Sunday, May 20, 2007

Bread, Land and Peace

Hugo Chavez has become a bit of a darling among the anti-American far left in this country. So much that they ignore the fact that he is much more of a dictator in reality than they ever could imagine that Bush is. I wrote my senior thesis on collectivization in the Soviet Union, the forced seizure of land that eventually led to massive famines killing over 7 million people, and although the genocide has not begun here, there are still eerie parallels. There was a great article on the Wall Street Journal on this subject. Unfortunately you need a subscription to read the whole thing.

The government bills land reform as a way to make Venezuela self-sufficient in food. But so far, the effect has been to undercut production of beef, sugar and other foods, as productive land is handed to city dwellers with no knowledge of farming. Established farmers and ranchers, fearing their land may be seized next, are cutting investment in their operations to a minimum.

The chaos in the countryside has contributed to shortages in basic items like milk and meat, a paradox in a country enjoying an economic boom traceable to high oil prices. Also spurring the shortages are price controls on certain foods that keep them priced below the cost of production. Meanwhile, 19%-plus inflation -- as oil revenue floods the economy -- spurs panic buying: purchasing price-controlled and other goods the shopper might not immediately need for fear of having higher prices in the future or not finding the items at all.

"You get up at dawn to hunt for a breast of chicken all over town. Housewives are in a foul mood," says Lucylde González, a Caracas homemaker, who says she hasn't seen an egg in a week.

After squatters took part of Mr. Lecuna's land, his bank said he could no longer use what remained as collateral for loans, and asked him to put up a Caracas office building he owns instead. Mr. Lecuna says he can't get financing from state banks, because they now won't lend to farmers with more than 100 acres. He has stopped buying fertilizer and machinery. "I'm afraid of investing," he says. In addition, kidnappings of farmers and ranchers for ransom are on the rise, and scandals have plagued the co-op program.

Mr. Chávez blames the shortages on "speculation" by distributors and producers. Agriculture Minister Elias Jaua recently called a news conference to deny there's been any decline in food production during the eight years of Chávez rule. The central bank stopped publishing agricultural statistics in 2005. A private farm association called Fedeagro estimates Venezuela grew 8% less food last year than the year before, citing factors including the price controls, land seizures and the wave of kidnappings of farmers.

Thursday, May 10, 2007

Living Beyond Your Means

I have always thought of the Brits as thrifty folk, unlike us crazy irresponsible Americans. It turns out that they are even crazier than we are. Expensive country though.

LONDON -- To understand why economists are increasingly worried about Britain, it helps to look to Adam Smith.

Not the 18th-century Scottish philosopher, but rather a 28-year-old Cheltenham mortgage-debt collector who shares the famous name. Last June, Mr. Smith was in debt to the tune of $50,000. Like many British consumers -- who are even more leveraged than Americans -- he had been borrowing largely to cover his rising living expenses.

Struggling to keep up with credit-card and loan payments on his $1,900 monthly salary, he sought protection from creditors. "I was just trying to live an independent life away