzman. “But there is no equivalent framework for sovereign bankruptcies….The United Nations has taken the lead to fill this vacuum, and as Argentina’s case proves, the initiative is more important than ever.” Saying this, however, doesn’t make it so. What Argentina’s case proves is that some countries, like some people, are deadbeats; if permitted to do so, they’ll default repeatedly on their debt for no other reason than that the law lets them.
None of this is new, of course – we already knew where Stiglitz stood on Argentina’s deadbeat behavior. In fact, he’s become something of a broken record on the subject. Take his hyperbolic claim in the op-ed that “[t]he resolution … [will make] debt restructuring virtually impossible.” He’s plagiarized this same claim from himself many times in commenting on various cases, at least once using virtually identical language in the same newspaper. Each time, he is proven wrong by subsequent sovereign debt restructurings that are successfully concluded via constructive, good-faith negotiations with creditors (i.e., the opposite of the coercive approach that he and Cristina Kirchner favor) – most recently in Ukraine.
So why now? Why has Stiglitz chosen this moment to repeat the same tired justifications of the Kirchners’ behavior and vilifications of Argentina’s creditors? For answers, look at the headlines surrounding the deal, and it seems clear at once: As the praise for Macri’s economic policies in general and his handling of the debt dispute in particular pours in from around the world, defenders and abettors of the Kirchners’ disastrous policies are looking worse and worse in retrospect. And, as you might expect, some have lashed out with desperate attempts to justify their actions and/or sabotage the Macri administration. Each is doing it with the tools at hand: For instance, former Kirchner Economy Minister Axel Kicillof now has a seat in Congress, so he is trying mightily to derail Macri’s settlement and keep Argentina mired in default. By contrast, Stiglitz has a standing invitation to bloviate on the op-ed pages of the Times. So bloviate he does.
But no amount of retrospective whitewashing can change the fact that the policies Stiglitz advocated as an advisor to the Kirchners were followed, and followed faithfully, with disastrous consequences for Argentina’s citizens. The Kirchners’ refusal to fully resolve the 2001 default in order to spite its creditors led directly and indirectly to the years of grinding legal battles, the punitive interest rates that Argentina was forced to pay as a result of its status as the world’s worst deadbeat, the falsified economic statistics that undermined its government’s credibility with everyone except for a handful of despots, the cozying up to said despots that further undermined its global reputation, the spiraling inflation that punished its citizens as access to dollars became scarcer and scarcer – Stiglitz was there every step of the way, cheering for Cristina in the international media. And now that she’s gone and someone more responsible is trying to clean up the mess that he helped make, Stiglitz is still there, jeering from the sidelines, and pointing the finger of blame somewhere else.