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Wednesday, April 19, 2017

No Liberty without Justice

When G.W. Bush gave his second inaugural address, he chose the topic to be the Justice and Freedom conferred by the Constitution, and the lack thereof in other places:

"America's belief in human dignity will guide our policies. Yet rights must be more than the grudging concessions of dictators. They are secured by free dissent and the participation of the governed. In the long run, there is no justice without freedom, and there can be no human rights without human liberty."

The problem with Justice requiring Freedom, is that very often Freedom requires Justice too. How do you get to one without the other? Chicken and eggs.

So the short answer to Bret, who asks me "Is Liberty Erupting in Brazil?", is no, it is not, for we have no Justice.

When we last touched the subject here (see also the comments section), Brazil was rocked by the actions of a single judge (Sergio Moro) who started with a case of money laundering in a gas station a few miles from my home (rendering the name of the scandal: Car Wash operation), and end up with multi-billion corruption charges related to PETROBRAS (the Brazilian petroleum company) and our biggest Construction companies, siphoning off money to many politicians and parties.

Afterward, the President back then, Ms. Roussef, was impeached, and the Workers Party (PT) has been in free fall since the 2016 elections. The Vice-President, Michel Temer, did a U-turn on the leftist platform he was elected on, and a naive free-market-oriented external observer may well believe we are now in the right path: an addendum to the Constitution now forbids the growth of spending to exceed inflation rate for the next 20 years; several public programs have been reduced in size and scope (like public health system and public education); the pension system is being reformed as I type; and labor laws are being completely reviewed, with major protests from trade unions. 

Looks like the dream package for liberal reformers, so how come Liberty is not arriving?

The thing is, Brazil is not for amateurs. We have a long tradition of, as we say down here, doing things "para gringo ver" (to show up for foreigners). After all, our Elites were established by a foreign power (Portugal), and since then their business has been to show what they were asked to show - not necessarily doing it. It follows that we got our Independence blood free in the 1800's, but never our Liberty.

Mr. Temer's party (PMDB) has been in power - by giving their political force and support in Congress - since our redemocratization, in 1985, and many of its members were in power before that, during the Military Dictatorship (1964-1985), and yet even before that. It is an Establishment party. And the Establishment never gave us Liberty - why would it do that now?

I once pointed out to Bret that, though Mr. Moro was brave, the end game of his anti-corruption crusade would be our higher court, the analogue of SCOTUS, where eleven judges are appointed to by Presidents for life. Hey, what could go wrong?

I can't openly comment on the judges of this court - after all, this is not a free country - but let me say that it may have (very few) honest members (to the very limited extent of my knowledge -- legal disclaimer: for all purposes, I hereby declare I do not mean any of our judges could possibly be dishonest). Teori Zavascki, the judge assigned to oversee the Car Wash cases that touched politicians with special immunity from lower courts (which are all under present mandates), is one of those honest judges, in my limited opinion. Or he was.

Odebrecht - the biggest of the Brazilian contractors, a multi-billion company with international operations (did you notice they reformed the Miami airport, Erp?) - had its CEO (Mr. Marcelo Odebrecht) under "provisional" arrest since 2015, implicated in the Car Wash operation. It's been calculated they paid away more than one billion dollars in kickbacks throughout the last decade, for every political party and sub-relevant politician down here. In order to negotiate less prison time and fewer fines, he and dozens of executives at Odebrecht have agreed to a guilty plea, detailing all their corruption scheme and beneficiaries. Their confession was being hailed as the Mother of All Bombs (MOAB) over our political system.

On January 19, the week right before Judge Zavascki was to validate that mighty bomb, an accident happened. He took a private airplane with a rich friend, to visit the friend's beach mansion at Rio de Janeiro's coast, with a highly experienced pilot (who used to teach younger ones how to fly under coastal conditions) in a Hawker Beechcraft King Air C90 aircraft (that's for Skipper) - and, for apparently no reason known, the pilot (or the plane) failed 2 miles before the landing field, while on descent under light rain.

Accidents. They happen, sometimes more often than others. Since the Car Wash operation started, 5 high profile people with possible connections to it (as bribers or bribed) died flying private airplanes. A number of other people committed suicides, under not very clear conditions, to say the least. 

But I digress. Our Supreme Court could not stay with only 10 judges, even more so when they have such a high profile case to judge. So our President, Mr. Temer, got to place a judge by his finger there now. Mr. de Moraes, his Minister of Justice (since the impeachment a few months back) was the man. I can not comment much about him - after all, this is not a free country - but there is good evidence he, among other iffy stuff, had in his CV a few millions earned from dubious companies, and was the lawyer for one of Brazil's most dangerous mafias (the PCC). You guys get Gorsuch, we got Mr. de Moraes. He is now appointed by the President to be one of the judges who will decide on the future of the same President, and his own pals back in his days of politics.

Though Judge Zavascki's death delayed the Odebrecht MOAB for a few months - buying time for President Temer to pass his reforms, and to appoint other judges to other positions where they will lead cases that hang on Mr. Temer's head - that bomb finally came through.

As per Odebrecht's own account (and of his father, the previous CEO), they have been bribing and buying our political system for 30 years. Our 5 last Presidents - which are all since we got elections back - are implicated. As is our President now, which personally coordinated at least two meetings where he asked for Odebrecht's money (of course, in exchange for overpriced public contracts, so in the end *our* money) totalling many dozens of millions.

To be precise, Odebrecht also points his finger to 415 politicians, among them 8 present ministers, 13 governors, 36 senators (24 present ones), many dozens of congressmen (of which 39 are today in Congress, including its higher chairs). Though the Worker's Party, which had the Presidency for the last 13 years, had all its main heads involved, they are easily outnumbered by PMDB and PSDB - the main parties that granted Roussef's impeachment last year, and make up the present Government by Mr. Temer.

What's more, another legal case - aimed to cancel the election of Ms. Roussef and Mr. Temer in 2014, due to the illegal money by Odebrecht and other constructors - under our higher courts has been further stalled since Mr. Temer got the chair. He also got to indicate other judges for this court in the last few months, and though Odebrecht's bomb clearly spell out the illegal money they gave for that election, there is no sign the case will be judged anytime soon.

Though I could go on for a long while, I hope I already gave a hint of why I believe we have no Justice. And will have no Liberty, anytime soon.

But surely the economic gains by those reforms will be a step up, won't it?

I don't know. I can point out a number of holes in each of those reforms, all giving more power to our corrupt political/judiciary system, while taking away resources - some of which were well employed, notwithstanding our many problems - from the public system serving the poorest.

Will they lead to growth only for the upper class, as happened in the 70's, when our economy had two digits growth but the largest formation of favelas ever seen?

Anyway, I much doubt the very same people who made fortunes of our statism and cronyism, will be the ones to lead us, finally, to Liberty.

Friday, April 14, 2017

The Importance of Nationalism

Once upon a time, long ago in approximately 1162 AD and faraway in desolate and nearly inhospitable mountains a barbarian boy was born and named Temüjin. The first few decades of Temüjin's life were really miserable, even by the barbarian standards of his environment (which included tribal warfare, thievery, raids, corruption, revenge, and interference from neighboring powers). When he was 9-years-old, his father was poisoned and then his family was completely destitute, living off wild fruit, carrion, and whatever small game he and his brothers could kill. He was caught and enslaved when he was around 15 years old. Bummer!

That was probably the low point of his life. He eventually escaped slavery and things generally got better for him (with some ups and downs) from there. For example, during the the period starting when he was 35-years-old to 80 years later, he and his descendants conquered the world; well, not all of the world, merely the portions shown below.

Not all of the world, but in 1279 it was the largest contiguous empire ever (even to this day), totally dwarfing the Roman Empire, for example. Not all of the world, but he was an uneducated barbarian with the rather shaky start described above. Not all of the world, but he did it with the barely beyond stone-age technology of bows and arrows and horses. Think about conquering the area in the map above with just horses (my bottom hurts just thinking about it)!

Somewhere during his conquests, Temüjin became known as Genghis Khan which is how he is remembered today. Scientists estimate that 1 in 200 people are descendants of Genghis Khan, making him one of the 11 most prolific fathers of all time (9 of the 11 are unknown in history).

The horrors of nationalism and religion have been drilled into me my whole life. I've been told about all those people killed by this or that religious atrocity and this or that nationalistic war. Genghis Khan was neither nationalistic nor religious (there's no Genghisstan, for example). But he was possibly the bloodiest, most murderous person in all of history. For example, after conquering Urgench in central Asia, he slaughtered more than a million people in a mere few days. A million people represented 1 in 400 people on earth at the time. All told, the Mongol conquests killed about 10% of the people on earth. Genghis Khan might be considered directly responsible for the deaths of a larger percentage of the human population than anyone else, ever.

So why was this random barbarian able to conquer such a vast area? The pat answer is that he was a brilliant strategist and politically innovative. And that may well be true.

But I don't think that's the most important part. Genghis Khan didn't conquer any nations, not really. There simply were no nations in his path. At least not nations in the sense that if you attack even a tiny corner of the nation, millions upon millions of people will rush to their defense and drive off the attackers. Instead he just rolled through one city-state after another, none of which had an even remote chance of defending themselves. Even the most populous ones were sitting ducks.

One meme shared by progressives and libertarians is that political borders are at least somewhat immoral; that nationalism is quite immoral and responsible for many of the horrors of the last century; that eliminating nations and national sentiment would be very positive for humankind; that one shouldn't care more about someone from Mississippi than someone from Mozambique; etc. They both make similar critiques about religions.

I don't agree with those assessments. One can argue that Hitler was an insane genocidal maniac who hijacked a whole nation and caused misery nearly beyond comprehension and that if nations didn't exist, Hitler wouldn't've been able to do that. Maybe, but I don't think so.

Because, what about Genghis Khan? He was as simple as simple could be. He was simply a predatory mammal looking to extend his legacy like all (non-domesticated) predatory mammals. And he certainly succeeded. He wasn't insane. He wasn't religious. He was very tolerant of ethnic and cultural diversity:
The Mongol Empire did not emphasize the importance of ethnicity and race in the administrative realm, instead adopting an approach grounded in meritocracy. The exception was the role of Genghis Khan and his family. The Mongol Empire was one of the most ethnically and culturally diverse empires in history, as befitted its size. Many of the empire's nomadic inhabitants considered themselves Mongols in military and civilian life, including Mongols, Turks and others and included many diverse Khans of various ethnicities as part of the Mongol Empire such as Muhammad Khan.
If you crossed him, he would raze your city and murder everyone in it (except for the skilled artisans and the women, of course - how do you think 1/2% of the current day population are his descendants? Hmmm?). Very simple, really. But as long as you surrendered to him and didn't cross him, he was much more interested in your abilities than your religion or ethnicity.

There will always be people like Genghis Khan and Hitler. After all, we are predatory mammals, and some of us will simply be better predators than the rest of us.

The way I see it, nations and nationalism stopped Hitler from taking over the world. England, Russia, the United States, and others had the nationalistic fervor that drove them to stop him. It was awful, but it was stopped.

What Genghis Khan did was awful too.

And there were no nations to stop him. Only the technological limitations of the horse and bow kept him and his descendants from extending their empire even further.

If there were no nations and no nationalism, then we're essentially a bunch of city-states and the next Genghis Khan will take over the world, just like the Mongols created their empire.

Is Liberty Erupting in Brazil?

It sorta seemingly might be according to this article. Here's an excerpt:
Brazil has tried everything else. Now it seems ready to try liberty. Nothing ever goes in a straight line but the chances for real victories – privatization, tax cuts, trade reform, liberalization of health care and education and business enterprise – actually seem possible. And if not immediately, it is also clear that this movement is not going away. It is growing, even exponentially.
If true, this would be an extremely interesting development. Brazil has, after all, the 7th largest economy in the world and it's economy is about the same size as Germany, Japan, and Russia. If Brazil somehow threw off the shackles of corruption, bureaucracy, and centralized control, something big and interesting would happen - hopefully good, possibly not (and there would certainly be losers along with the winners), but big and interesting either way.

Sunday, April 09, 2017

Okay, Now What?

The NYT recently published a story on homelessness, Rights Battles Emerge in Cities Where Homelessness Can Be a Crime*

If ever there was a Gordian Knot — save for the part about simply scything through the thing — this is it.

Growing numbers of homeless encampments have led to civic soul-searching in cities around the country, from Philadelphia to Chicago to Seattle. Should cities open up public spaces to their poorest residents, or sweep away camps that city leaders, neighbors and business groups see as islands of drugs and crime?

For those on the streets — who have lost their jobs, have suffered from drug addiction, mental illness or disabilities — crackdowns on homeless camps are seen as tantamount to punishing people for being poor.

Activists and homeless residents like Mr. Russell are waging public campaigns and court fights against local laws that ban “urban camping” — prohibitions that activists say are aimed at the homeless. The right to rest, they say, should be a new civil right for the homeless.

Fair enough, as far as that goes, and anyone with a shred of empathy would be hard pressed to argue otherwise.

But that isn't nearly the whole knot.

But camps have become a particularly acute problem in the West, where soaring housing costs and a scarcity of subsidized apartments have pushed homelessness to the fore in booming towns like Seattle, Los Angeles, Denver and San Francisco.

As new clusters of tents and sleeping bags pop up along river banks, on city sidewalks and in parks and gentrifying neighborhoods, they are exposing deep divisions about how cities should strike a balance between accommodation and enforcement.

In Seattle, where violence has flared in a homeless camp known as the Jungle, beneath a freeway, there was a fierce response to a councilman’s proposal to allow the city’s 3,000 unsheltered homeless residents to camp in some parks and on undeveloped public land.

That, right there, is the rest of it. We must have sympathy for the plight of the homeless, yet we must also have sympathy for the users of parks, and those who live near undeveloped public land. After all, park users and homeowners have interests, too. The camps are dangerous their occupants and anyone who lives nearby. They bring with them a plague of trash and feces.

How have we gotten here? The Rue de Rouen. Which doesn't translate as Road to Ruin, but should. Starting in the early 1970s, the US started deinstitutionalizing the mentally ill:

Deinstitutionalization (or deinstitutionalization) is the process of replacing long-stay psychiatric hospitals with less isolated community mental health services for those diagnosed with a mental disorder or developmental disability. Deinstitutionalization works in two ways: the first focuses on reducing the population size of mental institutions by releasing patients, shortening stays, and reducing both admissions and readmission rates; the second focuses on reforming mental hospitals' institutional processes so as to reduce or eliminate reinforcement of dependency, hopelessness, learned helplessness, and other maladaptive behaviors.[1]

According to psychiatrist Leon Eisenberg, deinstitutionalization has been an overall benefit for most psychiatric patients, though many have been left homeless and without care. The deinstitutionalization movement was initiated by three factors:

  • A socio-political movement for community mental health services and open hospitals;
  • The advent of psychotropic drugs able to manage psychotic episodes;
  • Financial imperatives (in the US specifically, to shift costs from state to federal budgets)

Boiling that down to a few words, instead of warehousing the mentally ill, often in horrible conditions, we now do catch and release, often in horrible conditions. Warehousing was a disaster, so is dumping.

And while it might be tempting to point an accusing finger at heartless rightwingers who are continually disappointed at not having nearly enough poor people to step on, Europe is no shining example. There are easily enough beggars and people living rough in Düsseldorf. Not nearly as many as in Honolulu, though, which must have the highest number of addicted and mentally ill of anyplace I've ever been. Besides the congenial climate, it might have something to do with municipalities on the mainland deciding one way airline tickets were far cheaper than every other option on offer.

Instead of warehousing, we have the mentally ill and addicted destroying wherever they congregate. Instead of warehousing, we do warehousing by other means — cycling in and out of jail.

Now what?

Tuesday, April 04, 2017

Perhaps not the Whole Story

Tesla Passes Ford in Market Value as Investors Bet on the Future

DETROIT — The record pace of auto sales in the United States is slowing down, leaving investors increasingly bearish on auto stocks.

But there is one exception. Tesla, the electric-vehicle upstart, continues to surge.

On Monday, Tesla surpassed Ford Motor in market value for the first time and moved within striking distance of General Motors, starkly illustrating the growing gap in investors’ optimism over its future versus the prospects for the traditional carmakers from Detroit.

While G.M. and Ford may have strong profits and healthy balance sheets, Tesla offers something Wall Street loves much more: the potential for dramatic growth.

“Investors want something that is going to go up in orders of magnitude in six months to six years, and Tesla is that story,” said Karl Brauer, a senior editor at Kelley Blue Book. “Nobody thinks Ford or G.M. is going to do that.

No need to follow the link, take my word for it. Mystifyingly, this story didn't consume even one syllable about, oh, massive subsidies.

Among other privileges they enjoy, poor people pay rich people $10,000 a whack to drive off in Tesla Model S's.

Tesla Motors Inc., SolarCity Corp. and Space Exploration Technologies Corp., known as SpaceX, together have benefited from an estimated $4.9 billion in government support, according to data compiled by The Times. The figure underscores a common theme running through his emerging empire: a public-private financing model underpinning long-shot start-ups.

But wait, there's more:

New York state is spending $750 million to build a solar panel factory in Buffalo for SolarCity. The San Mateo, Calif.-based company will lease the plant for $1 a year. It will not pay property taxes for a decade, which would otherwise total an estimated $260 million.

And even more beyond that. Corporatism is just a less frightening word for cancer.

And the NYT is a joke, except not at all funny. One can't help but wonder how those strong profits and healthy balance sheets would look if all the government dosh was to disappear. If they would still be hunky dory, then by all means stop abusing taxpayers on Tesla's behalf. On the other, and undoubtedly much stronger hand, if removing the trough from under Musk's nose was to comprehensively crater those profits and the sheets were suddenly capsizing, then one would think that would be worth knowing.

One would think.