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OP-ED | 06-01-2024 06:06

His own worst enemy?

By multiplying the contents in its economic deregulation package, the government has only multiplied the already formidable obstacles lying ahead in Congress, adding the physical impossibility of finding the time to the stiff challenges of gaining approval with only tiny caucuses of almost embarrassingly raw legislators.

Today is the last of the 12 days of Christmas or Epiphany, locally termed ‘Los Reyes Magos’ as a date cherished by children and the toy industry – the new libertarian government would seem to see itself as something of a magic kingdom where it can write a letter in the form of the mega-degree and omnibus law containing the fantasies of a lifetime and see its wish list transformed into reality in an instant. Yet on this Epiphany the Three Wise Men are spreading their gifts unevenly – plenty of the “bitter perfume” of myrrh with its “gathering gloom, sorrowing, sighing” and quite a bit of frankincense also with President Javier Milei’s popularity ratings as high as 60-plus percent but any gold a remote prospect.

An extremely basic contradiction would seem to underlie a deregulatory decree of 664 articles (accompanied by a 183-page omnibus law) coming from a libertarian government fully aware that time is not on its side – a classic case of the perfect being the enemy of the good. By multiplying the contents in this package, the government has only multiplied the already formidable obstacles lying ahead in Congress, adding the physical impossibility of finding the time to the stiff challenges of gaining approval with only tiny caucuses of almost embarrassingly raw legislators. No clear attempt has been made to identify priorities within the jumble between the mega-decree and the omnibus law. To give an absurd example (but one nevertheless singled out by deregulatory mastermind Federico Sturzenegger), among the 150 clearly obsolete and ridiculous laws now up for chainsaw treatment is the regulation of pigeon-racing – ludicrous as such legislation might be, is it not possible for this country to live with regulated pigeon-racing for a few more months or years without succumbing to hyperinflation?

Few enough tears are likely to be shed for the demise of regulated pigeon-racing but many even secondary items in the mega-package (like fisheries) are less innocuous, never mind the major battles. It would be virtually impossible to find anybody in Argentina who would either agree or disagree with every word in the 664 articles and 183 pages once they have read them (a hassle braved by very few) and yet Milei would seem to prefer the logic of the Gordian knot to Occam’s razor. Many pundits argue that his runaway majority was padded by sympathy over the “por sí o por no” (yes or no) bullying to which he was subjected in the November 12 debate by his run-off rival Sergio Massa, the apparent winner of that clash, and yet Milei is now effectively reducing complex and fundamental questions to this primitive binary logic of “por sí o por no,” an approach which might well end up being enshrined in a plebiscite as the legislative and judicial tangles mount – a simplistic alternative to the need to simplify the deregulatory monster.

Another contradiction with both the libertarian creed and the war on inflation is the voracious taxation into which Milei is forced by his laudable halt on the Central Bank printing money to fund the Treasury – at least until a hopefully bumper harvest comes in, unless that still mythical assistance of US$15 billion from the International Monetary Fund or the United States materialises. The tax issue also adds the provincial governors to the collision course with Congress and the courts. Milei wishes to backtrack on Massa’s virtual elimination of income tax (for which he voted as a deputy) whereas most governors would prefer to subject the cheque tax to federal revenue-sharing. Here Milei is being rational since income tax is a progressive levy and central in developed countries whereas the cheque tax heads many lists of bad taxes, making it unwise for governors to look to an excise heading for chainsaw extinction, but nobody takes the trouble to explain this – or almost anything in this mega-package.

To the list of poorly explained innovations, this English-language newspaper can perhaps be forgiven for adding one lying at the heart of Anglo-Saxon politics – namely, the replacement of party lists with single-member constituencies. This system has many virtues in making deputies directly accountable and forcing politicians into far more direct contact with their disenchanted voters with far clearer majorities to ease governance but until the government presents those arguments, the suspicion will linger of a hidden agenda (like the Peronism applying that system in 1951) of inflating majority representation while disenfranchising even large minorities.

Just one of the many issues requiring serious debate, not “por sí o por no” polarisation.

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