Saturday, 6 March 2010

Milton and the Earthquake

I have always thought that the Referente, Patricio Navia's long-standing list-serve on things Chilean, has been a fantastic contribution towards the creation of an international community of Chileanists. The material he sends almost daily is a useful eye on what the world says about Chile. But I fear that he goofed in circulating this op-ed piece from the Wall Street Journal.

There is nothing wrong with singing the praises of Milton Friedman, if that turns you on. Neither am I averse to the argument that neoliberalism -- at least its watered down, post-1982 form -- laid the foundation for the Concertación's economic success over the last twenty years.

But sloppy journalism is something else. Stephens conflates Pinochet's economic policy with the current economic situation and development levels, which is to ignore the Concertación's expansion -- however limited -- of the role of the state in health, education and other matters.

Worse still is Stephens' reference to building codes. Chilean building codes got anti-seismically tough after the 1939 Chillan earthquake, under the progressive Radical government of Pedro Aguirre Cerda. The reconstruction effort at that time, in fact, led to the establishment of many development institutions, such as Corfo, which still exist. In fact, since the implementation of Friedman's ideology, one of the things that has been watered down is the building code.

Today, which seismic standards remain tough, construction companies autoregulate their compliance. As a result, many of the most damaged buidlings in Concepcion and in Santiago were new apartment buildings. The highway that collapsed in Santiago, and Santiago's airport, were built by private concession companies, not the government, often importing foreign models and designs not apt for an earthquake-prone landscape. The older buildings that suffered damage in the south were often built of adobe -- precisely the kind of construction that Aguirre Cerda tried to stop. Those older buildings made of concrete, built, say, between 1940 and 1980, tended to survive mostly intact.

Having said that, I am struck by how well much of Santiago held up to what was still, here, a pretty strong earthquake. The subway was working the next day. Glass-covered office buildings hardly showed signs (on the outside at least) of damage. Most roads were in tact. The malls as well. But is this thanks to Milton?


Reed M. Kurtz said...

I think Naomi Klein's rebuttal in The Nation is also pretty effective at dismantling Stephens's porous argument as well. Chile's building codes remain tough and fully enforced in spite of Friedman and the Chicago Boys (and their odious ideological heirs at the Wall Street Journal).

Robert Funk said...

I try not to pay too much attention to Naomi Klein, who is as biased as the Wall Street Journal. She makes a few good points, but her ideological blinders make her stuble into simplifications. To blame the 82 crisis on corruption is just wrong. To credit Allende with the building codes (although she does make a sidebar reference to earlier efforts) is wrong. I mean, you could argue that the churches built in the 16th and 17th centuries survived too -- so we should credit the Franciscans and Dominicans as well.