Writing on the Double Yellow Line

Militant moderate, unwilling to concede any longer the terms of debate to the strident ideologues on the fringe. If you are a Democrat or a Republican, you're an ideologue. If you're a "moderate" who votes a nearly straight party-ticket, you're still an ideologue, but you at least have the decency to be ashamed of your ideology. ...and you're lying in the meantime.

Location: Illinois, United States

Saturday, March 11, 2006

Another Dime

Another Dime in the Fame Machine
© 2006 Ross Williams

Hugo Chavez can't stand being out of the spotlight. In the night sky of megalomaniac tinpot tyrants, he is Sirius[1]; but then, aren't they all?

Chavez is in some kind of high school bad-ass, can't-find-a-date-to-the-prom posturing deal. He isn't exactly sour grapesing the thing, since claiming sour grapes is a rationalization. "I spent all day trying to get those grapes, but I couldn't reach them, but now I'm glad because they were sour grapes anyway." He’s more desperate than rationalizing.

Poor ol' Hugo really really wants to be Prom King. Darn it! he's a big shot! He desperately needs to go to the prom, but he doesn't want the stigma of going stag. Who’s gonna respect a guy who can’t get a date? Oh sure, he could go with his smoking-under-the-bleachers buddies – Cuba and Bolivia – but how pathetic is that? You can't find a date to the prom, so you go with two other guys who don't have dates. Bad-ass guys like Chavez? Wouldn't do; folks whisper.

Here's his evening in a nutshell: He hopes to score, but won't. He'll end up making crude pick-up attempts at every girl at the punch bowl, get slapped a half dozen times for his efforts, leave by himself and sneak a few of the old man's beers out of the mini-fridge in the workshop and stay outside until 3 A.M. just to give everyone the impression he got lucky. Somewhere around midnight he’ll raid an all-night laundromat to steal some woman's panties to stick in his glove compartment to show off when someone asks how the prom was. Just his luck: they're size 16.

Hot time in the old banana republic tonight!!

Chavez desperately needs cred, but he's used up his fifteen minutes of fame long ago. The world looked, and the world looked away.

Hey! Wayda minnit!! Hugo wasn't done trying to impress everyone that he could be interesting. He's got another act. Okay, so his latter-day Che dance is hackneyed and derivative, but stick around for the comedy. US President Bush is called "Mr Danger" – when he's not using such terms as "nut case" and "Adolph Hitler". He's been making kissy-face at US Secretary of State "Condolence" Rice for over a year; funny she hasn't agreed to go out with him yet... And if that wasn't funny enough, he's added irony to the routine by formally protesting remarks made by British Prime Minister Blair which, Chavez claims, violate international standards of good taste and decorum.

Chavez wants Britain to give the Falkland Islands back to Argentina – even though they never belonged to Argentina except for the few weeks in 1982 when Argentina squatted on them. When Britain declined Venezuela's kind demand, Chavez told Blair to "go to hell" – international standard and chock-full-a-good-taste diplomatic jargon for "Blair is a great big poopy head".[2]

Who wouldn't want to stick around for the second act? It promises to be full of surprises.

But no, everybody would rather watch oil-rich Iran claiming energy poverty and build nuclear bombs with the enriched uranium it's claiming is for electricity. Chavez showed up on Iran's doorstep to be photographed with Ahmadinejad at a critical point in the tension. It was the equivalent of dropping another two bits into the megalomaniac meter.

Everyone else would rather watch the poor and uneducated from west Africa through the Middle East to central and south Asia riot over cartoons. Little food in some of those places, no political freedoms in any, but doggone it! you draw rude pictures half a world away, we'll go nuts!

All Chavez can offer is standard regional arms races, clichéd saber rattling, a little last-gasp exported socialist insurgency, and trite taunts of his economic and military betters. It's so... 20th Century. For encores, he's willing to cut off his nose to spite his face.

That might be worth the price of admission, come to think of it. Hugo attempted to steal Venezuelan power in 1992 by staging a coup. It failed. He was elected in 1999, took office in 2000, and proceeded to treat the nation as if he had stolen power anyway. He nationalized the nation's major industries – by which we mean petroleum – fired everyone who could run the business for a profit, and installed peasants and cronies in their place.

It’s one thing when you install a crony to run FEMA. The head of an agency usually has talent confined to making long, boring speeches, dissembling before Congress and the press, and delivering reports compiled by the bureaucrats who actually do whatever work gets done. He isn’t allowed near enough to the buttons to do any real damage, and when he gets into trouble it’s normally because he failed at being a functionless figurehead.

But Chavez not only put cronies and other incompetents in charge of the state-run Venezuelan petroleum outfit, he put incompetents in the real jobs there as well. Part of his give power to the people platform. …which was part of his stick it to the imperialist man platform. …which was part of his it’s all America’s fault platform.

Socialism isn’t dead, Chavez is busy exhorting. It can work, despite every attempt to work it failing from economic dead-weight. The last few outstanding examples of socialism are still running on the fumes of inertia [Cuba], or nuclear blackmail and handouts [North Korea], or is busy trying to redefine socialist theory as neo-capitalism [China]. Upstarts like Venezuela are stuck in a petroleum bubble, and the most recent entry, Bolivia, is willing to underwrite its economic incompetence by legitimizing cocaine. Bolivia’s President Morales is a coca farmer, and has equated the world’s war on drugs to an international effort to impoverish Bolivia[3] – whose major export is cocaine.

The problem with Venezuela’s economy, Chavez said, is that it’s all run by the US. Venezuela pumps the oil, but it’s shipped to the US to refine. Most of the oil Venezuela pumps is used in the US as gasoline… so that makes some sense. But, okay, you want to take a page from the Japanese vertical-integration business model, refine your own oil and sell the finished product.

Only one problem. Venezuela doesn’t have the capacity to refine their own oil in the amounts necessary. They’re short the industrial infrastructure to build the refineries, and they’re short the technical expertise to run them. To get either, they’d need to hire an industrial nation to do it for them. The nearest industrial nation is, um, the US. China is too busy building their own.

If Venezuela really wants to get their oil processed elsewhere they’d be forced to ship crude oil to other petroleum refineries around the world, all of which are farther away than the Citgo refineries in Houston.

Social programs cost money. When the government gives stuff away for free, it’s not really free. It costs somebody something, even if it’s an artificial ‘somebody’ named The Government. No matter what is given away or to whom, somebody has to come up with the money to pay for it. No exceptions.

Chavez built his presidency on giving stuff away; he veritably bought votes from the poor by promising them the world. In a way, he’s the only honest politician in the hemisphere in over fifty years, since he’s actually delivered on a lot of it. But he’s been paying for his own largess by oil profits, which he’s been able to do because:
1] the market price for oil is way way up due to Middle East wars and China’s and India’s growing demand; and
2] Venezuela’s low production and transportation costs.

It doesn’t cost Venezuela any more to pump oil out of the ground now than it did in 1998 – and since the people who do the pumping are essentially new-hires, it should cost them less. Because Venezuela gets its refining done after a short 3-day cruise across the Gulf of Mexico, their transportation costs are fairly low. Sorry to apply basic Capitalism 101 to the socialist pipedream, Hugo, but you’re in about the best position you can possibly be.

For Chavez to cease selling his crude oil to the US for market price of $60/barrel, which includes the 3-day tanker trip from Caracas to Houston, he’d be selling it to, say, China or India for the same $60/barrel and absorbing the fuel and labor costs of the 30-40 day trip to Shanghai or Bombay. Venezuela would get significantly less profit per barrel, and therefore less money to run his vote-grabbing social programs, and therefore fewer votes in the next election.

Not that votes really matter to someone willing to stage a coup, but it makes for a messy press conference afterwards. Not that messy press conferences are especially troubling to someone who desperately craves the attention of the world and so often resorts to high school bad-ass techniques to get it. Where it might hurt Chavez is when he can no longer pay for the vote-buying social programs because he’s spending his profits to ship his oil to anyplace but the US. Venezuelans are not above – or beneath – replacing heads of state by force. Chavez already survived one coup attempt.


Politics, like baseball, is a game of inches.

Chavez has too many socialist social programs to fund, and too many Russian weapons to buy to be spending his oil profits on 30-day tanker cruises. He has too many FARC guerrillas in Columbia to arm with those weapons. He has too many socialist neighbors to keep on life support. And he’s got to have pocket change to dump in the megalomaniac meter to keep the rest of the world paying attention to him.

[1] the brightest star in the sky
[2] http://www.cnn.com/2006/WORLD/americas/02/10/venzuela.chavez.reut/index.html
[3] which was poor even before the world discovered cocaine


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