A PPE pandemic reading list

I haven’t written for a while – other duties get in the way – but I’d like to suggest this reading list in Philosophy, Politics, and Economics for the present time of crisis and perplexity. The main reason is that everyone seems to be an expert in Economics, Epidemiology, and Political Philosophy these days, assuming that from “facts” we can easily derive “values” and answer the question, “what is to be done?” I think this is at best a naïve attitude and at worst the same rationalistic hubris we experience everytime a political issue is simplified and reduced to a matter of “science”. Yes, there are facts and they shouldn’t be ignored, but it’s not easy to decide what is to be done, morally and politically, in light of those facts.

The first item on the list is Leviathan by Thomas Hobbes. A classic, and a reminder that people choose all the time to sacrifice some degree of liberty in the altar of survival (or a chance to survive), but also a reminder that Leviathan may turn from friend to foe, from protector to persecutor – and there is very little we can do about it. The second item is John Locke’s Second Treatise of Government, which then explores this topic in light of the fact that civil government shouldn’t have absolute power. It makes an attempt to show us how that power can, or should, be limited within a certain sphere of responsibility. Though it’s still there to protect us.

In this time of pandemic, people feel tempted to panic. People and politicians are calling for dramatic measures, and one reason is that the use of government coercion – which, according to Locke, ought to be limited – might be necessary to force people to cooperate, for example, by staying home. This is a proposed solution to the dilemmas of collective action posed by the problem that some may “free-ride” on the rest, and, as a result, the disease will keep spreading, frustrating any attempt to slow it down. Against dramatic, desperate and, perhaps, arrogant, use of political power, and in favor of prudence and wisdom, Edmund Burke’s collection of writings from the period of the French Revolution can be a beacon of light. On the other hand, explaining the dilemmas of collective action and suggesting ways of solving them, Mancur Olson offers an insightful look at incentives and group behavior in The Logic of Collective Action.

However, the idea that government coercion is the only solution to dilemmas of collective action (such as imposing a quarantine, for example) doesn’t hold water. In fact, other economists follow Olson in saying the problem is real and challenges a strict individualist way of thinking, but, adding to Olson’s point, they also acknowledge the role of private action and sanctions in fostering cooperation. Elinor Ostrom’s Governing the Commons is a wonderful study that opens up a number of possibilities for private enforcing of collective action to preserve and promote the frugal allocation of common goods. This can be complemented by The Quest for Community, an overlooked work by sociologist Robert Nisbet, where it becomes clear that, between individuals, the state, and the market, there’s room for other associations and communities that strengthen civil society – particularly in this challenging time. Nisbet’s lesson invites liberty-loving people to reflect on whether a hyper-individualistic view of the world ends up pitting helpess individuals against Leviathan instead of offering the buffer zone of community in between. This is something Alexis de Tocqueville discussed in the 19th century.

And just for the sake of dealing with the issue that “is” doesn’t easily lead to “ought”, and that science might have facts and an explanation for them, but does not easily conduce to a proper discussion on values policy, I must finish this PPE pandemic reading list with F. A. Hayek’s The Constitution of Liberty. On Chapter 4, for example, Hayek introduces a constrast between “rationalist liberalism” and “anti-rationalist liberalism”. Rationalist liberals assume too easily that knowledge of the facts on the ground will give them what they need to re-design a society governed by reason. Hayek warns us against this technocratic assumption and offers a defence of “anti-rationalist liberalism”. Anti-rationalist liberals understand the importance of spontaneous order and of constraining power (even at a time of crisis) while prudently balancing the values of liberty and safety in light of past experience and tradition.

Three Additional readings:

Buzan, Waever and De Wilde, Security: A New Framework for Analysis (1997). In a liberal democracy, the state steps in suspending some civil liberties only if it can persuade citizens that there’s a threat that justifies it. This book offers a framework to interpret how such threats are constructed in official and non-official discourse, and to what extent this construction of a threat can be effective.

Robert Higgs, Crisis and Leviathan (2013). 25th anniversary edition. Looks at US history and how government employed crises to its advantage and the advantage of the ruling elites. In particular, security and economy related issues are dealt with.

Sanford Ikeda, Dynamics of the Mixed Economy (2002). Shows that a time of crisis might be a time for further interventionism in the economy, as Higgs (see above) suggests, but might also be a time for disintervention, as seems to be the case with part of the agenda today (FDA deregulation, etc.) This is based on Ludwig von Mises’ view that interventionist economies are not very stable and are always swinging as a pendulum between socialism and capitalism.


A History of Plagues

As COVID-19 continues to spread, fears and extraordinary predictions have also gone viral. While facing a new infectious threat, the unknowns of how new traits of our societies worldwide or of this novel coronavirus impact its spread. Though no two pandemics are equivalent, I thought it best to face this new threat armed with knowledge from past infectious episodes. The best inoculation against a plague of panic is to use evidence gained through billions of deaths, thousands of years, and a few vital breakthroughs to prepare our knowledge of today’s biological crises, social prognosis, and choices.

Below, I address three key questions: First, what precedents do we have for infections with catastrophic potential across societies? Second, what are the greatest killers and how do pandemics compare? Lastly, what are our greatest accomplishments in fighting infectious diseases?

As foundation for understanding how threats like COVID-19 come about and how their hosts fight back, I recommend reading The Red Queen concerning the evolutionary impact and mechanisms of host-disease competition and listening to Sam Harris’ “The Plague Years” podcast with Matt McCarthy from August 2019, which predated COVID-19 but had a strangely prophetic discussion of in-hospital strategies to mitigate drug resistance and their direct relation to evolutionary competition.

  • The Biggest Killers:

Infectious diseases plagued humanity throughout prehistory and history, with a dramatic decrease in the number of infectious disease deaths coming in the past 200 years. In 1900, the leading killers of people were (1) Influenza, (2) Tuberculosis, and (3) Intestinal diseases, whereas now we die from (1) Heart disease, (2) Cancer, and (3) Stroke, all chronic conditions. This graph shows not that humans have vanquished infectious disease as a threat, but that in the never-ending war of evolutionary one-upmanship, we have won battles consistently since 1920 forward. When paired with Jonathan Haidt’s Most Important Graph in the World, this vindicates humanity’s methods of scientific and economic progress toward human flourishing.Death rates

However, if the CDC had earlier data, it would show a huge range of diseases that dwarf wars and famines and dictators as causes of death in the premodern world. If we look to the history of plagues, we are really looking at the history of humanity’s greatest killers.

The sources on the history of pandemics are astonishingly sparse/non-comprehensive. I created the following graphs only by combining evidence and estimates from the WHO, CDC, Wikipedia, Our World in Data, VisualCapitalist, and others (lowest estimates shown where ranges were presented) for both major historic pandemics and for ongoing communicable disease threats. This is not a complete dataset, and I will continue to add to it, but it shows representative death counts from across major infectious disease episodes, as well as the death rate per year based on world population estimates. See the end of this post for the full underlying data. First, the top 12 “plagues” in history:

Capture disease top 12


Note: blue=min, orange=max across the sources I examined. For ongoing diseases with year-by-year WHO evidence, like tuberculosis, measles, and cholera, I grouped mortality in 5-year spans (except AIDS, which does not have good estimates from the 1980s-90s, so I reported based on total estimated deaths).

Now, let’s look at the plagues that were lowest on my list (number 55-66). Again, my list was not comprehensive, but this should provide context for COVID-19:

Capture covid

As we can see, the 11,400 people who have died from COVID-19 recently passed Ebola to take the 61st (out of 66) place on our list of plagues. Note again that several ongoing diseases were recorded in 5-year increments, and COVID-19 still comes in under the death rates for cholera. Even more notably, it has 0.015% as many victims as the plague in the 14th Century,

  • In Context of Current Infectious Diseases:

For recent/ongoing diseases, it is easier to compare year-by-year data. Adding UNAIDS to our sources, we found the following rates of death across some of the leading infectious causes of death. Again, this is not comprehensive, but helps put COVID-19 (the small red dot, so far in the first 3 months of 2020) in context:

Capture diseases by year

Note: darker segments of lines are my own estimates; full data at bottom of the post. I did not include influenza due to the lack of good sources on a year-by-year basis, but a Lancet article found that 291,000-645,000 deaths from influenza in a year is predictable based on data from 1999-2015.

None of this is to say that COVID-19 is not a major threat to human health globally–it is, and precautions could save lives. However, it should show us that there are major threats to human health globally all the time, that we must continue to fight. These trendlines tend to be going the right direction, but our war for survival has many foes, and will have more emerge in the future, and we should expend our resources in fighting them rationally based on the benefits to human health, not panic or headlines.

  • The Eradication List:

As we think about the way to address COVID-19, we should keep in mind that this fight against infectious disease builds upon work so amazing that most internet junkies approach new infectious diseases with fear of the unknown, rather than tired acceptance that most humans succumb to them. That is a recent innovation in the human experience, and the strategies used to fight other diseases can inform our work now to reduce human suffering.

While influenzas may be impossible to eradicate (in part due to an evolved strategy of constantly changing antigens), I wanted to direct everyone to an ever-growing monument to human achievement, the Eradication List. While humans have eradicated only a few infectious diseases, the amazing thing is that we can discuss which diseases may in fact disappear as threats through the work of scientists.

On that happy note, I leave you here. More History of Plagues to come, in Volume 2: Vectors, Vaccines, and Virulence!

Disease Start Year End Year Death Toll (low) Death Toll (high) Deaths per 100,000 people per year (global)
Antonine Plague 165 180 5,000,000 5,000,000 164.5
Plague of Justinian 541 542 25,000,000 100,000,000 6,250.0
Japanese Smallpox Epidemic 735 737 1,000,000 1,000,000 158.7
Bubonic Plague 1347 1351 75,000,000 200,000,000 4,166.7
Smallpox (Central and South America) 1520 1591 56,000,000 56,000,000 172.8
Cocoliztli (Mexico) 1545 1545 12,000,000 15,000,000 2,666.7
Cocoliztli resurgence (Mexico) 1576 1576 2,000,000 2,000,000 444.4
17th Century Plagues 1600 1699 3,000,000 3,000,000 6.0
18th Century Plagues 1700 1799 600,000 600,000 1.0
New World Measles 1700 1799 2,000,000 2,000,000 3.3
Smallpox (North America) 1763 1782 400,000 500,000 2.6
Cholera Pandemic (India, 1817-60) 1817 1860 15,000,000 15,000,000 34.1
Cholera Pandemic (International, 1824-37) 1824 1837 305,000 305,000 2.2
Great Plains Smallpox 1837 1837 17,200 17,200 1.7
Cholera Pandemic (International, 1846-60) 1846 1860 1,488,000 1,488,000 8.3
Hawaiian Plagues 1848 1849 40,000 40,000 1.7
Yellow Fever 1850 1899 100,000 150,000 0.2
The Third Plague (Bubonic) 1855 1855 12,000,000 12,000,000 1,000.0
Cholera Pandemic (International, 1863-75) 1863 1875 170,000 170,000 1.1
Indian Smallpox 1868 1907 4,700,000 4,700,000 9.8
Franco-Prussian Smallpox 1870 1875 500,000 500,000 6.9
Cholera Pandemic (International, 1881-96) 1881 1896 846,000 846,000 4.4
Russian Flu 1889 1890 1,000,000 1,000,000 41.7
Cholera Pandemic (India and Russia) 1899 1923 1,300,000 1,300,000 3.3
Cholera Pandemic (Philippenes) 1902 1904 200,000 200,000 4.2
Spanish Flu 1918 1919 40,000,000 100,000,000 1,250.0
Cholera (International, 1950-54) 1950 1954 316,201 316,201 2.4
Cholera (International, 1955-59) 1955 1959 186,055 186,055 1.3
Asian Flu 1957 1958 1,100,000 1,100,000 19.1
Cholera (International, 1960-64) 1960 1964 110,449 110,449 0.7
Cholera (International, 1965-69) 1965 1969 22,244 22,244 0.1
Hong Kong Flu 1968 1970 1,000,000 1,000,000 9.4
Cholera (International, 1970-75) 1970 1974 62,053 62,053 0.3
Cholera (International, 1975-79) 1975 1979 20,038 20,038 0.1
Cholera (International, 1980-84) 1980 1984 12,714 12,714 0.1
AIDS 1981 2020 25,000,000 35,000,000 13.8
Measles (International, 1985) 1985 1989 4,800,000 4,800,000 19.7
Cholera (International, 1985-89) 1985 1989 15,655 15,655 0.1
Measles (International, 1990-94) 1990 1994 2,900,000 2,900,000 10.9
Cholera (International, 1990-94) 1990 1994 47,829 47,829 0.2
Malaria (International, 1990-94) 1990 1994 3,549,921 3,549,921 13.3
Measles (International, 1995-99) 1995 1999 2,400,000 2,400,000 8.4
Cholera (International, 1995-99) 1995 1999 37,887 37,887 0.1
Malaria (International, 1995-99) 1995 1999 3,987,145 3,987,145 13.9
Measles (International, 2000-04) 2000 2004 2,300,000 2,300,000 7.5
Malaria (International, 2000-04) 2000 2004 4,516,664 4,516,664 14.7
Tuberculosis (International, 2000-04) 2000 2004 7,890,000 8,890,000 25.7
Cholera (International, 2000-04) 2000 2004 16,969 16,969 0.1
SARS 2002 2003 770 770 0.0
Measles (International, 2005-09) 2005 2009 1,300,000 1,300,000 4.0
Malaria (International, 2005-09) 2005 2009 4,438,106 4,438,106 13.6
Tuberculosis (International, 2005-09) 2005 2009 7,210,000 8,010,000 22.0
Cholera (International, 2005-09) 2005 2009 22,694 22,694 0.1
Swine Flu 2009 2010 200,000 500,000 1.5
Measles (International, 2010-14) 2010 2014 700,000 700,000 2.0
Malaria (International, 2010-14) 2010 2014 3,674,781 3,674,781 10.6
Tuberculosis (International, 2010-14) 2010 2014 6,480,000 7,250,000 18.6
Cholera (International, 2010-14) 2010 2014 22,691 22,691 0.1
MERS 2012 2020 850 850 0.0
Ebola 2014 2016 11,300 11,300 0.1
Malaria (International, 2015-17) 2015 2017 1,907,872 1,907,872 8.6
Tuberculosis (International, 2015-18) 2015 2018 4,800,000 5,440,000 16.3
Cholera (International, 2015-16) 2015 2016 3,724 3,724 0.0
Measles (International, 2019) 2019 2019 140,000 140,000 1.8
COVID-19 2019 2020 11,400 11,400 0.1


Year Malaria Cholera Measles Tuberculosis Meningitis HIV/AIDS COVID-19
1990 672,518 2,487 670,000 1,903 310,000
1991 692,990 19,302 550,000 1,777 360,000
1992 711,535 8,214 700,000 2,482 440,000
1993 729,735 6,761 540,000 1,986 540,000
1994 743,143 10,750 540,000 3,335 620,000
1995 761,617 5,045 400,000 4,787 720,000
1996 777,012 6,418 510,000 3,325 870,000
1997 797,091 6,371 420,000 5,254 1,060,000
1998 816,733 10,832 560,000 4,929 1,210,000
1999 834,692 9,221 550,000 2,705 1,390,000
2000 851,785 5,269 555,000 1,700,000 4,298 1,540,000
2001 885,057 2,897 550,000 1,680,000 6,398 1,680,000
2002 911,230 4,564 415,000 1,710,000 6,122 1,820,000
2003 934,048 1,894 490,000 1,670,000 7,441 1,965,000
2004 934,544 2,345 370,000 1,610,000 6,428 2,003,000
2005 927,109 2,272 375,000 1,590,000 6,671 2,000,000
2006 909,899 6,300 240,000 1,550,000 4,720 1,880,000
2007 895,528 4,033 170,000 1,520,000 7,028 1,740,000
2008 874,087 5,143 180,000 1,480,000 4,363 1,630,000
2009 831,483 4,946 190,000 1,450,000 3,187 1,530,000
2010 788,442 7,543 170,000 1,420,000 2,198 1,460,000
2011 755,544 7,781 200,000 1,400,000 3,726 1,400,000
2012 725,676 3,034 150,000 1,370,000 3,926 1,340,000
2013 710,114 2,102 160,000 1,350,000 3,453 1,290,000
2014 695,005 2,231 120,000 1,340,000 2,992 1,240,000
2015 662,164 1,304 150,000 1,310,000 1,190,000
2016 625,883 2,420 90,000 1,290,000 1,170,000
2017 619,825 100,000 1,270,000 1,150,000
2018 1,240,000
2020 16,514

13 Books for 2020 – What A Year!

2020 is turning into quite the publishing year.

Perhaps every year is like this and I just haven’t been paying attention before. Now, as I actively scan publisher sites and newsletters for upcoming books, there seems to be an abundance of super-interesting new stuff: how is anybody – even someone like me who does this for a living – supposed to keep up?

#1: The year began at full (or stagnating…?) speed with University of Houston professor Dietrich Vollrath‘s Fully Grown: Why a Stagnant Economy is a Sign of Success, With praise by Tyler Cowen and reviews in The Economist and the Wall Street Journaland actually a lot of good discussions on Twitter – I’m sad that I haven’t taken time to read it. Later, perhaps, on the off-chance that nothing else on this incredible lists comes in the way.

#2: Next up was Diane Coyle‘s Markets, State, and People. Coyle, the endlessly interesting public intellectual/economist and newly(-ish) appointed Professor of Public Policy at Cambridge, is someone we all should read: she manages to be controversial and still balanced, provocative but still interesting. This book, however, seems to be in line with all the other “Third Way” books of last year: Acemoglu and Robinson’s The Narrow Corridor; Raghuram Rajan’s The Third Pillar; Branko Milanovic’s Capitalism, Alone. Crowded field. As I haven’t even gotten around to her previous book on GDP yet, I imagine I’ll read that one first whenever I carve out some time for Coyle.

The curse of modernity is quickly adding up.

#3: Changing gears somewhat at least in terms of topics I have started reading Charles Murray‘s Human Diversity: The Biology of Gender, Race, and Class and it’s exactly as provocative as you might think. Delivered, however, with the seriousness of scientific investigation and a massive chip on his shoulder. Still, exactly the kind of antidote to madness that fuels a lot of my priors. I’ll write up a comment or two whenever I finish this 528-page tome.

#4: In a similar vein is the Dutch writer and historian Rutger Bregman‘s Humankind: a Hopeful History, scheduled to be released in June. As Bregman isn’t somebody that I usually agree with, I’m very excited to read this take of his, which is hopefully a mix of Paul Bloom’s End of Empathy, Ruth DeFries’ The Big Ratchet and Paul Seabright’s The Company of StrangersSort of like Yuval Harari’s Sapiens but better (and no, I’m not on Team Harari despite this excellent long-read in The New Yorker).

#5: Going back a little bit to what I think is chronologically the next book to be released (on Tuesday March 10 in the U.S., but not until April in the U.K.) is Robert Bryce’s A Question of Power: Electricity and the Wealth of NationsHaving recently written a piece on electricity generation and being into the weeds about climate change and emissions, I’m very curious about this take on electricity as a critical source for our prosperity. I hope it reads a little like an improved version of Zubrin’s best chapters in Merchants of Despair.

#6: March is also the month for Angus Deaton and Anne Case‘s Deaths of Despair and the Future of Capitalism (Amazon says it’s already out in the U.K.) Their hugely successful and highly relevant pet project for the last few years, Deaton and Case’s case(!) for how rising morbidity rates indicate a collapse of the fabric of society is a pretty standard one by now: globalization, economic inequality, the hollowing-out of tight-knit communities and the various forces that may have fueled this.

The reviews are already popping up left and right (WSJ, Financial Times) and their session was the most exciting and most talked-about at the ASSA meeting in San Diego. As I understand it, the latest findings is that American life expectancy that pesky ever-increasing number that fell in recent years, in no small part due to overdoses and opioids has recovered and is now again on the up-tick. Maybe Deaton and Case’s book will be one for an odd historic event rather than foreshadowing “The Future of Capitalism” (also, what’s up with shoving ‘Future of Capitalism’ into your titles?!).

#7: In a similar topic, Robert Putnam yes, the Harvard professor famous for Bowling Alone and the idea of social capital is back with another sweeping analysis of what’s gone wrong with American society. The Upswing: How America Came Together a Century Ago and How We Can Do It Again, coming out in June, is bound to make a lot of waves and receive a lot of attention by social commentators.

#8: Officially published just yesterday is John Kay and former Bank of England Governor Mervyn King‘s Radical Uncertainty: Decision-Making for an Unknowable Future. Admittedly, this is the book I’m least excited about on this list. Reviewing King’s 2016 End of Alchemy where King discussed his experiences of the financial crisis and the global banking system for the Financial Times, John Kay discussed exactly that: the title? “The Enduring Certainty of Radical Uncertainty.” Somebody please press the snooze button. Paul Krugman’s 4000 word review of End of Alchemy ought to be enough; I’d be surprised if Kay and King brings something new to the table in thus poorly-titled release (though, of course the fringe already loves it).

The Really Good Stuff

While the above eight titles are surely worth at least some of your time, the next five are worth all of it.

#9: I’ll begin with my two biggest hypes: Matt Ridley‘s How Innovation Works: And Why It Flourishes in Freedom, coming out May 14th in the U.K. and May 19th in the U.S. The author of The Rational Optimist and The Evolution of Everything is back with another 400-page rundown of a deep-seated and hyper-relevant topic: how do societies innovate and progress? What conditions assist it, and which obstacles prevent it? 

I expect a lot of spontaneous order-type arguments, debunked Great Man fallacies, and some Mariana Mazzucato take-downs.

#10: The second hype, William Quinn and John Turner‘s Book and Bust: A Global History of Financial BubblesSince John first told me about this book over a year-and-a-half ago, I’ve been super excited – I’m a big fan of his work and I’m looking forward to receiving my review copy in the next couple of weeks. Publication date: August.

#11: For somebody who writes about bubbles and financial markets more than most people think healthy, I’m gonna get a warm-up in MIT professor Thomas Levenson‘s Money for Nothing: The South Sea Bubble & The Invention of Modern CapitalismWhat’s with all these books on historical financial bubbles? Yes, you’re right: 2020 marks the three-hundred year anniversary of the South Sea Bubble, that iconic period of John Law in France and the similar government funding scheme in England will surely receive a lot of attention this year.

#12: Some environmental stuff at last: Bjørn Lomborg, the outspoken author and voice of reason in the climate change space announced that his False Alarm: How Climate CHange Panic Costs Us Trillions, Hurts The Poor, and Fails To Fix the Planet will be published in June this year! While possibly the least boring book on this list, the title receives lowest possible marks. What overworked publisher decided that this page-long subtitle was a good idea?!

#13: Also, Alex Epstein of the Centre for Industrial Progress and host of Power Hour (one of my all-time favorite podcasts) has been working on an update to his hugely popular The Moral Case for Fossil Fuels. As far as I understand, we’re to receive an updated and revised version in August the Moral Case for Fossil Fuels 2.0!

So. The next six months have at least thirteen pretty interesting books coming up. I imagine there are a bunch more for the rest of the year and a few I have completely overlooked.

Also, after this burst of links, Amazon should probably offer Notes On Liberty an affiliate program.

In sum: you can see my fields of interests overlapping here: (1) financial history and financial markets; (2) environment, climate change, and its solutions; (3) Big Picture society stories, preferably by interesting or quantitatively savvy authors. Not enough on the fourth big interest of mine: (4) money and monetary economics – particularly in historical contexts. Perhaps not, as David Birch’s Before Babylon, Beyond Bitcoin is on my desk, and I’m currently re-reading William Goetzmann’s Money Changes Everything both first released in 2017.

Also: the absence or underrepresentation of women (or ethnic minorities or any other trait you care a lot about) might disturb you: 2 out of 17 authors women (4 out of 27 authors mentioned) Needless to say, it must be because I’m sexist.

Post-script: Ha! As I just heard about Stephanie Kelton‘s upcoming book The Deficit Myth: Modern Monetary Theory and the Birth of the People’s Economy, I’m gonna quickly add it to the list and satisfy both of my qualms above: not enough women (now: 3/18 authors!), and not enough monetary economics. Splendid!

Happy reading, everyone!

That day when the communists tried to seize power in Brazil

On March 31, 1964, the military seized power in Brazil. Between 1964 and 1985, five generals assumed the presidency of the country. The period is generally called the Military Dictatorship. Although it ended more than 30 years ago, this period is still influential in Brazil’s political environment. A part of the Brazilian right still praises the military regime as a golden period in Brazilian history. A part of the left still condemns the regime as the darkest period in our history. Jair Messias Bolsonaro, the current president of the republic, is an admirer of the military regime and considers that not only was this necessary but also beneficial for the country. Dilma Rousseff, the former president impeached in 2016, was an urban guerrilla during the military regime and as far as I know, she has never publicly regretted this episode of her biography. Hardly a week goes by without the mainstream media and left-wing observers warning that Bolsonaro intends to strike a blow and reinstitute the dictatorship. Although the military regime was undoubtedly striking in the Brazilian reality, I would like to remind you today that Brazilian history did not begin in 1964.

1935. Brazil is governed by President Getúlio Vargas. Vargas came to power in 1930 through a coup. Defeated candidate for the presidency that year, he did not accept the result of the elections and with the support of the army, he took the power. Vargas was provisional president until 1934 when he was indirectly elected by Congress to remain in office. Vargas is pressured on the one hand by Integralistas, a group with fascist characteristics, and on the other by the Communist Party of Brazil. Faced with this scenario, with support from the USSR, the communists led by Luiz Carlos Prestes decided to take power by force.

The attempted coup took place between November 23 and 27, 1935. Low-ranking leftist militaries revolted in barracks in several cities in the country, including the capital Rio de Janeiro. The military who participated in the coup attempt believed that the working class would support them. The Communist International, in particular, saw Brazil as a “semi-colonial” society, in which a revolt against the government would be enough to lead the population to a spontaneous upheaval. That’s not what happened. The coup d’état had no expressive support from the population and the revolutionaries were soon defeated by legalistic forces.

The consequences of the coup attempt were dire. Luiz Carlos Prestes could not accept that his movement had simply been poorly organized and that the population did not support communism. There had to be a culprit. Prestes decided that it was the fault of Elza Fernandes, code-named Elvira Cupello Colonio, then about 16 years old. Elvira joined the group of communists of the 1930s under the influence of her boyfriend, Antonio Maciel Bonfim, code-named Miranda, general secretary of the Brazilian Communist Party. Prestes suspected that she was a police informant and decided that she should be killed. Elvira was murdered by strangulation on March 2, 1936.

In response to the coup attempt, Vargas hardened his regime, effectively becoming a dictator in 1937. The entire period from 1930 to 1964 would be deeply influenced by him.

After 1935, the Brazilian army became progressively more anti-communist, culminating in the 1964 coup.

There is no doubt that the leaders of the movement were paid (and very well paid) by the Comintern. There is no doubt that they were aided by foreign spies, mostly Europeans.

I don’t want to fall into the Tu quoque fallacy here, but my experience is that Brazilian leftists hardly remember the country’s history before 1964. Many criticize the anti-democratic character of the regime that was established in the country that year. Many denounce that the 1964 coup was carried out with US support. But I don’t remember many leftists making similar criticisms to the 1935 coup attempt.

I don’t want to be unfair. I have friends who identify themselves as leftists and who value democracy. But I must say: socialism can start democratic, but it inevitably leads to dictatorship. This is the only way to have their plans realized. People don’t seem to have learned that in Brazil. Or in other parts of the world.

Brazil, the country of Carnival (?)

Maybe for most English speakers it isn’t even known, but we are in the Carnival week. Carnival is a festive season that occurs before the liturgical season of Lent. The main events typically occur during February or early March. It typically involves public celebrations, including events such as parades, public street parties and other entertainments. I’m unashamedly taking some elements from Wikipedia here to try to explain it. It is basically equivalent to Mardi Gras. Carnival (or Carnaval, as we say it in Portuguese) is a big thing in Brazil. Or maybe not. That’s what this post is about.

Carnival is a Christian feast, at least in its origin. It occurs right before lent. Lent is the forty days that antecede the Passover. The idea was that people would fast (at least to some degree) during the forty days of lent. Therefore, Carnival was the last opportunity for forty days to indulge in some pleasures of the flesh. Carnival literally means “remove meat”, from the Late Latin expression carne levare. “Farewell to meat” is another possible translation. However, carne is not solely meat in Latin; it also refers to the flesh, especially in the Christian association between sin and flesh. Carnaval, therefore, is the feast of the flesh – taken literally or not. At least in Brazil, to my knowledge, the relationship between Carnival, Lent and Passover is little known. I believe that most people just take it to be a major party that happens sometime between February and March.

Brazil is popularly known as the country of Carnival, Samba and Soccer. Of these three, I kind of like the last one. Not so much the first two. To my knowledge, Carnival has always been very popular in Rio de Janeiro, at least since the early 19th century. At that time, it was known as Entrudo, a celebration in which mostly people throw water on one another, like in a water balloon fight. However, there were some improvements: people started throwing some liquids other than water if you know what I mean and that even at strangers. The party was also an opportunity for slaves to poke on their masters. Carnaval eventually became associated with the slaves’ African culture, and I suppose that’s how the Christian origins were somewhat lost. Today, Carnaval in Rio is strongly associated with Samba music.

I haven’t done a very scientific research for this, but to my knowledge, most people in Rio actually don’t like Carnaval. Carnaval is a street party, with all that comes with it: people leave tons of trash behind; people get drunk, and often violent; the music can get really loud and sometimes going on for hours, even into the night. Given the specific nature of the festival, there are people having sex on the street and other things happening as well. It is hard to say this without sounding moralistic, but the thing is that Carnaval ends up being the most anti-libertarian thing one can imagine. If “don’t do onto others what you don’t want to be done onto you” is the golden rule we’re trying to put into practice, Carnaval is the undoing of this.

In the late 19th century, some authorities already realized that the festival was getting out of control and tried to organize it somehow, mostly to no avail. But things really got out of control in the early 20th century. Coming out of the monarchy, Brazilian intellectuals were dedicated to the task of identifying the Brazilian identity. Sérgio Buarque de Holanda made a huge contribution to this with is Roots of Brazil (Raízes do Brasil), in which he said that Brazilians had a hard time understanding and applying the impersonal relationships necessary for a modern capitalistic society. Another major contribution in this conversation was done in 1933 by anthropologist/sociologist Gilberto Freyre in his book Casa-Grande e Senzala (English: The Masters and the Slaves). In this book, Freyre argued that the Brazilian national identity was the result of miscegenation (both biological and cultural) between masters and slaves.

On the one hand, I want to say that Freyre’s argument was revolutionary because he was saying that Brazilians were not an “inferior race” because of race-mixing. Just the opposite: Brazilian culture was permeated by highly positive elements exactly because of miscegenation. Consider that Freyre was saying that in the 1930s, when race-mixing was still a major taboo in the US, not to mention Nazi Germany. But on the other hand, I believe that Freyre contributed to a movement that gave up trying to “civilize” Brazil.

The topic of civilization is always a polemic one because it implies that some cultures are superior to others. I don’t want to go that way. But I also don’t want to be a cultural relativistic. Some cultures are superior to others in some aspects. There is nothing culturally superior in leaving tons of trash in the streets after a street party. There is nothing culturally superior in imposing your music taste on others. There is nothing superior in imposing your take on sexuality on others.

In the late 19th century, some authorities were trying to organize Carnaval in Rio de Janeiro because things were getting out of control. In the early 20th century, most authorities gave up that enterprise because they decided that Rio de Janeiro (and Brazil) is that “mess”. Instead of trying to correct the bad aspects of Carnaval, they decided to celebrate it as the very essence of Brazilian culture. Eventually, into the 20th century, Carnaval became a great example of panem et circenses policy.

I understand that in the early 21st century more and more people in Brazil are getting sick and tired of Carnaval, and that has some connections with politics. Typically (though definitely not always) people on the left want to celebrate Carnaval. People on the right typically (though definitely not always) don’t want to. Some people on the left are already saying that Bolsonaro’s government represents the taking over of government by Christian fundamentalists. I doubt. They may be right at a very low degree. But for the most part, what is happening is that Brazil is too diverse for a single project of nation to work for everybody. Ironically Gilberto Freyre was right: we are the result of this mixture, and this is not a bad thing. People only need to learn to respect the opinions, tastes and preferences of the other elements in this mix.

Edge of Democracy in Brazil?

The past few days Brazilian internet was packed with commentaries about The Edge of Democracy (Portuguese: Democracia em Vertigem), a 2019 Brazilian documentary film directed by Petra Costa that was nominated for Best Documentary Feature at the 92nd Academy Awards (and lost). To be honest, I didn’t watch this movie and I’m not planning to. My life is already quite busy as it is. However, judging by the trailer and by what people were saying, “The film follows the political past of the filmmaker in a personal and intimate way, in context with the first term of President Lula until the events leading to the impeachment of Dilma Rousseff, analyzing the rise and fall of both presidents and the consequent sociopolitical crisis that swept the country. The arrest of Lula paved the way for the rise of Jair Bolsonaro and his eventual presidency” (from Wikipedia). Vox says this: “Filmmaker Petra Costa grew up in a politically involved family in Brazil, and that’s her starting point for The Edge of Democracy, in which she traces recent developments in Brazilian politics and shows how the country moved so quickly from a fledgling democracy toward far-right authoritarianism”. So, it seems to me that the movie is about how Brazil was becoming a vibrant democracy under the rule of the Workers’ Party and now it’s becoming a far-right autocracy. Judging by that, these are some thoughts on how I see democracy in recent and past Brazilian history.

Brazil was a Portuguese colony, but this was different from America being an English colony. There were not thirteen colonies in Brazil. Portugal’s oversight of Brazil was stronger than England’s over America. There was basically no space for local rule in Brazil. Therefore, Brazil came from its colonial days with basically no self-government experience.

Brazil became independent from Portugal in 1822. But again, this was different from America’s independence. In 1808 the Portuguese royal family came to Brazil, running away from Napoleon. Brazil became a United Kingdom with Portugal in 1815. Dom João VI, the Portuguese king, gave in to the court’s pressure and went back to Portugal in the early 1820s. However, he left his son Dom Pedro I as prince regent in Brazil. And at this Pedro declared Brazil’s independence in 1822.

Dom Pedro I was crowned as Emperor of Brazil and ruled until 1831. Suffering multiple pressures, he went back to Portugal like his father before him. From 1831 to 1840 Brazil was ruled by several regents. In 1840 Dom Pedro I’s son, Dom Pedro II, became emperor. He ruled until 1889, when he was deposed by a military coup.

Brazil has been a republic ever since, but not like America. We didn’t simply have presidential elections every four years. The first two Brazilian presidents were virtually military dictators. Civilians came to power in 1894 and ruled until 1930, but these were not exactly democratic times. Mostly the country was ruled by coffee oligarchs.

The last of these coffee planter presidents ruled until 1930. Then Getúlio Vargas came to power in a coup. He ruled until 1945. Vargas was deposed but continued to be a major political player. So much so, that he came to the presidency in the 1950s. He committed suicide in 1954, while still in office. Basically, the country was still under Vargas’ shadow from 1945 to 1964. And that’s when the military came to power.

Brazil was under military governments from 1964 to 1985. This is the historical period that people tend to remember and refer to the most. The military came to power because the population asked them to. There was a great fear of communism, and the army would theoretically defend Brazil against this. I am not saying that this fear was justified or that military governments was the right solution, but this is how most people thought at that time.

The last military president surrendered power in 1985. Since then, Brazil has been ruled by civilians. The Workers’ Party (or Partido dos Trabalhadores, PT, in Portuguese) became one of the most competitive political forces in Brazil in this period. Officially founded in 1980, it always had Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva as one of its main leaders. The Workers’ Party always presented itself as broadly leftist, without further specification. Among its founders were sympathizers of Roman Catholic Liberation Theology, radical socialists who defended armed opposition to the dictatorship, and union workers (Lula among them).

Lula was presidential candidate in 1989, 1994 and 1998, always coming in second place with about 30% of the votes. During those years Lula and the Workers’ Party were radically opposed to the economic reforms Brazil was going through. Like in other countries, Brazil was suffering from the crumbling of years of populism. The Washington Consensus was the order of the day, but the Workers’ Party was against everything it called “neoliberalism”. “Out with FHC (Fernando Henrique Cardoso, Brazil’s president from 1995 to 2002) and the IMF” was their usual chant. The party even defended not paying Brazil’s staggering international debts. Lula still hung out with socialist leaders, mostly Fidel Castro. However, in 2002 he presented a different platform. Advised by advertising professional and political strategist Duda Mendonça, he announced that, if elected president, he wouldn’t undo FHC’s economic reforms. Plagued by several international economic crises (Mexico, Asia, Russia, Argentina), Brazil was having a hard time entering the free-market world. The once highly popular FHC came out from office with low popularity. The combination of these factors (FHC’s low popularity at the time and Lula’s promise to pursue a less radical path) opened the way for the Workers’ Party to come to Brazil’s presidency.

In the first years of his government Lula was true to his promise. He not only maintained but deepened FHC’s economic reforms. After the initial shocks, Brazil slowly reacted to the free-market medicine and the economy started to grow. This guaranteed Lula’s reelection in 2006, although by then major corruption scandals already surrounded his presidency, centrally the Mensalão scandal. This scandal broke in 2005 when it was discovered that the Workers’ Party gave monthly payments to several deputies from other parties to vote for legislation that was favored by the ruling party. Although the investigations implicated some of Lula’s closest allies, the president himself managed to get off scot-free.

Lula’s second term in office marked a change from the first and even from his party’s historical stand up until then. The Workers’ Party since its inception always posed as a firm adversary to corruption. Political corruption is hardly something new in Brazil. Going back to the beginning of this text, one of Brazil’s historical problems has always been the difficulty of separating public and private. This was ironically famously observed by Raymundo Faoro, one of the Workers’ Party initial supporters. In Donos do Poder (Owners of the Power) Faoro observed that Brazil has always been led by ruling elites who saw public property as their property. In this scenario the very idea of corruption becomes fuzzy since ruling elites believe they are not stealing – they are simply using what is rightly theirs! It is against this scenario that Faoro and others proposed a technocrat professional bureaucracy. After the Mensalão scandal, however, the Workers’ Party became cynical towards corruption. Their usual response to it became to say that previous governments also did it, that they didn’t invent corruption or simply to say that Lula was an innocent man being politically persecuted by the elites. In sum, Workers’ Party officials and supporters were divided between those who, while not denying the veracity of the corruption scandals, tried to minimize it, and those who completely denied it.

Lula left his second term in office still high on popularity. So much so that he was able to elect his successor, Dilma Rousseff. Dilma, however, would face several difficulties in her presidency. Number one, although somewhat forgotten by the general public, the corruption scandals were still a reality that would surface every now and then. Second, Brazil was suffering the effects of the 2008 world economic crisis. Finally, Dilma was herself a shamefully inept leader.

As I mentioned before, Lula came to power in 2003 mainly because he and others in the Workers’ Party were able to (partially) come to terms with the fact that the Washington Consensus is called a consensus for a reason: as much as some things in political economy are debatable, some are not – centrally, you can’t spend money that you don’t have forever. Dilma would have none of that. Although she is famously very confused in the way she speaks, all things point to the fact that Dilma is trapped in a painfully outdated Keynesian mentality. Trapped in this mentality, she overspent – against Brazilian law. For this reason, she was impeached.

Dilma’s impeachment was followed by a short government of her vice-president, Michel Temer, and now the country is governed by Jair Messias Bolsonaro. Bolsonaro was for many years an obscure politician from Rio de Janeiro, elected mostly to corporately defend the military as workmen. Almost an unofficial union leader for soldiers. Bolsonaro, however, is also an admirer of the Brazilian army in general. He graduated from Academia Militar das Agulhas Negras, something akin to West Point. As a reformed army captain, he fiercely believes that the military did save Brazil from communism in the 1960s. As I mentioned before, that’s exactly what people in the 1960s believed. I’m not saying that they were right.

Ironically, leftists greatly benefited from the military governments of the 1960s-1980s. The guerrilla in Brazil’s countryside was crushed by the armed forces and the urban armed resistance was mostly weak and disorganized. Some important leaders in the Workers’ Party came precisely from these two. But Brazilian armed forces were shamefully unprepared to fight a cultural war. While some sectors of the left were still following Mao Zedong or Che Guevara, trying to reach power by force, others were reading Gramsci and the Frankfurt School, following a more cultural path to power.

In any case, the left was very good at posing as victims. In the years that followed the military governments, there was a tendency to romanticize the resistance. Some people, artists and politicians, made whole careers on that. To be “persecuted by the dictatorship” became a major asset.

But the truth is that Brazilian left never fought for democracy. This isn’t meant to depreciate them. It’s just a statement of fact. Actually, what I meant in the first paragraphs was to show that Brazil has a very weak democratic tradition. Beginning very early in the 20th century, shortly after the Russian Revolution, communists tried to take power in Brazil by force. Again, this is just a statement of fact. This continued up to the early 1960s when, fueled by Cold War fear (some might say paranoia, I don’t really mind), people begged the armed forces to take power. Has it not lasted for so long, the military governments would probably have been long forgotten or taken as something positive. But because they lasted for so long, the left was able to play its cards and pose as democratic victims of an authoritarian regime.

And this is, I believe, how we come to 2020. Bolsonaro has, I believe, a wrong idea about the military governments. Even if they were truly necessary to avoid a communist coup, they shouldn’t have lasted for so long. Besides that, the military presidents had their ups and downs in how they governed the country. Bolsonaro mostly can’t see that. The left, on the other hand, romanticizes the dictatorship. Some of them seem to actually believe in the lie that they were fighting for democracy. They were not. Had they won the war against the military forces, Brazil would have become something akin to Castro’s Cuba or Mao’s China. Had the military not won against the guerrillas, Brazil would have something akin to Colombia’s FARCs.

In sum, Brazil is still trapped in things that happened in the 1960s. Socialists, of course, wanted a big state. That’s basically their ideology. Ironically, in order to fight that, the military built an equally gigantic state. Petra Costa’s family got rich, fabulously rich, during the military governments. Today her family has contracts with the Workers’ Party. Some things change, but others remain the same: some people don’t care if governments are red or blue. All they care about is the green of the dollars. And a smaller state would be bad business for this kind of people.

Sunday Poetry: Halal Cookery by the SS

First of all: Happy New Year Peeps!

I am trying my best to get some routine in blogging by sticking to this series. However, I do not know if I can still pull it off during the upcoming finals. We will see.

This week’s Poetry is less poetic yet very much informative (at least to me). David Motadel in his book “Islam and Nazi Germany’s War” reconstructs the bizarre relationship between Nazi Germany and Islam (and thus sheds light on another Myth of the Nazi Regime). What sounded completely counterintuitive to me, was this short passage on the halal cookery courses organized by the SS:

“In the end, both the Wehrmacht and the SS also took Islamic food regulations into consideration. In his instructions of 1942, Niedermayer ordered to ensure that the dietary requirements of Muslim soldiers, especially the ban on pork, were respected. Similar instructions were issued for Arab Wehrmacht soldiers. The SS went even further here. In July 1943, Himmler personally instructed Berger to find out “what Islam prescribes to its soldiers with regard to food” and added that he wanted to ensure that religious rules were observed. Shortly afterwards, Berger informed Himmler that the soldiers were not allowed to eat pork or drink alcohol. The Reichsführer-SS reacted promptly and ordered: “All Islamic members of the Waffen-SS and the police are granted as an unbreakable special right that, in accordance with their religious rules, they are never given pork as well as sausage containing pork and never alcohol to drink. An equally valuable diet is guaranteed in any case.” The SS even organized halal cookery courses near Graz.”

I wish you all a pleasant Sunday.