Brazil, 1984

Danilo Gentili, one of Brazil’s most famous and popular comedians, was convicted and sentenced to seven months of prison time for defaming Maria do Rosário, a Brazilian federal congresswoman with a suggestion that she was a whore in a YouTube video. I wrote about Maria do Rosário before here.

Danilo has been literally on the Worker’s Party blacklist for many years because of his political remarks against it. His “crime” this time, according to the official sentence, was to offend a congressperson. The same kind of defamation against a “normal” citizen would not lead him to jail. Here is what happened: in his twitter account, Danilo criticized Maria do Rosário, saying that she was a hypocrite. The reason was because José de Abreu, a Brazilian actor famous for supporting the Worker’s Party, spit on the face of a woman in a restaurant after she criticized his political positions. Abreu did that shortly after Jean Wyllys, a former Brazil congressman, spit on Jair Bolsonaro. Maria do Rosário, who always presents herself as a feminist, defended José de Abreu. Danilo commented in the case in his twiter account saying that Maria do Rosário was a hypocrite. The congresswoman sent Danilo an official congress letter asking him to delete his twits. The comedian answered putting the letter inside his paints and then sending it back, an action he recorded on video and uploaded to YouTube.

In a similar case, not too long ago, Supreme Court judge Enrique Ricardo Lewandowski threatened with jail an airplane passenger who, turning to him, said he was ashamed of the Supreme Court. Lewandowski is often perceived as defending the Worker’s Party and its interests.

Why do I so frequently write in English about Brazil? In part because I want a broader audience who doesn’t know Portuguese to know what is going on there. As far as I know, for quite some time people outside Germany or the USSR thought that they were doing pretty well. Little did they know. Also because I want to offer a counterpoint to the (more often than not) leftist media that calls Bolsonaro a far-right racist, misogynist. Finally, because I hope that people from outside who read this might engage with the cause of freedom in Brazil. George Soros and others are engaging with the cause of slavery. They count on you not caring about it.

As I wrote before, Brazilian democracy is under threat. And it is not because of Jair Bolsonaro.

School choice at the Supreme Court

Another school funding case is knocking at the U.S. Supreme Court’s door. This case, Espinoza v. Walborn, hales from Montana, where the state’s fledgling school-choice program was killed moments after it left the crib. The Court now has a chance to revive it and land a major victory for educational choice across the country.

Montana’s first school-choice law, passed in 2015, took the form of a tax-credit scholarship program. If a taxpayer donated to an approved scholarship organization, she could claim up to $150 of the donation as a tax credit. The scholarship organizations then dished out scholarships to help parents afford to put their kids through private school.

Then the Montana Department of Revenue gutted it. The Department promulgated a rule that none of that scholarship money could go to religious private schools. This basically killed the program, since the vast majority of private schools in Montana–and in most states–are religious schools.

The Department claimed that the state constitution prohibited the scholarship dollars from going to religious schools because of the state ban on indirect public aid to religious schools. This is an absurd argument. The scholarship funds are privately donated dollars–they never touch a public coffer. The fact that someone can claim a tax credit hardly means that the donation becomes “public funds” because of diverted revenue. Such an argument, extended to its logical conclusion, would mean that all money is the government’s, and when it graciously declines to tax us, that extra money of ours is in fact part of the public fisc.

Nonetheless, the government prevailed at the Montana Supreme Court. In fact, the Court did the state one better–they just invalidated the whole tax-credit program, even for the few parents who might use a scholarship to send their kids to a secular school.

It’s a terrible blow to parents in Montana trying to find some genuine variety in education. But it also gives the Supreme Court a chance to right a wrong that has been festering in education policy for well over a century. The Supreme Court should hold that barring religious schools from accessing a neutral and generally available funding program violates the Free Exercise Clause and the Equal Protection Clause of the U.S. Constitution.

The portion of Montana’s state constitution that laid the tax-credit program in an early grave is known as a Blaine Amendment, named after 19th-century Congressman James Blaine. In 1875, Blaine proposed a federal constitutional amendment that would, among other things, prohibit states from funding “sectarian” schools with public money. Blaine’s federal amendment failed, but many states passed state-level amendments to the same effect, and Congress managed to make inclusion of such amendments a condition of statehood for new states entering the union.

The history is clear that these amendments are rooted in anti-Catholic bigotry. As the United States transitioned to a public school system, public schools had a distinctly Protestant flavor (often state-endorsed or even state-forced). Catholic migrants therefore began forming and attending private religious schools of their own. The backlash was fierce, and anti-Catholic sentiment often expressed itself in hostility to Catholic schools. James Blaine’s proposed amendment was a key manifestation of this bigotry.

And the bigotry lives on today. Ironically, however, now opponents of genuine choice in education have retrofitted Blaine Amendments as a partisan weapon to combat vouchers, tax credits, and education savings accounts. Montana’s law is only the most recent victim. If the Supreme Court doesn’t grant this case and strike down these state laws rooted in religious bigotry, it won’t be the last.

Nazism: left or right? (again)

A few days ago, Brazil’s Foreign Affair’s Minister declared that Nazism “derives from the left”. Asked about his minister’s remark, president Jair Bolsonaro confirmed that he understands Nazism as a left-wing movement.

The understanding that Nazism is a left-wing movement is growing among Brazilian conservatives, especially those who support Bolsonaro’s government. On the other side of the debate, Bolsonaro’s adversaries ridiculed his remark or manifested concern with his “historical revisionism”.

Seems to me that classifying Nazim as a left-wing movement is not a Brazilian exclusivity. Political commentators from other countries (such as Dinesh D’Souza) are saying the same thing. It is probably more accurate to say that Brazilians are following a trend.

This trend, however, is not new. One of Friedrich Hayek’s main points in Road to Serfdom was to tell social democrats (who were indeed democrats in the classical liberal sense of the word) that they were closer to Nazis than they would like to admit. Hayek’s remark was as polemic then as it is now, but mainly because he is saying the truth: as Milton Friedman said, “The society that puts equality before freedom will end up with neither. The society that puts freedom before equality will end up with a great measure of both.” If I remember correctly, it was also Friedman who said that in order to obtain perfect equality more government would be necessary, which would completely undermine the desire for equality, for those in government would most certainly not be equal to everyone else.

The standard in Political Science is, of course, to call Nazim a right-wing movement. However, we see in moments like this how political and how little scientific Political Science can be. What many people observe is that Nazism shares a lot with communism: both are violent, both emphasize the collective (and not the individual), both rely on popular leaders, and so on. Of course, there are also differences: Nazism has nothing of the class-struggle so central to communism and certainly doesn’t appeal to the cosmopolitanism present in “workers of the World, unite!”.

With all that said, I have a growing feeling that there are only two political tendencies: “live and let live” and all others. Some people can’t stand the possibility of having others living a different lifestyle from them. Some people can’t stand people who disagree. Some people like to blame others. Some people truly believe that those who think and do like they do are superior to everyone else. These people come together and ask the government to force everyone else to comply.

Conservatives vs Liberals vs Libertarians

What I’m going to say here is far from original, but I believe it is worth reminding from time to time. Yes, there is a lot of over-simplification here, but bear with me! This is the difference between conservatives, liberals, and libertarians (or at least this libertarian who writes):

Gun control:

  • Liberal: Guns are dangerous! People should not have guns!
  • Conservative: From my cold dead hands!
  • Libertarians: I personally don’t like guns and I wouldn’t like to have one. But I believe that people who so desire should have the right to own guns.

Drugs:

  • Liberal: Marijuana is less dangerous than alcohol and should be legalized!
  • Conservative: Marijuana is a gateway into heavier drugs and should be prohibited!
  • Libertarian: Although I personally never did drugs and have no desire to do so, nor have deep knowledge of how particular drugs are heavier than legalized substances or not, I believe that people who want to do drugs should not be prohibited from doing so.

Foreign Policy:

  • Liberal: We have to send more foreign aid. It is our moral responsibility! And who are we to judge which nations are democratic or not?
  • Conservative: The world is a dangerous place and it is our responsibility to police it!
  • Libertarian: Although I can see that the World is a dangerous place and I feel personally obligated to do something to help those in need, I don’t believe it is the role of the government to interfere in other nations.

Labor laws:

  • Liberal: We have to protect the poor!
  • Conservative: Capitalism is God’s way of deciding who is poor and who is smart!
  • Libertarian: I feel for the poor, and I believe we should do something to help. I believe that some governmental policies predictably hurt the poor and therefore should be changed. However, I believe that helping the poor should be mainly done by individuals and independent organizations, not by the government.

Crime in general:

  • Liberal: He is a victim of society!
  • Conservative: The chair!!!
  • Libertarian: External circumstances can explain and even attenuate certain crimes, but never justify it. On the other hand, if we are cruel towards criminals, we are becoming just like them. Also, throwing people in jail is very clearly an awful and simplistic way of dealing with crime and should think of other ways of punishment, always having reconciliation as an ideal.

Economics:

  • Liberal: We need more government oversight!
  • Conservative: The market will solve everything!
  • Libertarian:

Immigration:

  • Liberal: Open the border!
  • Conservative: Build a wall!
  • Libertarian: Completely opening the borders is abandoning any notion of nation-state. Nevertheless, we should be welcoming, though thoughtful, about immigration.

Education:

  • Liberal: Your kids are mine!
  • Conservative: We need to bring prayer back to public schools!
  • Libertarian: Education is fundamentally religious and reflects the values we aim to have. Maybe the state can have a very limited role in it, but the main responsibility belongs to the parents, who likely will instill their values on the children.

Politics in general:

  • Liberal: My party will solve everything!
  • Conservative: My party will solve everything!
  • Libertarian: There are no perfect solutions, especially not through politics. Do you want to change the World? Start by cleaning your room.

Brazil’s Military Coup, 55 years later

Fifty-five years ago, in 1964, Brazilian president João Goulart was overthrown and substituted by Castelo Branco, a military president. Until 1985 the country was governed by military presidents. To this day people are still debating the coup (some even denying that there was a coup), much because the victims and perpetrators are still commanding the debate. In light of that, I’d like to offer some thoughts about 1964 here.

In 1789, only thirteen years after the American Revolution, a small group of Brazilian discontents planned an independent attempt in the region of Minas Gerais. The movement failed miserably, leaving one infamous victim, Tiradentes, who would much later be considered the patron of Brazilian independence. In the following years Brazil saw many other revolts and independence attempts, but in 1808 a significant change of events took over the country: instead of fighting in Europe a war against Napoleon he believed he could not win, Dom João VI, the Portuguese prince-regent, decided to move his capital from Lisbon to Rio de Janeiro. However, some years later Dom João had to choose between staying in Brazil or losing his crown. He decided to go back to Portugal. His son, Dom Pedro I, remained in Brazil as a new prince-regent. Legend has it that, when embarking back to Europe, João turned to Pedro and said, “make the independence of this country before someone else does.”

And he did: on September 7, 1822, Dom Pedro I proclaimed Brazil’s independence and became the country’s first emperor. His son, Dom Pedro II, would succeed him in 1840 and rule until 1889 when the monarchy was overthrown, and the republic established. Now, just imagine if the king or prince of England or Spain proclaimed himself emperor of America. Well, that’s what happened in Brazil. It seems to me that people forget how absurd this scenario really was.

Fast-forward: Dom Pedro I followed his father’s steps in 1831. He had to choose between staying in Brazil or jeopardizing his family’s position in Europe. He went back to Portugal but left his son to become emperor in Brazil. Because Dom Pedro II was still only four years old, that wouldn’t happen until almost a decade later. And so, the 1830s were a very turmoiled time in Brazilian history. The country was ruled by several regents and was about to be torn apart. This favored speeding up Dom Pedro II’s coronation. Although he was only 14 years old, his rise to power helped to heal several wounds and bring a union to Brazil. The country’s subsequent history, at least until the proclamation of the republic in 1889, was lived under the shadow of the 1830s. To a high degree the Brazilian elites were afraid that without a strong central power, represented by the emperor, the country would fall apart, much like Hispanic America. On top of that, Brazilian economy was majorly dependent on African slaves, and the same elites were afraid that the Haitian Revolution of 1803 would be emulated in their country in the absence of a strong centralized government.

These are in my view the basics of Brazilian history in the 19th century. To prevent regional fragmentation (as in Hispanic America) or a slave revolution (as in Haiti) a very strong and centralized government was established. Liberal on the surface, but very far from that in reality. I don’t question that in the absence of this choice Brazilian history might have been quite different. However, I think that it is important to notice that Brazilian political history didn’t have a very democratic beginning.

As I already mentioned, the monarchy in Brazil ended in 1889. Dom Pedro II suffered a textbook coup d’état: some economic elites colluded with the military (mostly the army) and took over the power. The first forty years of Brazilian republic were notoriously oligarchic, ruled mostly by the coffee elites of the states of São Paulo and Minas Gerais. These elites, however, tasted their own medicine when, in 1930, Getúlio Vargas took over power by force. He would be the country’s dictator until 1945.

Vargas deserves special attention, both because of his long time in power and his enduring influence. On many occasions, he has been classified as a fascist, or something close to that. Populist is also a label that has been associated with him. I prefer to label him as “getulist”. To be sure, Vargas had some resemblance to fascists in Europe and populists in Latin America, but I understand that this is mainly so because all these governments share in their anti-liberalism, centralization of power and tendency to extreme violence.

Vargas peacefully stepped down from power in 1945, only to come back (democratically elected!) in 1951. He committed suicide in 1954. The whole period of 1945-1964 was lived under his shadow. Many tried to be his successor. Juscelino Kubitsheck, president from 1956 to 1961, began his political career as Vargas’ protégé and remained faithful to the mentor until Getúlio’s death. Leonel Brizola, governor of Rio Grande do Sul (1959-1963) – Vargas’ home state – also tried to continue Getúlio’s legacy. Even more so did Brizola’s brother in law, João Goulart, president from 1961 until the 1964 coup.

Even more than Juscelino Kubitsheck, João Goulart began his political career as a protégé of Getúlio Vargas, but never achieved the political brilliance of his mentor. Jango, as he was called, was not a communist by any means. Very much like Vargas, his ideology was a confused mix of positivism, laborism, populism and any other -isms. Very pragmatic. However, above all, Jango was a fool. He was unable to understand that the World had changed. What was successful for Vargas in the 1930s could not be reproduced in the 1960s. Because of that, amid the Cold War scenario he was mistaken for a communist by some. Others, more pointedly, realized that he was too oblivion to the communist threat Brazil was facing.

Communists had been trying to come to power in Brazil (rarely democratically) since the 1920s. The Cold War only intensified this threat. After the Cuban Revolution of 1959 many feared that Brazil would be the next domino to fall.

And this is in short, the scenario in which the military came to power in Brazil in 1964. As late Brazilian economist Roberto Campos very lucidly pointed, democracy was sadly not an option for Brazil in 1964. The country had to choose between a right-wing or a left-wing dictatorship. I believe they chose correctly. The communists took power in Cuba in 1959. They are still there. The military seized control in Brazil in 1964. They pacifically laid over power 21 years after and never tried to come back. I am not saying that a right-wing dictatorship is a good solution against leftism. Anyone who reads this here is reading his prejudices solely. What I am saying is that Brazil sadly has little democratic tradition and had even less 55 years ago. Therefore, we should not be surprised that the military took over power in 1964. Surprisingly would be if things happened in any other way. I don’t celebrate the military government of 1964-1985. Just the opposite: as with so many things in Brazilian history (or in life!) it is not something to celebrate. Just to accept and live with it.

Michel Temer, Brazil’s former president, sent to jail

Maybe Brazil is trying to set a record. With Luis Inacio Lula da Silva already sentenced, Michel Temer was sent to jail this Thursday. Temer was Dilma Rousseff’s vice-president and came to power with her impeachment in 2016. Temer is now also one of the prisoners made by Operation Car-Wash, formerly lead by judge Sergio Moro, currently president Jair Bolsonaro’s minister of justice.

Temer’s party, the MDB (until recently PMDB), is known for being a centrist party with little to none ideological leanings. In many ways, it is similar to Mexico’s Institutional Revolutionary Party. In his time in power, however, Temer made a fairly good job. Although not an enthusiast of free markets, he made some reforms that Brazil desperately needs, showing that only really radical people on the left deny that free markets are the way to prosperity. The problem is that Temer’s party is too deeply entangled in private interests (as his prison shows) to go deeper into the reforms the country needs.

The left’s standard narrative is that Temer made a coup in Dilma’s impeachment. Of course, nothing could be further from the truth. Brazil leftists are more and more like members of  Flat Earth Society. Temer was Dilma’s vice-president, and this alone shows that he could not be too far from corruption.

Overall, Operation Car Wash is already one of the greatest blows against corruption in Brazilian history. To have two former presidents in jail might be bad for other countries. But in Brazil, it is a reason to celebrate. The law finally applies to everyone and anyone.

Britain’s Pornographer and Puritan Coalition

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Brexit isn’t the only ridiculous thing happening in the United Kingdom. In April, the British government is rolling out statutory adult verification for pornography websites and content platforms. This requires all adult content providers to have proof of age or identity for all their users, whether a passport or a credit card (or more ludicrously a ‘porn pass’ that Brits wishing to browse anonymously will have to buy from local newsagents). The government plans to require internet service providers to block pornography websites that are not in compliance with adult verification once the system is in place. For those with university institutional access, Pandora Blake has written a timely explanation and critique published in Porn Studies: ‘Age verification for online porn: more harm than good?’.

Technical challenges with rolling out the system have led the dominant pornography search platform owner, MindGeek, to develop proprietary solution, AgeID, in cooperation with regulators. This cooperation between the dominant commercial pornography platform supplier and a Conservative government publicly intent on restricting access to pornography might appear surprising. However, it can be explained by a particular pattern of regulatory capture identified in public choice theory as a Bootlegger and Baptist coalition. Bruce Yandle observed that throughout the 20th century, evangelical Christians in the United States agitated for local restrictions on the sale of alcohol with the avowed aim of reducing consumption but with the secondary effect of increasing demand for alcohol for illegal bootleggers. Hence both interest groups, apparently opposed in moral principle came to benefit in practice. We now have a classic British case study. In this case, MindGeek is not acting as a literal bootlegger. It intends to be fully legally compliant with the filtering regime. However, the law will block all non-compliant competitors without a comparable verification system. They can gain a competitive advantage with a proprietary technical solution to the barrier introduced by the government.

Introducing identity verification systems has high fixed costs and low marginal costs. It is costly to develop or implement but easy to scale once integrated. The larger the pornography enterprise, the more easily these costs can be absorbed without the risk that it will not be worthwhile to serve the British market. For many smaller international pornography websites, without in-house legal advice or technical expertise, it might prove uneconomical to serve British users directly. So MindGeek’s platforms could become the least-cost legal gatekeeper between small enterprises producing pornographic content and the British public. The government is raising transaction costs to accessing pornography in a way that impacts larger and smaller platforms asymmetrically and favors one dominant platform in particular.

Both the premise of this policy and its likely impact on the market for pornography is unpromising. At its most benign, this could be a characterized as a ‘nudge’ against the consumption of pornography and reducing access of inappropriate content to minors. But these limited benefits have costs for both producers and consumers. On the consumption side, it increases risks to data security and privacy because it will plausibly tie records of pornographic access to verified identities, with a clear likelihood of being to infer an individual’s sexuality from private browsing. This could represent a particular vulnerability for LGBTQ identifying individuals who live in communities where there is still stigma attached to minority sexual orientations.

On the supplier side, it takes what already appears to be a market with strong tendencies towards a winner-takes-all model, and then augments it so that a dominant platform has a legally enforceable competitive advantage over potential rivals in the market. Ultimately, it threatens to further strengthen the bargaining position of a single corporate pornography platform against the sex workers who supply their content.