Friday, July 30, 2010

Pyramids in Argentina

Recently, I read a piece by a man from Argentina written probably about 2006.  Argentina was a thriving country at one time, despite all the Juan and Eva Peron issues in their past.  When I was a pre-teen and teenager, I had a frequent fantasy of becoming a civil engineer, learning Spanish, and building roads and bridges in Argentina because it had a kind of Old West appeal with its wide Pampas and abundant wildlife, especially birds like the prairie chicken.  In the late ‘90’s, however, Argentina began to undergo a serious financial crisis.  Their economy collapsed in 2001.

The writer of the article I read was an architecture student and relates how he was in a social science class in 2002 where the teacher illustrated societies with a series of pyramids.  The pyramids were divided with two horizontal lines into three segments - upper class at the peak, middle class, and a lower class at the base.  The teacher told the students that the middle class served as society’s buffer and most stabilizing element.

Different economic systems where shown by how the lines were drawn on the pyramid.  A classic democratic capitalist economy had a fairly tall, steep shape with a substantial peak of rich, a very large middle class and a very thin base for the poor.  Western European socialist societies were depicted as similar to the capitalist pyramids but flatter, meaning that rich weren’t as far above the poor.  Communistic economies had a very small upper class with a minimal middle class and a large poor class.  Arrows going from the middle and low class to the upper class “bounced off” the border indicating that any upward movement within the society was virtually impossible.

The fourth pyramid showed arrows from the middle class to the lower class.  This, the teacher explained was the collapsing society of Argentina.  A country that collapses moves to a third world model where, like the communist country, movement is only downward.  The miniscule but very rich elite sit atop a minimal and disappearing middle class and a large and expanding layer of the poor.  The writer said that he and his fellow students suddenly realized they were poor.

He talked about the way his country had fallen apart and the consequences of the collapse.  Crime grew exponentially.  People were on their own in protecting themselves against violence and robbery.  Services that had been taken for granted in a modern society ceased or became intermittent and unreliable.  Food was hard to get.  Fuel quality and quantity diminished.  The power grid was down more than up.  Water quality deteriorated.  People no longer stopped at red lights if there was no traffic because a ticket was preferable to being carjacked and possibly raped or killed.  Eventually police stopped issuing tickets and many intersections had only flashing yellows.

Private ownership of firearms in Argentina was apparently fairly widespread and common.  Many who did not own a firearm initially picked one up - often on the black market.  He also discussed the black and gray markets that popped up as a result of the collapse.  This became a significant source of purchases.

Some, the writer said, thought that if a similar crisis occurred in the United States there would be a much greater degree of social unrest, rioting and violence.  His friends said that South Americans were stronger than North Americans.  At first the writer disagreed, but as he considered he began to think it might be true.  Many Argentineans had fled the civil wars in Spain or problems in Italy to settle in South America.  Societal collapse was not completely foreign to them as it is to us.

I tend to agree with his assessment.  While his experiences are not that different than what many of my friends described during the race riots of the ‘60’s, the Rodney King riots in LA, or the debacle after Katrina in New Orleans, these events were all localized and, relatively speaking, small.  Yes, if you were in the immediate vicinity there was a huge impact, but it was not “bad and nationwide”.