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Garage Sale Nation

If you find income inequality deeply disturbing, take a good long look at Venezuela, where they have virtually eliminated it.

Unfortunately there is no magic potion that can be distributed to the populace to make everyone rich, so eliminating inequality instead required Venezuela to make everybody poor. The effort has succeeded to a remarkable extent. In Venezuela today, university-educated professionals join their former housekeepers in selling belongings on the street merely to survive or, in some cases, in hopes of scraping together enough cash to try to flee.

The countrywide garage sale makes sense when you consider the circumstances driving Venezuelans to sell practically everything they own. Minimum wage is less than $15 a month, according to The Associated Press, and inflation has run into the triple digits. In these circumstances, even those lucky enough to have jobs have no guarantee of earning enough to feed their families, or even themselves. As entrepreneur Carlos Martinez told the Miami Herald, “Nobody eats with only one job right now.”

Even those able to sell enough of their possessions to generate sufficient cash must face the stark scarcity of resources, especially food, that creates long lines for the most basic supplies and services. The national wait has led to many instances of violence and looting. A study by Simon Bolivar University found that nine out of 10 people in the country say they cannot buy enough to eat, either because they have too little money or there is simply no food left for them to buy. Most of the country is stuck, together, in this remarkably bleak set of circumstances.

Not that this fact necessarily unites people. On the contrary, with resources so scarce, competition for the few household items and little food available often brings neighbors to blows. As medical student Maria Sanchez of Caracas told ABC, “Need has an ugly dog’s face.” Such need is ubiquitous in today’s Venezuela.

This egalitarian outcome wasn’t something that could be accomplished overnight. It took the better part of two decades of phenomenal mismanagement, constant demagoguery and pandemic-scale corruption. But the process was surprisingly democratic and, for the most part, “fair,” if you believe fairness entails people who want stuff voting for leaders who promise to give it to them by confiscating it from other people who have it.

Venezuela’s current president, Nicolas Maduro, is collecting much of the credit for the national wreckage. Hungry citizens even refer to their “Maduro diet” when expressing their admiration for their reformed society, in which nearly everyone is united in misery. But Maduro merely took command of the ship of state after it had already struck its iceberg. The commander who piloted Venezuela to its disaster was the late President Hugo Chavez, the bombastic and belligerent bully who tormented the affluent and eliminated the middle class, thereby winning the eternal love of Venezuela’s poor.

Well, maybe not “eternal” love. But their love was durable enough to keep Chavez in power right to the end of his life, which was ended by a cancer that Chavez first denied and later claimed was cured by doctors supplied by his Cuban benefactors. Cuba was Chavez’s real role model; it, too, had largely eliminated wealth distinctions by impoverishing or driving out anyone with money, leaving only a handful of armed rulers in control of a dependent nation. But in terms of pure misery, it is possible that Chavez and his successors have outdone even Fidel and Raul Castro. It is an impressive achievement, both in magnitude and scope.

Yet of the many things Maduro inherited, Cuba’s friendship does not look to be one of them. Due to years of underinvestment and mismanagement, Venezuela’s oil output has declined, leaving its economy floundering, especially since oil prices simultaneously dropped. As the country with the world’s largest crude reserves, Venezuela was long used to buying the friendship of its neighbors by sending them oil on advantageous terms. Now that the tap has slowed to a drip, its allies – including Cuba – have pulled away.

As Venezuela finds itself increasingly isolated, it is little wonder that its people are leaving to the extent they are able. About 2 million Venezuelans have departed since 1999, and more than 8,000 came to the U.S. last year alone. Those who stay behind know they have little to look forward to, except the dubious comfort of knowing everyone else is just as badly off.

So take a good look at Venezuela when you want an example of what can be achieved when you set out to ensure that poor people never need look on enviously at their better-off neighbors, and when you want to vote for a leadership that will do whatever it takes to give all of society – except the leadership itself, of course – a level playing field. If you want to get an entire country to pull together as it tightens its belt, just put your nation on the Maduro diet.

Larry M. Elkin is the founder and president of Palisades Hudson, and is based out of Palisades Hudson’s Fort Lauderdale, Florida headquarters. He wrote several of the chapters in the firm’s recently updated book, Looking Ahead: Life, Family, Wealth and Business After 55. His contributions include Chapter 1, “Looking Ahead When Youth Is Behind Us,” and Chapter 4, “The Family Business.” Larry was also among the authors of the firm’s book The High Achiever’s Guide To Wealth.

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