Friday, April 21, 2017

Missing "The Hungry Years"

Neil Sedaka once sang a song "The Hungry Years." He missed that simpler time when he was poor and didn't have all of the complications in life that comes when you have success.
Back in 1983 I was dead broke and living in the charming small town of 15,000 people, Albany, West Australia. It sits right on the Indian Ocean. It had once been a whaling village. My wife Maria had left me for good and gone back to San Francisco. I had a legal complication. I was not allowed to leave the state of West Australia. I lived in a rented room. I had a humble portable black and white television and an audio cassette music player. I had no car or bike. I was able to eat and barely support myself by working at a very humble job in a restaurant. The food was good. My boss was, believe it or not, a Mr.Smith and a nice man.
I would think back to my happy times in Rio de Janeiro and Sao Paulo. I would long to be back there.While I lived in Perth, I discovered an obscure shop that sold Brasilian music. I had a small collection of audio cassettes from the shop. My favorite Brasilian artist was an obscure singer named Maria Creuza. Every evening I would listen to her beautiful voice and have the happiest thoughts of Brasil.
This music collection got lost by a moving company in South Africa in 1995. I thought that part of my life was gone forever.
In my recent Brasil trip, I was able to find some vinyl records of Maria Creuza thanks to Anna Chagas and Bossa Nove Music Shop in Rio de Janeiro.
Yesterday afternoon was sunny and cool in Pacifica. I started to play the vinyl records of Maria Creuza. Her beautiful songs touched my heart just as they had 34 years ago. I thought back to those hungry years.
It's so nice when you get a part of your life back that seemed to be lost forever.

Thursday, April 20, 2017

A Brasilian Inflation Fighter Becomes Immortal

The man who coined “Belíndia”A Brazilian inflation fighter becomes immortal

The Academy of Letters elects a liberal economist

BRAZILIANS who remember the hyperinflationary 1980s cheered the news on April 7th that prices rose by just 4.57% in the year to March. Inflation has not come that close to the central bank’s target of 4.5% in seven years. In a fitting coincidence, on the same day one of the architects of the Real Plan, which tamed inflation in 1994, donned the gold-and-green livery of the “immortals”, as members of the Brazilian Academy of Letters are known.
Edmar Bacha is just the third economist to join the august group, whose 40 lifetime appointments are reserved for towering intellectuals and the finest wordsmiths. His election last November (by members of the academy) was one of the most contentious in its 120-year history. It may also be a sign of the times.

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Besides wrestling with inflation, Mr Bacha was head of the statistics office and the state development bank. He later became an investment banker. He has a way with words. In “Fable for technocrats”, an essay published in 1974, he described Brazil as “Belíndia”, a tiny, rich Belgium surrounded by a vast, poor India. In “End of inflation in the kingdom of Lizarb”—where “everything is back to front”—he skewered the belief that rising prices cause fiscal deficits.
Some doubt that Mr Bacha merits immortalisation. Novelists and poets on the academy argued that most of his dozen books are dry treatises. His liberal economics is anathema to humanists enamoured of Karl Marx.
Still, he beat Eros Grau, a former supreme court justice (who has written erotic fiction). The unusually close vote (of 18 to 15) exposed a rift between the academy’s “culture wing” and its clutch of public servants, including two former presidents. In November a contest between a political scientist and a philosopher-poet ended in an unprecedented tie, forcing a new election with fresh candidates. João Almino, a writer and diplomat, got the open seat.
Mr Bacha’s elevation may be a sign that economic liberalism is regaining ground. In March street protesters called for privatisation and deregulation, among other things. The government of Michel Temer may prove to be one of the most liberal that Brazil has ever had. The academy is also becoming harder-headed. Some immortals were reportedly keen to elect a former banker to oversee its investments.

This article appeared in the The Americas section of the print edition under the headline "Bard of Belíndia"

Santiago's Transport System Is Sputtering

Going nowhereSantiago’s transport system is sputtering

Commuters do not want to pay for bad service

TRANSANTIAGO, the Chilean capital’s public-transport system, had its tenth birthday in February, but no one celebrated. Launched with much fanfare, the scheme was supposed to integrate bus and metro lines and speed up traffic. Smog-spewing yellow buses disappeared. Smart cards replaced cash.
But Transantiago is sputtering. Fare evasion is rampant, journeys are getting slower and the state has spent billions of dollars to prop up private bus operators. Passengers sometimes wait ages at stops scrawled with graffiti with no inkling of when the next bus will arrive. Espacio Público, a think-tank, calls Transantiago Chile’s worst public-policy project since the country returned to democracy in 1990.

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Despite all that, Transantiago has brought some improvements. The number of fatal accidents has dropped sharply, as has pollution from exhaust fumes. The system’s 20,000 employees are now on formal contracts and have better working conditions than before. Because bus drivers no longer handle cash, the number of robberies has fallen. Compared with transport in many other Latin American cities, Santiago’s works pretty well.
But it would be hard to persuade most commuters of that. The problems start with design. Planners laid some bus lanes directly over metro lines, so the two forms of transport compete rather than complementing each other. The city has hired too few inspectors to catch fare-dodgers and motorists who stray into bus lanes (though cameras are catching some of the errant cars). Sometimes buses are so crowded that even honest passengers have trouble reaching the card-swiper.
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Increasingly, passengers are less inclined to pay. Despite the subsidies, fares have risen by 40% since 2010, far faster than most prices. Bus journeys have slowed by 8% since 2012. For some, fare-dodging is a form of protest. Guillermo Muñoz, the metropolitan area’s director of public transport, admits that in some parts of the capital the service is “very bad”. Last month Chile’s transport minister resigned, in part to take responsibility for Transantiago’s failings.
Espacio Público says one reason for the high subsidies is that too few companies operate the buses. The system began with 16 operators but dropouts and mergers have shrunk the number to seven. The largest firms operate 1,200 buses apiece. This makes them “too big to fail”, says Clemente Pérez of Espacio Público. Hence the subsidies to keep money-losing companies afloat. No company should have more than 10% of the market, Mr Pérez thinks.
The city will have a chance to correct that next year, when contracts to operate bus lines are to expire. It is likely to encourage smaller and newer companies to enter the market. That might release money for improvements. The new transport minister, Paola Tapia, has created a task-force to help reduce fare-dodging and promised more money for inspectors. With luck, Transantiago could become a service that commuters are happy to pay for.

This article appeared in the The Americas section of the print edition under the headline "Going nowhere"

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Tuesday, April 18, 2017

Upgrading Brasil's Political Class

BelloUpgrading Brazil’s political class

A scandal-ridden congress must reform itself

“DECENCY now!” That slogan, on a banner at a demonstration in São Paulo on March 26th, sums up what Brazilians want from their politicians. They have come to expect the opposite. Rodrigo Janot, the chief prosecutor, has asked the supreme court to open 83 investigations into politicians whom he suspects of taking part in a scheme to extract billions of dollars in bribes from construction firms, which in turn benefited from inflated public contracts. Eight ministers in the cabinet of President Michel Temer, the Speakers of both houses of congress and grandees from all the main parties are reportedly on the list. (All deny wrongdoing.) That adds to the dozens of officials already caught up in the Lava Jato (“Car Wash”) investigations into the scandal, which is centred on Petrobras, the state-controlled oil company.
Revelations of misdeeds by politicians have turned Brazilians’ attention to the question of how to elect better ones. Today’s system encourages political diversity at the expense of quality. Any new party that secures 486,000 signatures (from a pool of 143m voters) has a right to money from the state and to free television time. There is no nationwide vote threshold for electing a party to congress. Lower-house deputies, like senators, represent whole states rather than districts, which makes campaigns expensive, encourages corruption and weakens bonds between voters and their representatives.

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The drafters of Brazil’s constitution set up the hyper-proportional system in 1988 to ensure that all voices in the continent-sized country would be heard. It has led to cacophony. One study of legislatures in 137 countries elected from 1919 to 2015 found that the lower house of Brazil’s current congress is the most fragmented anywhere over that period. Most of its 28 parties have no ideology or detailed programme. Nearly half of Brazilian voters forget which candidate they picked barely a month after casting their ballots.
Presidents dare not lose track. They must master unruly coalitions. Governments buy politicians’ votes with favours. The Petrobras bribery scheme was in part a way to reward congressmen for staying loyal to the government of President Dilma Rousseff, who was impeached on an unrelated charge last year.
This model is now “exhausted”, says the top judge on the electoral tribunal. In fact, its flaws were apparent from the beginning. Every congress since 1988 has set up a commission to look into electoral reform. They have not made much progress. In 1995 congress set a threshold for parties to enter the legislature of 5% of the national vote. The supreme court struck that down, saying it violated the constitution’s goal of proportional representation.
Most electoral innovations have come from the judiciary. In 2007 the electoral tribunal ruled that congressmen who switch parties must give up their seats. In 2015 the supreme court banned donations to parties by corporations. The Lava Jato inquiries are themselves a sort of political reform, “without anaesthesia”, as one minister in Mr Temer’s government puts it. Dozens of lawmakers could be charged before the election due in late 2018.
The courts cannot do it all; politicians will have to reform themselves. They are starting to do so. One step forward was a vote by the senate in November to approve a constitutional amendment that would establish a national vote threshold and prohibit electoral coalitions. These are short-lived arrangements in which big parties yield seats to smaller ones in exchange for their rights to television time. If the lower house approves the amendment by October this year, the next elections could be held under the new rules. The next congress—less fragmented and more honest—could then make further changes, including splitting up state-sized constituencies into districts.
But some fear that politicians will use reform to shield themselves from greater accountability. One contentious proposal is to give voters a choice among party lists rather than individual candidates. In 2015 the lower house defeated a plan to introduce such “closed lists” by a vote of 402 to 21. Backbenchers feared it would let party chiefs promote their cronies. The idea has come back. Proponents say that closed lists would bolster parties and save them money, compensating for the ban on corporate donations. That would be a plus.
But to some voters, this looks like a plot to avoid the pain inflicted by Lava Jato. Politicians in Mr Janot’s sights could be re-elected if they hide behind party logos. “No to closed lists!” was among the slogans seen at the protests in March. It is good news that the arcane issue of political reform has moved on to the streets. That means it may actually happen.