A short note on Brazil’s present political predicament

This Wednesday, O Globo, one of the newspapers of greater audience in Brazil, leaked information obtained by the Federal Policy implicating president Michel Temer and Senator Aécio Neves in a corruption scandal. Temer was recorded supporting a bribe for former congressman Eduardo Cunha, now under arrest, so that Cunha would not give further information for the police. Aécio, president of PSDB (one of the main political parties in Brazil), was recorded asking for a bribe from a businessman from JBS, a company in the food industry. The recordings were authorized by the judiciary and are part of the Operation Lava Jato.

In the last few years Oparation Lava Jato, commanded by Judge Sérgio Moro and inspired by the Italian Oparation Clean Hands, brought to justice some of the most important politicians in Brazil, including formed president Luis Inácio Lula da Silva. However, supporters of president Lula, president Dilma and their political party (PT) complained that Moro and his team were politically biased, going after politicians from the left, especially PT, and never form the right – especially PSDB. PSDB is not actually a right-wing party, if we consider right wing only conservatives and libertarians. PSDB, as it name implies, is a social democratic party, i.e., a left wing one. However, since the late 1980s and especially mid-1990s, PSDB is the main political adversary for PT, creating a complicated scenario that PT usually explores politically in its own benefit. In any way, it is clear now (although hardcore Lula supporters will not see this) that Operation Lava Jato is simply going after corrupt politicians, regardless if their political parties or ideologies.

With president Michel Temer directly implicated in trying to stop Operation Lava Jato, his government, that already lacked general public support, is held by a string. Maybe Temer will resign. Other possibility is that the Congress will start an impeachment process, such as happened with Dilma Rousseff just a year ago. In one way or another, the Congress will have to call for a new presidential election, albeit an indirect one: the Congress itself will elect a new president and virtually anyone with political rights in Brazil can be candidate. This new president would govern only until next year, completing the term started by Dilma Rousseff in 2014. There is also another possibility in the horizon: the presidential ticket that brought both Dilma Rousseff and Michel Temer to Brasília is under investigation and it is possible that next June Temer will be declared out of office by the electoral justice.

Politicians from the left, especially REDE and PSOL, want a new presidential election with popular vote. In case Temer simply resigns or is impeached, this would require an amendment to the already tremendously amended Brazilian constitution. This new election might benefit Marina Silva, virtual candidate for REDE and forerunner in the 2010 and 2014 presidential elections. Without a solid candidate, it is possible that PSOL will support Marina, or at least try a ticket with her. A new presidential election with popular vote could also benefit Lula, still free, but under investigation by Moro and his team. Few people doubt that Lula will be in jail very soon, unless he escapes to the presidential palace where he would have special forum.

Temer already came to public saying that he will not resign. Although a corrupt, as it is clear now, Temer was supporting somewhat pro-market reforms in Brazil. In his current political predicament it is unlikely that he will be able to conduct any reform. The best for Brazil is that Temer resigns as soon as possible and that the Congress elects equally fast a new president, someone with little political connections but able to run the government smoothly until next year. Unfortunately, any free market reform would have to wait, but it would also give time for libertarian, classical liberal and conservative groups to grow support for free market ideas among the voters until the election. A new presidential election with popular vote would harm everyone: it would be the burial of democratic institutions in Brazil. Brazil needs to show the World that it has institutions that are respected, and to which people can hold in times of trouble, when the politicians behave as politicians do.

Japanese adoption

A recent article in the Economist describes the results from a study of an interesting Japanese custom. Traditionally (and according to the civil code until 1945), company ownership and leadership were passed on through primogeniture. This custom has continued to be practiced, and the study found solid evidence that family-managed companies outperform professionally managed companies. It could be argued that family unofficial training, continuity, and trust are at the root of this, but the authors find a different reason: adoption.

Japan and the US lead the world in adoption rate, but Japanese adoption is not necessarily what you would think. Over 90% of Japanese adoptions are of adults, who are usually men adopted into childless (or more specifically son-less) families for business purposes. This is also quite traditional, and since Japanese birth rates are extremely low, Japanese businessmen are likely to continue adopting talented, ambitious single men. This is often also accompanied by marriage to the daughter of the businessman (while women participate in business in Japan, they are more rarely the executives), which is referred to as mukoyoshi and combines familial with business ties.

This practice has the advantage of allowing for the trust, mutual investment, and long-term planning and teaching based on family relationship while avoiding the risk of having an unfit successor. In fact, in reading this, I am reminded of another culture’s custom of adoption: ancient Rome.

Ancient Rome also had a custom of adoption among its upper classes because of the prestige associated with old patrician family names and the incentives of inheritance laws (for a time it also served as a political means of a patrician gaining the tribuneship, as the Gracchi did). Similarly to the Japanese businessmen, adopted sons tended to excel (the earliest and best example is the Republican general Scipio Aemilianus), and it served as a method of political alliance and developing shared interest. It also became a typical method of succession for Roman emperors in the case that no son was available, a deal needed to be made between factions, or an emperor had a favored successor to whom he was not related. Adopted emperors included Trajan (adopted by Nerva as deal with the army, successful and beloved military leader), Hadrian (great builder and patron of the arts), and Marcus Aurelius (famed general and philosopher), and were generally well-reputed and effective leaders. In contrast, the sons of emperors (such as Domitian and Commodus, who were both infamously insane and harmful, or Maxentius, whose usurpation followed a blood-based claim) or blood-based successors (such as Caligula, who was blood-thirsty and childish, Nero, who was brutal and wasteful, and Elegabalus, who had was more interested in orgies than leadership).

It seems that the same potential reasons underlying Japanese business success through adoption were also at work in antiquity: emperors who were chosen and bred based on their abilities provided the continuity associated with heredity but with the advantage of meritocratic selection. This raises the question of whether this advantage has somehow been passed over by the Western world in those cases where we have avoided family-based succession in business (based on worries about nepotism and/or to gain the advantages of meritocratic selection). Even more interesting, does the adoption practice maintain the freedom of choice and opportunity found in Western careers while also conferring the ability to maintain trust and continuity that family-based succession offers?

Can we stop using Spanish for migrant services?

Before I go any further let me be clear that I am not arguing against the use of Spanish generally. Nor am I arguing against providing Spanish translations in public spaces. My concern is about the conflation of Hispanics and migrants.

I had the pleasure of being educated in bilingual classrooms during my early childhood. My entire life I have alternated between English and Spanish. When I have kids (I can dream!) I plan to educate them in both languages plus either Chinese or Japanese. I absolutely love Spanish. However I often worry that it has become too prevalent among migrant circles.

When I visit migrant groups I notice many of them have Spanish names or sprinkle Spanish slogans among their material. The worst instances of this is when ‘la raza’, the race, is used as reference to the pan Hispanic community. I can understand why they do so, Hispanic migrants probably find such gestures to be in good will and are more willing to seek help when they need it. What however of non-Hispanic migrants?

We, Hispanic migrants, often make fun of white Americans for thinking that all Hispanics (plus Brazilians!) must be Mexicans.”Guatemala? Where is that in Mexico?” Yet we fall into the same trap of thinking that all migrants are Hispanics. How must Asian or African migrants feel when they search for help but are surrounded by Spanish? It is hard enough to learn one new language, let alone two.

As I’ve mentioned before, I grew up in Los Angeles’ Koreatown. As the name suggests the area has a sizeable Korean population. I interacted with them all the time, except when it came to migrant related events. Their absence was particularly notable in services for undocumented/illegal aliens. Koreans, unknown to most, make up a significant share of undocumented migrants. You’ll rarely see them at events though. Part of it is a taboo about discussing the issue in the Asian migrant community. I can’t help but feel that it is also that we, Hispanic migrants, have made them feel unwelcome in our groups.

If migrant groups care about inclusion they should avoid the use of Spanish where possible. By the same account, can we please stop linking Cinco de Mayo and other Hispanic-linked things with all migrants. By all means have Spanish translations of your material, but also have translations in Korean, Chinese, etc etc.

Who is Jair Bolsonaro and why you should care

Since 1994, Brazilian presidential elections follow a pattern: PSDB and PT candidates are the main competitors, with a third candidate falling between the main leaders and countless dwarf candidates. Although this third candidate does not reach the presidency and does not even dispute the second round of the elections, its political influence tends to increase and its support happens to be disputed by the candidates of the PSDB and the PT. So it was mainly with Marina Silva in 2010 and 2014, and possibly will be so with Jair Bolsonaro in 2018.

After being defeated in 1989, 1994 and 1998, Luis Inacio Lula da Silva finally won the presidential election in 2002 and was re-elected in 2006. In 2002 Lula was benefited by the low popularity of President Fernando Henrique Cardoso (FHC), hurt by the circumstantial economic difficulties that the country was going through. FHC was practically absent from the campaign of his successor candidate, José Serra, apparently by common agreement of the incumbent and the possible successor. In addition, Lula and the PT had a radical change of stance that year, expressed mainly by the “Letter to the Brazilian People”. In this document Lula promised to abandon his historic struggle against free markets and to maintain the basic guidelines of FHC’s economic policy, which in the middle of the previous decade had taken the country from one of the worst economic crises in its history. The Brazilian economy left the circumstantial difficulty of 2002 and with this Lula secured his reelection in 2006. However, looking back, the arrival of Lula to the power was not accidental. Created in the late 1970s, the PT always faithfully (and not secretly) followed Antonio Gramsci’s guidelines of cultural Marxism: to come to power not by violence and also not by elections per se, but by cultural influence. This guideline guaranteed to Lula, even in the elections he lost, about 30% of the valid votes. The other 21% were electors dissatisfied (in the case of 2002) or excited (in the case of 2006) with the economic conditions of the moment. However, it is this same strategy of cultural Marxism that is now opening room for Jair Bolsonaro.

Bolsonaro is already an old congressman in Brazil, but has only really become famous in recent years. Elected for the first time in 1990, he fiercely criticized FHC’s free-market economic policy during the 1990s. In his view the then-president was a entreguista (something like a surrenderer) and the Brazilian economy needed to be protected against foreigners. Bolsonaro has also many times attenuated or even denied the fact that Brazil underwent a military dictatorship between 1964 and 1985. But what his followers (who call him Mito) really admire him for is the way he stands against political correctness, in a way reminiscent of Donald Trump. Bolsonaro became famous mainly for opposing the introduction of gender ideology as content in the country’s public schools. For this reason he is often accused of machismo and homophobia by his opponents. In recent statements Bolsonaro expresses greater support for the free market, but maintains his admiration for the military that governed Brazil in the past and a hard line against the politically correct.

Not only in Brazil, but in other parts of the world, the spell of cultural Marxism is turning against the sorcerer. When the facts refuted Marx’s economic theory (already brilliantly refuted by Mises) some Marxists, such as Oskar Lange, and more recently Thomas Piketty, sought a soft version of economic Marxism. Many others, however, took refuge in the cultural Marxism of Gramsci, Foucault, Herbert Marcuse, and others. The option was simple: instead of admitting that Marxism is not true, many Marxists decided that truth is relative. The main result of this is the identity politics that spread throughout the world. Everyone wants to identify themselves as members of minorities who are not represented by traditional politicians. It was only a matter of time before white middle-aged men began to complain that they were not represented. And so white middle-aged men have taken Britain out of the European Union, elected Trump US president and will shortly elect leaders in other countries or at least greatly annoy the globalist establishment.

Throughout the world there is a weakening of the semi-Marxist welfare state, and the same can be observed in Brazil. Important right-wing leaders have emerged in recent years, ranging from conservatism to libertarianism. In the case of Brazil, however, where the population is still largely socially conservative, there is a strong tendency towards a conservatism with which libertarians do not identify, and this trend is stopping the advance of communism in the country. Brazilians can accept Marxism in politics and economics, but they do not accept it in their bedrooms as easily. It is possible that Bolsonaro is accepting the basic premises of a free-market economy, but his main appeal is to be the most anti-Lula, anti-PT, anti-establishment and politically incorrect presidential candidate. Even if he is not elected president in 2018, or even reaches the second round of elections, Bolsonaro is already a political leader impossible to ignore.

Some ideas to guide your thoughts on health care

This post is meant to help my non-economist friends think more clearly about how we pay for health care. I’ll talk about markets, but the truth is that the American system is built of deeply bastardized markets. If our car markets worked like our health markets, most of us would walk to work. I’m trying to focus on the essential logic of the situation which is going to sound Utopian because Congress isn’t going to give us any sort of logical policy any time soon. But we aren’t going to get a logical solution until we as voters understand the logic of health care finance.

I’ve got a few big points to make:

  1. Trying to health insurance also work like charity is bound to end poorly for everyone.
  2. A single-payer system has a lot of nice features for individuals, but a lot of systemic problems.
  3. It’s fundamentally impossible to insure pre-existing conditions. Insurance is about sharing risk, not unavoidable expenses.

(This post is longer than I’d like, so thanks for your patience!)

Markets and Charity

I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: we don’t have to ruin markets to do charity.

The essence of markets is that they aggregate knowledge about the relative costs and benefits of different goods based on the preferences of the real people involved in producing and consuming those goods.

The demand side of markets provide information by giving you (as a consumer) a choice between more of something you like and more money to spend on other stuff. On the supply side they give you (as a supplier–probably of your own labor) the choice between providing more of what people are willing to pay for or having less money to buy the stuff you want. Markets crowdsource cost-benefit analysis.

Prices also give suppliers an incentive to produce things that consumers want while trying to save resources (i.e. cut costs). In other words, a price is a signal wrapped up in an incentive.

So what about fairness? The bad news is that markets are a system of “from each according to their ability, to each according to how much other people are willing to pay for the product of their ability.” (Not very catchy!) It’s mostly fair for most of us, but doesn’t do much good for people who are just unlucky (e.g. kids born with genetic defects). Here’s the good news: we can use charity alongside markets.

We can debate how much role government should play in charity some other time. For now, let’s whole-ass one thing instead of half-assing two things. We have to appreciate that interfering with markets interferes with the ability of those markets to function as sources of reliable information. It doesn’t matter how good our intentions are, we face a trade off here… unless we do something to establish a functioning charity system parallel to the health care finance system.

Single Payer

Anecdotes about the merits of a single-payer health care system are powerful because they shed light on the biggest benefit to such a system: individual convenience.

Part of the appeal has to do with the general screwiness of the American system. It’s a cathedral built of band-aids. But even in an idealized market system, a single-payer system has the advantage of not making me go through the work of evaluating which plan best suits my needs.

A single-payer system is, from an individual perspective, about as ideal as having your parents pay for it. But we don’t really  want our parents buying our stuff for us.

Single payer system sacrifice the informational value of markets (probably even more so than America’s current system of quasi-price controls). Innovation would be harder as long as new treatments had to be approved by risk-averse bureaucrats (and again, we already face a version of this with Medicare billing codes and insurance companies).

Essentially, a single payer system creates a common pool problem: each of us gets the individual benefit of being able to be lazy. But then we’re left trusting bureaucrats, special interest groups, and think tanks to keep an eye on things. It could be an improvement over the current American system, but that’s like saying amputation is better than gangrene.

Insurance

Premium = expected cost + overhead

Consider two alternatives. In scenario A you start with $150, flip a coin, and if it comes up tails you lose $100. In scenario B you get $90. The expected value of A is $100, but most of us would still prefer the sure thing.

Here’s how insurance works: You start with $150, give $60 to the insurance company, then flip the coin. If it comes up tails, you lose $100, but the insurance company gives you back $40. You’ve just gotten the sure thing. And by taking on thousands of these bets the insurance company is able to make enough money to pay their employees.

But here’s the thing: the premium they charge is fundamentally tied to that expected value. Change the odds, or the costs (i.e. the claims they have to pay for) and you’ll change the premium.

(BTW, Tim Harford did a nice ~8 minute podcast episode on insurance that’s worth checking out.)

Pre-existing conditions are the equivalent of changing our thought experiment to a 100% chance of flipping tails. No amount of risk sharing that will get you to the $90 outcome you want. You can’t insure your car after you’ve been in an accident and you can’t insure a person against a loss they’ve already realized. If you’re Bill Gates, that’s no big deal, but for many people, this might mean depending on charity. That’s a bummer, but wishful thinking can’t undo that.

If we insist that insurance companies cover pre-existing conditions* the result can only be higher premiums. This is nice for people with these pre-existing conditions, but not so great for (currently) healthy poor people. Again, charity matters needs to be part of the debate, but it needs to be parallel to insurance markets.

Covering more contingencies also affects premiums. The more things a policy covers, the higher the expected cost, and therefore the higher the premium. We each have to decide what things are worth insuring and what risks we’re willing to face ourselves. Politics might not be the best way to navigate those choices.

High deductibles and catastrophic care

Actuaries think about the cost of insuring as a marginal cost. In other words, they know that the odds that you spend $100 in a year are much higher than the odds that you spend $1000. So the cost of insuring the first dollar of coverage is much higher than the cost of insuring the 5000th dollar. This is why high deductible plans are so much cheaper… they only pay out in the unlikely situation where something catastrophically bad happens to you. This is exactly why most of us want insurance. We aren’t afraid of the cost of band-aids and aspirin, we’re afraid of the cost of cancer treatment.

For those of us firmly in the middle class, what we really need is a high-deductible plan plus some money in the bank to cover routine care and smaller emergencies. (Personally, my version of this is a credit card.) Such a plan has the added benefit of encouraging us to be more cost conscious.

A big problem with our current system is that it’s set up like an all-you-can-eat buffet. You pay to get in (your premiums) but once you’re in the hospital, any expenses are the insurance company’s problem (read: everyone else on your health plan). The logic here is the same as with pollution. When I drive my car I get the benefits of a quick and comfortable commute but I also suffer a little bit more pollution. But I don’t have incentive to think about how that pollution affects you so I pollute more than would be ideal. Multiply that by millions of people and we can end up with smog.

tl;dr

If I were trying to put together a politically palatable alternative to our current system, I’d have an individual mandate with insurance vouchers for the poor (it’s not very libertarian, and it’s far from my Utopian ideal, but I think it would be a huge improvement over what we’ve got now). I would also expand the role of market competition by encouraging high deductibles plus flexible health savings accounts.

Reality is complicated, but I’m trying to get at the fundamental logic here. We don’t have a properly functioning market system. To get there we need competition, transparency, and a populace with the mental tools and mathematical literacy necessary to understand what their insurance can and can’t do. That’s a tall order, but it doesn’t mean we shouldn’t keep trying to move in that direction.

To have a fruitful debate we need to understand what we want from our healthcare system: help for the poor (charity), convenience, and efficiency from an individual and social perspective. By trying to lump all these things together we muddy the waters and make it harder to understand one another.


*I don’t know what the deal is with the idea that the AHCA will treat rape as a pre-existing condition. Some webpages give a bunch of random tweets as evidence of this, and others call bullshit. Let’s just leave it at this: in a competitive market this would be considered terrible marketing and savvy companies wouldn’t do it. The lesson then is to keep calling companies on bad marketing, and avoid protecting politically powerful companies from market competition.

Some Comments on the Latin America Liberty Forum 2017

The Latin American edition of the Liberty Forum took place in Buenos Aires, Argentina, last week. From almost all of the addresses delivered by the speakers, the attendees could single out two main patterns. The first one: a shift from mere utilitarianism to the acknowledgement of the importance of emotions and moral values in the defense of individual liberties. In this sense, the legacy of David Hume was present and I celebrate it. Moreover, we could expect that in a few years’ time we would get rid of an argumentation exclusively articulated in terms of instrumental reason and recover a sense of a substantive raison d’être of the case for liberty.

The second pattern the audience could guess from the speeches concerns the role of education in the formation of public opinion on liberty. Almost everyone agreed on the strong influence of education over the political ideas held by the citizenship. If you look up the state of the opinion, both in academia and the general public, the rest of the conclusions will follow…

Nevertheless, I consider the importance of academia and education in the articulation of public discourse to be overestimated. After all, what educational institutions of every sorts and levels provide to their pupils are adaptive devices to get -or remain- inserted into society. All that the educational system could do to change public opinion is make marginal contributions to be achieved only in the long term.

Since the public opinion is in the short run almost autonomous, the main matter refers to where it dwells. The television? The blogosphere? The radio? The public parks? (In Ancient Rome, by the way, people were very fond of the graffitis). Perhaps it could be a combination of all of them.

They -including education- are stages of the process of production of public opinion –superior stages, to express it in Austrian Economics terms. And if one takes Austrian Economics seriously, one will have to admit that the value of the superior goods is determined by the value of the final good -and not otherwise.

Is persecution the purpose?

takentobestoned

Last week, Rebecca Tuvel, an Assistant Professor of Philosophy, had her recent article in Hypatia, ‘In Defence of Transracialism’, denounced in an open letter signed by several professional scholars (among others). They accused her of harming the transgender community by comparing them with the currently more marginalized identity of transracialism. William Rein, on this blog, and Jason Brennan at Bleeding Heart Libertarians, have written valuable defences of Tuvel’s right to conduct academic research in this area even if some find it offensive.

Events have moved fast. The associate editors initially seemed to cave in to pressure and denounced the article they had only just published. The main editor, Sally Scholz, has since disagreed with the associate editors. Critically, Tuvel’s colleagues at Rhodes College have given her their support so it looks like the line for academic freedom might be holding in this case. Without wishing to engage too much in the hermeneutics of suspicion, I think there are grounds to doubt the depth of the critics’ attitudes. I base this on my reading of Judith Butler, who is one of the signatories to the open letter arguing for Tuvel’s article to be retracted.

Seven years ago, I managed to read Judith Butler’s Gender Trouble. Although there are many variations in the movement, Butler is a central figure in the post-structuralist , non-gender-essentialist, feminism that inspires much of the contemporary ‘social justice’ movement. When I got past Butler’s famously difficult prose, I found a great deal of ideas I agreed with. I wrote up a brief piece comparing Butler’s concerns with violently enforced gender conformity to classical liberal approaches to personal autonomy. I also identified some problems.

First, Butler’s critique of the natural sciences seems to completely miss the mark. Butler associates gender essentialism with the study of genetics, when, in fact, genetics has done more than almost anything else to explore the contingency and variation of biological sexual expression in nature. The same applies to race and ethnicity.

Second, more importantly, Butler insists that there is no underlying authentic gender or sexual identity. All identities are ultimately constituted by power relations and juridical discourses. You find this argument repeated among social justice proponents who insist all forms of identity are products of ‘social construction’ rather than ever being based on natural facts. As a result, all personal identity claims are only ever historical and strategic. They are attempts to disrupt power relation in order to liberate and empower the subaltern and oppressed albeit temporarily

I don’t think this is perfectly factually true but lets accept it for now as roughly true. This means that transracialism itself might become, or could already be, another example of the strategic disruption of contemporary juridical discourses, this time about race and ethnicity. The same people currently denouncing Tuvel could very easily insist on the acknowledgement of transracial identity in five or ten years time, and denounce those who hold their current views. From their own position, which explicitly rejects any ultimate restrictions on identity formation, we have no warrant to know otherwise.

In this sense, Tuvel might not be ‘wrong’ at all, just slightly ahead of the social justice curve. And her critics wouldn’t actually be changing their minds, just changing their strategies. Meanwhile, people who actually take their identities seriously should be wary of their academic ‘allies’. They can quickly re-orientate their attitude such that a previously oppressed identity comes to be re-configured as an oppressive and exclusionary construct.

If all claims in this area are strategic, rather than factual, as Butler claims, then why try to damage a philosopher’s career over it? Why provoke an academic journal almost to self-destruct? Rather than working out which ideas to denounce, we should critique the strategy of denouncement (or calling out) itself. In that vein, much as I disagree wholly with the stance of its editorial board, I think calling into question Hypatia’s status as an academic journal, is premature.