Tag Archives: Politics

Why Democrats Should Campaign in Texas: Voter Turnout Opportunity

The United States has the dispiriting claim to having one of the lowest voter turnout rates of any developed nation. Part of the reason for that is that our archaic First-Past-The-Post electoral system discourages people in certain regions, be they counties, districts, or entire states, from showing up because thy think that their vote doesn’t matter. If you are a socialist in Wyoming, or a moral conservative in San Francisco, why indeed bother turning up to the polls? To what extent, if at all, however, are people using hard numbers when determining how much their vote is worth? Equally important, to what extent are campaign organizers and Get Out The Vote (GOTV) activists examining where their efforts to increase voter participation are best spent?

Christian Smith and I reviewed voter participation data from the most recent presidential election and we came up with a “voter turnout opportunity” score for each state (we would have liked to do it per county but weren’t able to find that data consolidated anywhere). A state’s turnout opportunity is calculated by taking the ratio of eligible non-voters to the margin of victory, and then scaling that value by the proportion of total electoral votes granted to that state. It is designed to capture how worthwhile it would be to focus energies on GOTV strategies in that state. A high turnout opportunity implies that one would only need to convince a relatively small number of those voters who stayed at home to come out and vote in order to flip the entire state and garner all it’s electoral votes.

$$TurnoutOpportunity = \frac{EligibleNonVoters}{MarginOfVictory} \times \frac{ElectoralVotes}{538}$$

Voter Opportunity By State


The top five ‘turnout opportunity’ states are perhaps unsurprising: Michigan, Pennsylvania, Florida, Wisconsin, and New Hampshire are among the known ‘swing states’ in US elections, so it makes sense that that is where a potential voter has the most electoral power. After that, however, we see some not so obvious candidates for targeted GOTV strategies. Texas comes in at number 6. A very interesting result from the 2016 election that got sort of drowned out amidst the Trump-mania was that Texas saw a rather substantial shift in favor of the Democrats. Although the state still went red, the margin of victory dropped from 16% to 9%. Moreover, with a turnout rate of 43.2%, Texas had the second lowest voter participation of all 50 states (only Hawaii is lower). For every 10 eligible voters who did not vote, Democrats needed only convince one of them to show up to vote Democrat, and Texas would have gone blue. Given the sheer size of the state, and the number of people who did not vote, Texas should be under serious consideration as a potential target for voter turnout opportunity in future campaigns. Arizona comes next, and it too exhibited a sizable shift towards being Democratic in 2016 – it’s margin dropped from 9% to 3.5% making it now a bona fide swing state. For comparison, the margins of victory in Ohio and North Carolina (both obsessed over by the media as ‘battleground’ states in the election) were larger than that of Arizona’s. Again, however, in part precisely because it is not considered a swing state, turnout in Arizona, at 48.9%, is substantially lower than the national average 54.7%. This makes it a much more attractive opportunity for someone looking to focus on voter turnout strategies. A similar story can be told about Georgia (margin of victory 5.1%, voter participation 52.6%).

Democrats tend to lose when voter turnout is low. Referring to certain states as ‘swing states’ just because of historical precedence ignores opportunities to win in other places, and compounds the injury by discouraging people in those non-swing states from showing up to vote at all. Looking at the data can inform us where and how to deploy certain campaign strategies and also help convince people who might have thought otherwise that their vote really is meaningfully important.

A Scandal in Brasilia

It’s just as well that the Brazilian national football team is enjoying a resurgence of successes after their abysmal performance at the Copa America. The ‘seleção brasileira’, under new management from Tite, became the first team in the world to qualify for the 2018 world cup in Russia next year – providing a much needed source of national pride at a time when the country is being subsumed in political scandal and economic disaffection. One wonders if President Michel Temer must not regret weaseling his way into power now that he sees the headache it brings. Eight of his ministers have been named in the latest round of the Lava Jato graft probe, which continues its long march to clean out the Augean stables of political power in Brasilia. Temer has already lost one top cabinet member, Romero Juca, who was forced to resign just two weeks after the new president took over following the release of a recorded phone conversation in which Juca can be heard stressing the need to topple then President Rousseff from power in order to “stop the bleeding” from the Lava Jato investigation. Dilma seized on this as definitive proof that her impeachment was plainly a clandestine coup by political opponents, but nothing much came of it and Juca, though out of the cabinet, was able to return to his senatorial post in the Congress.

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Brazil in crisis: A special Rio edition

Having left Brazil myself several weeks ago, I had thought I wouldn’t blog again about it, but a recent string of shocking events compels me to revisit the matter. Rio de Janeiro, the city in which I lived, has in particular featured prominently in the turmoil. I thought I’d focus there in this blog post and then, in the next, pan out to give a broader view of what’s going on across the country.

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Letter to Speaker Ryan

I sent the below letter to Speaker Paul Ryan on January 29th, 2017, in response to Trump’s executive order on immigration.

Speaker Ryan,

I am writing to you today as a U.S. citizen to express my strong opposition to Executive Order 13769, issued by Donald Trump on Friday, which would impose a 90 day ban on nationals from seven predominantly Muslim countries (Libya, Iran, Iraq, Somalia, Sudan, Syria, and Yemen) from entering the United States, as well as indefinitely suspending the Syrian Refugee program.

President Trump claims the enactment of this order is driven by a concern for national security. Given that you, Speaker Ryan, have on more than one occasion described yourself as a ‘policy wonk’, I thought you might be interested in some of the numbers pertinent to this issue. According to the Cato Institute, a libertarian think tank, between 1975 and 2015, the United States admitted over 3.25 million refugees, of whom only three ended up committing attacks that killed Americans. During the same period, our country granted protection to over 700,000 asylum seekers, of whom again only three would go on to perpetrate deadly terrorist attacks. Perhaps most importantly, of those combined six people, exactly zero hailed from countries targeted by President Trump’s ban. As justification for the draconian measure, Trump made reference in the text to the attacks on September 11, 2001, but again, none of the perpetrators of that horrific attack were from the countries mentioned above. It therefore beggars belief that this order arose out of a concern for the safety and security of Americans.

The chances of being killed by a foreign born terrorist is approximately 1 in 3.6 million. To put that figure in perspective, the odds of being killed by lightning are four times as high.

I work as a software engineer and I know of at least one tech conference (jsconf.eu) which has had to revise its schedule (and may even have to cancel its program entirely) as a result of this executive order. I suspect more will follow. What this means is less collaboration, less sharing of knowledge, and ultimately a diminished ability to solve the key engineering problems facing our country today. As a strong advocate for entrepreneurship and small business, you must appreciate the adverse effects this poses for economic growth.

Of course, mere economic disruption, though important, pales in comparison the very real distress and panic now visited upon the many many families who have loved ones now abroad and must wonder if and when they will be able to see them again. Allowing such a discriminatory and draconian order to go into effect is therefore not just imprudent but morally repugnant.

I urge you to do everything in your power, both in your capacity as Speaker of the House and as personal confidant of the President, to reverse this order, and replace it with a more sensible and moral immigration policy. Failing that, I ask that you provide a clear justification for your support of this order, since based on my arguments above, national security simply cannot logically be the driving factor.

Thank you for taking the time to read this.


Rory MacQueen

Underground Trump

Donald Trump’s peculiar way of speaking has amused and alarmed an entire nation since the day he began his campaign. While his supporters see his eccentric rhetoric as a breath of fresh air from the robotic, pre-scripted screeds of experienced politicians, others regard it as at best the ravings of an idiot and at worse offensive and hateful word vomit. Both sides will surely agree that it is different, in a bizarre, surreal way that they can’t quite describe. By the end of a Trump speech you are left wondering what on earth you just listened to, and how such a stream of consciousness could emanate from one person.  Lots and lots of attempts have been made to imitate the Donald’s ramblings, some more successful than others, but no one seems to have been able to capture the circuitous, nigh schizophrenic nature of it, which can almost mesmerize the listener. Until now!

It was only when I started reading some of Trump’s speeches – something I would encourage everyone to do, since by reading you escape the showmanship and the theatrics, and get a distilled version of what is actually going through his head – that I began to have the niggling sensation that his mannerisms were distantly familiar. In particular I was struck by the way he jumps from one topic to another; the way he manages to turn every topic back on himself; the unnecessary repetition of concepts, especially in reaffirming qualities about himself in the absence of any contention; the placing of emphasis on words that don’t seem, contextually, to warrant it; and perhaps most importantly, the way he almost seems to be having a conversation with another person we can’t see. All of this is unsettling, but reminded me of something, or someone, but who? Just yesterday, in regards to Trump’s horrendous Black History month speech, my friend Christian Smith made the excellent observation that Donald Trump sounded like the Underground Man, from Dostoyevsky’s Notes from Underground. Suddenly I realized that this was exactly it. Trump had the same diction as the original existentialist anti-hero. I’m not sure how to feel about this revelation since while I’m very fond of that book, I can’t say the same about our President. In any case, here are some excerpts below, alternating between Trump speeches and The Underground Man, for you to judge for yourself. Enjoy!

I believe my liver is diseased. However, I know nothing at all about my disease, and do not know for certain what ails me. I don’t consult a doctor for it, and never have, though I have a respect for medicine and doctors. Besides, I am extremely superstitious, sufficiently so to respect medicine, anyway (I am well-educated enough not to be superstitious, but I am superstitious). No, I refuse to consult a doctor from spite. That you probably will not understand. Well, I understand it, though. Of course, I can’t explain who it is precisely that I am mortifying in this case by my spite: I am perfectly well aware that I cannot ‘pay out’ the doctors by not consulting them; I know better than anyone that by all this I am only injuring myself and no one else. But still, if I don’t consult a doctor it is from spite. My liver is bad, well—let it get worse!
– The Underground Man

IRS, e-mails.  I get sued all the time, okay.  I run a big business.  You know I’ve always said it’s very, very hard for a person who is very successful.  I have done so many deals.  Almost all of them have been tremendously successful.  You’ll see that when I file my statements.  I mean you will see; you will be very proud of me, okay.  But I’ve always said, and I said it strongly, it’s very hard for somebody that does tremendous numbers of deals to run for politics, run for political office, any office, let alone president.  Because you’ve done so much; you’ve beaten so many people; you’ve created so many–  Look, Obama, what did he do?  No deal.  He never did a deal.  He did one deal.  A house.  And if you did that house you’d be in jail right now, okay.  He got away with murder.  But I can tell you, e-mails.  IRS, the e-mails, thousands of them, they were lost; they were lost.  If you were in my world you would know that e-mails can’t be lost; they can’t be lost.  So why aren’t our politicians finding out where those e-mails are?
– Donald Trump

That is my conviction of forty years. I am forty years old now, and you know forty years is a whole lifetime; you know it is extreme old age. To live longer than forty years is bad manners, is vulgar, immoral. Who does live beyond forty? Answer that, sincerely and honestly I will tell you who do: fools and worthless fellows. I tell all old men that to their face, all these venerable old men, all these silver-haired and reverend seniors! I tell the whole world that to its face! I have a right to say so, for I shall go on living to sixty myself. To seventy! To eighty!
– Underground Man

The world is blowing up, the migration in Syria — they say one of their achievements for the year is bringing peace to Syria, and the whole world’s talking about it. It’s — the level of stupidity is incredible. I’m telling you. I used to use the word incompetent, now I just call them stupid. I went to an Ivy League school, I’m very highly educated. I know words, I had the best words. I have — but there’s no better word than stupid. Right? There is none. There is none. There’s no — there’s no — there’s no word like that. So we are going to turn things around. But — and if we have Hillary — I’ve got to tell you. I just saw where for the last week she’s been hitting me really hard with the women card, OK? Really hard. And I had to say OK, that’s enough, that’s enough. And we did a strong number. She’s not going to win. Any by the way, I love the concept — I love, love, love having a woman president. Can’t be her. She’s horrible. She’s horrible. And you know really don’t — I’ll tell you who does not like — yeah, we’ll get Ivanka. Good. Let’s do Ivanka. But I’ll tell you who doesn’t like Hillary are women. Women don’t like Hillary. I see it all the time. And always so theatrical; Mr. Trump said this and that and this. And you just — I actually — I shouldn’t do it. I just have to turn off the television so many times. She just gives me a headache. But you know — although I think last night I gave her a big headache. I can imagine — I can imagine those discussions. But you have to hit back hard, and you can’t let them push you around.
– Donald Trump

I am told that the Petersburg climate is bad for me, and that with my small means it is very expensive to live in Petersburg. I know all that better than all these sage and experienced counsellors and monitors. … But I am remaining in Petersburg; I am not going away from Petersburg! I am not going away because … ech!
– Underground Man

Last month, we celebrated the life of Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr., whose incredible example is unique in American history. You read all about Dr. Martin Luther King a week ago when somebody said I took the statue out of my office. It turned out that that was fake news. Fake news. The statue is cherished, it’s one of the favorite things in the—and we have some good ones. We have Lincoln, and we have Jefferson, and we have Dr. Martin Luther King. But they said the statue, the bust of Martin Luther King, was taken out of the office. And it was never even touched. So I think it was a disgrace, but that’s the way the press is. Very unfortunate.
– Donald Trump

When petitioners used to come for information to the table at which I sat, I used to grind my teeth at them, and felt intense enjoyment when I succeeded in making anybody unhappy. I almost did succeed. For the most part they were all timid people—of course, they were petitioners. But of the uppish ones there was one officer in particular I could not endure. He simply would not be humble, and clanked his sword in a disgusting way. I carried on a feud with him for eighteen months over that sword. At last I got the better of him. He left off clanking it. That happened in my youth, though.
– Underground Man

So we have to rebuild quickly our infrastructure of this country.  If we don’t–  The other day in Ohio a bridge collapsed.  Bridges are collapsing all over the country.  The reports on bridges and the like are unbelievable, what’s happening with our infrastructure. I go to Saudi Arabia, I go to Dubai; I am doing big jobs in Dubai.  I go to various different places.  I go to China.  They are building a bridge on every corner.  They have bridges that make the George Washington Bridge like small time stuff.  They’re building the most incredible things you have ever seen.  They are building airports in Qatar–which they like to say “cutter” but I’ve always said “qatar” so I’ll keep it “qatar” what the hell.  But they’re building, they’re building an airport and have just completed an airport the likes of which you have never seen, in Dubai an airport the likes of which you have never seen.  And then I come back to LaGuardia where the runways have potholes.  The place is falling apart.  You go into the main terminal and they have a terraza floor that’s so old it’s falling apart.  And they have a hole in it, and they replace it with asphalt.  So you have a white terraza floor and they put asphalt all over the place.  This is inside, not outside.  And I just left Dubai where they have the most incredible thing you’ve ever seen.  In fact my pilot said oh Mr. Trump this is such an honor.  I said it’s not an honor; they’re just smart.  But you look at LAX, and you look at Kennedy Airport, and you look at our airports generally, you look at our roadways where they’re crumbling.
– Donald Trump

Reflections on the political crisis in Brazil: Part 2

Eight months ago I wrote a piece about the current turbulent political situation in Brazil. Since then the drama has hardly let up, and even relative to the political rollercoaster that is 2016 it’s been fascinating. I thought I would record some of it again, for those who may be interested in the trials and tribulations of this Latin powerhouse.

We left off with President Dilma Rousseff, the first female president in Brazil’s history and a member of the once very popular Worker’s Party (PT), facing a key impeachment vote before Congress. A small cabal of senators charged Dilma with violating a rather esoteric and obscure budgeting law written into Brazil’s constitution. As far as I can tell no one understands the law, not even the senators, and no one can explain, concisely and completely, how Dilma broke it, but the general gist of the matter is that she manipulated the government books to conceal or at least understate the true size of the nation’s public debt. The accusation claims she did so deliberately in the run up to the 2014 election in order to win more votes. Dilma of course denies all of this and contends, not without good reason, that the entire impeachment has been orchestrated by her right-wing opponents to remove her party from power – something they’ve been unable to do at the ballot box in over 12 years.

In any case, whatever one thinks about the merits of the charge itself, the actual impeachment proceedings, held on April 17th in the Chamber of Deputies, Brazil’s lower legislative house, turned out to be a rather amusing display of pomp and buffoonery. Brazilian politics is already quite a messy, passionate ordeal, but with the stakes this high, it turned into a circus. Deputies were yelling at each other, waving banners, and chanting the entire night. At times scuffles broke out on the floor as people tried to press their way to the lectern to speak. Much to the embarrassment of many Brazilians, the entire 11-hour session was broadcast live on Brazilian TV and is on YouTube for the whole world to watch. Presiding over the whole affair with calm determination was Eduardo Cunha, President of the Chamber of Deputies, and the man labeled Dilma’s “nemesis” for his role in architecting the impeachment. Cunha called each of the deputies up one by one to declare their vote and provide a brief explanation for why they were voting the way they were. Almost invariably the (usually male) deputy would dedicate his vote in favour of impeachment to some combination of ‘God’, ‘my beloved country’, and ‘my family’. Some felt the need to mention each of their family members by name, with one man, Marcelo Álvaro Antônio, listing each of his children, but, rather embarrassingly, forgetting one son. Realizing to his horror the mistake he had made later in the evening, Marcelo hurried back to the lectern, interrupting the deputy whose turn it was, to state : “Just to correct one thing: I didn’t mention my son, Paulo Henrique: Paulo Henrique this is for you my son!”  Others used their time to rail against the vague menace of ‘corruption’. Hardly anyone referenced the “Fiscal Responsibility Law” (Lei de Responsibilidade Fiscal) which Dilma is alleged to have breached, and none noticed the irony in the fact that 150 members of their own chamber (the majority of whom voted for impeachment) were implicated in crimes far more severe than the one they so sanctimoniously charged Dilma with. Of course, there was righteous indignation – a sentiment to which the Portuguese language seems particularly well-suited – on both sides. Glauber Braga, a socialist deputy from Rio, used his time to call Cunha a “gangster”. Jean Wyllys, a left-wing firebrand and rising star in Brazilian politics, went even further and, in what became one of the most cited speeches of the event, proclaimed the entire proceedings to be a “farce” that was being “conducted by a thief”, “urged on by a traitor”, and “supported by cowards”. Draped in his signature red scarf, Wyllys had to speak louder and louder as his speech went on in order to be heard over the rising din. By the end he was practically screaming:

In the name of the rights of the LGBT population, of the black people and those exterminated [by police] in the favelas, of the culture workers, the homeless, the landless, I vote against the coup! And sleep with that, you bastards!

Jean Wylyss, a socialist deputy from Bahia and the second openly gay member of the Chamber of Deputies, speaks against the impeachment of Dilma Rousseff.
Jean Wyllys, a socialist deputy from Bahia and the second openly gay member of the Chamber of Deputies, speaks against the impeachment of Dilma Rousseff.

Perhaps the most shocking and unforgettable moment of the night came when Jair Bolsonaro, a polarizing, right-wing demagogue, took to the stand and dedicated his vote in favour of impeachment to Carlos Brilhante Ustra, a recently deceased colonel who led the notorious Doi-Codi torture unit during Brazil’s military dictatorship. Ustra’s unit was responsible for rounding up and torturing some 500 suspected ‘left-wing terrorists’, including the then young student Dilma Rousseff. In response to Bolsonaro’s ugly move, Jean Wyllys pushed through the crowd and spat on him, which led to fisticuffs breaking out between the two men’s supporters.

Jair Bolsonaro dedicates his vote for the impeachment to Carlos Brilhante Ustra, a recently deceased colonel who led the notorious Doi-Codi torture unit during Brazil’s military dictatorship.
Jair Bolsonaro dedicates his vote for the impeachment to Carlos Brilhante Ustra, a recently deceased colonel who led the notorious Doi-Codi torture unit during Brazil’s military dictatorship.

In the end, with 367/513 votes, the ayes cleared the ⅔ majority they needed to pass the motion of impeachment. The bill then moved to the senate, who, on May 12th, also passed it, though with much less fanfare. Dilma was now suspended for 6 months while they prepared and conducted the actual trial to determine her guilt. In the meantime, her vice president, Michel Temer, took over. In Brazil vice presidents need not (and indeed often are not) from the same political party as the president, although they do run together on the same ticket. Temer is from the Brazilian Democratic Movement Party (PMDB). A sidenote here: Brazilian political parties are very different from their counterparts in the more ‘developed’ world. Brazilian democracy is very young and, therefore, most parties have not had time to carve out a clear political and ideological territory. As a result, there are literally dozens of active political parties in Brazil – in the Chamber of Deputies alone no fewer than 25 parties are represented – and, unlike in the US or the UK, most ordinary citizens do not describe themselves as being more loyal or more committed to one particular party. No one really has a clear idea of what each party stands for and often even educated, well informed citizens have trouble remembering which politician belongs to which party, simply because it doesn’t seem to make much of a difference in how that politician will vote. The party names also are of no guidance: The “Progressive Party” tends to be pretty conservative and right wing; the Brazilian Women’s Party has exactly one deputy in the Chamber, and he is a man.

Michel Temer assumed the presidency of Brazil after Dilma was impeached. Critics accuse him or helping orchestrate the impeachment for his own personal political gain.
Michel Temer assumed the presidency of Brazil after Dilma was impeached. Critics accuse him or helping orchestrate the impeachment for his own personal political gain.

Supporters of Dilma have long accused Temer of helping orchestrate what they describe as the “illegal coup” against her in order to put himself in power. Suspicions intensified when, just hours before the vote to begin the impeachment trial, Temer committed one of those faux pas we all dread: he accidently sent an audio message to an entire WhatsApp group, when he meant to send it to just one friend. The message appeared to contain parts of a speech which he would give once he assumed the presidency. Given that at that point the country had not yet even opened the case for impeachment proceedings, let alone convicted Dilma, such a prepared speech seemed strangely presumptuous. Temer lost even further credibility when it emerged via Wikileaks that he had, since 2006, been acting as something of an informant for the US government, passing detailed reports and information on the current political situation in Brazil to US Southern Command in Miami. Never forgetting the key role that the Johnson administration had played in the 1964 military coup that had overthrown their first attempt at democracy, many Brazilians regarded these revelations as evidence of treachery and became even more convinced that Dilma’s impeachment was essentially a coup without the tanks.

Despite these setbacks, and with a poll showing that only 2% of Brazilians would vote for him in an election, Temer assumed the presidency. His first move was to establish a new cabinet. What ought to have been a fairly procedural affair blew up into a political firestorm. He appointed a creationist to head the Ministry of Science, and a ‘soybean tycoon who has deforested large tracts of the Amazon rain forest’ for his agriculture minister. What really angered people, however, was that Temer’s cabinet was the first in decades to feature only white men. Coming right after the ousting of what had been a remarkably diverse administration, led by Brazil’s first female president, such a decision seemed like a slap in the face to Dilma’s legacy. The impeachment had already been tinted with sexist overtones – “Tchau querida” (“Goodbye dear”) had become a popular slogan for those wanting Dilma out – and Temer’s cabinet picks seemed only to normalize that. It didn’t help Temer that in the same month Veja, a popular news magazine, published a feature special on his wife, Marcela, a 28-year-old former beauty pageant winner, which they titled ‘Marcela Temer: bela recatada e “do lar” (beautiful, demure, and of the home)’. In it, they praised Marcela for being the type of girl who “wears knee-length dresses”. Those furious at this sexist interpretation of a woman’s place in society were quick to respond with a flurry of memes on social media, posting pictures of strong feminist icons, past and present, captioned (ironically) with the phrase “bela, recatada, e do lar”.

Michel Temer with his wife, Marcela.
Michel Temer with his wife, Marcela.

In terms of actual policy, Temer immediately pursued a program of harsh austerity and neoliberal economics. His administration abolished several ministries, including the Ministry of Women, Racial Equality, and Human Rights, as well as the Ministry of Culture, though the latter he was forced to reinstate 11 days after he dissolved it in response to angry, yet creative protests by a variety of artists and musicians. More troublingly, he pushed through a constitutional amendment that freezes government spending for 20 years. Characterized by UN officials as simply “an attack on the poor”, the PEC55 policy, as it is known, prevents future governments from softening or undoing the austerity, thereby locking in a right-wing economic agenda for two decades and jeopardizing many of the gains made in poverty reduction during the Lula years. The measure fails to even take into account increases necessary to support a rising population, meaning that per capita spending on things like education and healthcare are expected to fall. Despite Temer’s promises that it is the shock therapy Brazil needs to climb out of recession, Brazilians have taken to the streets to protest what Vox dubbed “the harshest austerity program in the world.” The police response – in contrast, some have noted, to how police responded to the Dilma protests – has been swift and unrepentant: firing tear gas and pepper spray at unarmed protesters and blinding at least two journalists with rubber bullets.

A protestor holds a sign saying "Out Temer! Out everyone!". Her shirt says "No to PEC55".
A protestor holds a sign saying “Out Temer! Out everyone!”. Her shirt says “No to PEC55”.

As one of the groups expected to be hardest hit by the spending cuts, students have formed the vanguard in many of these protests. Even before PEC55 kicked in, state governments in Brazil had, of their own volition, been ordering the closure of dozens of schools across the country, in an effort to consolidate resources. Faced with the prospect of having now to attend overcrowded schools further from home, students resisted the closures by occupying hundreds of school buildings across the country, refusing to leave until their demands were met. The national austerity program has only exacerbated the students’ plight, and led to more vociferous protest. In October, sixteen-year-old Ana Julia, one of the students involved in the sit-ins, delivered a speech to the senate in her home state of Paraná. Opening with the words “Who is school for?”, she embarked on a lengthy tirade, defending the legitimacy and necessity of the student occupations and lambasting the legislators for failing to address student needs. She also attacked as “insulting” a recent government initiative escola sem partido, which forbids political discourse in public schools. The senators remained silent and attentive throughout, albeit with looks of mild annoyance at being lectured to by a girl who, for most of them, was young enough to be their granddaughter. When she decried them for having ‘blood on their hands’ – a reference to a student who had recently died during an occupation – they could no longer contain their irritation. Some began to murmur disapproval, and one angrily shouted back “my hands aren’t dirty!”. At this point the president of the senate stepped in, and reprimanded Ana Julia, reminding her sternly “You can’t attack parliamentarians here…here no one has hands stained with blood.” The sixteen year old apologized, but then retorted by quoting the Statute of the Child and Adolescent, which proclaims that “responsibility for our adolescents lies with society, the family, and the state.” At this the public crowd in the gallery erupted in applause and Ana Julia’s video soon went viral. Cries of “Ana Julia me representa” resounded across Brazilian social networks.

Ana Julia defends the student protests before a senate hearing in her home state of Parana.
Ana Julia defends the student protests before a senate hearing in her home state of Parana.

Meanwhile back in the nation’s capital, the ‘Lava Jato’ corruption investigation, which is what had first triggered this political crisis, continued to draw ever more powerful politicians into its proverbial noose. Eduardo Cunha, the man who conducted the impeachment proceedings against Dilma, was arrested and charged with accepting $5 million in bribes from a company bidding on state contracts. As the man most responsible for ousting Dilma, his arrest was greeted with unabashed glee by supporters of her party, especially since he had once vehemently sworn that he would ‘walk to Curitiba [the city from which the investigation was being run]’ if they ever found any real evidence against him. Brazilian meme artists had a field day with this quote and the photo of Cunha being escorted out of his home by federal police.

Eduardo Cunha, the former head of the Chamber of Deputies, was arrested on October 19th.
Eduardo Cunha, the former head of the Chamber of Deputies, was arrested on October 19th.

Next on the chopping block was Renan Calheiros, the canny yet uninspiring president of the federal senate. The Lava Jato team charged him with embezzling government funds and using them to support a daughter he had fathered via an extramarital affair with a journalist. Although his case is yet to reach a conclusion and he denies all charges, a federal judge ordered Calheiros to resign, on the grounds that one cannot be in line for the presidency (as head of the senate he is second in line until Temer appoints his own vice) while being under federal investigation. Calheiros spurned the judge’s order, insisting he would stay right where he was. His refusal sets an alarmingly dangerous precedent – that lawmakers can simply evade and defy the rulings of Brazil’s judiciary, in blatant contravention to the separation of powers principle ingrained in the country’s constitution. The same judge, Justice Marco Aurelio Mello, described Calheiros’ defiance as “inconceivable” and “grotesque”. Calheiros, however, knew he had the tacit support of President Temer, who needs him in the senate to help push through his economic agenda – if Calheiros were to fall, Jorge Viana, a senator from the leftist Worker’s Party and a key ally of the ousted president Dilma, would take over as head of the senate and would no doubt give Temer more resistance to his austerity legislation. After a tense exchange of ever more trenchant rhetoric between the Senate office and the judiciary, the case went to the Supreme Court, who softened Judge Mello’s ruling, allowing Calheiros to remain at his post but still forbidding him from ascending to the presidency in the (not unlikely) event that Temer is forced to resign.

Renan Calheiros, the president of the Brazilian Senate.
Renan Calheiros, the president of the Brazilian Senate.

With Cunha and Calheiros both brought to heel, it became clear firstly that the Lava Jato had no intention of closing shop just because Dilma was gone, and, secondly, that no politician was too powerful to be beyond their reach. Those two facts simultaneously overjoyed the Brazilian populace, and terrified the rest of the political elite. It got to the point where almost every day another politician was charged with some form of fraud or corruption and dragged (sometimes literally kicking and screaming) to a federal prison. But Brazilian politicians are a shrewd and wily bunch, and they were not about to just sit back and wait for the maw of justice to close around them. Something had to be done.

The first was that, just after Temer formally took office, the senate very quietly passed a measure granting executive branches of government much more leeway over budgetary adjustments. The blandly named Law 13.322 allows state and federal administrations to increase spending on a particular budget item, beyond what was originally planned, as long as they took the extra funds from another area of the budget. The Brazilian constitution is in general pretty strict about ensuring that government spending sticks to its planned budget and does not deviate from the amounts defined therein. This law would ease some of those restrictions, and, recognizing that economic priorities can change as events unfold, gives governments much more flexibility to adapt spending to meet changing demand. It all sounds quite sensible, but what is rather peculiar about this measure is that it is this practice – namely, unilaterally borrowing from one part of the budget to add more funds somewhere else without legislative approval – that this same Senate impeached Dilma for just one week prior. Moreover it was Dilma’s administration who originally proposed Law 13.322; had it passed when she was in office, there would have been no grounds for impeachment at all. This is not to excuse the fact that what Dilma did was at the time legally dubious, but it does make one wonder what these senators were thinking when they so piously railed against Dilma’s financial imprudence and corruption, if they were going to make what she did legal just one week after. The answer of course, is that these politicians are now desperately trying, ex post facto, to patch the gaping hole in their argument, which is that these accounting tricks, while not completely above bar, had been used, and are still being used, all around Brazil at all levels of government. To be consistent, Dilma’s opponents would have to also throw out all the state governors who did the exact same thing. A lot of those governors are friends or political allies of theirs, so they don’t want to do that. The only solution, therefore, is to be inconsistent, and hurriedly try to shield their comrades from suffering the same fate they just leveled against Dilma.

Having patched the hole they had pushed Dilma through, Brazil’s congressmen then moved to stymie the Lava Jato investigation. While the country was distracted mourning the death of an entire football team in an airplane crash, Brazil’s lower house frantically rewrote an anti-corruption bill to introduce penalties against judges said to have abused their power. They didn’t mention him by name, but the obvious target of the measure was Sergio Moro, the regional judge who is spearheading the Lava Jato investigations. Critics of the bill warn it would “erode the independence of the judiciary.” The chamber also edited the law to maintain certain statute of limitations which will ensure that many of their corrupt members will avoid jail time. The end result would be to make Lava Jato toothless. In response, Brazilians have taken to streets yet again in protest, many of them donning banners proclaiming support for Sergio Moro.

Judge Sergio Moro, the man spearheading the Lava Jato investigation, is seen as a national hero by many Brazilians. Critics say he is overstepping his authority.
Judge Sergio Moro, the man spearheading the Lava Jato investigation, is seen as a national hero by many Brazilians. Critics say he is overstepping his authority.

And that’s where we are now. Brazilian politics continues to lurch from crisis to crisis, with an overall mood that is at once both depressing and terrifying. There are a troublingly growing number of calls for a return to military rule, as well as serious threats of secession from southern states in the country. Having managed to keep its image together for the Summer Olympics, Brazil has hit turbulence again, and is still plagued by economic stagnation. Cynicism, especially about politics, is as Brazilian as football and cachaça, and this year has only reinforced that. I hope that 2017 gives the people of this wondrous country reason to buck that tradition.

Reflections on the political crisis in Brazil

Notwithstanding Brazil’s position as the seventh largest economy and fifth most populous nation on Earth, its political crisis of late has received relatively little attention in the foreign press – or, at least, in the American and British press I follow. Part of that is no doubt due to the fact that both countries are fixated on their own respective political dramas: the US its presidential election, and the UK its upcoming referendum on  EU membership. Journalists and commentators have precious little ink to spare on the domestic turmoils of a ‘developing’ country, many thousands of miles away – not when they could be agonizing over the latest Trump or Farage gaffe for their readers.

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On the Death Penalty

32 of the 50 states in the US still accept the death penalty as legal sentence for certain criminal offenses. Despite overwhelming evidence that the death penalty is an ineffective deterrent to crime and that it is grossly tainted with racism and other types of prejudice, the US has failed to abolish this medieval form of punishment nationwide. Globally, this puts the United States in strange company – most nations of the world have abolished the death penalty entirely, with a few notable exceptions: China, Iran, Iraq, and Saudi Arabia all maintain it, and lead the world (in that order) in the number of executions they carry out per year (the US comes in at 5th place, followed by Yemen and the Sudan, two other great beacons of freedom and social justice). These are all nations we in the West like to describe invariably as oppressive, ruthless states, and in at least two of them we have threatened or carried out forceful regime change in order to rid the world of their brutality. Yet when it comes to the most violent act a state can take against its own citizens – legalized murder – we stand shoulder to shoulder with them.

Attempts have been made to abolish the death penalty at the ballot in the US. In 2012, proposition 34 was put on the ballot for California voters, which would have abolished the death penalty in their state. At the time I was a student at Stanford University and I would occasionally drop in on public lectures and discussions, often led by Professor Lawrence Marshall (a lifelong opponent of the death penalty), regarding the Prop 34 campaign. Professor Marshall argued that although, in his mind, the chief reason to oppose the death penalty was that it was wrong in itself, it would be more effective when trying to convince the general public to make pragmatic arguments. It would be more prudent, for example, to point out that the death penalty cost California taxpayers a $184 million per year, or $308 million per prisoner executed, than to wax poetic about some sacrosanct, inviolable right to life. If the degenerates on death row don’t deserve life (so the argument would presumably go) then surely they don’t deserve all this money spent on them; much better to simply keep them locked away for life and we will all be richer for it. It was reckoned that this type of reasoning would especially appeal to the state’s conservative base, who would otherwise be most likely to back the death penalty. In order to win them over, Professor Marshall argued, we can just paint this policy – namely, capital punishment – as yet another failed big government program – ineffective, costly, and ripe for removal. I found this strategy to be quite perplexing for the following basic reason: if the roles were reversed; if it were the case that the death penalty were a much cheaper alternative to other forms of punishment, and death penalty advocates were trying to convince me to uphold capital punishment based on the fact that it would save the government hundreds of millions of dollars, I would not be swayed one jot from my position. And, moreover, I would be dismayed at anyone who was. How could you change your mind, on a question about the basic right to life of human beings, on the basis of fiscal responsibility? And I have no reason to believe that advocates of the death penalty are any less committed to their moral position than I am, so why would I expect them to be persuaded by the kind of pragmatic arguments at which I would scoff?

Proposition 34 was ultimately defeated in the November election, keeping the death penalty legal in California. However, in July 2014, Judge Cormac J. Carney of the United States District Court ruled that California’s death penalty was unconstitutional. In his decision, Judge Carney argued that the application of the death penalty violated the 8th Amendment prohibiting ‘cruel and unusual punishment’ since the legal process surrounding the death penalty was so “arbitrary and plagued with delay”. It’s a rather curious justification, since, like the arguments the Professor Marshall was advocating, it nullifies the death penalty based on what is essentially a minor incidental feature of it, rather than what is fundamental or necessary to it. What could have been said about the death penalty in America regarding its implementation, but what was conspicuously absent from Judge Carney’s decision, was its racist component. When most people hear about “racism in the criminal justice system”, they think that what must be being referred to is the fact that minorities are charged with and dealt out harsher sentences for the same crimes as whites. That’s certainly true, but, in a way, it’s perhaps not as disturbing as a less cited, but equally obvious fact: crimes in which the victim is black are punished less severely than crimes in which the victim is white, regardless of the race of the perpetrator of that crime. In fact, when it comes to the use of the death penalty, Amnesty International have concluded that “the single most reliable predictor of whether someone will be sentenced to death is the race of the victim.”

The message this sends is as clear as if it were emblazoned on the front of every courthouse in America: black lives are worth less than those of whites.

This point has been brought before the Supreme Court. In 1987, the Court heard the case of McCleskey v. Kemp, in which the petitioners presented statistical evidence from a scientific study, demonstrating the inherent racist slant of the death penalty’s application: “even after taking account of 39 nonracial variables, defendants charged with killing white victims were 4.3 times as likely to receive a death sentence as defendants charged with killing blacks”. The Supreme Court, however, upheld the death penalty, on the grounds that demonstrating a “racially disproportionate impact” was not enough to nullify the law without also demonstrating a “racially discriminate purpose”. The distinction here between a purpose and an impact is absurd: short of some district attorney coming out as openly racist, how on earth are you supposed to divine the ‘intent’ or ‘purpose’ of those administering a discriminatory policy? And why, moreover, is that relevant? There are many laws whose purpose might be benign, but whose application, because of the social environment in which they are administered, is monstrously unjust. That’s true of virtually every voting law enacted in the Jim Crow South, which kept blacks disenfranchised, all while hiding behind a veil of race-neutrality.

In any case, commendable as these efforts are to argue for the death penalty’s abolition based on its specific implementation as a practice in the U.S., they leave unsaid what ought to be regarded as the more important discussion – namely why the death penalty is intrinsically wrong – regardless of the way it is administered – as matter of principle. It is this subject I turn to next.

On Why the Death Penalty is Wrong as a Matter of Principle

It is a general rule, when deciding what rights to grant the state, or for that matter, any institution of concentrated power, to remember that the burden of proof is always on those wanting more power to justify why such power is necessary. It is not enough to simply point out some good that will be gained or some evil avoided by the appropriation of some power to the state – it must be shown that no alternative way of achieving that good or avoiding that evil might be found.

Legal theorists and philosophers generally provide four broad categories of justification for punishment of a wrongdoer. They are: deterrence, prevention, rehabilitation and retribution. I happen to take the position that only the last of these, namely retribution, provides a morally consistent justification for punishment (more on that later). But let us consider all the possible justifications in turn, and see if, under any of them, there is any merit to the claim that the death penalty is a necessary tool of criminal justice.

Consider first deterrence. It is a general consensus now among all but the most delusional advocates of capital punishment that the death penalty fails to deter crime any more than lifelong prison sentences. In fact, in America, states which enforce the death penalty tend to have much higher rates of violent crime than those which proscribe it. There’s a quite obvious explanation for this: the kind of person who is willing and able to commit the kinds of crimes for which the death penalty would be given (e.g. murder, violent rape etc) are probably not going to be the ones thinking carefully about what their eventual punishment will be (if they even believe they will be punished at all). Take, for example, the case of Michael Taylor , a Missouri inmate executed in February 2014. He was convicted of raping and murdering a 15 year old girl while high on crack cocaine. Do we really believe it ever crossed Mr. Taylor’s deranged, sadistic, drug-induced state of mind that perhaps he shouldn’t commit that crime because he would be eligible for the death penalty if he did so? Almost by definition, the death penalty applies to crimes so shocking that the perpetrator could not be thinking rationally about the consequences of his/her action. That’s why we see the death penalty being such a poor deterrent to violent crime.

Prevention is the idea that inflicting a punishment on someone will prevent that same person from committing the same (or a different) crime again. This is different from deterrence which focuses on preventing others from committing crimes in the first place. There’s no doubt the death penalty is an effective tool of prevention – dead people can’t commit more crimes. But it is no more effective than life imprisonment, which also prevents the wrong-doer from committing more crimes, but without granting to the state the right to kill.

Rehabilitation, though usually not a high priority for those who claim to be ‘tough on crime’, really ought to be. It is the idea that punishment can serve as a way to make someone a better person: educate them, give them a more uplifting moral character, perhaps cure or at least treat their possible drug addictions, all in the hopes that this will make them a better human being, less likely to commit crimes in the future. People killed by the state of course have no opportunity for rehabilitation, so it could never be provided as a justification for the punishment itself. As it happens, rehabilitation for the benefit of the inmate rarely receives even token acknowledgement in the US. But even if you don’t care about the inmate and are concerned only with ‘reducing crime’, you ought to care about rehabilitation: in the United States, almost half of the inmates who are released from jail go back to committing crime. If people were serious about wanting to reduce crime in society, then rehabilitation would be the primary focus, and resources would be directed towards that end.

Retribution: the idea that the criminal deserves, as a matter of intrinsic justice, to be punished in a manner proportional to his crime. It is not particularly relevant, retributivists might say, what contingent benefits or harms might come from the punishment – what justifies it is that it is a counteraction to the wrong deed itself. Incidentally, I consider myself a retributivist: that is, I believe that the sole justification for punishment must be to correct the wrong itself. Any other justification, which focuses on other desirable ends, treats the criminal as a means to those ends. It treats him not as a rational being, afforded basic moral rights, but as a thing – a thing to be used to further some other chosen end (in this case, a supposedly better society). But according people proper human dignity means treating them as ends in themselves. Furthermore, non-retributive justice provides no coherent limitations to how harsh our sentencing ought to be. Suppose, for example, that the only way to prevent jaywalking was to punish it with death. Well, if your justification for punishment is deterrence, then you would have to concede in that situation that the death penalty is an appropriate punishment for jaywalking, which is plainly absurd. Only by grounding your justification for punishment on retribution can you argue that a punishment must be proportional to the crime itself.

It is important to recognize, however, that while retributive justice provides a much needed consistent theory for the justification of punishment, it does not afford (nor even imply) a right for any one particular person or entity to carry out that punishment. In particular, it does not grant the state the power to do so. This is an important distinction. The state ought not be an enforcer of ethics, and although a moral wrong may deserve some kind of punishment, the state (or any person in it) does not have the right to inflict that punishment merely because it is a moral wrong, or merely because the punishment would be morally right. The state ought only use its power to further what Hegel called the ‘coercive protection of right’ – that is, to protect the civil rights of its citizens; hence the state ought only punish crimes where there is a compelling public interest to do so (this is where we can start entertaining ideas about deterrence and crime prevention, though, as we established above, none of those ideas provide a justification for choosing the death penalty over life imprisonment).What does this mean for the death penalty? Well, there are perhaps some people currently on death row who deserve to die – you can think here of serial killers, child rapists, what have you. Perhaps, as a matter of intrinsic justice, they have forfeited their right to life. That is not the question that is before us with regards to the death penalty. The question before us is whether the state has the right to be the supreme arbiter and executioner of that punishment. The answer there is an emphatic no. Executing one of its own citizens does nothing to further the ‘coercive protection of right’ for society – in fact, as Winston Churchill (allegedly) put it “if you kill the murderer the quantity of murders will not change”. Society becomes more, not less, barbaric when the state has a hand in the killing of its citizens.

One may of course be left troubled that this leaves us in a world where wrongs are not justly righted, and where criminals don’t receive their full comeuppance. Well, theists among us can of course rest assured that, unlike the state, God can and should enforce moral law and hence all wrongs will be appropriately punished through His divine judgement. For the unbelievers, well, accepting that not all wrongs can be punished is just one more agony to tack on to the anguish of enduring the human condition in a godless world. Besides, there are much worse things in the world to face than unpunished wrongs, and that would include living in a state which had the power to punish them.

Punishment must be grounded in retributive justice because only then can we have punishments that are morally proportionate to the crime. It does not follow, however, that because a punishment would be proportionate, and thus morally right, that the state has the power to inflict it. The state ought concern itself only with the specific protection of civil rights, and, within that framework, can only carry out a certain punishment if all other punishments emanating from a lesser degree of state power would be inoperable. Under this theory, the death penalty is never justified, and is therefore wholly wrong as a matter of principle.