Is Brazil About to Become a Brutal Militaristic Regime?

Brazil may soon become a brutal regime reminiscent of its past atrocities, and the far-right will probably impose crippling austerity (it wants to freeze real government spending for decades, which will worsen public health and make recessions much worse) that will do significant harm to the working class.

For the past thirty years, Congressman Jair Bolsonaro was a fringe extremist in Brazilian politics, known mostly for outlandish, deliberately inflammatory quotes in which he paid homage to the most notorious torturers of the 1964-1985 military regime, constantly heralded the 1964 coup as a “defense of democracy,” told a female socialist colleague in Congress that she was too ugly to “deserve” his rape, announced that he’d rather learn that his son died in a car accident than was gay, and said he conceived a daughter after having four sons only due to a “moment of weakness.”

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His primary solution to the nation’s crime epidemic is to unleash the military and police into the nation’s slums and give them what he calls “carte blanche” to indiscriminately murder anyone they suspect to be criminals, acknowledging many innocents will die in the process. He has criticized monsters such as Chile’s Pinochet and Peru’s Fujimori – for not slaughtering more domestic opponents. He has advocated that mainstream Brazilian politicians be killed. He wants to chemically castrate sex offenders. In all respects, the hideous Brazilian military dictatorship that took over Brazil and ruled it for 21 years – torturing and summarily executing dissidents, with the support of the US and UK in the name of fighting Communists – is his model of governance.

As a result of last night’s truly stunning national election in Brazil, Jair Bolsonaro has been instantly transformed from marginalized clown into the overwhelmingly dominant force in the country’s political life. Bolsonaro himself fell just short of winning the 50% needed to win the presidency without a run-off.

But given the margin of victory, he is the overwhelming favorite to win on October 28 against the second-place candidate, ex-São Paulo Mayor Fernando Haddad. Haddad is the previously unknown, hand-picked successor anointed by Lula, the ex-two-term President who had been leading all polls until he was convicted on dubious corruption charges and quickly imprisoned so as to bar his candidacy, then silenced by Brazil’s right-wing judiciary with a series of remarkable prior restraint censorship orders barring all media outlets from interviewing him.

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In sum, it is virtually impossible to overstate the threat level posed to democracy and human rights in the world’s fifth most-populous country as a result of last night’s election. And unlike in the U.S. or in the UK, which have old, strong, long-established democratic institutions that can limit the excesses and worst abuses of demagogues and authoritarians, Brazil has none of that. Spiraling from multiple crises – suffocating economic inequality, an epidemic of violence worse than many war zones, and a corruption scandal so sweeping that it has infected the core of almost every faction of the ruling class – this is a country with little to no ability to impose limits on what Bolsonaro wants to do.

Add to that the sheer youth of Brazilian democracy – only 33 years old: the temporal equivalent of the U.S. in 1820 or so – and it’s remarkably easy to envision a quick return to the military rule that imposed so many atrocities on so many segments of the population. That all of this has been ushered in democratically should be, but likely will not be, another warning sign to western democracies that are confronting similar dynamics, albeit ones that are unfolding somewhat more gradually.

To be sure – as is true of Trump, Brexit, and the rise of right-wing extremism throughout Europe – some substantial minority of Bolsonaro voters are motivated by classic bigotry, racism, anti-LGBT animus, resentment toward the indigenous population, and just a general tribal anger that seeks scapegoats for their plight. But many, probably most, are none of those things.

Many, instead, are motivated by legitimate grievances toward an establishment ruling class that has failed them on all levels, that expresses indifference if not outright contempt for their suffering and loss of hope, that they blame, often with good reason, for enacting policies that have destroyed their futures while refusing to accept any responsibility for it. And once that framework is adopted, any perceived enemy of that ruling class becomes their friend, or at least someone whose vows of destruction become more appealing than vows to preserve the system they justifiably despise (the reality is that Bolsonaro (like Trump), with his Chicago-trained neoliberal economic guru, will serve the economic interests of the establishment with great devotion at the expense of his working-class voters, but the perception of his anti-establishment animus is what matters).

The standard establishment reaction in the face of rising demagogues like Bolsonaro is to denounce those who support them, to call them names, to heap scorn on them, to sanctimoniously lecture them that their choices are primitive, retrograde, ignorant and illegitimate. That only serves further to exacerbate the dynamic.

Some context for the 21st century:

The world is watching Brazil’s elections, probably as never before. “Latin America’s latest menace: Bolsonaro Presidente,” screams the headline on the cover of The Economist. This conservative UK magazine would love to see the Workers’ Party (PT) disappear from Brazilian politics, but even they cannot stomach Bolsonaro, who in 2016 dedicated his vote to impeach President Dilma Rousseff to the colonel responsible for her torture.

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By 2014, under the presidencies of Lula and Dilma, poverty had been reduced by 55 percent and extreme poverty by 65 percent, and unemployment hit a record low of 4.9 percent. Some of these gains were lost when the economy then went into a deep recession that year, and the right took advantage of that downturn to seize what it could not win at the ballot box in four consecutive elections.

They impeached Dilma and removed her from office without even accusing her of an actual crime; and then Judge Moro sent Lula to prison for a “bribe” he never accepted, in a “trial” without material evidence. The US government sent experts from its Justice Department to “help” with investigations, and quietly showed support for the removal of Dilma.

But the bulk of the Brazilian electorate could see that although all the major political parties were infected with corruption, the decapitation of the Workers’ Party was not about justice. Lula retained a commanding lead in the polls even after his conviction. And so it became necessary to bar Lula from running for president, to jail him, and restrict his access to the media.

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For the first time in decades, the threat of a military dictatorship is surfacing. No responsible journalism should ignore this threat, nor legitimize the extremism that strengthens it. And anyone who cares about democracy in Brazil would have to support Bolsonaro’s opponent in the second round of the election.

Patriotic Millionaires: “Just Tax Us More, PLEASE”

There’s really something wrong going on when there’s a group called the Patriotic Millionaires that advocates for left-leaning policies to help the general population.

According to a new report released yesterday by Medicare trustees, the program is projected to run out of funding three years earlier than previously expected, now running out of money by 2026. A partner report stated that the funding for Social Security would run out in 2035.

In response to this news the Patriotic Millionaires released the following statement:

“This is beyond absurd, this is morally bankrupt. The GOP is waging a war on everyday Americans on behalf of their donor class. Why else would they stand by and watch programs that 40% of Americans benefit from dry up all while signing a $1.9 trillion tax cut for the wealthy into law?

Millions of American seniors depend on these programs every day. Maybe GOP members of Congress are not thinking about those seniors, about 2026 or about 2035 because they plan to have skipped through the revolving door to lucrative K Street lobbying jobs by then. Whatever the reasoning, it’s become clear the the GOP has plans for the type of America they want to live in, and it is not the type of America we want to live in.

We want to live in an America with a healthy population, a population that is able to live in retirement with dignity, and a population that is not under constant attack by Republican lawmakers. So tax us more. Tax us more to fund these programs and give us a healthy workforce, to give us retirees who can afford to buy our goods and services, and to give us a country that we can be even prouder to call home.”

The group also has a good statement on the Supreme Court’s recent decision to unjustly diminish political democracy:

This afternoon, in response to the news that the Supreme Court upheld by a 5-4 decision Ohio’s process of purging individuals from its voter rolls, the most extreme in the nation, as not violating the National Voter Registration Act, the Chair of the Patriotic Millionaires Morris Pearl, former managing director at BlackRock, Inc., released the following statement:

“Today’s decision by the Supreme Court is not just a mistake, it is the latest blow in a war over the fate of our democracy. On one side, the people. On the other, the conservative officials and wealthy oligarchs who wants more money in politics and less voting. This decision does not make our elections safer or more fair, it just makes it harder for lawmakers to be held accountable by their constituents. At a time when public trust in government has never been lower, we need to make it easier, not harder, for people to vote.”

Interesting Inequality Article

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An interesting article on inequality. The journalist is probably of the class who feel some guilt for benefiting from the unjust, enormous upwards redistribution of income that’s happened in the last four decades. The income share of the top 1 percent in the U.S. has doubled from its share during most of the 1950s to 1980. This is an amount high enough to increase the income of people in the lowest 90 percent of the country’s income distribution by over 20 percent, and it’s nearly enough to double the income share of the bottom 40 percent.

I have my disagreements with the article, and it doesn’t offer many solutions relative to its lengthiness. In brief though, one of the most important ways to reduce inequality is to stop wealth from being distributed so unequally to begin with. Market structures have been rigged in all sorts of ways to benefit the wealthy, and instead of only focusing on tax and transfer policy, pre-tax distributions of income need to be focused on more.

Supreme Court to Hear Case and Probably Damage U.S. Public Sector Unions

The modern right-wing “conservatives” weakening unions is simply designed to reduce worker bargaining power, thus allowing for more upwards redistribution and therefore higher incomes among the richest people in the country. The graph below demonstrates this quite well, even if weakened unions aren’t the full story of U.S. wage disparity. Also, ironically enough, Republican president Dwight Eisenhower was a strong supporter of unions (and New Deal programs), which shows the rightward shift of U.S. politicians since the 1960s.

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In Janus vs. AFSCME, the court will reconsider its 1977 decision stating that public employees who choose not to join unions can still be required to pay partial union dues, to help fund unions’ collective bargaining negotiations, which hold benefits for all workers.

While AFSCME is the union that represents state and municipal workers, supporters fear that a decision in favor of Mark Janus—the individual plaintiff backed by a network of billionaires, corporate interests and right-wing ideologues determined to undermine organized workers—would threaten labor in all sectors across the country. As Andrew Hanna and Caitlin Emma wrote at Politico on Sunday:

The financial blow dealt by a Janus victory would far exceed the loss of nonmember fees, thanks to what economists call a “free rider” problem. Unions are compelled by law to represent all workers within a collective-bargaining unit—not just dues-paying union members. If workers are permitted to quit the union and still benefit from collective bargaining agreements without paying non-member fees, union non-membership will become much more attractive.

Flawed NYT Article on Inequality

I definitely don’t agree with all of the analysis in this NYT article, but there are some interesting takeaways from it. The article only mentions political democracy and completely avoids any mention of economic democracy. This is an important point, as a strong political democracy requires a strong economic democracy. I know how counter that truth runs to the standard doctrine of the corporate propaganda system, but it needs to be said.

It’s also particularly jarring that the article assumes the U.S. is a democracy — in reality the country has dysfunctional democratic structures (see gerrymandering, the typical top-down structure of corporations, and voter suppression) and is better described as a plutocracy.

Most recently, Thomas Piketty, a French economist who is the author of “Capital in the Twenty-First Century,” has come up with a straightforward answer: Traditional parties of the left no longer represent the working and lower middle classes.

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There are those who would like to accept inequality and focus exclusively on issues like gender equality and anti-racism. I would never minimize the importance of combating gender inequality or racism/nativism, but if that means ignoring the policies that have led to the enormous inequality we now see, that is not a serious progressive agenda.

Inequality Shown as the Fight For 15 Movement Continues

The story of U.S. wage disparity: “In 2007, average annual incomes of the top 1 percent of households were 42 times greater than in­comes of the bottom 90 percent (up from 14 times greater in 1979), and incomes of the top 0.1 percent were 220 times greater (up from 47 times greater in 1979).”

The income share of the top 1 percent in the U.S. has doubled from its share during most of the 1950s to 1980. This is an amount high enough to increase the income of people in the lowest 90 percent of the country’s income distribution by over 20 percent, and it’s nearly enough to double the income share of the bottom 40 percent. That basically represents massive amounts of money being wrongly transferred upwards.

WageDisparity

 

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Today’s article that’s linked to here reports on the movement of employees fighting for a $15 an hour wage. This is hardly radical when it’s considered that the minimum wage would be about $20 an hour today if wage gains had kept pace with productivity rates since the late 1960s. That’s yet another absurdity about inequality in the United States though.

According to the compensation research company PayScale, fast food workers make an average of $8.28 per hour. Those wages, depending on hours, leaves those workers making about $15,000 to $21,000 per year.

According to the National Low Income Housing Coalition, the current minimum wage of $7.25 per hour leaves workers unable to afford a two-bedroom rental apartment in any U.S. state.

The Poor People’s Campaign and Fight for $15 are also planning six weeks of “direct action and nonviolent civil disobedience” starting on Mother’s Day.

World’s Top 1% Obtained 82% of Wealth Generated in 2017

What a horrifying report this is on the status of global inequality. It’s easily one of the most disturbing reports on economic inequality ever released, as it shows that the world economic system has overall been structured to benefit the top 1 percent to an extreme degree.

In 2017, a new billionaire was created every two days and while 82 percent of all wealth created went to the top 1 percent of the world’s richest while zero percent—absolutely nothing—went to the poorest half of the global population.

That troubling information is included in Oxfam’s latest report on global inequality—titled Reward Work, Not Wealth (pdf)—released Monday. In addition to the above, the report details how skyrocketing wealth growth among the already rich coupled with stagnant wages and persistent poverty among the lowest economic rungs of society means that just 42 individuals now hold as much wealth as the 3.7 billion poorest people on the planet.

“The billionaire boom is not a sign of a thriving economy but a symptom of a failing economic system,” Winnie Byanyima, Oxfam’s executive director of Oxfam International. “The people who make our clothes, assemble our phones and grow our food are being exploited to ensure a steady supply of cheap goods, and swell the profits of corporations and billionaire investors.”

Among the report’s key findings:

  • Billionaire wealth has risen by an annual average of 13 percent since 2010 – six times faster than the wages of ordinary workers, which have risen by a yearly average of just 2 percent. The number of billionaires rose at an unprecedented rate of one every two days between March 2016 and March 2017.
  • It takes just four days for a CEO from one of the top five global fashion brands to earn what a Bangladeshi garment worker will earn in her lifetime. In the US, it takes slightly over one working day for a CEO to earn what an ordinary worker makes in a year.
  • It would cost $2.2 billion a year to increase the wages of all 2.5 million Vietnamese garment workers to a living wage. This is about a third of the amount paid out to wealthy shareholders by the top 5 companies in the garment sector in 2016.
  • Dangerous, poorly paid work for the many is supporting extreme wealth for the few. Women are in the worst work, and almost all the super-rich, nine out of ten, are men.

The report comes just as the world’s economic and political elite are set to open the World Economic Forum, held annually in Davos, Switzerland. And why the global elite argue the summit’s focus is addressing the world’s most pressing problems, Oxfam found that the amount of new wealth which went to the world’s top one percent in 2017 was roughly $762 billion—a figure large enough, the group points out, to end extreme global poverty seven times over.

What the report ultimately exposes, Mark Goldring, Oxfam GB chief executive, told the Guardian, is a “system that is failing the millions of hardworking people on poverty wages who make our clothes and grow our food.”

“For work to be a genuine route out of poverty we need to ensure that ordinary workers receive a living wage and can insist on decent conditions, and that women are not discriminated against,” he added. “If that means less for the already wealthy then that is a price that we—and they—should be willing to pay.”

Not just cataloging and lamenting the metrics of inequality, the new report also puts forth a number of policy solutions that should be embraced by people and governments worldwide to reduce levels of inequality and lift billions of people out of extreme poverty. They include:

  • Limit returns to shareholders and top executives, and ensure all workers receive a minimum ‘living’ wage that would enable them to have a decent quality of life. For example, in Nigeria, the legal minimum wage would need to be tripled to ensure decent living standards.
  • Eliminate the gender pay gap and protect the rights of women workers. At current rates of change, it will take 217 years to close the gap in pay and employment opportunities between women and men.
  • Ensure the wealthy pay their fair share of tax through higher taxes and a crackdown on tax avoidance, and increase spending on public services such as healthcare and education. Oxfam estimates a global tax of 1.5 percent on billionaires’ wealth could pay for every child to go to school.

Though Oxfam has been calculating global inequality on an annueal basis for more than a decade, the anti-poverty group notes that this year’s report used new data from Credit Suisse and a separate kind of model. Specifically, Oxfam noted, the fact that the world’s 42 richest billionaires have as much wealth as the poorest bottom half “cannot be compared to figures from previous years – including the 2016/17 statistic that eight men owned the same wealth as half the world – because it is based on an updated and expanded data set published by Credit Suisse in November 2017.  When Oxfam recalculated last year’s figures using the latest data we found that 61 people owned the same wealth as half the world in 2016 – and not eight.”