Much has already been said about the city of Buenos Aires’s decision to create a pension fund for retired writers. The New York Times’ article on the pension summarizes the basic facts pretty well: writers who qualify receive the equivalent of around $900 a month, about 80 writers have gotten it so far, and only a few writers will qualify for the strict standards.
To qualify for the pension, a writer must write fiction or poetry, have published five books over the course of his/her life, and must be an Argentine national, among other restrictions. There’s some room for extraordinary circumstances, but those are basically the rules of the game.
The only reason this has gotten coverage in the United States is because the move stands in stark contrast to the austerity-first mentality that seems to dominate airways these days. The New York Times’ article alludes to that angle, reporting, “The literary pensions underscore how Argentina — despite the European feel of its capital city, which evokes parts of London, Paris and Budapest in its leafier districts — currently feels like an alternate reality on some pivotal matters. As some European nations debate austerity measures aimed at curbing large budget deficits and reining in expansive welfare states, Argentina is deepening its own.”
There’s some element of truth to this: since the Kirchners first came into power in 2003, there has been a noticeable shift away from the neoliberal policies that brought upon the 2002 financial crisis and a return toward a statist model of economic policymaking. Although this was a city initiative (noticeably not backed by the city’s neoliberal mayor), the decision mimics others made by the President’s office to deepen government influence in many aspects of society.
One point that can’t be ignored is whether Argentina’s overextending its economic commitments with these types of program, considering the fact that growth has already shown signs of slowing down in recent years. There’s an element of truth to this, albeit one that’s fundamentally misguided. It’s true that pensions for writers are hardly at the top of any country’s priorities list, and it’s also true that, several years down the line, when the country faces economic troubles, it will be this sort of program that will be cut at the expense of more essential services.
Nonetheless, I commend the government of Buenos Aires for taking the necessary steps toward ensuring the protection of their vast cultural capital. I would argue that Buenos Aires is second only to New York in the list of most important literary cities in the Western Hemisphere. A significant amount of tourism to Buenos Aires relies on the city’s intellectual reputation.
This sort of pension can be seen as a sort of investment: make sure that writers will feel safe about their financial future, support their literary endeavors, watch them become famous, and enjoy your enhanced cultural reputation. And tourism is no small part of the city’s economy: when I studied abroad in Buenos Aires, many of my professors insisted that the city rebounded from the 2002 crisis in part because of the massive influx of tourism that came after the Argentine peso crashed. The city of Buenos Aires agrees.
There’s something fundamentally perverse, however, about trying to justify this sort of policymaking through primarily economic means. It might just be the Romney effect, wherein any and all government expenditures are weighed primarily by their ability to provide some sort of return on their investment. Like I said, this likely does that, but that’s a different issue altogether.
This is a fantastic move because it helps support the intellectual and cultural development of a city that takes pride in its intellectual and cultural life. It’s also a fantastic move because it will hopefully convince more people to write books, which likely means that more people will read books. An educated population is, by most accounts, a good thing – morally, culturally, socially, politically, and, yes, economically.