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17 Jul 06:59

An Untranslatable Poem

by Greg Ross

In his 1983 book En Torno a la Traducción, Spanish philologist and translator Valentín García Yebra cites a Portuguese poem by Cassiano Ricardo entitled “Serenata sintética”:




Broadly, it’s an image of an evening tryst, but its import is so embedded in its language that García Yebra found himself unable to convey it in another tongue.

“In this short poem, phonemic form is everything,” write Basil Hatim and Ian Mason in Discourse and the Translator. “The words themselves are evocative: a small town with ‘winding streets’ (rua torta), a ‘fading moon’ (lua morta) and the hint of an amorous affair: ‘your door’ (tua porta). But their impact is achieved almost solely through the close rhyme and rhythm; the meaning is raised from the level of the banal by dint of exploiting features which are indissociable from the Portuguese language as a code.

“García Yebra relates that he gave up the attempt to translate the poem even into Spanish, a language which shares certain phonological features with Portuguese.”

18 Jul 12:30

DN! Spitzer on BRICS bank

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: A group of five countries have launched their own development bank to challenge the United States-dominated World Bank and International Monetary Fund. Leaders from the so-called BRICS countries—Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa—unveiled the New Development Bank at a summit in Brazil. The bank will be headquartered in Shanghai. Chinese President Xi Jinping said the agreement would have far-reaching benefits for BRICS members and other developing nations.

PRESIDENT XI JINPING: [translated] Through the concerted effort from all sides, we have managed to reach a consensus in the creation of the BRICS development bank today. This is the result of the significant implications and far reach of BRICS cooperation and is therefore the political will of BRICS nations for common development. This will not only help increase the voice of BRICS nations in terms of international finance, but, more importantly, will bring benefits to all the people in the BRICS countries and for all peoples in developing countries.

AMY GOODMAN: That was Chinese President Xi Jinping. Together, BRICS countries account for 25 percent of global GDP and 40 percent of the world’s population.

For more, we’re joined now by Joseph Stiglitz, the Nobel Prize-winning economist, professor at Columbia University, author of numerous books. His new book is called Creating a Learning Society: A New Approach to Growth, Development, and Social Progress.

We welcome you to Democracy Now!

JOSEPH STIGLITZ: Good to be here.

AMY GOODMAN: Talk about the significance of this bank.

JOSEPH STIGLITZ: Oh, it’s very, very important, in many ways. First, the need globally for more investment—in the developing countries, especially—is in the order of magnitude of trillions, couple trillion dollars a year. And the existing institutions just don’t have enough resources. They have enough for 2, 3, 4 percent. So, this is adding to the flow of money that will go to finance infrastructure, adaptation to climate change—all the needs that are so evident in the poorest countries.

Secondly, it reflects a fundamental change in global economic and political power, that one of the ideas behind this is that the BRICS countries today are richer than the advanced countries were when the World Bank and the IMF were founded. We’re in a different world. At the same time, the world hasn’t kept up. The old institutions have not kept up. You know, the G-20 talked about and agreed on a change in the governance of the IMF and the World Bank, which were set back in 1944—there have been some revisions—but the U.S. Congress refuses to follow along with the agreement. The administration failed to go along with what was widely understood as the basic notion that, you know, in the 21st century the heads of these institutions should be chosen on the basis of merit, not just because you’re an American. And yet, the U.S. effectively reneged on that agreement. So, this new institution reflects the disparity and the democratic deficiency in the global governance and is trying to restart, to rethink that.

Finally, there have been a lot of changes in the global economy. And a new institution reflects the broader set of mandates, the new concerns, the new sets of instruments that can be used, the new financial instruments, and the broader governance. Realizing the deficiencies in the old system of governance, hopefully, this new institution will spur the existing institutions to reform. And, you know, it’s not just competition. It’s really trying to get more resources to the developing countries in ways that are consistent with their interests and needs.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And the importance of countries like China, which obviously has huge monetary reserves, and Brazil, which had developed its own development bank now for several years, their being key players in this new financial organization?

JOSEPH STIGLITZ: Very much. And that illustrates, as you say, a couple interesting points. China has reserves in excess of $3 trillion. So, one of the things is that it needs to use those reserves better than just putting them into U.S. Treasury bills. You know, my colleagues in China say that’s like putting meat in a refrigerator and then pulling out the plug, because the real value of the money put in U.S. Treasury bills is declining. So they say, "We need better uses for those funds," certainly better uses than using those funds to build, say, shoddy homes in the middle of the Nevada desert. You know, there are real social needs, and those funds haven’t been used for those purposes.

At the same time, Brazil has—the BNDES is a huge development bank, bigger than the World Bank. People don’t realize this, but Brazil has actually shown how a single country can create a very effective development bank. So, there’s a learning going on. And this notion of how you create an effective development bank, that actually promotes real development without all the conditionality and all the trappings around the old institutions, is going to be an important part of the contribution that Brazil is going to make.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And how has that bank functioned differently, let’s say, than other development banks in the North?

JOSEPH STIGLITZ: Well, we don’t know yet, because it’s just getting started. The agreement—it’s been several years underway. The discussions began about three years ago, and then they made a commitment, and then they—you know, they’ve been working on it very steadily. What was big about this agreement was—there was a little worry that there would be conflicts of the interests. You know, everybody wanted the headquarters, the president. Would there be enough political cohesion, solidarity, to make a deal? Answer was, there was. So, what it is really saying is that in spite of all of the differences, the emerging markets can work together, in a way more effectively than some of the advanced countries can work together.

AMY GOODMAN: Joe Stiglitz, you’re the former chief economist of the World bank. What’s your assessment of the World Bank under the tenure of Jim Yong Kim, who is the former Dartmouth president? We just passed the second anniversary of his tenure there.

JOSEPH STIGLITZ: Well, it’s still too soon to say.

AMY GOODMAN: When it comes to issues of debt and other issues.

JOSEPH STIGLITZ: You know, because it takes a while for somebody to get in charge of the bank and to—you know, it’s like a big ship, and you’re trying to shift it. I think there’s a broad concern that he brings certain very positive strengths to the bank—a focus on health and other social issues—but successful development will have to continue to have a focus on some of the old issues. So, you know, you have to grow. And he has a little bit less experience in the fundamentals of economic growth. I think he has probably more sensitivity to some of the problems that have plagued these international financial institutions in the past, the high conditionality. But he faces a governance problem. And that’s what this issue is about, a governance problem, where the head of the World Bank is chosen by the U.S., even though the U.S. is not playing the economic role and the leadership role that it did at one time. And we all believe in democracy, but a democracy says it shouldn’t be just assigned to one country.

One of the interesting aspects of the discussions that I’ve heard is, you know, during the East Asia crisis, one of the senior, very senior U.S. Treasury officials said, "What are you complaining about, about our telling countries what to do? He who pays the piper calls the tune." And what I hear now is the developing countries, emerging markets, China and the other countries, saying, "We’re paying the tune. We’re the big players now. We have the resources. We’re where the reserves are. And yet, you don’t want to let us play even a fair share in the role, reflecting the size of our contributions in the economy, in trade." And so, that’s one of the real grievances—I think valid grievances. And it’s hard for an institution where the governance is so out of tune with current economic and political realities to be as effective as it could be.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: I wanted to ask you about a subject we just had on—were discussing in an earlier segment: immigration and this whole issue of the world economy and financial systems. You have the contradiction that, on the one hand, globalization is breaking down barriers to capital everywhere, and yet, in the advanced countries especially, you have the growth of anti-immigrant movements, not just in the United States, but in Europe, in England and in Holland. And so you have a situation where there’s an effort to erect barriers to labor and to the free flow of labor. And the impact of these kinds of debates—just a few days ago, you had Warren Buffett, Bill Gates and Sheldon Adelson, a conservative Republican, all blasting Congress for not being able to achieve some kind of comprehensive immigration reform. The impact of this on the world economy?

JOSEPH STIGLITZ: Well, I think there are a couple of aspects of this that one has to appreciate. On the one hand, it’s absolutely true that free mobility of labor would have an impact on global incomes that is an order of magnitude greater than the free mobility of capital. So, the agenda that the U.S. has pursued, that free mobility of capital, has been driven not by on the grounds of global economic efficiency. It’s really special interests. It’s the banks that wanted this. On the other hand, both the movement of capital and labor can have disturbing effects. You know, we saw how free mobility of capital, short-term capital, especially, going in and out, can cause crises. We also know that migration of labor has—social adjustment processes have to occur. One of the real concerns, increasing concern, say, in a country like the United States, is that—how do you share the benefits of globalization? And there are wages are driving—been driven down. You know, the median income, income in the middle, of the United States today is lower than it was a quarter century ago. Median income of a full-time male worker is lower than it was 40 years ago. Productivity of workers has gone up over 100 percent in, say, the last 40 years—

AMY GOODMAN: We have 15 seconds.

JOSEPH STIGLITZ: —but wages are down by 7 percent.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re going to have to continue this conversation off air, and then we will post it at I also want to ask you about the Trans-Pacific Partnership—you talk about it being on the wrong side of globalization—your assessment of President Obama when it comes to the growing gap in inequality in this country. Joe Stiglitz is the Nobel Prize-winning economist, professor at Columbia University, former chief economist of the World Bank. He is author of many books; his latest, Creating a Learning Society: A New Approach to Growth, Development, and Social Progress.

That does it for our show. I’ll be speaking at the Mark Twain House in Hartford, Connecticut, Monday, July 21st, at 7:00 p.m.; in Martha’s Vineyard, Saturday, July 26, 7:00 p.m. at Katharine Cornell Auditorium in Vineyard Haven. Check out

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17 Jul 10:00

Parenting in an Age of Bad Samaritans

by Gracy Olmstead

A mother lets her daughter play in the park unaccompanied. A mother leaves her son in the car for a few moments, while she runs into a store to buy headphones. Many parents would consider these actions to be unwise—but are they criminal? According to three recent stories in the news, yes.

In the first case, Debra Harrell, a resident of North Augusta, South Carolina, allowed her daughter to play at the park while she worked at a local McDonald’s. She gave her daughter a cell phone. Lenore Skenazy noted in Reason that the park is “so popular that at any given time there are about 40 kids frolicking … there were swings, a ‘splash pad,’ and shade.” But on her second day at the park, an adult asked the girl where her mother was. When the little girl said she was working, the adult called the cops, who declared the girl “abandoned,” and arrested Harrell.

The second story was shared by Kim Brooks in Salon back in June: her four-year-old son insisted on accompanying her to the grocery store for a quick errand, but then refused to go inside the store. After noting that it was a “mild, overcast, 50-degree day,” and that there were several cars nearby, Brooks agreed and quickly ran into the store. Unbeknownst to her, an adult nearby saw her leave her son, and proceeded to record the whole incident on his phone, watched Brooks return and drive away, and then called the police. The police issued a warrant for her arrest.

These are only a few recent stories in which parents have faced arrest after leaving their children unsupervised. As Radley Balko notes at the Washington Post, these incidents seem to signal the “increasing criminalization of just about everything and the use of the criminal justice system to address problems that were once (and better) handled by families, friends, communities and other institutions.”

This latter point hearkens back to Robert Nisbet’s excellent book The Quest for Community: Nisbet predicted that, in a society without strong private associations, the State would take their place—assuming the role of the church, the schoolroom, and the family, asserting a “primacy of claim” upon our children. “It is hard to overlook the fact,” he wrote, “that the State and politics have become suffused by qualities formerly inherent only in the family or the church.” In this world, the term “nanny state” takes on a very literal meaning.

Balko’s article provides an example of a recent arrest in which the parent doesn’t appear to have done anything particularly wrong:

What started out as a normal Sunday morning for Jeffrey Williamson of Blanchester, Ohio, turned into a nightmare when police officers showed up to his front door and arrested him in front of his family. His crime? Child endangerment—as the authorities described it—because his son skipped church to go play with friends. He now faces up to six months in jail.

According to Williamson, the local Woodville Baptist Church sends a van to his neighborhood twice a week to offer free transportation to those interested in attending services. Williamson’s children ride the van regularly on Wednesdays and Sundays. This morning was no different, as his eight-year-old son Justin and siblings said goodbye to their father and left their house to board the van.

One problem: Justin skipped church and went to play instead.

The young boy stayed in the neighborhood to play with friends and then later ended up at the local Family Dollar store down the road. After police officers were called to the store by a customer who recognized Justin, they took him back to his neighborhood where they proceeded to arrest his father for child endangerment.

The father could not have foreseen or altered the sequence of events. Skipping church doesn’t appear to be something his children normally did, nor did he abandon his child in any way. His arrest appears to be a clear overreaction on the part of the police. It can be argued that the mother who left her daughter to play unsupervised in the park, as well as the Salon writer who left her child alone in the car, both made foolish decisions. But is it the government’s job to police our social decisions?

There’s also the question of the three “good samaritans” in these situations—the people who noticed a child unaccompanied, without a parent, and decided to call the police. In the first instance, perhaps, calling the police made sense: the girl was a complete stranger, by herself at the park. In Brooks’ case, however, a person recorded the whole incident and watched Brooks get into her car before calling the police. They could easily have talked to her, reprimanded her, warned her that they could report such activity. Williamson’s child was seen in the dollar store by a customer who recognized him—thus implying that the person had at least some knowledge of the child’s family. Why didn’t they talk to Justin, or call Justin’s parents?

In each case, the citizen jumped first to the State to care for the situation, rather than exercising any sort of personal involvement. This hardly seems to fit the definition “good samaritan”—these actions reveal a more passive, isolated attitude. But here, again, we see the result of breakdown in modern American community—without a sense of communal closeness or responsibility, we act as bystanders rather than as stewards. As Brooks puts it in her article,

We’re told to warn our children not to talk to strangers. We walk them to school and hover over them as they play and some of us even put GPS systems on them, confident, I guess, that should they get lost, no one will help them. Gone are the days of letting kids roam the neighborhood, assuming that at least one responsible adult will be nearby to keep an eye out. I’m told there are still things like carpools and babysitting co-ops, but I’ve never found one. In place of “It takes a village,” our parenting mantra seems to be “every man for himself.”

This is the unfortunate result of living in a world where parenting is no longer supported and bolstered by private association and community. If only there had been a family member, friend, or church member who had volunteered to watch Harrell’s little girl. If only the “good samaritan” at the dollar store had considered calling Justin’s father, or offered to take the boys home. We live in a society that neglects the sort of private stewardship that could foster truly safe environments for our children—and unfortunately, when parents are thrown into prison, it hardly seems to create more safe surroundings for these kids.

Follow @gracyolmstead

19 Jul 10:00

Why Facebook Matters

by Gracy Olmstead

I wanted to get off Facebook—to deactivate my account entirely. It seemed like such a waste of time, a distraction from real-life interactions and relationships. If Facebook no longer pulled at my attention, I thought, perhaps I would be a better friend, and invest in those people who are truly closest to me. I could invest time in the place I live, rather than in a virtual world full of acquaintances and people I barely know.

So I decided to take a break from Facebook to see whether my social relationships would improve or change at all. Before logging off, I let friends know that I’d be away, and gave them my email. It wasn’t really a full “unplugging” experiment, since I use the computer so much for work. But it meant that, in the evenings, I spent much less time online. I occasionally worked on writing projects or wrote emails—but not much else. I wrote long email letters or made phone calls to my closest friends and family members. I continued to use Instagram, but tried to send direct-message pictures to my family, rather than simply using the “public” feature. I marked friends’ birthdays on my personal calendar before deactivating my Facebook account, and tried to email or call them on their birthdays, rather than leaving the prosaic “Happy birthday!” wall post.

Leaving Facebook showed me how much time I do, in fact, rely on it to fill moments of pause. When I sat in the car, waited for the metro, or stood in line, social media was the first thing I turned to. Without Facebook, my fingers itched. What else could I browse—Instagram? Twitter? Anything to feel connected. Anything to pass the time. I realized how frenzied and information-obsessed my brain can become, and made an effort to cultivate quiet, and to appreciate the moments of stillness.

However, despite these advantages, my month away from Facebook wasn’t a time of great awakening, social revitalization, or spiritual growth. Though it did serve a few good purposes, there were also strong disadvantages to leaving Facebook—primarily, the sense of disconnection from family and friends. The world didn’t pause its social media usage when I did: friends would ask me why I hadn’t responded to messages or event invites, whether I had seen this picture or that link. I realized how much I relied on Facebook to get updates from more distant family members or old friends in my home state; though Instagram provided some information, I hadn’t thought about the fact that relationships, engagements, weddings, and graduations are primarily announced (and commented upon) via Facebook.

I began to evaluate my experiment. The thing I craved most about non-Facebook interactions was their closeness, their intimacy and depth. I was tired of the self-aggrandizing statuses, the public displays of affection between couples (or even friends) that would have been more meaningful, at least in my eyes, if shared privately.

But Facebook also does one thing very well—better, perhaps, than any other social media tool: it enables us to form and cultivate little platoons. And this, I realized, was what I had missed in the last month. Though I was able to invest in individual friendships, my lack of Facebook presence made it harder to host events, or to check up on the groups of people who meant so much in my life. I realized that not everyone checks email with the same rapidity I do—but everyone checks their Facebook notifications. I tried to coordinate a dinner with friends via email a few days ago—and only received one reply over the course of the next 48 hours. Then I created a Facebook event, and invited all the same people. They RSVP’d within 10-15 minutes.

I’m beginning to realize that Facebook is the lingua franca of social relationships in our day and age. Perhaps not for all the older generations—but for millennials, most definitely. Casey N. Cep wrote about this for the New Yorker some time ago. She writes of a time when she didn’t use social media—though, she adds, “While I didn’t poke, I did text; I didn’t write posts, but I did send e-mails.” She continues,

In the same antediluvian era, I happened to be travelling abroad, without a computer or a mobile phone, when my grandmother died. When I was finally able to read my e-mail, two days later, and received notice of her death, I was thankful to learn of it, and even more thankful for the airplane that carried me home in time for her funeral, where I could be with family and friends for the service. At that moment, I was also grateful for the very digital devices that I had scorned. When I saw relatives at the service, they wondered why I wasn’t blogging about my adventures or posting more pictures online. Not a single one had received the postcards that I’d mailed from overseas; those would arrive weeks later.

Unplugging from devices doesn’t stop us from experiencing our lives through their lenses, frames, and formats. We are only ever tourists in the land of no technology, our visas valid for a day or a week or a year, and we travel there with the same eyes and ears that we use in our digital homeland.

We needn’t use Facebook constantly; it’s not really necessary to even write statuses or post links, if you don’t want to. But to see pictures from family members, curate events (or get invited to events), check up on old friends, or connect with new acquaintances, it’s one of the best tools we have.

We live in a technological world, and that fact isn’t changing anytime soon. Perhaps, rather than abstaining from social media altogether, we’d best learn to exercise moderation in our online interactions. It needn’t replace long emails, phone calls, personalized birthday messages, or times of stillness—we just need to exercise the self-control and virtue necessary to limit Facebook, to know when we ought to log out. As Cep put it in her article, “For most of us, the modern world is full of gadgets and electronics, and we’d do better to reflect on how we can live there than to pretend we can live elsewhere.”

Follow @gracyolmstead

17 Jul 02:04

The truth behind Pac-Man

20 Jul 19:43

Babylonian Neurology and Psychiatry

by Neuroskeptic

A fascinating little paper in Brain examines Neurology and psychiatry in Babylon. It’s a collaboration by British neurologist Edward H. Reynolds and Assyriologist James V. Kinnier Wilson.

The sources they discuss are almost 4,000 years old, dating to the Old Babylonian Dynasty of 1894 – 1595 BC. Writing in cuneiform script impressed into clay tablets, the Babylonians left records that (unlike paper) were inherently durable, so many of them have survived. All understanding of cuneiform was lost, however, for thousands of years, only to be deciphered in the 19th century.

The texts reveal that

The Babylonians were remarkable observers and documentalists of human illness and behavior. However, their knowledge of anatomy was limited and superficial. Some diseases were thought to have a physical basis, such as worms, snake bites and trauma. Much else was the result of evil forces that required driving out… many, perhaps most diseases required the attention of a priest or exorcist, known as an asipu, to drive out evil demons or spirits.

For instance, one tablet provides an overview of epilepsy and seizures.


The text shows a detailed understanding of the symptoms and prognosis of this disorder, which the Babylonians called miqtu. However, they didn’t think it had anything to do with the brain. Rather,

Throughout the text, the Babylonian conception of epilepsy as a supernatural disorder due to invasion of the body by evil demons or spirits is evident, sometimes with individual names for the spirits associated with particular seizure types. The first line states:

‘If epilepsy falls once upon a person [or falls many times] it is the result of possession by a demon or departed spirit.’

Nonetheless some of the clinical observations are spot on:

The following account of a unilateral focal motor seizure, which today we call ‘Jacksonian’, illustrates the accurate attention to clinical detail by Babylonian scholars:

‘If at the time of his possession, while he is sitting down, his (left) eye moves to the side, a lip puckers, saliva flows from his mouth, and his hand, leg and trunk on the left side jerk (or twitch) like a newly-slaughtered sheep – it is miqtu. If at the time of the possession he is consciously aware, the demon can be driven out; if at the time of the possession he is not so aware, the demon cannot be driven out’

Babylonian physicians were obviously aware that the early motor components of the episode can proceed to loss of consciousness, when it became harder to drive out the demon.

The Babylonians were also aware that epilepsy could kill, writing that

‘If an epilepsy demon falls many times upon him and on a given day he seven times pursues and possesses him, his life will be spared. If he should fall upon him eight times his life may not be spared’

Although there is in fact nothing special about the number seven, this might be an allusion to the fact that prolonged unremitting seizures (what we call status epilepticus) can be fatal. Seven was presumably chosen as the ‘cut-off’ because it was a well-known magical or sacred number.

Another tablet describes what is now known as schizophrenia-like psychosis of epilepsy – when someone who suffers seizures develops paranoia and hallucinations…

‘…a demon then begins to inflict him with (ideas of) persecution so that he says – although no one will agree with him that it is so – that the finger of condemnation is being pointed at him behind his back and that god or goddess are angry with him; if he sees horrible, alarming, or immoral “visions” and is (consequently) in a constant state of fear; if he engages in periodic outbursts of anger against god or goddess, is obsessed with delusions of his own mind, evolves his own religion, and says – although (again) they will not allow it – that his family are hostile towards him and that god, king, his superiors and (city) elders treat him unjustly… and he has no desire for female relationships…’

Reynolds and Kinnier Wilson say that, as well as epilepsy and stroke, Babylonian sources describe irrational behavioral states that seem to correspond to our ‘psychiatric’ diseases, such as obsessive-compulsive disorder and depression. Yet, interestingly, the texts contain no account of the ‘inner’, subjective symptoms of these disorders, even though today, these are considered the essence of ‘mental’ illness. The Babylonians simply didn’t write about

subjective thoughts or feelings, such as obsessional thoughts or ruminations in obsessive compulsive disorder, or suicidal thoughts or sadness in depression. These latter subjective phenomena only became a relatively modern field of description and enquiry in the 17th and 18th centuries, possibly under the influence of the Romantic movement. This raises interesting questions about the evolution of human self-awareness.

ResearchBlogging.orgReynolds EH, & Kinnier Wilson JV (2014). Neurology and psychiatry in Babylon. Brain PMID: 25037816

The post Babylonian Neurology and Psychiatry appeared first on Neuroskeptic.

17 Jul 16:49

World Cup legacy: Brazil is now a more mature nation

by Mauricio Savarese

brasilalemanha922545-torcedores20_mineirc3a3o-1014_1_1At the Mineirão stadium, minutes after Germany hammered Brazil  7-1, I scroll my Twitter timeline and see people expecting riots, protests, defeat for president Dilma Rousseff in elections and even locals stopping the World Cup final from being played days later at the Maracanã stadium. Some of those comments are somewhat racist, as if Brazilians are shallow and would make big decisions based on a football match. But I didn’t even have time to get upset. Looking down my row in the press tribunes, a Brazilian couple takes pictures with a German fan as they show the tickets that put them in the Seleção disaster. Some laughter is heard. Of course not happy laughs, but laughs of people who had just seen their uncle do something bizarre at their wedding.

Perhaps Brazilians didn’t understand “the tragedy,” I thought. So I went back to Twitter. Jokes and jokes and more jokes about the national team. I get a text message from a friend in São Paulo that reads: “Just entered a bar with four Germans and they are embarrassed because we are making jokes with the Seleção, they are not.” Hours later I go to the Belo Horizonte bus terminal and the few Argentinians there are teasing Brazilians. Their only response, well humored, was to say Diego Maradona was a cocaine sniffer and that Pelé scored more than one thousand goals.

On the following day, at Arena Corinthians, Argentina and Holland play for a place in the final. Our neighbors go back to the provocations. Most Brazilians take it silently or fight back with the chant mocking Maradona. Fights erupt here and there, of course, but they are rare. At Vila Madalena, a bohemian district, Argentinians celebrate their first World Cup final in 24 years and Brazilians tease them saying they will go for Germany, the same team that had beat them 7-1 the day before. At the Maracanã, few Brazilians tease crying Argentinians. Although they cheered for Germany from the beginning to the end, a respectful silence is the most common reaction. “Brazilians have no pride,” an Argentinian football paper says about locals supporting the Germans.

Brazilians certainly do have pride, I argue. But they are mature enough to tell the difference between football and the rest. And that, my friends, is World Cup legacy on our faces. The maturity that the Brazilian national team lacked on the pitch was abundant everywhere else. If the 1950 Maracanazo was a tragedy for a country in the making, the 2014 Mineirazo was more of a sad comedy for a people that don’t depend on a sport to define itself.

Price tags don’t explain everything that surrounds a gigantic sporting event. When legacy talks restart in the campaign trail for the general elections, loads will be said about stadiums, broken promises and what has actually worked well for the World Cup. But much of what happened between June 12 and July 13 cannot be estimated in reais, dollars or euros. Much more than pride for organizing such a great tournament despite the doomsday predictions, Brazilians could leave their shell and be accepted as worthy members of the global community. They also learned how to cope with a big number of foreigners that were key in the beginning of the tournament to bring the excitement that was needed.

Despite minor incidents in the stadia, including Brazil’s tiny elite insulting president Dilma Rousseff even when German captain Phillip Lahm was lifting the trophy, Brazilians realized they can not only co-exist well with other fans, but also help their favorites. Ask any African, Asian or South American fan (exception to Argentinians) if they felt warmth in the local crowd. That is probably why about 69% of foreigners said they would like to live here, according to a Datafolha poll. Although some people in denial will say only joie de vivre made this an unforgettable World Cup, infrastructure was actually good: 83% of foreigners said they were positively surprised with he organization. Criticism was on self-evident affairs: prices, hotels and communication systems.

Where are the riots?

Maturity was here not only in co-existence, but also in understanding that if preparations had been smoother, a good chunk of the bashing and would be unfounded (fair criticism is always founded). Surely enough what matters is the main event, but the bumpy run-up has shown average Brazilians that the road to the Rio Olympics will have to be different — less excessive expectations, more planning and better communication are now in the agenda, much more than in the World Cup preparations. That maturity might take longer in Rio, since it is going to be the centre of the sporting universe for the next two years. But other World Cup host-cities will be able to be more demanding by comparing what was promised and what was delivered. Cities like tiny Cuiabá or Natal would never get that maturity and national attention if it weren’t for the World Cup.

The clearest exceptions to the nationwide mood were our police, which has again attacked protesters and journalists as if they were paying back after all the criticism they have earned in the last decades and the demonstrators themselves, who failed to point their finger at the police last year and embraced a naive anti-World Cup platform as if most people on the streets in June 2013 were actually against the football extravaganza played here. But these are topics for the next few weeks. Most of this World Cup moments were actually expected by this blogger, as you can see here.

For now I will leave you with a line I will use for the next few years, probably until Rio-2016: told you so!

18 Jul 19:59

As duas faces da Justiça

Adam Victor Brandizzi

Puta merda, cara...

O fazendeiro G.B., de 80 anos, foi preso em fevereiro de 2011 quando mantinha relações sexuais com X, uma menina de 13 anos, dependente de álcool e drogas, em uma camionete estacionada no meio de um canavial. Outra menina, Y, de 14 anos, já havia masturbado o homem e também se encontrava dentro do veículo. Pelo serviço, X recebeu R$ 50. Y ficou com R$ 20. A ordem de prisão em flagrante foi dada pela Polícia Militar.

Como X era, na ocasião dos fatos, menor de 14 anos, a Justiça de Catanduva (384 km de São Paulo) condenou G.B. a oito anos de prisão em regime fechado por estupro de vulnerável. Mas o fazendeiro ficou apenas 40 dias detido. Recorreu da condenação e o Tribunal de Justiça de São Paulo reverteu a condenação, que virou absolvição.

Isso, apesar de o artigo 217-A, introduzido no Código Penal pela Lei nº 12.015, de 2009, ser claríssimo ao definir o chamado “estupro de vulnerável” como a conjunção carnal ou a prática de outro ato libidinoso com menor de 14 anos. Pena: reclusão, de 8 a 15 anos. Pelo mesmo artigo, define-se que incorre em igual pena quem mantenha relações sexuais com alguém que, por enfermidade ou deficiência mental, não tem o necessário discernimento para a prática do ato, ou que, por qualquer outra causa, não pode oferecer resistência.

“O acusado cometeu crime de violação dos direitos da criança e deveria ser punido por isso. Houve exploração sexual de menor, o que é crime hediondo”,  Míriam Maria José dos Santos Presidente do Conselho Nacional dos Direitos da Criança e do Adolescente

Leva a assinatura do relator, desembargador Airton Vieira, o acórdão que absolveu o fazendeiro. Airton Vieira, só para lembrar, foi um dos assessores do ministro Cezar Peluso, do Supremo Tribunal Federal (STF), no caso do “mensalão”. O julgamento do fazendeiro pedófilo teve a participação também dos desembargadores Nuevo Campos e Hermann Herschander.

A absolvição de G.B. foi recebida com consternação pelas entidades de defesa dos direitos de crianças e adolescentes. “O acusado cometeu crime de violação dos direitos da criança e deveria ser punido por isso. Houve exploração sexual de menor, o que é crime hediondo”, disse a presidente do Conanda (Conselho Nacional dos Direitos da Criança e do Adolescente), Míriam Maria José dos Santos.

A Ponte obteve a íntegra do acórdão de absolvição. Como o caso correu sob segredo de Justiça, para preservar as meninas, não será mencionado nenhum apelido ou nome ou endereço que eventualmente permita identificá-las.

A Ponte também teve acesso ao excepcional documentário “Bagatela” (DocTV, direção Clara Ramos, 2009), que acompanhou as trajetórias de mulheres presas por cometer os chamados “crimes de bagatela”, aqueles pequenos furtos de produtos de valor irrisório (xampu, bolachas, leite em pó, queijo). No documentário, tem papel destacado o mesmo Airton Vieira, então juiz da 4º Vara Criminal Central de São Paulo, desta feita defendendo máximo rigor no julgamento desses crimes insignificantes.

Um juiz, duas atitudes, duas Justiças. Uma é tolerante e compreensiva com o fazendeiro, patriarca em Paraíso (cidade próxima a Catanduva), proprietário de canaviais no interior rico de São Paulo, que teria sido “enganado” pelas meninas, as quais lhe teriam asseverado serem maiores de 18 anos. A outra é indignada, raivosa, vingativa, exemplar. Esta é para as mulheres pobres que cometem os tais “crimes insignificantes”.

O que se verá nas linhas abaixo será o debate do desembargador Airton Vieira consigo mesmo. Em vermelho, trechos do acórdão por ele redigido, absolvendo o fazendeiro pedófilo ao mesmo tempo em que culpa as vítimas por seu modo de vida “devasso”. Em azul, trechos de sua fala contra as ladras de xampu e queijo.

Seria divertido, se não fosse trágico demais.

“É bem verdade que se trata de menor de 14 anos, mas entendo ser crível e verossímil, diante do que aconteceu, que o réu tenha se enganado quanto à idade real da vítima X, Afinal, partindo-se do pressuposto de que, no presente caso, a vítima X, à época dos fatos, contava com parcos 13 anos, 11 meses e 25 dias de idade, e, levando-se em consideração que era pessoa que se dedicava ao uso de drogas e ingestão excessiva de bebidas alcoólicas, [e que] já manteve relações sexuais com diversos homens, o que significa não ser ela nenhuma jejuna na prática sexual, é que não se pode presumir que o réu tinha conhecimento real da idade da vítima e que tinha o dolo de manter conjunção carnal ou praticar outro ato libidinoso com menor de 14 anos”.

Desembargador Airton Vieira/ Fotos/ilustração de reprodução documentário "Bagatela"

Desembargador Airton Vieira/ Fotos/ilustração sob reprodução de imagens do documentário “Bagatela”

“Hoje é uma gilete, amanhã é um quilo de carne… Você vai somando nos vários supermercados, nas várias lojas, isso ganha milhões. Por outro lado, se você não punir quem faz desse tipo de ação o seu dia a dia, ou ainda que seja uma vez isolada, você há de convir comigo o seguinte: todos nós estaremos legitimados a entrar em qualquer supermercado e subtrair algo na faixa de 5, 10, 20 reais. (…) Vejam o prejuízo que isso causa”.

“Não se pode perder de vista que em determinadas ocasiões podemos encontrar menores de 14 anos que aparentam ter mais idade, mormente nos casos em que eles se dedicam à prostituição, usam substâncias entorpecentes e ingerem bebidas alcoólicas, pois em tais casos é evidente que não só a aparência física como também a mental desses menores se destoará do comumente notado em pessoas de tenra idade.”

Desembargador Airton Vieira/ Fotos/ilustração sobre reprodução documentário "Bagatela"

Não são muitos os casos que se amoldariam em tese ao princípio de bagatela. Por mês, eu não chego a contar nos dedos de uma mão. Sabonetes, xampus, giletes, gêneros alimentícios, mas não de primeira necessidade. Ou seja, bolachas, queijos, postas de bacalhau. Tem coisas interessantes neste aspecto. Porque a pessoa não furta, via de regra, aquilo que você pode pensar que é uma necessidade premente dela. Eu não vejo como uma necessidade premente de alguém o uso de xampu.”

“Seria insensibilidade, a meu ver, distante dos verdadeiros contornos em que o fato se deu, manter a condenação do réu, que na época dos fatos contava com 76 anos de idade, pela prática do crime de estupro de vulnerável contra a vítima X, menor de 14 anos, sobretudo quando emerge dos autos uma verdadeira e clara situação de erro de tipo, pois o réu não tinha consciência da idade dela.”

Desembargador Airton Vieira/ Foto/ilustração sobre reprodução documentário "Bagatela"

“Se eu mantenho alguém preso é porque eu entendo que aquela pessoa ou deve permanecer presa, ou deve vir a ser presa. Se ela vai sair melhor ou pior, isso não é problema meu. Foi opção dessa pessoa. Ela podia ter seguido o exemplo honesto, que apesar de sofrer muito, dignifica o país. Honra a população brasileira. Sofre, mas sofre com altivez, olhando nos seus olhos.”

“Logicamente, não se pode desprezar a possibilidade, bastante frequente, da ocorrência de erro de tipo em relação à idade do menor [Não é possível que se exija] ao ‘consumidor’ que, antes de qualquer ato de libidinagem, exija a apresentação de documentos, os quais, ainda assim, podem não ser verdadeiros. Nesse meio, por outro lado, é comum que menores tenham aparência envelhecida além de sua idade real, decorrente de insônia (noites mal dormidas), ingestão excessiva de álcool, enfim, os maus-tratos que a vida devassa lhes oferece contribuem para a aparência de ‘amadurecimento’ (entenda-se envelhecimento) precoce.” (Airton Vieira citando Cezar Roberto Bitencourt)

“Você contrataria para trabalhar na sua residência, para usufruir da intimidade do seu lar alguém que tivesse sido condenado por furto? Eu vou ser franco: eu não contrataria. Eu não vou ser hipócrita. Como eu não gostaria de trabalhar com alguém já condenado, eu não gosto de mandar alguém prestar serviços à comunidade numa escola ou num hospital porque alguém em nome dessa escola ou em nome desse hospital celebrou um convênio qualquer. Eu não vejo isso como salutar. Não estou querendo dizer que eu defendo a prisão sistemática de todo mundo. O que eu defendo é que a pessoa sinta efetivamente uma retribuição por parte do Estado do mal que ela causou com ao praticar um crime. Do contrário, ela vai se sentir autorizada a praticar outros crimes, quiçá piores até.”

“Desse modo, não posso, sobretudo pela forma em que ocorreram os fatos, aplicar friamente o que dispõe o artigo 217-A do Código Penal e fundamentar a manutenção da condenação do réu com base na jurisprudência de nossa Corte Suprema, que entende tratar-se de vulnerabilidade absoluta, deixando passar despercebido o verdadeiro quadro de como se realizou essa relação de que teria resultado o estupro de vulnerável. Ante o exposto (…), dou provimento ao recurso da defesa para fins de se absolver o réu.”

Desembargador Airton Vieira/ Foto/ilustração sobre reprodução documentário "Bagatela"

“Nós gostamos de ter essa visão romanceada do criminoso, como se o criminoso fosse um coitado. Como se fosse alguém que a sociedade não deu oportunidades para ele. Longe disso. O julgador não é legislador. Muitas coisas que eu entendo erradas sou obrigado a cumprir. Eu sou escravo da lei. Isso é uma segurança para toda a população. Até porque, amanhã ou depois, o que eu posso entender irrisório, 5 ou 10 reais, outro vai entender que irrisório é 400 ou 500 reais. Onde iremos parar com esse raciocínio?”

O silêncio dos julgadores

O site Ponte dirigiu à assessoria de imprensa do Tribunal de Justiça de São Paulo as seguintes perguntas:

1. “X”, 13 anos, e “Y”, 14, são apresentadas como adolescentes usuárias de álcool e drogas. Diz o acórdão que teriam experiência “dessas coisas de sexo” e que “se prostituíram livremente para o réu”. Pergunta: o fato de serem dependentes químicas não as torna mais vulneráveis ainda, já que estariam tangidas pela síndrome de abstinência?

2. Como falar em “liberdade” de se prostituírem se está claro que as meninas “saem com homens para arrumar dinheiro para comprar substâncias entorpecentes”?

3. O fato de serem usuárias contumazes de álcool e drogas em vez de lhes aumentar a autonomia de decisão não as deixa em condição de vulnerabilidade análoga à de alienados ou débeis mentais “ou aqueles que, por outra causa, não pudessem oferecer resistência”, tal como prevê o artigo 217-A do Código Penal?

4. Qual a estatura de “X” e “Y” à época dos fatos?

5. Por que o relator aceitou sem mais a alegação de que não se pode “determinar ao ‘consumidor’ que, antes de qualquer ato de libidinagem”, exija a apresentação de prova de idade? Não caberia ao menos a caracterização de crime culposo?

Mas nenhuma resposta foi dada. Abaixo, o email enviado pela assessoria de imprensa do Tribunal de Justiça de São Paulo:

“Os magistrados não podem conceder entrevista porque o caso está sob segredo de Justiça e, também, porque há um impedimento pela Lei Orgânica da Magistratura (o artigo 36 veda manifestação, por qualquer meio de comunicação, de opinião sobre processo que esteja sob sua responsabilidade ou de outro juiz).”

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09 Jul 22:07

John Searle: The Philosopher in the World by Tim Crane

Adam Victor Brandizzi

Não conhecia John Searle. Parece legal, seus questionamentos, especialmente sobre direitos humanos positivos e direitos de animais, me afligem também. Ele também parece bem polêmico de uma maneira construtiva e estimulante. A ler mais.

On May 22, the philosopher and longtime New York Review contributor John Searle gave a public lecture at the University of Cambridge’s Centre for Research in the Arts, Social Sciences and Humanities (CRASSH) on “Consciousness as a Problem in Philosophy and Neurobiology.” During Searle’s visit, Cambridge Professor of Philosophy Tim Crane interviewed him about his work and the state of philosophy today. The following is drawn from their conversation.

John Searle

Tim Crane: In our discussion earlier today, you talked about questions of rights and freedom. This is a bit of a new departure for you, isn’t it?

John Searle: I have never written much about political rights and political power. But if you have a theory of social ontology it ought to have implications in other areas of social philosophy concerning other issues. Social ontology is a beautiful subject by the way. We all live with money and private property, and universities, and governments, and summer vacations: What’s their ontology? How do they exist? How can there be an objective fact that this piece of paper is money, but it’s only money in virtue of our subjective opinions? That’s a big question I have tried to answer. And I think my theory of social ontology has important implications for political philosophy. One is on the notion of human rights, universal human rights.

Are you skeptical of the idea of universal human rights?

No, I’m not skeptical about the idea of universal human rights. I’m skeptical about what I call positive rights. You see, if you look at the logical structure of rights, every right implies an obligation on someone else’s part. A right is always a right against somebody. If I have a right to park my car in your driveway, then you have an obligation not to interfere with my parking my car in your driveway. Now the idea of universal human rights is a remarkable idea because if there are such things, then all human beings are under an obligation to do—what? Well, I want to say that with things like the right to free speech it just means not to interfere. It’s a negative right. My right to free speech means I have a right to exercise my free speech without being interfered with. And that means that other people are under an obligation not to interfere with me.

Now, when I look at the literature, I discover that there is a tradition going back to the UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights, where not all of the rights listed are negative rights like the right to free speech, or the right to freedom of religion, or the right to freedom of association, I think all those negative rights are perfectly legitimate. But there are supposed to be such rights as “every human being has a right to adequate housing.” Now I don’t think that can be made into a meaningful claim.

The claim that “every human being has a right to seek adequate housing,” or that there are particular jurisdictions where the British government, or the government of the State of California, can decide “we’re going to guarantee or give that right to all of our citizens”—that seems to me OK. But the idea that every human being, just in virtue of being a human being, has a right to adequate housing in a way that would impose an obligation on every other human being to provide that housing, that seems to me nonsense. So I say that you can make a good case for universal human rights of a negative kind, but that you cannot make the comparable case for universal human rights of a positive kind.

Now I come up with one counter-example. One exception to that is that it does seem to me where life and safety themselves are concerned, we’re all under an obligation, where we can, to help people whose life is threatened. If someone has been hit by a car, he has a right to expect that he will receive assistance from us, and we have an obligation to afford him assistance. And the reason that’s an exception is that a condition of anything else in life is that you have rights of survival. But in general, I think it’s a big mistake in contemporary political thinking to suppose that there is a list, an inventory, of universal human rights of a positive kind. I don’t think I can make sense of this.

Have you ever been interested in getting involved with politics yourself?

It’s funny you should ask that. There was a period when I first went back to California when I was fairly active in the Democratic Party, and then was very active in the Free Speech Movement, but it’s not as intellectually satisfying as an academic career. You do have the satisfaction that you get involved in decisions that make a difference in a way that most philosophical arguments don’t. And in fact, during the Vietnam War, a friend of mine who was a high official with the State Department invited me to come and serve on the State Department policy planning staff where they plan American policy. And I said, “Not during the war.” I was so opposed to the war that I absolutely refused to do anything that would even seem to be lending tacit support to the war. So I didn’t do it and I have seldom been active in public affairs since.

It’s a choice you have to make, especially in the United States. I think it’s possible to combine a political career with an academic, philosophical career. But the cases of people who’ve done it have not been very inspiring to me.

Coming back to the question of rights, since every right requires a corresponding obligation, does it follow from your view that animals don’t have rights, since they have no obligations?

Most rights have to do with specific institutions. As a professor in Berkeley I have certain rights, and certain obligations. But the idea of universal rights—that you have certain rights just in virtue of being a human being—is a fantastic idea. And I think, Why not extend the idea of universal rights to conscious animals? Just in virtue of being a conscious animal, you have certain rights. The fact that animals cannot undertake obligations does not imply that they cannot have rights against us who do have obligations. Babies have rights even before they are able to undertake obligations.

Now I have to make a confession. I try not to think about animal rights because I fear I’d have to become a vegetarian if I worked it out consistently. But I think there is a very good case to be made for saying that if you grant the validity of universal human rights, then it looks like it would be some kind of special pleading if you said there’s no such thing as universal animal rights. I think there are animal rights.

Why does that mean they have rights?

For every right there’s an obligation. We’re under an obligation to treat animals as we arrogantly say, “humanely.” And I think that’s right. I think we are under an obligation to treat animals humanely. The sort of obligation is the sort that typically goes with rights. Animals have a right against us to be treated humanely. Now whether or not this gives us a right to slaughter animals for the sake of eating them, well, I’ve been eating them for so long that I’ve come to take it for granted. But I’m not sure that I could justify it if I was forced to. I once argued this with Bernard Williams. Bernard thought that it was absolutely preposterous for me to think that a consideration of animal rights would forbid carnivorous eating habits. I’m not so sure if Bernard was right about it.

Interesting you mentioned Bernard Williams. He was, of course, one of the great philosophers of the second half of the twentieth century, and he was also someone who had interests in political life.

Yes. Well, Bernard was a very good friend of mine. He had an enormous influence on me of the kind that would be hard to describe because it was mostly just admiration for his sheer intellectual abilities. I think Bernard was as intelligent as any human being I’ve ever met. He had a kind of quickness which was stunning. Now one consequence of that is there’s a sense in which people who knew him well, or at least in my case, we always feel the published work is not up to the level of the Bernard we remember. Yes, it’s wonderful and admirable, the published work, but the particular fire and light that came from discussions with Bernard are lost on the printed page…. And one of the reasons for that is he had all this other stuff going on. He was always on some royal commission, or dining in Buckingham Palace. And this is one of the reasons I tried very hard to get him a job in Berkeley. I thought if he was in Berkeley, away from the distractions of London, he might sit down and do really great philosophy. And he did great things in Berkeley, but then he turned around and went back to Oxford, and back to his old ways.

Some people describe him as a skeptical philosopher, or reactive in the sense that he would just be able to see all the flaws in every position, and this made him somewhat pessimistic.

He could see instantly the flaws in arguments, including his own. This was the fatal element: that Bernard could see the limitations of philosophical theories, but they led to him seeing the limitations of his own theories, and that was partly debilitating. But there’s another sense in which he never really was part of mainstream philosophy. You see, Oxford had this wonderfully exciting period where it was all about language, and we thought we were going to get an understanding of language which would enable us to solve a lot of philosophical problems. Bernard was always very skeptical about that. He always stood outside the mainstream. He wasn’t just a brilliant philosopher, but he was actually a brilliant classical scholar. Bernard had a kind of historicist conception of philosophy which is profoundly out of sync with mainstream philosophy of the past hundred years.

What do you think about this kind of historicism? Is that something that was ever attractive to you?

Well, not me, I think partly because I’m too lazy to read all those works. I mean the thought of reading, let’s say, the collected work of Hegel, I just—I mean—I find it too daunting. I think it is wonderful if you get obsessed with certain classic texts. For example, I became totally obsessed with Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason and wrote a summary of the whole damn book. My idea was that somebody ought to sit down and rewrite it the way a contemporary philosopher would do since we have tools and knowledge that Kant didn’t have. My first task was to write a summary of the whole book and I did. It’s very useful. But it’s not my life, it’s not my career. I don’t have the patience. I’m more obsessed with the immediate problems that bother me, and there’s a sense in which Kant’s problems are not my problems. I mean, if you think that you can never perceive the thing in itself, and yet you can perceive representations that give you a kind of objectivity, then you have a problematic that I don’t have. You have a set of conceptions of philosophy and epistemology that are really totally foreign to my way of thinking.

You started your career at one of the high points of English-speaking, analytic, Anglophone philosophy. What’s your view of the state of philosophy at the moment?

I think it’s in terrible shape! What has happened in the subject I started out with, the philosophy of language, is that, roughly speaking, formal modeling has replaced insight.

Any account of the philosophy of language ought to stick as closely as possible to the psychology of actual human speakers and hearers. And that doesn’t happen now. What happens now is that many philosophers aim to build a formal model where they can map a puzzling element of language onto it, and people think that gives you an insight. I mean a most famous current example of this is the idea that you will explain counterfactuals—for example, if I had dropped this pen, it would have fallen to the ground—by appealing to possible worlds. And then you have a whole load of technical stuff about how to describe the possible worlds. Well I won’t say that’s a waste of time because very intelligent people do it, but I don’t think it gives us insight. It’s as if I said: Well the way to understand the sentence, “All ravens are black,” is that what it really means is that all non-black things are non-ravens. You can get a mapping of one sentence onto other sentences where each side has the same truth conditions. But that is not, in general, the right way to understand the sense of the original sentence. And it’s a philosophical question of why you don’t get the insight.

And this is pervading other areas of philosophy. Formal epistemology seems to me so boring. I’m sure there’s some merit in it, but it puts me to sleep…. They’ve lost sight of the questions.

What advice would you give to a young philosopher starting out to not lose sight of the questions?

Well, my advice would be to take questions that genuinely worry you. Take questions that really keep you awake at night, and work on them with passion. I think what we try to do is bully the graduate students. The graduate students suffer worse than the undergraduates. We bully the graduate students into thinking that they have to accept our conception of what is a legitimate philosophical problem, so very few of them come with their own philosophical problems. They get an inventory of problems that they get from their professors. My bet would be to follow your own passion. That would be my advice. That’s what I did.

Tim Crane’s full interview with John Searle is available on the CRASSH website, which has also posted a video of his Cambridge lecture, “Consciousness as a Problem in Philosophy and Neurobiology.”

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15 Jul 13:01

Será a “reforma política” a mãe de todas as reformas?

by Marcos Mendes
Adam Victor Brandizzi

Um texto longo mas abrangente o suficiente pra valer o esforço.

Sempre que uma crise política ou econômica se instala no país  – como, por exemplo, as manifestações populares de julho de 2013 –  volta ao debate o argumento de que é preciso fazer uma “reforma política”. Tal reforma, chega a ser colocada por alguns analistas como sendo mais importante que as demais (previdenciária, tributária, orçamentária, trabalhista, etc.). Já foi qualificada até como a “mãe de todas as reformas”1.

Em geral o argumento é de que o sistema político prejudica a governabilidade, estimula a corrupção e o agigantamento do Estado. Ao mesmo tempo, não colabora para que se instale uma administração moderna, focada no mérito e nos resultados obtidos, nem tampouco viabiliza a formação de maiorias necessárias para aprovar as demais reformas.

Este texto pretende argumentar que um governo decidido a dar prioridade à reforma política acabaria por conduzir sua administração para um impasse, sendo incapaz de fazer tanto esta reforma quanto as demais.

1 – A “reforma política” é, na verdade, um conjunto de várias reformas: não seria viável tratar todas de uma vez.

Em primeiro lugar, é preciso dizer que não existe “a” reforma política. O que há é uma diversidade de diagnósticos acerca de quais seriam os mais importantes problemas do sistema político e, portanto, um grande rol de propostas de reforma. Por exemplo, aqueles que acreditam que o problema central está na baixa disciplina partidária e na dificuldade de o governo eleito formar maioria no Congresso, propugnam a mudança do atual sistema de eleições proporcionais com lista aberta, usada para a Câmara dos Deputados e legislativos estaduais e municipais, por outros sistemas como o voto distrital ou o voto proporcional em lista fechada. Outros, preocupados com comportamento oportunista de pequenos partidos pouco representativos, desejam que haja uma cláusula de barreira que impeça partidos pouco votados de ter representação na Câmara. Também se preocupam com as distorções geradas pelas coligações em eleições proporcionais ou a regra de escolha de suplentes de senador.

Há, ainda, uma longa lista de temas, como o voto facultativo, a duração das campanhas, as fontes de financiamento (público ou privado), a possibilidade de reeleição, a duração dos mandatos, a vedação a candidatos condenados (ficha limpa), etc.

Percebe-se, portanto, que não existe um único problema a ser resolvido. Há uma diversidade de problemas. Tratá-los todos de uma vez, como uma “ampla reforma política” é inviável.

Tal inviabilidade decorre, em primeiro lugar, das próprias limitações do sistema político. Está claro, após quase trinta anos de democracia, que medidas que contrariam interesses organizados têm viabilidade de aprovação apenas no primeiro ano de mandato presidencial, quando o chefe do Executivo tem o suporte da grande quantidade de votos recentemente obtida e pode apelar para o desejo de mudança e progresso do eleitorado. Com o passar do tempo os grupos de interesse se organizam e a mobilização cívica do período eleitoral se esvai. Por isso é necessário aprovar reformas que estejam baseadas em claro diagnóstico do problema a ser resolvido e da eficácia das medidas a serem tomadas.

2 – Para cada um dos vários problemas há múltiplas soluções propostas e nenhum consenso sobre qual seria a melhor delas

Além de serem muitos os problemas do sistema político, há uma diversidade de soluções propostas para cada um deles. Cada possível solução tem seus benefícios, mas também efeitos colaterais indesejados. O voto distrital, por exemplo, aproximaria o eleitor de seu representante, aumentando a transparência e fiscalização sobre o comportamento do parlamentar. Por outro lado, ampliaria o viés localista da ação dos deputados federais: eleitos por pequenos distritos, eles teriam como principal preocupação levar benefícios para seus eleitores, em vez de se concentrarem nas questões políticas de âmbito nacional. Adicionalmente, sistemas com voto distrital tendem a subrepresentar as minorias. O voto em lista fechada, por sua vez, reduziria custos das eleições e aumentaria a fidelidade partidária, mas traria o risco de uma elite de dirigentes partidários passar a acumular poder excessivo e impedir a ascensão de novos líderes.

Ou seja, há muitos dilemas envolvidos nas escolhas a serem feitas em reformas do sistema político. A sociedade e os partidos políticos estão fortemente divididos sobre qual a melhor opção, muitas vezes em função de interesses ocasionais e de projeto de poder.

Compare-se essa situação com, por exemplo, uma reforma do sistema previdenciário. Aqui o problema tem dimensão bem mais restrita. Há quem afirme que vai tudo bem com a previdência e que nenhuma reforma é necessária. E há os que apontam que o déficit previdenciário é insustentável no longo prazo. A reforma resume-se a aceitar o diagnóstico da necessidade de ajuste (e aprovar a reforma), ou discordar do diagnóstico (e rejeitar a reforma). Obviamente há disputa de grupos de interesses, e discordância sobre como atingir os objetivos da reforma. Mas há muito menos dilemas e incertezas a serem considerados no debate e decisão política do que no caso da “reforma política”. Tanto os diagnósticos quanto as possíveis soluções estão mais maduras e o espectro de possíveis reformas é mais reduzido.

Usar o precioso primeiro ano de mandato de um governo para abrir um debate sobre reforma política seria abrir uma caixa de pandora. Perder-se-ia a oportunidade de ouro de viabilizar outras reformas, também difíceis de fazer, porém “menos inviáveis” que temas afetos à reforma política.

3 – Embora tenha muitos problemas, as regras de funcionamento do sistema político não paralisam o processo decisório: o Presidente da República tem poder suficiente para melhorar políticas públicas e fazer outras reformas.

As regras do sistema político brasileiro, ao longo dos quase trinta anos de democracia, foram sendo adaptadas no sentido de garantir governabilidade, dando ao Presidente da República instrumentos políticos suficientes para colocar em prática seu programa2. Ainda que isso tenha sido obtido por meio de alto custo fiscal, com baixa transparência, limitações à eficiência do governo, espaço para corrupção, entre outros problemas.

A Constituição de 1988 não promoveu mudança radical no sistema de representação política e nas regras eleitorais vigentes no regime militar. Fez apenas adaptações ao que então existia. Manteve-se o regime presidencialista com um Congresso bicameral, no qual a Câmara dos Deputados e o Senado constituem duas instâncias decisórias distintas. Todas as matérias submetidas ao Congresso devem ser votadas em uma casa e revista pela outra. Manteve-se também o sistema federativo, com três níveis de governo: União, estados e municípios.

Isso significa que há diversas instâncias com poder para interferir em decisões políticas. O Poder Executivo federal, para ter uma política pública posta em prática, precisa não apenas obter maioria nas duas casas do Congresso, como também evitar contrariar os interesses de estados e municípios, que dispõem de razoável poder de influência sobre os deputados e senadores representantes de seus respectivos estados.

O Poder Executivo federal, todavia, dispõe de instrumentos que são fortes o suficiente para garantir ao Presidente da República a liderança na ação política e o controle fiscal. O primeiro desses instrumentos são as Medidas Provisórias (MP). Trata-se de leis, de validade provisória, porém imediata, que o Presidente pode decretar sem a prévia aprovação do Congresso. Uma vez instituída uma medida provisória, o Congresso tem prazo para aprovar, emendar ou alterar essa medida, transformando-a em lei de caráter definitivo. Esse instrumento constitui uma adaptação dos “decretos-lei” criados no regime militar. Na forma adotada na nova constituição, as MP têm tramitação prioritária no Congresso e, enquanto houver MP pendentes de votação, o Congresso não pode deliberar sobre grande parte de outras espécies de projeto de lei.  Isso dá ao Presidente da República o poder de definir a agenda do Congresso, colocando os assuntos que considera prioritários no topo da agenda de votações do legislativo.

O Presidente da República dispõe, ainda, de outros instrumentos importantes na sua relação com o Congresso. Ele pode solicitar que determinado projeto de lei tramite em regime de urgência, fazendo-o saltar à frente de outros projetos na prioridade de votação. Também tem o poder privativo de apresentar projetos de lei sobre assuntos específicos (por exemplo, projetos que criam cargos no governo ou alterem a organização administrativa dos órgãos públicos), ficando vedado aos congressistas apresentar projetos dessa natureza.

O modelo de elaboração, votação e execução do orçamento federal também dá grande poder ao Presidente da República. Cabe ao Poder Executivo elaborar a proposta de orçamento e apresentá-la ao Congresso. O Congresso pode alterar as estimativas de receita, bem como acrescentar despesas. Contudo, a lei orçamentária aprovada pelo legislativo é apenas uma autorização de gasto, não obrigando o Executivo a fazer a despesa. Assim, se desejar executar menos despesas que aquelas aprovadas pelo Congresso, o Executivo tem direito de fazê-lo.

Com o advento da redemocratização, aumentou fortemente a pressão por gastos públicos. Houve a criação de programas sociais para atender os pobres (que passaram a ter poder de voto), a ampliação de benefícios à classe média (que passou a ter a liberdade de associação e formação de sindicatos, introdução do Regime Jurídico Único para os funcionários públicos). Isso se somou aos privilégios que os mais ricos sempre obtiveram do estado (subsídios creditícios e fiscais, por exemplo). Frente ao inevitável aumento de despesas, a política fiscal do governo federal é conduzida de forma a tentar equilibrar as contas por meio do aumento da carga tributária. E o Presidente da República efetivamente tem poder para tal. Apesar de todos os defeitos do nosso sistema político, foi possível, em 1999-2000, instituir uma série de medidas fiscais, entre elas a Lei de Responsabilidade Fiscal, que reduziram significativamente o déficit público e viabilizaram o fim definitivo da hiperinflação, obtido em 1994.

Ademais, o Presidente da República lança mão do direito de não executar parte das despesas contidas no orçamento. O alvo principal desses cortes têm sido os acréscimos feitos pelos congressistas à despesa orçamentária. Trata-se das chamadas “emendas parlamentares ao orçamento”. Ao liberar a conta-gotas os recursos para pagar tais despesas, o Executivo ganha poder de barganha para controlar o voto dos deputados e senadores. É comum que tais recursos sejam liberados apenas após votações importantes no Congresso, beneficiando aqueles que votaram a favor do Poder Executivo.

Esse instrumento dá ao Presidente o poder de formar maiorias circunstanciais para aprovar projetos de lei e emendas constitucionais, ainda que ao custo de liberar recursos para obras e programas que podem não ser de prioridade nacional. Já foram apontados, também, diversos casos de corrupção ligados às emendas parlamentares. Mas para solucionar esse tipo de problema não é necessária “uma ampla reforma política”, e sim mais transparência, fiscalização e punição de ilícitos.

O Poder Executivo federal pode, ainda, controlar do ritmo de endividamento dos estados e municípios. A maioria dos empréstimos feitos por esses governos tem que ser explicitamente autorizada pelo Poder Executivo federal. Embora esse controle tenha sido frouxo nos primeiros anos após à redemocratização, o que levou a uma crise de sobreendividamento dos entes subnacionais, a partir do ano 2000 tais controles foram reforçados (e afrouxados a partir de 2008). Com isso, o Governo Federal tem poder para induzir estados e municípios a equilibrar suas contas e cooperar no esforço fiscal agregado.

Em suma, não obstante todos os defeitos das instituições político-eleitorais, há espaço para governabilidade. Um Poder Executivo dotado de um programa de governo e uma agenda de reformas tem espaço para realizá-los. Ainda que isso tenha custos de curto prazo, como a liberação de gastos orçamentários não-prioritários, o aumento da carga tributária para financiar esses gastos e a oportunidade de corrupção na execução do orçamento. Parte desses efeitos colaterais pode ser combatida por fortalecimento de instituições como o TCU, a Polícia Federal e a Secretaria do Tesouro Nacional, sem que seja necessário recorrer a “reforma política” para minimizá-los. Talvez a reforma necessária não esteja no sistema político, mas sim na justiça penal que, com sua morosidade, abre espaço para corrupção e mau-feitos sem que haja ameaça de punição aos infratores.

4 – As regras eleitorais geram, de fato, efeitos colaterais negativos para as finanças públicas e o crescimento do país…

Não obstante dispor de amplos poderes, o Poder Executivo não tem força para governar sozinho. Isso é não é um defeito, e sim uma virtude de um regime democrático, que necessita de checks and balances entre os poderes. Esses checks and balances, contudo, podem ser exercidos de forma distorcida, ou estar baseados em incentivos inadequados.

O Congresso, se não tem muito espaço para definir a lista de projetos prioritários para votação e pode ter a sua intervenção no orçamento desfeita pelo Executivo, tem poder para rejeitar ou alterar os projetos de lei e as MP propostas pelo Executivo. O fato de essas propostas  terem que ser aprovadas tanto na Câmara quanto no Senado aumenta o poder de barganha dos congressistas. Há, ainda, matérias que demandam quórum elevado, como as emendas à Constituição, que tornam ainda maior tal poder de veto do Congresso.

O Congresso pode, também, instituir comissões de inquérito para investigar ações do Poder Executivo;  vetar o acesso de pessoas indicadas pelo Presidente de República para exercer cargos em agências reguladoras e outros órgãos públicos; convocar membros do Executivo para inquirir sobre a condução de políticas.

Todas essas ações, importantes instrumentos de equilíbrio de poder em uma democracia, criam também a possibilidade de se “criar dificuldades para vender facilidades”, criando embaraços à gestão pública, ou aumentando o gasto público,  ou criando regulação que favoreça grupos de pressão.

Para conseguir aprovar suas propostas políticas e evitar ações do Congresso que contrariem seus interesses ou desequilibrem as contas públicas, o Presidente da República necessita formar maioria tanto na Câmara quanto no Senado. A formação dessas maiorias depende dos incentivos que deputados e senadores têm para votar a favor do governo. E tais incentivos são formatados pelas regras eleitorais.

Na eleição para a Câmara dos Deputados, cada estado da federação tem direito a um número fixo de cadeiras. O eleitor vota em um candidato específico. O voto ao candidato é computado a favor do seu partido. As cadeiras da Câmara dos Deputados que cabem a um determinado estado são divididas entre os partidos proporcionalmente à fatia de votos que cada agremiação recebeu. As vagas conquistadas por cada partido são preenchidas pelos candidatos mais votados.

Esse sistema de votação tem várias implicações. Em primeiro lugar, ele reduz a disciplina partidária, porque o candidato a deputado disputa contra os seus próprios companheiros de partido. Para ser eleito, não basta que o partido tenha muitos votos. É preciso estar entre os mais votados do partido. A tendência é que cada candidato tenda a fazer campanha individualmente. Não faz sentido fazer campanha em conjunto com outro candidato do mesmo partido, que pode tomar a sua vaga. Menor disciplina partidária significa que os líderes dos partidos não terão forte comando sobre sua bancada e, por isso, não poderão conduzir negociações com o Executivo em nome de toda a bancada. Sempre haverá espaço para cada deputado, individualmente, votar contra a orientação de seu partido. Isso força o Poder Executivo a negociar o apoio a suas iniciativas no varejo, oferecendo a cada deputado ou senador, individualmente, vantagens para mantê-los na base de apoio ao governo.

Em segundo lugar, os candidatos disputam voto em todo o território estadual, pois não há divisão dos estados em distritos eleitorais menores. Como o Brasil é um país de dimensões continentais, os seus estados têm amplos territórios. A combinação de campanha individualizada com um distrito eleitoral grande, que precisa ser percorrido pelo candidato (com instalação de comitês eleitorais e outras despesas)  torna bastante alto o custo de campanha para cada candidato3. Estes precisam encontrar formas de financiar suas campanhas. Uma forma de fazê-lo é buscar a contribuição de lobbies, o que facilita a captura do mandato parlamentar por interesses específicos. Isso reforça o incentivo de cada parlamentar a negociar individualmente com o Executivo a sua permanência na base de apoio, com vistas a atender os interesses específicos de seus financiadores.

Outra estratégia muito comum é o candidato focalizar a busca de votos em uma região específica do estado. Nesse caso, ele se compromete a, durante o mandato, obter recursos federais para um determinado grupo de municípios. São esses incentivos que fazem com que os parlamentares queiram alterar o orçamento federal, com vistas a introduzir despesas de interesse local. Como afirmado acima, o Presidente da República tende a represar essas despesas, liberando-as apenas à medida que os parlamentares nelas interessados votem de acordo com a orientação do governo. Nada impede, também, que as emendas parlamentares ao orçamento sejam apresentadas com vistas a se fazer despesas que beneficiarão grupos econômicos que deram suporte à campanha do parlamentar.

Outra característica importante do sistema eleitoral é que ele permite a eleição de representantes de grupos os mais diversos, inclusive a representação de minorias. Em um sistema de votação em que o estado da federação é repartido em vários distritos e, em cada um deles, há eleição de somente um representante, um grupo minoritário, disperso no território estadual, não conseguirá maioria em nenhum distrito, e não conseguirá ser representado no Congresso. No sistema brasileiro, um grupo minoritário pode somar os seus votos espalhados por todo o território estadual e eleger o seu representante.

Em consequência, há estímulo para que os políticos se especializem em representar os interesses de categorias profissionais específicas, ou patrocinem os direitos de grupos étnicos, de grupos religiosos, de setores econômicos (ruralistas, indústrias, etc.). Com muita frequência formam-se bancadas informais, compostas por parlamentares de diferentes partidos, para representar um interesse específico (bancada da saúde pública, bancada da segurança pública, bancada ruralista, etc.).

Essa dispersão de interesses permite que os diversos agrupamentos se organizem, no Congresso, para pressionar por despesa pública e regulação a favor dos grupos que representam. Como a responsabilidade política pelo equilíbrio fiscal e pelo desempenho macroeconômico cabe ao Poder Executivo, os deputados têm pouco interesse em manter o equilíbrio orçamentário. Para eles, quanto mais despesas conseguirem enxertar no orçamento, melhor. Daí a importância do mecanismo que dá ao Executivo o poder de represar despesas orçamentárias.

O sistema eleitoral também gera incentivos para a criação de um grande número de partidos. Em primeiro lugar, porque cada partido tem direito a verbas públicas e a espaço gratuito na TV para fazer propaganda. Em segundo lugar, porque é possível formar coligações partidárias para disputar as eleições para a Câmara: vários partidos se unem e seus votos e cadeiras na Câmara são contados como se fossem um único partido. Ser líder de um partido, ainda que pequeno, garante ao político poder, verbas e flexibilidade para fazer coalizões de ocasião.

A forte dispersão de interesses  e o grande número de partidos força o Poder Executivo a formar maiorias no Congresso por meio da distribuição de benesses ou ampliação de políticas públicas que atendam os mais diversos grupos sociais. Dificilmente o partido que vence as eleições presidenciais consegue maioria na Câmara dos Deputados. Por isso, é preciso formar alianças, no que ficou apelidado de “presidencialismo de coalizão”.

Alguns partidos políticos se especializaram na função de “partidos de apoio ao Executivo no Congresso”. Em vez de buscar o poder apresentando um candidato à Presidência da República, esses partidos se concentram na formação de ampla bancada na Câmara e no Senado, comandada por hábeis líderes, e se apresentam aos partidos que têm candidatos competitivos à presidência oferecendo  a tão necessária maioria parlamentar.

O preço cobrado vem sob a forma de cargos no governo, postos na direção de empresas estatais, liberação de recursos orçamentários, regulação que protegem grupos profissionais ou econômicos em detrimento do resto da sociedade. Uma simples estatística ilustra bem como a necessidade de acomodar políticos no Poder Executivo, para garantir coalizão majoritária no Congresso, resulta na expansão da máquina pública. No primeiro governo após à redemocratização, o Poder Executivo Federal tinha 25 ministérios. Vinte e seis anos (ou seis mandatos presidenciais) depois, esse número havia chegado a 39! Aumentam-se não apenas as vagas de ministro, como também criam-se ampla burocracia pública e cargos, muitos deles de preenchimento por indicações de políticos.

Há, ainda, a dimensão regional da distribuição de poder. Os militares haviam ampliado o número de cadeiras da Câmara dos Deputados que cabiam aos estados menos desenvolvidos, coincidentemente, os menos populosos. O objetivo à época foi garantir apoio político ao regime militar das lideranças regionais mais dependentes de ajuda financeira federal, além do fato de imperar, nas regiões mais atrasadas, um modelo de controle do eleitorado por líderes políticos locais.

Nos estados mais desenvolvidos, com eleitores de maior renda, mais informados e vivendo predominantemente em grandes cidades, o poder de comando de chefes políticos era menor. A nova constituição acentuou a desproporcionalidade da representação em favor dos estados menos desenvolvidos, situados nas regiões Norte e Nordeste do país. Em primeiro lugar, vários territórios federais localizados na região Norte, que não tinham representação no legislativo, foram transformados em estados, passando a ter direito a deputados e senadores para representá-los. Em segundo lugar, fixou-se um número mínimo de oito deputados por estado, independente do tamanho da população.

Com isso, os estados das regiões mais atrasadas (Norte e Nordeste) ou de desenvolvimento mais recente (Centro-Oeste) conseguem maioria em relação às bancadas do Sul-Sudeste, mais desenvolvido. Norte, Nordeste e Centro-Oeste, juntos, comandam 74% dos votos no Senado e 50% dos votos na Câmara, embora abriguem apenas 46% da população. Isso abre espaço para a barganha por transferências federais para os estados daquelas três regiões. O viés regionalista do parlamento brasileiro é bastante acentuado.

Essa pressão de origem estadual ou regional restringe, também, o uso dos poderes legais do Executivo federal para conter o endividamento dos estados e municípios. É comum que haja pressão política no parlamento, em especial no Senado, para que o Governo Federal alivie o controle do endividamento dos governos subnacionais.

Em suma, o sistema político-eleitoral dá margem a uma série de distorções que incham o estado, reduzem a eficiência da economia, criam privilégios a grupos organizados e, em última instância, prejudicam o crescimento e desenvolvimento do país. Isso não quer dizer, contudo, que uma reforma das regras eleitorais livraria o país de todos esses problemas, conforme argumentado a seguir.

5 – O sistema político eleitoral apenas reflete características históricas da sociedade brasileira: a “reforma política” não mudará aquelas características e pode agravar os problemas que deseja resolver

O Brasil é um país extremamente desigual desde os primeiros anos da colonização, com alta prevalência de clientelismo, apropriação privada de recursos públicos, rent-seeking e corrupção. A redemocratização do país que, por um lado abriu acesso dos mais pobres a políticas públicas, por outro lado permitiu que aquelas características indesejáveis encontrassem terreno fértil para prosperar. Usa-se a negociação política, que idealmente deveria se dar no campo das ideias e projetos para o país, como meio para apropriação de renda e criação de privilégios. Quanto mais grupos sociais tiverem acesso a esse processo de negociação mais intenso o conflito distributivo.

As instituições políticas descritas no item anterior não foram criadas no vácuo. Elas decorrem de escolhas feitas ao longo da história do país.  São mecanismos criados para mediar de forma eficiente os interesses dos diversos grupos sociais. Mudar as regras de forma a tentar barrar comportamentos políticos considerados inadequados pode gerar efeitos colaterais adversos, que resultem em piora da qualidade do processo decisório e da governabilidade, sem que se corrijam os problemas originais.

Tome-se, como exemplo, a imposição de limites ao financiamento privado de campanhas políticas. Ao longo do ano de 2014 o Supremo Tribunal Federal está julgando causa que pleiteia a proibição desse tipo de financiamento. O objetivo é impedir que grandes grupos econômicos tenham poder de influência sobre os políticos eleitos, de modo a reduzir a apropriação de recursos públicos e a criação de regulação econômica que proteja grupos específicos em detrimento do resto da população.

Deve-se questionar, todavia, se a proibição de tais financiamentos vai, efetivamente, bani-los. É possível que apenas aumente o movimento de dinheiro não declarado (caixa dois), reduzindo a transparência das eleições. No sistema vigente pode-se identificar claramente qual empresa doou a qual candidato. Sem registros, fica difícil cobrar explicações dos governantes sobre porque beneficiou determinada empresa.

Ademais, os políticos podem ficar mais dependentes de verbas públicas para financiar suas campanhas, o que estimularia a corrupção, a exploração política das empresas estatais e, sobretudo, daria vantagem competitiva aos candidatos do partido governista, que têm mais acesso aos fundos públicos. Ou seja, os rios correm para o mar. Tentar barrar esse caminho com diques ineficientes pode gerar inundações e outros efeitos adversos, sem impedir que o rio chegue a seu destino.

Outro exemplo interessante está em uma decisão do Supremo Tribunal Federal  proibindo congressistas de mudar de partido durante o cumprimento do mandato. O objetivo era aumentar o poder de comando dos partidos sobre seus membros. Imaginava-se que com mais disciplina partidária seria mais fácil formar coalizões que dessem governabilidade ao país, sem a necessidade de o Poder Executivo ter que barganhar o apoio individual de cada parlamentar em cada votação importante no Congresso.

No entanto, a corte suprema não podia proibir a criação de novos partidos, o que significa deixar aberta a possibilidade de se sair de um partido para formar nova agremiação. Indivíduos que se dispuseram a incorrer no custo de cumprir as exigências formais para criar partidos (muitas delas de difícil cumprimento, como a coleta de milhares de assinatura em todo o país) passaram a ofertar vagas a parlamentares desejosos de sair de seus partidos. Obviamente essa oportunidade adquire valor monetário. Não se resolveu o problema original e se agregou mais uma distorção ao sistema.

Além dos efeitos colaterais indesejados, as tentativas de reforma política esbarram na resistência dos interesses estabelecidos. Os políticos e partidos que votarão essas reformas são aqueles que foram eleitos pelas regras vigentes. Portanto, são os beneficiários de tais regras. Vê-se, então, a dificuldade em se mudar tais regras. Em 2007, por exemplo, aprovou-se uma “cláusula de barreira”, que exigia votação mínima para que um partido tivesse representação no Congresso. Tal regra foi contestada junto ao STF pelos partidos prejudicados e acabou sendo considerada inconstitucional pela corte suprema.

Exemplo similar está no caso da “verticalização das coligações eleitorais”. A título de impor coerência programática aos partidos políticos, o Tribunal Superior Eleitoral expediu, em 2006, uma resolução proibindo que os partidos políticos fizessem, nas eleições estaduais, coligações partidárias diferentes daquelas formadas para o pleito nacional. A regra retirava flexibilidade para a negociação política nos diferentes estados. Dado que os partidos políticos têm pouca homogeneidade programática e, em cada estado, abrigam diferentes grupos políticos (em algumas unidades da federação dois partidos podem abrigar grupos aliados, em outras grupos adversários), a regra simplesmente contrariou a realidade política do país. Não obstante a sua meritória intenção, foi revogada pela Emenda Constitucional n. 52, de 2006, que, aprovada rapidamente, retirou essa nova regra de circulação.

6 – O que fazer?

Deve ser possível fazer reformas no sistema político-eleitoral que reduzam os efeitos desse sistema sobre a política fiscal, a governabilidade e a qualidade da gestão pública. Todavia, cada alternativa de regra eleitoral e de representação tem suas vantagens e desvantagens, não sendo fácil se chegar a acordo acerca de que regras geram resultado superior para a média da sociedade. Reformar diversas regras ao mesmo tempo multiplica a complexidade do problema,  desde a dificuldade de aprovação até à imprevisibilidade das consequências e efeitos colaterais.

Assim, ao contrário do que muitas lideranças políticas e analistas argumentam, uma reforma política ampla, seja ela qual for, está longe de ser o santo graal que restabelecerá a virtude e a racionalidade na gestão pública brasileira. Seja porque sua aprovação será muito difícil, seja porque haverá efeitos colaterais indesejados ou, ainda, porque permanecerá intacto o conflito distributivo e o incentivo a se usar o Estado como fonte de rendas e privilégios.

O sistema político-partidário vigente mostra-se compatível e funcional em um contexto em que diversos grupos sociais heterogêneos disputam benesses e regulação estatal a seu favor. Por isso, talvez seja mais interessante dar prioridades a reformas que ajudem a aliviar o conflito distributivo existente no país.

Para isso, é preciso crescer mais rápido e distribuir renda de forma mais eficaz. Deve ser dada prioridade a reformas institucionais que, ao mesmo tempo, estimulem o crescimento econômico e reduzam a desigualdade. No topo dessa lista de prioridades deve estar a reforma da previdência social, pois ela não só bloqueia o crescimento (ao gerar grande déficit público no presente e incerteza quanto à sua sustentabilidade futura) como concentra renda (por pagar benefícios mais elevados a trabalhadores da classe média e garantir pensões e aposentadorias sem equilíbrio atuarial).

Também prioritária deve ser a busca por melhoria na educação pública. A educação aumenta a produtividade (e, portanto, o crescimento) ao mesmo tempo em que aumenta a igualdade de oportunidade, abrindo espaço para redução da desigualdade e da pobreza. Investimento em infraestrutura urbana de atenção aos mais pobres, como saneamento e transportes urbanos de massa também atuam no sentido de aumentar a produtividade dos trabalhadores e melhorar as oportunidades de emprego e de ascensão social.

Em paralelo a isso, é preciso investir em reformas fiscais (muito mais simples que as complexas propostas de reforma política) que imponham maior disciplina ao gasto e ao endividamento públicos, seja por meio de transparência, seja por meio de regras fiscais críveis. Havendo maior restrição orçamentária diminuirá o espaço para que diferentes grupos de interesse consigam extrair renda do Estado.

A gestão cotidiana do orçamento também pode ajudar muito: procedimentos de auditoria dos gastos, análise de custo-benefício dos programas públicos, elaboração de programas federais estruturados que transformem as emendas parlamentares em gastos eficientes, melhorias no planejamento e execução de obras públicas, aperfeiçoamento na legislação de compras públicas e na participação do setor privado em investimentos de infraestrutura. Todas essas são medidas mais fáceis de colocar em prática que uma reforma política de amplo espectro.

Melhorias do sistema judicial que levem à efetiva e rápida punição da corrupção também ajudariam a disciplinar o mercado das negociações políticas. Em especial é preciso tornar a justiça mais rápida e menos sujeita a recursos e chicanas.

Para que os criminosos de colarinho branco sejam efetivamente levados à justiça, é essencial que a Polícia Federal e o Ministério Público tenham autonomia de atuação, sempre dentro dos marcos da legalidade e transparência. Ademais, a imprensa não pode ter sua liberdade de informar cerceada.

Uma vez que essas reformas desencadeiem um ciclo virtuoso de menos corrupção, maior eficiência do estado, maior crescimento econômico e menor desigualdade, surgirá uma classe média, com boas perspectivas de ascensão social. Essa nova classe média terá força política e eleitoral para resistir à captura do Estado por grupos de interesse. Somente quando chegarmos a essa sociedade mais homogênea, com setor público mais eficiente e com maior potencial de crescimento econômico é que haverá espaço para a implantação de um sistema político menos baseado no uso do Estado como fonte de renda e privilégios. Aí as reformas políticas ocorrerão como consequência natural da preferência da maioria do eleitorado.

No nosso atual estágio de desenvolvimento institucional, falar em reforma política ampla é fazer fumaça para esconder os verdadeiros problemas. Nessa área as reformas devem ser pontuais, alterando-se paulatinamente as regras, testando-se o seu efeito nas eleições seguintes. Um bom exemplo disso é a “lei da ficha limpa”, que foi aprovada isolada de qualquer iniciativa de alteração mais ampla das regras eleitorais; tem sido posta em prática nas eleições recentes, e seus efeitos têm sido observados e divulgados pela imprensa, medidos e analisados pelos acadêmicos e modulados pela justiça eleitoral.


1 Ver, por exemplo: Dantas, H. (2010) Reforma política: aspectos centrais da mãe de todas as reformas.In: Dantas et al. Reforma do estado brasileiro: perspectivas e desafios.Cadernos Adenauer. Konrad Adenauer Stiftung.

2 Uma descrição sintética das instituições políticas brasileiras e abundantes referências bibliográficas podem ser obtidas em Cintra (2004).

3 Samuels (2001a) e (2001b) mostra como as eleições brasileiras são caras quando comparadas a outras democracias.



  • veja este artigo também em versão pdf (clique aqui).
16 Jul 22:09

Fundação Brava: Como estão as finanças do seu município?

16 de julho de 2014 por mansueto

No Brasil, há várias bases de dados e publicações sobre contas públicas. Mas há um problema sério. Nem sempre essas bases de dados são fáceis de consultar e, assim, várias pessoas têm dificuldade de encontrar dados fiscais do seu município, estado ou governo federal.

Eu próprio comecei a mexer com dados fiscais, em 2004, quando trabalhava no Senado Federal e um senador me perguntou o que explicava o crescimento do gasto público. Na época, tentei encontrar a informação nos jornais que, na época, destacavam o crescimento apenas do gastos de custeio, o que não diz muita coisa. Desde então, passei a acompanhar com uma lupa a despesa do governo federal, escrever sobre o assunto e participar ativamente do debate nesta área.

O problema é que muitas pessoas não têm tempo para “pagar” o custo fixo de aprender a mexer nas bases de dados, principalmente as bases de dados municipais. Mas este problema agora será menor graças à excelente iniciativa da Fundação Brava, que criou um portal na internet – meu Município  (clique aqui)– aberto ao público para consulta das finanças municipais. O portal é muito simples e permite várias comparações interessantes. Vamos olhar  alguns exemplos.

Meu Municipio

Digitem o nome do município de São Paulo. Nota-se que o município, em 2012, teve uma despesa de R$ 34,6 bilhões, sendo que 88% dessa despesa foi com gastos correntes (pessoal e custeio). Nas consultas mais detalhadas, você verá que o município gastou com amortização da divida e pagamento de juros, em 2012, R$ 3,8 bilhões, valor superior ao investimento no mesmo ano que foi de R$ 3 bilhões. Não surpreende, portanto, que o prefeito Fernando Haddad seja um ferrenho defensor da renegociação da divida dos municípios.

Mas isso é normal? O que acontece com outros municípios grandes no Brasil? O portal meu Município da Fundação Brava permite que você faça comparações. Por exemplo, São Paulo, gastou com juros, encargos da dívida e amortização, em 2012, 11% da  despesa total, ante 3,8% no caso do município do Rio de Janeiro.

Há uma diferença interessante na comparação entre São Paulo e Rio de Janeiro. Em geral, quando classificamos o gasto por função, os gastos com educação e saúde se destacam nos gastos do município, o que seria esperado dado que, no Brasil, não importa a cor, partido ou preferencia ideológica do prefeito, ele é obrigado a gastar 25% da receita do seu município com educação e 15% com saúde.

Na próxima eleição, quando o candidato a prefeito prometer que dará prioridade à educação e saúde, lembre que o gasto com essas funções já é prioritário e pergunte ao candidato de que forma ele pretende melhorar este gasto ou mesmo aumentar a arrecadação para poder gastar mais nessas áreas.

O que impressiona no caso do Rio de Janeiro é o elevado gasto do município com a função Urbanismo (18,25% da despesa), que não se destaca tanto no caso de São Paulo. Quando se olha os dados dos últimos três anos, nota-se que os gastos elevados no Rio com Urbanismo é algo recente – 2011 e 2012. Assim, é possível que isso esteja ligado a preparativos para copa e olimpíada? Talvez. Mas é justamente esse tipo de questão e muitas outras que que o portal “Meu Município” permite que se faça.

A Fundação Brava está de parabéns por disponibilizar essas informações. O acesso é gratuito e este é um portal que estará em constante aperfeiçoamento a partir das sugestões dos próprios usuários. Quer se divertir? olhe quanto o seu município gasto com a despesa com pessoal e compare com outros municípios. Vários municípios gastam mais de 50% do total da despesa com pagamento de pessoal – valor muito superior ao que se observa no gasto do governo federal, onde a folha de pessoal ativo e inativo é por volta de 22% da despesa primária (sem incluir a conta de juros e amortização da dívida).

Observem também que, ao contrário do governo federal, as despesas com assistência social e previdência social pesam muito menos nas finanças municipais. A função assistência social envolve os programas de transferência de renda para famílias. No caso do governo federal é nesta função que aparece programas como bolsa-familia e o beneficio mensal aos deficientes e idosos da Lei Orgânica de Assistência Social (LOAS). Será que nos municípios que o PT administra versus PMDB o gasto com assistência social é maior? Novamente, com o portal “Meu Município” é possível responder esta pergunta.

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13 Jul 17:55

Lessons From Brazil's War on Poverty

Brazil is a giant when it comes to soccer. In the late 1990s, it was a giant in another area, this one much less desirable: Brazil had one of the highest levels of income inequality in the world, as home to some of the world’s poorest people, while its richest competed with the wealthiest in the United States and elsewhere.1

In 2001, Brazil’s Gini coefficient — the most common (but not necessarily most attractive) measure of inequality2 — hovered around 0.60, a very high figure by any standard. (A Gini coefficient of 0 represents perfect equality where everyone earns the same income, and 1 represents complete inequality where all the country’s income accrues to a single person.) By comparison, the U.S. — not exactly a bastion of equality — had a Gini coefficient of 0.4 in 2000.3


But from 2001 to 2007, income inequality in Brazil started to decline at an unprecedented rate: The Gini coefficient fell from above 0.60 to below 0.55, reaching its lowest level in more than 30 years. The incomes of the poorest tenth of Brazilians grew by 7 percent per year, nearly three times the national average of 2.5 percent. In less than a decade, Brazil had managed to cut the proportion of its population living in extreme poverty in half.4

This sharp decline coincided with the introduction of Brazil’s first cash transfer programs in 2001. Created to reduce poverty in the short-run, these programs also provided incentives to households to invest in their children’s education, health and nutrition. Brazil was following on the success of Mexico, which a couple of years earlier had introduced PROGRESA, perhaps the world’s best-known and most influential conditional cash transfer program.5 Brazil consolidated its programs into one program, called Bolsa Familia, in 2003.

Bolsa Familia targeted households whose per capita monthly income was less than 120 reais (a yearly income of $828). The government paid these households between 20 to 182 reais per month (between $132 to $1,248 a year) if they met certain conditions: Children under the age of 17 had to regularly attend school; pregnant women had to visit clinics for prenatal and antenatal care; and parents needed to make sure their children were fully immunized by age 5 and received growth check-ups until age 6. It also provided a small allocation to extremely poor households with no strings attached. By 2010, Bolsa Familia had grown to one of the world’s largest conditional cash transfer programs, providing 40 billion reais (about $24 billion) to nearly 50 million people, about a quarter of Brazil’s population.

So what role did Bolsa Familia play in the decline of inequality in Brazil since 2000? With such a large transfer of money from taxpayers to Brazil’s poorest, you’d imagine there must have been some impact, but how much of one? Identifying the causal effects of large, nationwide government programs is challenging. Many factors can affect the distribution of income over time. Shifting demographics, the changing nature of work, and women’s participation in the labor force can all affect income inequality. If you wanted to truly isolate Bolsa Familia’s effect, you could theoretically conduct an experiment — not unlike the trials that pharmaceutical companies routinely do to test a drug’s effectiveness — where you’d randomly assign some communities and not others to the cash transfer program, and then compare inequality between them.

However, this type of social experiment is hard, if not impossible, for governments to conduct for a long period of time. For example, Mexico did randomly assign some eligible communities to PROGRESA while withholding the benefits from other (equally eligible) communities at the start, but this pilot phase lasted only 18 months, after which the program was rolled out to all eligible areas. An 18-month period might have been sufficient to evaluate the effects of the program on children’s school attendance and women’s visits to health clinics, but it was too short a period to evaluate the program’s longer-term impacts on poverty and inequality. In any case, researcher Gala Diaz Langou says that leaving some areas out of the program was not politically feasible in Brazil, so there was no such experimentation with Bolsa Familia.6

So if you can’t do a randomized trial, what can you do to assess the program’s effect on Brazil’s drop in income inequality? Economists often try to understand changes in income inequality by quantifying all the elements that affect the distribution of income, such as the proportion of adults who work, the number of hours they work, their hourly wages, whether they have income from other assets, and whether they’re receiving money from the government. Once income is broken down by source at a given point in time, researchers can try to isolate the role of each source in changes in the distribution of income by keeping that factor constant over time and allowing all the remaining factors to vary. While this approach doesn’t identify the causal effect of any one factor on changes in a country’s Gini coefficient, it’s still a useful accounting exercise — helpful in focusing on the main factors associated with the changes in the distribution of incomes.7

Using this approach, two studies — a 2010 paper on Brazil (by Ricardo Barros and co-authors from Brazil’s Institute of Applied Economic Research) and a 2013 paper on a number of countries in Latin America including Brazil (by the World Bank’s Joao Pedro Azevedo and co-authors) — have separately found that government transfers accounted for about 40 percent of the decline in inequality in Brazil, with expansions in pensions and Bolsa Familia (and a related program for people with disabilities) contributing roughly equally to the decline in income inequality. However, of these government transfers, Bolsa Familia was by far the most important component in raising the income levels of Brazil’s poorest households: Between 2001 and 2007, the share of people receiving these conditional cash transfer payments increased by more than 10 percentage points, from 6.5 percent to 16.9 percent. This accounted for the entire increase in the share of households that received non-labor income (i.e. income from sources outside of working a job).

Hence, available estimates suggest that Bolsa Familia contributed about 15 to 20 percent of the decline in income inequality during the decade starting in 2000. These effects were most likely achieved by putting money directly into the pockets of poor households.8 Because the money is tied to parents’ investing more in their children’s health and education, advocates of the program hope these cash transfers will not only reduce poverty in real time, but keep the next generation from poverty as well. And it appears Bolsa Familia may also have had some success in this respect: Paul Glewwe of the University of Minnesota and Ana Lucia Kassouf of the University of Sao Paulo found in 2012 that the program has led to improvements in children’s school enrollment and advancement, which could translate into higher incomes for them as adults and further reductions in poverty and inequality.

But if Bolsa Familia only accounted for 15 to 20 percent of the drop in income inequality in Brazil, what contributed the most? The same two studies agree that rising wages among the poor were the main driver of the decline in inequality in Brazil. While their methodologies differ slightly, the studies show that changes in labor income accounted for 55 to 60 percent of the drop in income inequality.

And why did wages for the poor rise? Even before Bolsa Familia, the Brazilian government adopted policies that expanded access to education: Between 1995 and 2005, the average schooling among workers increased by almost two years. At the same time, the hourly wages for a worker with a given level of education rose much faster among the poor than the rest of the population, likely due to the increased demand for low-skilled labor that accompanied the commodity and price booms experienced in Brazil, and Latin America more generally, according to research by Leonardo Gasparini of the National University of La Plata in Argentina and co-authors. So, a combination of public policy (expansion of access to education and government transfers to the poor) and favorable market factors (rising wages for low-skilled workers) led to substantial declines in inequality in Brazil.

Income inequality in Brazil and Latin America remains high. Barros and his co-authors estimate that almost two more decades of similar progress is needed to bring income inequality in Brazil down to the world average.9 Expanding cash transfer programs like Bolsa Familia might be tough for the government, particularly in periods of tighter budgets. However, experimentation with these programs’ design (in Brazil and elsewhere) — for example, expanding Bolsa Familia benefits instead of pursuing continued increases in pensions for older Brazilians10 — can allow governments to maximize impacts while keeping a lid on program budgets.

15 Jul 21:29

Dungeons & Dragons Has Influenced a Generation of Writers

When he was an immigrant boy growing up in New Jersey, the writer Junot Díaz said he felt marginalized. But that feeling was dispelled somewhat in 1981 when he was in sixth grade. He and his buddies, adventuring pals with roots in distant realms — Egypt, Ireland, Cuba and the Dominican Republic — became “totally sucked in,” he said, by a “completely radical concept: role-playing,” in the form of Dungeons & Dragons.

Playing D&D and spinning tales of heroic quests, “we welfare kids could travel,” Mr. Díaz, 45, said in an email interview, “have adventures, succeed, be powerful, triumph, fail and be in ways that would have been impossible in the larger real world.”

“For nerds like us, D&D hit like an extra horizon,” he added. The game functioned as “a sort of storytelling apprenticeship.”

Now the much-played and much-mocked Dungeons & Dragons, the first commercially available role-playing game, has turned 40. In D&D players gather around a table, not a video screen. Together they use low-tech tools like hand-drawn maps and miniature figurines to tell stories of brave and cunning protagonists such as elfish wizards and dwarfish warriors who explore dungeons and battle orcs, trolls and mind flayers. Sacks of dice and vast rule books determine the outcome of the game’s ongoing, free-form story.

Dungeons & Dragons has influenced a shelf full of writers.

For certain writers, especially those raised in the 1970s and ’80s, all that time spent in basements has paid off. D&D helped jump-start their creative lives. As Mr. Díaz said, “It’s been a formative narrative media for all sorts of writers.”

The league of ex-gamer writers also includes the “weird fiction” author China Miéville (“The City & the City”); Brent Hartinger (author of “Geography Club,” a novel about gay and bisexual teenagers); the sci-fi and young adult author Cory Doctorow; the poet and fiction writer Sherman Alexie; the comedian Stephen Colbert; George R. R. Martin, author of the “A Song of Ice and Fire” series (who still enjoys role-playing games). Others who have been influenced are television and film storytellers and entertainers like Robin Williams, Matt Groening (“The Simpsons”), Dan Harmon (“Community”) and Chris Weitz (“American Pie”).

With the release of the rebooted Dungeons & Dragons Starter Set on Tuesday, and more advanced D&D rule books throughout the summer, another generation of once-and-future wordsmiths may find inspiration in the scribbled dungeon map and the secret behind Queen of the Demonweb Pits.

Mr. Díaz, who teaches writing at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, said his first novel, the Pulitzer Prize-winning “The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao,” was written “in honor of my gaming years.” Oscar, its protagonist, is “a role-playing-game fanatic.” Wanting to become the Dominican J. R. R. Tolkien, he cranks out “10, 15, 20 pages a day” of fantasy-inspired fiction.

Though Mr. Díaz never became a fantasy writer, he attributes his literary success, in part, to his “early years profoundly embedded and invested in fantastic narratives.” From D&D, he said, he “learned a lot of important essentials about storytelling, about giving the reader enough room to play.”

And, he said, he was typically his group’s Dungeon Master, the game’s quasi-narrator, rules referee and fate giver.

The Dungeon Master must create a believable world with a back story, adventures the players might encounter and options for plot twists. That requires skills as varied as a theater director, researcher and psychologist — all traits integral to writing. (Mr. Díaz said his boyhood gaming group was “more like an improv group with some dice.”)

Sharyn McCrumb, 66, who writes the Ballad Novels series set in Appalachia, was similarly influenced, and in her comic novel “Bimbos of the Death Sun” D&D even helps solve a murder.

“I always, always wanted to be the Dungeon Master because that’s where the creativity lies — in thinking up places, characters and situations,” Ms. McCrumb said. “If done well, a game can be a novel in itself.”

What makes a D&D story different from novels and other narratives is its improvisational and responsive nature. Plotlines are decided as a group. As a D&D player, “you have to convince other players that your version of the story is interesting and valid,” said Jennifer Grouling, an assistant professor of English at Ball State University who studied D&D players for her book, “The Creation of Narrative in Tabletop Role-Playing Games.”

If a Dungeon Master creates “a boring world with an uninteresting plot,” she said, players can go in a completely different direction; likewise, the referee can veto the action of player. “I think D&D can help build the skills to work collaboratively and to write collaboratively,” she added. (Mr. Díaz called this the “social collaborative component” of D&D.)

Ms. Grouling also cited “a sense of control over stories” as a primary reason people like role-playing games. “D&D is completely in the imagination and the rules are flexible — you don’t have the same limitations” of fiction, or even of a programmed video game, she said. A novel is ultimately a finished thing, written, edited and published, its story set in stone. In D&D, the plot is always fluid; anything can happen.

The playwright and screenwriter David Lindsay-Abaire, 44, who wrote the Pulitzer Prize-winning play “Rabbit Hole,” said D&D “harkens back to an incredibly primitive mode of storytelling,” one that was both “immersive and interactive.” The Dungeon Master resembles “the tribal storyteller who gathers everyone around the fire to tell stories about heroes and gods and monsters,” he said. “It’s a live, communal event, where anything can happen in the moment.”

Mr. Lindsay-Abaire said planning D&D adventures was “some of the very first writing that I did.” And the game taught him not just about plot but also about character development.

Playing D&D has also benefited nonfiction writers. “Serving as Dungeon Master helped me develop a knack for taking the existing elements laid out by the game and weaving them into a coherent narrative,” said Scott Stossel, editor of The Atlantic and author of “My Age of Anxiety: Fear, Hope, Dread, and the Search for Peace of Mind.” “And yet you were constrained by the rules of the D&D universe, which in journalism translates into being constrained by the available, knowable facts.”

Mr. Lindsay-Abaire agreed that fictional worlds need rules. “For a story to be satisfying, an audience needs to understand how the world works,” he said. “ ‘The Hunger Games’ is a perfect example of: ‘O.K., these are the rules of this world, now go! Go play in that world.’ ”

Over and over again, Ms. Grouling said, tabletop role players in her survey compared their gaming experience to “starring in their own movies or writing their own novels.”

As for Mr. Díaz, “Once girls entered the equation in a serious way,” he said, “gaming went right out the window.” But he said he still misses D&D’s arcane pleasures and feels its legacy is still with him: “I’m not sure I would have been able to transition from reader to writer so easily if it had not been for gaming.”

16 Jul 16:48

There’s A Place For Heroic Gambles In Science

by Neuroskeptic

Over at Paul Knoepfler’s excellent Stem Cell Blog, commenter Robert Geller (@rjgeller) offers some remarkable data about the hiring of a disgraced scientist.

Geller queries why Haruko Obokata, the biologist at the center of the “STAP” stem cell scandal, was ever given her job. Obokata is a Research Unit Leader (RUL) at Japan’s national Riken Center for Developmental Biology (CDB). It was after being appointed to this prestigious post that she completed and published her discovery of “STAP cells” – supposedly a new kind of way of making stem cells. Her data turned out to be serious flawed and Obokata’s two papers on STAP were retracted in Nature earlier this month. But should she have been hired in the first place?

Geller compares Obokata’s CV against those of five unnamed “researchers in Japan in the same general field as Dr. Obokata” (and with similar ages), and also against a sixth individual, a biologist who was given the job of Research Unit Leader at the Riken CDB at the same time as Obokata. Here’s the data, with Obokata in red:


Geller says (my emphasis) that

Dr. Obokata had both the lowest number of total citations and least impactful “hit” [i.e. single most-cited paper] of any of the seven researchers. This suggests that, in the absence of some specific non-quantitative reason for rejecting the ranking implied by the citation data, Dr. Obokata should not have been hired by Riken. This considers only researchers inside Japan and it seems highly likely that there would have also been more highly qualified candidates [for the RUL post] than Dr. Obokata from outside Japan…

In a nutshell, Obokata’s ‘metrics‘ are poor. Compared to her peers she has not published many highly-cited papers. So, Geller asks, why was she, and not someone better qualified, given the extremely prestigious Riken RUL post?

Various reports sketch out a plausible story of what happened here. The story is that Obokata was head-hunted on the personal initiative of the CDB’s management, who wanted Obokata on their staff, so that their institute could claim credit for STAP. Their hope, we’re told, was that STAP would allow Riken to outshine their rival, Nobel Laureate biologist Shinya Yamanaka and his induced pluripotent stem cells (iPSCs). Had STAP cells been real, they would have made iPSCs obsolete.

So, by this account, Obokata was hired, not on the strength of her past published work (as STAP was still unpublished at that stage), but on the strength of her current vision and her future potential. Rather than citations and metrics, she was judged by her ideas.

Which is… great. That’s how it should be. This kind of thing ought to happen more often. Metrics can’t measure everything, and there’s a place in science for heroic leaps into the unknown.

So I don’t think the hiring of Obokata should be criticized – not as such. It wasn’t itself a mistake, rather it was based on a mistake, namely the idea that Obokata and her STAP were about to revolutionize biology. This was an error, a scientific blunder on a grand scale. But given that mistaken theory, hiring Obokata was a brave move, a high-stakes scientific gamble. Had it paid off, whoever made the decision would have been seen as a visionary, and the status of the CDB would have been enormously enhanced.

It would be a shame if the hiring of Obokata comes to be seen as a case in point that scientific appointments should be based on metrics. Rather, the lesson here is that even the most attractive ideas require critical evaluation.

The post There’s A Place For Heroic Gambles In Science appeared first on Neuroskeptic.

16 Jul 00:27

Why do we have blood types? | Mosaic

When my parents informed me that my blood type was A+, I felt a strange sense of pride. If A+ was the top grade in school, then surely A+ was also the most excellent of blood types – a biological mark of distinction.

It didn’t take long for me to recognise just how silly that feeling was and tamp it down. But I didn’t learn much more about what it really meant to have type A+ blood. By the time I was an adult, all I really knew was that if I should end up in a hospital in need of blood, the doctors there would need to make sure they transfused me with a suitable type.

And yet there remained some nagging questions. Why do 40 per cent of Caucasians have type A blood, while only 27 per cent of Asians do? Where do different blood types come from, and what do they do? To get some answers, I went to the experts – to haematologists, geneticists, evolutionary biologists, virologists and nutrition scientists.

In 1900 the Austrian physician Karl Landsteiner first discovered blood types, winning the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for his research in 1930. Since then scientists have developed ever more powerful tools for probing the biology of blood types. They’ve found some intriguing clues about them – tracing their deep ancestry, for example, and detecting influences of blood types on our health. And yet I found that in many ways blood types remain strangely mysterious. Scientists have yet to come up with a good explanation for their very existence.

“Isn’t it amazing?” says Ajit Varki, a biologist at the University of California, San Diego. “Almost a hundred years after the Nobel Prize was awarded for this discovery, we still don’t know exactly what they’re for.” 

My knowledge that I’m type A comes to me thanks to one of the greatest discoveries in the history of medicine. Because doctors are aware of blood types, they can save lives by transfusing blood into patients. But for most of history, the notion of putting blood from one person into another was a feverish dream.

Renaissance doctors mused about what would happen if they put blood into the veins of their patients. Some thought that it could be a treatment for all manner of ailments, even insanity. Finally, in the 1600s, a few doctors tested out the idea, with disastrous results. A French doctor injected calf’s blood into a madman, who promptly started to sweat and vomit and produce urine the colour of chimney soot. After another transfusion the man died.

Such calamities gave transfusions a bad reputation for 150 years. Even in the 19th century only a few doctors dared try out the procedure. One of them was a British physician named James Blundell. Like other physicians of his day, he watched many of his female patients die from bleeding during childbirth. After the death of one patient in 1817, he found he couldn’t resign himself to the way things were.

“I could not forbear considering, that the patient might very probably have been saved by transfusion,” he later wrote.

Blood types: a historical galleryBlundell became convinced that the earlier disasters with blood transfusions had come about thanks to one fundamental error: transfusing “the blood of the brute”, as he put it. Doctors shouldn’t transfer blood between species, he concluded, because “the different kinds of blood differ very importantly from each other”.

Human patients should only get human blood, Blundell decided. But no one had ever tried to perform such a transfusion. Blundell set about doing so by designing a system of funnels and syringes and tubes that could channel blood from a donor to an ailing patient. After testing the apparatus out on dogs, Blundell was summoned to the bed of a man who was bleeding to death. “Transfusion alone could give him a chance of life,” he wrote.

Several donors provided Blundell with 14 ounces of blood, which he injected into the man’s arm. After the procedure the patient told Blundell that he felt better – “less fainty” – but two days later he died.

Still, the experience convinced Blundell that blood transfusion would be a huge benefit to mankind, and he continued to pour blood into desperate patients in the following years. All told, he performed ten blood transfusions. Only four patients survived.

While some other doctors experimented with blood transfusion as well, their success rates were also dismal. Various approaches were tried, including attempts in the 1870s to use milk in transfusions (which were, unsurprisingly, fruitless and dangerous).

Blundell was correct in believing that humans should only get human blood. But he didn’t know another crucial fact about blood: that humans should only get blood from certain other humans. It’s likely that Blundell’s ignorance of this simple fact led to the death of some of his patients. What makes those deaths all the more tragic is that the discovery of blood types, a few decades later, was the result of a fairly simple procedure.

The first clues as to why the transfusions of the early 19th century had failed were clumps of blood. When scientists in the late 1800s mixed blood from different people in test tubes, they noticed that sometimes the red blood cells stuck together. But because the blood generally came from sick patients, scientists dismissed the clumping as some sort of pathology not worth investigating. Nobody bothered to see if the blood of healthy people clumped, until Karl Landsteiner wondered what would happen. Immediately, he could see that mixtures of healthy blood sometimes clumped too.

Landsteiner set out to map the clumping pattern, collecting blood from members of his lab, including himself. He separated each sample into red blood cells and plasma, and then he combined plasma from one person with cells from another.

Landsteiner found that the clumping occurred only if he mixed certain people’s blood together. By working through all the combinations, he sorted his subjects into three groups. He gave them the entirely arbitrary names of A, B and C. (Later on C was renamed O, and a few years later other researchers discovered the AB group. By the middle of the 20th century the American researcher Philip Levine had discovered another way to categorise blood, based on whether it had the Rh blood factor. A plus or minus sign at the end of Landsteiner’s letters indicates whether a person has the factor or not.)

When Landsteiner mixed the blood from different people together, he discovered it followed certain rules. If he mixed the plasma from group A with red blood cells from someone else in group A, the plasma and cells remained a liquid. The same rule applied to the plasma and red blood cells from group B. But if Landsteiner mixed plasma from group A with red blood cells from B, the cells clumped (and vice versa).

The blood from people in group O was different. When Landsteiner mixed either A or B red blood cells with O plasma, the cells clumped. But he could add A or B plasma to O red blood cells without any clumping.

It’s this clumping that makes blood transfusions so potentially dangerous. If a doctor accidentally injected type B blood into my arm, my body would become loaded with tiny clots. They would disrupt my circulation and cause me to start bleeding massively, struggle for breath and potentially die. But if I received either type A or type O blood, I would be fine.

Landsteiner didn’t know what precisely distinguished one blood type from another. Later generations of scientists discovered that the red blood cells in each type are decorated with different molecules on their surface. In my type A blood, for example, the cells build these molecules in two stages, like two floors of a house. The first floor is called an H antigen. On top of the first floor the cells build a second, called the A antigen.

People with type B blood, on the other hand, build the second floor of the house in a different shape. And people with type O build a single-storey ranch house: they only build the H antigen and go no further.

Each person’s immune system becomes familiar with his or her own blood type. If people receive a transfusion of the wrong type of blood, however, their immune system responds with a furious attack, as if the blood were an invader. The exception to this rule is type O blood. It only has H antigens, which are present in the other blood types too. To a person with type A or type B, it seems familiar. That familiarity makes people with type O blood universal donors, and their blood especially valuable to blood centres.

Landsteiner reported his experiment in a short, terse paper in 1900. “It might be mentioned that the reported observations may assist in the explanation of various consequences of therapeutic blood transfusions,” he concluded with exquisite understatement. Landsteiner’s discovery opened the way to safe, large-scale blood transfusions, and even today blood banks use his basic method of clumping blood cells as a quick, reliable test for blood types.

But as Landsteiner answered an old question, he raised new ones. What, if anything, were blood types for? Why should red blood cells bother with building their molecular houses? And why do people have different houses?

Solid scientific answers to these questions have been hard to come by. And in the meantime, some unscientific explanations have gained huge popularity. “It’s just been ridiculous,” sighs Connie Westhoff, the Director of Immunohematology, Genomics, and Rare Blood at the New York Blood Center. 

In 1996 a naturopath named Peter D’Adamo published a book called Eat Right 4 Your Type. D’Adamo argued that we must eat according to our blood type, in order to harmonise with our evolutionary heritage.

Blood types, he claimed, “appear to have arrived at critical junctures of human development.” According to D’Adamo, type O blood arose in our hunter-gatherer ancestors in Africa, type A at the dawn of agriculture, and type B developed between 10,000 and 15,000 years ago in the Himalayan highlands. Type AB, he argued, is a modern blending of A and B.

From these suppositions D’Adamo then claimed that our blood type determines what food we should eat. With my agriculture-based type A blood, for example, I should be a vegetarian. People with the ancient hunter type O should have a meat-rich diet and avoid grains and dairy. According to the book, foods that aren’t suited to our blood type contain antigens that can cause all sorts of illness. D’Adamo recommended his diet as a way to reduce infections, lose weight, fight cancer and diabetes, and slow the ageing process.

D’Adamo’s book has sold 7 million copies and has been translated into 60 languages. It’s been followed by a string of other blood type diet books; D’Adamo also sells a line of blood-type-tailored diet supplements on his website. As a result, doctors often get asked by their patients if blood type diets actually work.

The best way to answer that question is to run an experiment. In Eat Right 4 Your Type D’Adamo wrote that he was in the eighth year of a decade-long trial of blood type diets on women with cancer. Eighteen years later, however, the data from this trial have not yet been published.

Recently, researchers at the Red Cross in Belgium decided to see if there was any other evidence in the diet’s favour. They hunted through the scientific literature for experiments that measured the benefits of diets based on blood types. Although they examined over 1,000 studies, their efforts were futile. “There is no direct evidence supporting the health effects of the ABO blood type diet,” says Emmy De Buck of the Belgian Red Cross-Flanders.

After De Buck and her colleagues published their review in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, D’Adamo responded on his blog. In spite of the lack of published evidence supporting his Blood Type Diet, he claimed that the science behind it is right. “There is good science behind the blood type diets, just like there was good science behind Einstein’s mathmatical [sic] calculations that led to the Theory of Relativity,” he wrote.

Comparisons to Einstein notwithstanding, the scientists who actually do research on blood types categorically reject such a claim. “The promotion of these diets is wrong,” a group of researchers flatly declared in Transfusion Medicine Reviews.

Nevertheless, some people who follow the Blood Type Diet see positive results. According to Ahmed El-Sohemy, a nutritional scientist at the University of Toronto, that’s no reason to think that blood types have anything to do with the diet’s success.

El-Sohemy is an expert in the emerging field of nutrigenomics. He and his colleagues have brought together 1,500 volunteers to study, tracking the foods they eat and their health. They are analysing the DNA of their subjects to see how their genes may influence how food affects them. Two people may respond very differently to the same diet based on their genes.

“Almost every time I give talks about this, someone at the end asks me, ‘Oh, is this like the Blood Type Diet?’” says El-Sohemy. As a scientist, he found Eat Right 4 Your Type lacking. “None of the stuff in the book is backed by science,” he says. But El-Sohemy realised that since he knew the blood types of his 1,500 volunteers, he could see if the Blood Type Diet actually did people any good.

El-Sohemy and his colleagues divided up their subjects by their diets. Some ate the meat-based diets D’Adamo recommended for type O, some ate a mostly vegetarian diet as recommended for type A, and so on. The scientists gave each person in the study a score for how well they adhered to each blood type diet.

The researchers did find, in fact, that some of the diets could do people some good. People who stuck to the type A diet, for example, had lower body mass index scores, smaller waists and lower blood pressure. People on the type O diet had lower triglycerides. The type B diet – rich in dairy products – provided no benefits.

“The catch,” says El-Sohemy, “is that it has nothing to do with people’s blood type.” In other words, if you have type O blood, you can still benefit from a so-called type A diet just as much as someone with type A blood – probably because the benefits of a mostly vegetarian diet can be enjoyed by anyone. Anyone on a type O diet cuts out lots of carbohydrates, with the attending benefits of this being available to virtually everyone. Likewise, a diet rich in dairy products isn’t healthy for anyone – no matter their blood type.

One of the appeals of the Blood Type Diet is its story of the origins of how we got our different blood types. But that story bears little resemblance to the evidence that scientists have gathered about their evolution.

After Landsteiner’s discovery of human blood types in 1900, other scientists wondered if the blood of other animals came in different types too. It turned out that some primate species had blood that mixed nicely with certain human blood types. But for a long time it was hard to know what to make of the findings. The fact that a monkey’s blood doesn’t clump with my type A blood doesn’t necessarily mean that the monkey inherited the same type A gene that I carry from a common ancestor we share. Type A blood might have evolved more than once.

The uncertainty slowly began to dissolve, starting in the 1990s with scientists deciphering the molecular biology of blood types. They found that a single gene, called ABO, is responsible for building the second floor of the blood type house. The A version of the gene differs by a few key mutations from B. People with type O blood have mutations in the ABO gene that prevent them from making the enzyme that builds either the A or B antigen.

Scientists could then begin comparing the ABO gene from humans to other species. Laure Ségurel and her colleagues at the National Center for Scientific Research in Paris have led the most ambitious survey of ABO genes in primates to date. And they’ve found that our blood types are profoundly old. Gibbons and humans both have variants for both A and B blood types, and those variants come from a common ancestor that lived 20 million years ago.

Our blood types might be even older, but it’s hard to know how old. Scientists have yet to analyse the genes of all primates, so they can’t see how widespread our own versions are among other species. But the evidence that scientists have gathered so far already reveals a turbulent history to blood types. In some lineages mutations have shut down one blood type or another. Chimpanzees, our closest living relatives, have only type A and type O blood. Gorillas, on the other hand, have only B. In some cases mutations have altered the ABO gene, turning type A blood into type B. And even in humans, scientists are finding, mutations have repeatedly arisen that prevent the ABO protein from building a second storey on the blood type house. These mutations have turned blood types from A or B to O. “There are hundreds of ways of being type O,” says Westhoff.

Being type A is not a legacy of my proto-farmer ancestors, in other words. It’s a legacy of my monkey-like ancestors. Surely, if my blood type has endured for millions of years, it must be providing me with some obvious biological benefit. Otherwise, why do my blood cells bother building such complicated molecular structures?

Yet scientists have struggled to identify what benefit the ABO gene provides. “There is no good and definite explanation for ABO,” says Antoine Blancher of the University of Toulouse, “although many answers have been given.”

The most striking demonstration of our ignorance about the benefit of blood types came to light in Bombay in 1952. Doctors discovered that a handful of patients had no ABO blood type at all – not A, not B, not AB, not O. If A and B are two-storey buildings, and O is a one-storey ranch house, then these Bombay patients had only an empty lot.

Since its discovery this condition – called the Bombay phenotype – has turned up in other people, although it remains exceedingly rare. And as far as scientists can tell, there’s no harm that comes from it. The only known medical risk it presents comes when it’s time for a blood transfusion. Those with the Bombay phenotype can only accept blood from other people with the same condition. Even blood type O, supposedly the universal blood type, can kill them.

The Bombay phenotype proves that there’s no immediate life-or-death advantage to having ABO blood types. Some scientists think that the explanation for blood types may lie in their variation. That’s because different blood types may protect us from different diseases.

Doctors first began to notice a link between blood types and different diseases in the middle of the 20th century, and the list has continued to grow. “There are still many associations being found between blood groups and infections, cancers and a range of diseases,” Pamela Greenwell of the University of Westminster tells me.

From Greenwell I learn to my displeasure that blood type A puts me at a higher risk of several types of cancer, such as some forms of pancreatic cancer and leukaemia. I’m also more prone to smallpox infections, heart disease and severe malaria. On the other hand, people with other blood types have to face increased risks of other disorders. People with type O, for example, are more likely to get ulcers and ruptured Achilles tendons.

These links between blood types and diseases have a mysterious arbitrariness about them, and scientists have only begun to work out the reasons behind some of them. For example, Kevin Kain of the University of Toronto and his colleagues have been investigating why people with type O are better protected against severe malaria than people with other blood types. His studies indicate that immune cells have an easier job of recognising infected blood cells if they’re type O rather than other blood types.

More puzzling are the links between blood types and diseases that have nothing to do with the blood. Take norovirus. This nasty pathogen is the bane of cruise ships, as it can rage through hundreds of passengers, causing violent vomiting and diarrhoea. It does so by invading cells lining the intestines, leaving blood cells untouched. Nevertheless, people’s blood type influences the risk that they will be infected by a particular strain of norovirus.

The solution to this particular mystery can be found in the fact that blood cells are not the only cells to produce blood type antigens. They are also produced by cells in blood vessel walls, the airway, skin and hair. Many people even secrete blood type antigens in their saliva. Noroviruses make us sick by grabbing onto the blood type antigens produced by cells in the gut.

Yet a norovirus can only grab firmly onto a cell if its proteins fit snugly onto the cell’s blood type antigen. So it’s possible that each strain of norovirus has proteins that are adapted to attach tightly to certain blood type antigens, but not others. That would explain why our blood type can influence which norovirus strains can make us sick.

It may also be a clue as to why a variety of blood types have endured for millions of years. Our primate ancestors were locked in a never-ending cage match with countless pathogens, including viruses, bacteria and other enemies. Some of those pathogens may have adapted to exploit different kinds of blood type antigens. The pathogens that were best suited to the most common blood type would have fared best, because they had the most hosts to infect. But, gradually, they may have destroyed that advantage by killing off their hosts. Meanwhile, primates with rarer blood types would have thrived, thanks to their protection against some of their enemies.

As I contemplate this possibility, my type A blood remains as puzzling to me as when I was a boy. But it’s a deeper state of puzzlement that brings me some pleasure. I realise that the reason for my blood type may, ultimately, have nothing to do with blood at all.

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16 Jul 00:59

Rise of the Sea Urchin | Science | Smithsonian

When it comes to their neighbors in Norway, the good people of Denmark and Sweden have a limitless fount of jokes, many of which are reductive and in questionable taste; none of which should, under any circumstance, be repeated.

Here’s one of the funniest:

A Dane, a Swede and a Norwegian are shipwrecked on a desert island. The Dane finds a magic shell, which, when rubbed, entitles each of the castaways to a wish. The Dane says: “I wish to go home to my cozy flat in Copenhagen and relax on my soft sofa beside my sexy girlfriend with a six-pack of beer.” He promptly disappears. The Swede says, “I wish to return to my large and comfortable Stockholm bungalow, with its sleek Ikea furniture.” He vanishes, too. After mulling his options, the Norwegian says,

“I’m terribly lonely now. I wish my two friends were here with me.”

For much of the last decade, Roderick Sloan has been viewed as something of a Norwegian joke. By Norwegians, no less. The 44-year-old émigré Scot makes his home 88 miles north of the Arctic Circle—little more than a cod’s toss from Nordskot (pop. 55), one of Norway’s darkest, bleakest, remotest coastal villages.

Inside the spiky test are five corals of roe, sometimes called tongues—the sea urchin’s wobbly gonads. (Karoline O.A. Pettersen)
Sea urchins with their skin and spines removed. (Jennifer Steen Booher)
The frigid waters north of the Arctic Circle. (Karoline O.A. Pettersen)
Roderick Sloan endures the spring chill on the Big Betty. ( Karoline O.A. Pettersen)
“You start with sea salt, then you get a big iodine hit, and, at the end, a distinctive sweetness that sits in your mouth," says Sloan. (Howard Sooley)
Sloan clutches a pair of green sea urchins, which he plucks from the frigid waters north of the Arctic Circle. (Howard Sooley)
Roderick Sloan prepares for his dive into the frigid Arctic waters of Vestfjorden carrying 65 pounds of scuba gear. (Karoline O.A. Pettersen)
The urchin diver gazes over the waves on what’s for him just another day at the office. (Karoline O.A. Pettersen)
Sloan’s sea urchins are a delicacy featured in the New Nordic cuisine of the restaurant Noma in Copenhagen. (Courtesy of Noma )
Sloan displays a sea urchin he plucked from the sandy seafloor off the coast of Norway. (Karoline O.A. Pettersen)

The farm he shares with his wife (Lindis), young sons (names withheld by request) and dog (Sisko, an aged Labrador with bad joints and a worse aroma) spans 500 scraggly acres. The land is speckled with birch and encircled by mountain—lofty, sharp-edged and shaped like dragon’s teeth. It’s an agreeable enough place in what American travel writer Bill Bryson might call a thank-you-God-for-not-making-me-live-here sort of way. “Summer is special in Nordskot,” cracks Christopher Sjuve, an Oslo-based wine blogger. “It’s everyone’s favorite day of the year.”

Sloan embraces the isolation. “I love the tranquility here, you understand,” he says in a soft Scottish burr, rolling his r’s and stretching out his vowels. “I love the clean air and the changes of the seasons. It’s not perfection, but then if life is too perfect, it can be perfectly dull.”

What makes Sloan perfectly risible in the eyes of many is the precarious career he has carved. In weather that would be considered mild only on Neptune, he dives into the icy fjord to gather sea urchins, those wee beasties that look like squash balls encased in pine thistles. Sloan’s aquatic treasure hunts for krakebolle (“crow’s balls” in Norwegian) are as dangerous as they are daring. Waves are often treacherous; squalls, gusty; and storms can appear in an instant. “Roddie swims alone, down to 50 feet deep,” Sjuve observes. “You’ve either got to be drunk or crazy to do what he does.”

Crazy, say the locals. “When I started to harvest urchins in 2002, everyone thought I was bananas,” Sloan says. “They’re not a traditional catch in north Norway.” He means urchins, not bananas. Though plentiful, urchins are not exactly standard fare in Norway, a nation of largely unadventurous eaters who annually consume 48 million frozen pizzas—about 10 per capita. Sloan is practically a cottage industry unto himself. “We’ve got seals and killer whales,” he says, “but I’m the country’s only full-time urchin diver.”

In the brave new world of fine dining, the roe of the humble urchin—a shellfish once cursed as a pest to lobstermen, mocked as “whore’s eggs” and routinely smashed with hammers or tossed overboard as unsalable “bycatch”—is a prized and slurpily lascivious delicacy. Unlike caviar, which is the eggs of fish, the roe of the urchin is its wobbly gonads. Every year more than 100,000 tons of them slide down discerning throats, mainly in France and Japan, where the chunks of salty, grainy custard are known as uni and believed to be an uplifting tonic, if not an aphrodisiac. The Japanese exchange urchins as gifts during New Year celebrations.

Sloan supplies Strongylocentrotus droebachiensis, or “Norwegian greens,” to dozens of the most revered restaurants in Europe, from London’s meaty, masculine mecca of English food (St. John) to the 12-seat Fäviken in the wilds of northern Sweden, where chef Magnus Nilsson stalks lingonberries in bearskin with his gun dog, Krut.

Master chefs buzz among themselves about Sloan’s urchins like discoverers of a latter-day Beatles—or, in the case of René Redzepi, beetles. The founder of “New Nordic” cuisine, Redzepi runs Noma, a Copenhagen eatery that Restaurant magazine has judged to be the world’s best in four of the last five years.

Redzepi’s 28-course celebration of local and seasonal ingredients foraged from the woodlands and seashore is designed to demonstrate nature on a plate. He fashions culinary bouquets from wild herbs and edible soil, toasted hay and reindeer moss, live ants and fermented grasshoppers. (“Waiter, there’s a fly in my soup!” “Yes, and for the next course...”) In one signature dish, raw North Atlantic shrimp are washed up on a “beachscape” of grasses, frozen pebbles and dried-urchin “sand” that showcases the Norwegian green’s murky orange innards. Sloan provides the urchins, which the Danish have dubbed søpindsvin (sea hedgehogs). Redzepi says they’re as luscious as anything he’s ever eaten.

“It’s like Roddie invented a new product, a new culinary sensation,” echoes fellow chef Esben Holmboe Bang, whose Maaemo is the most shimmering of Oslo’s Michelin-starred chow houses. “His Norwegian greens are sweet and tender and you can taste the wilderness in every bite. It’s like you’re making out with the sea.”


The night before the greens first appeared on Noma’s menu, a waiter asked, “Where do sea urchins come from?”

“They grow on trees,” said another waiter, helpfully. Which even by Scandinavian standards wasn’t much of a comeback. It so happens that urchins can be found in almost every major marine habitat from the poles to the Equator, and from shallow inlets to depths of more than 17,000 feet. Sloan mostly targets exposed reefs with rich forests of kelp, which urchins eat ravenously.

At dawn on this brutal spring morning, Sloan and his one-man crew—a Frenchman who answers to J.C.—clamber onto a red polar work boat he’s christened Big Betty. Out to sea, a white-tailed eagle is wheeling and, beyond that, to the northwest, you can see the lumpy peninsula jutting toward the Lofoten Islands. Under an immense sky (sea clear, light swell) Big Betty putters along until reaching a craggy cove, where Sloan spies the familiar dark shadows. He zips up his dry suit, yanks on rubber gloves and straps on 65 pounds of scuba gear. Plopping backward into the water, Sloan shimmies through dense clusters of seaweed, propelled by the surge of each wave.

Urchins have hundreds of adhesive tube feet and move over the sandy seafloor at a fairly leisurely pace. Sloan collects them with diligence and a certain tenderness, placing the prickly krakebolle one by one into the mesh sacks that flutter in his wake. After 30 minutes he surfaces through the surf, and is quickly hauled onto the deck by J.C., who then sorts the urchins according to color, size and condition. A typical daily haul is between 200 and 300 pounds.

Sloan’s frozen lips are the same pale blue as the water; his breathing is so labored he can barely speak. “Welcome to my office,” he says at last. “This is a magic place to be. Every day I feel like I’m parachuting into the Amazon jungle, without the piranhas. I have no idea what’s going to happen. It’s quite exciting, but it can be terrifying as well.”

He smiles gently. Sloan is an engagingly modest, gruff and diffident fellow with an untamed beard and a sharp sense of humor—in three languages. “I’m quite a sane guy,” he says, “but I’m a bit mad, too.” He’s never bothered to pry out the urchin spike his right thumb has harbored since 2004. “The first year it’s interesting. After that, it becomes part of you.”

The English writer P. G. Wodehouse wrote that it’s never difficult to distinguish between a Scotsman with a grievance and a ray of sunshine. Though Sloan has a copious supply of inner sunshine, he holds strong opinions—about politicians, whaling, the sustainable and ethical consumption of fish, the 1970s TV spy show “The Man From Atlantis” (which he loves), Nordic mosquitoes (hates), the medicinal value of periwinkles—and he doesn’t hesitate to express them. If he invites you to spend a day aboard Big Betty, then you’ve passed some very stringent, very idiosyncratic test of character.

At this moment he’s standing astride Betty’s stern, holding forth on the perils of his profession. He recalls a five-hour battle through 20-foot waves to get his first tiny boat the final kilometer home. (“If you steer the wrong way, you die. It’s as simple as that.”) He compares disentangling himself from a clump of underwater kelp to squeezing through a hawthorn hedge. He describes being flung into a churning washing machine of surf and currents. “I’m upside-down, swirling above jagged rocks, unable to see my oxygen bubbles. During a whiteout, I can float for five minutes with no idea where I am.”

Sloan is awed by the milky nothingness he confronts during urchin spawning season, when the sea teems with delicate, transparent creatures of great beauty. The currents and low visibility make diving too risky. “Imagine if you could see all the pollen spores in the air. It’s like snorkeling in a tub of bathwater after you dropped a bar of soap in it. This is the soup of life, you understand.”

He first dipped a toe into that soup at age 5, during a fishing holiday to the Scottish Highlands. (The family motto: Sleep long and prosper.) When the lure of his older brother, Robbie, got snagged on some slimy seaweed, Roddie volunteered to fetch it. “I must have walked only a few yards, but it seemed like a few miles,” he says. “I remember thinking that the sea is this wonderful place.”

Which, growing up in the land-locked hamlet of Dunscore he never much got to experience. “At 19, I kind of struggled off into life,” he says. “I was bitterly disappointed with it.” He drifted through Europe, finding work in restaurants as a porter, a cook and a manager. At 27, he landed in Oslo and got a job in a sports lounge. While tending bar he met his future wife, Lindis, a college student who had come to watch a British soccer match on the wide­screen TV. She asked him to change the channel. He complied. They’ve been a couple pretty much ever since.

It was Lindis’ brother who suggested that Roddie move to Arctic Norway and hunt the feral urchin. “The big problem was not fishing them,” Roddie says. “The big problem was selling them.” Business was never easy, though Sloan began to source some of the continent’s top restaurants, like Alain Ducasse’s Le Louis XV in Monaco. But when his Paris wholesaler went bust in 2008, he decided to return to school and pursue a degree in engineering. A phone call from René Redzepi changed all that. The Noma chef asked Sloan to ship his greens to Denmark. Sloan was reluctant, but at Lindis’ urging—and after tripling the price as a disincentive—he gave in. “I was ready to throw in the beach towel,” he says. “René saved my career.” Noma now has a standing order for 100 pounds a week.

The greens are at their prime from November to the end of February. When the season winds up, Sloan switches to mahogany clams, which Norwegian fishermen once used as cod bait. The clams stop reproducing after 25 years, and some that Sloan harvests are hundreds of years old. “They’ve spent centuries just lying in their beds,” he says. Bored, not happy as, well...clams. “If a mahogany clam had a brain, it might think, ‘I’ve just turned 350. Why wasn’t I born a dog? Twelve years of this crap and it would all be over.’”

Urchins lack brains, too. The test—its spiny outer shell—protects what is basically an eating and breeding machine. The skeleton is divided into sections running from top to bottom, like the segments of an orange. Inside the body are five corals of roe, sometimes called tongues. On the underside of the test are a muscular system and five self-honing calcium carbonate teeth that allow the urchin to chomp through stone. This chewing apparatus is known as Aristotle’s lantern, from a description in the fourth century B.C. philosopher and naturalist’s Historia Animalium. (Scholars recently proposed that he was actually referring to the test, which resembles the bronze lamps of ancient Greece.)

Urchins are among the earliest forms of life known to have existed. Their fossils date back some 450 million years. “The little buggers are believed to share a distant common ancestor with humans,” says Sloan. Which sounds like the setup for another Norwegian joke.

Around 800 species of urchins are still extant. All have roe that’s edible, though not necessarily palatable. In the kitchen of his farmhouse, Sloan demonstrates how to cut around the Norwegian green’s mouth and scoop out the tongues. In theory, urchins should be opened with a coupe oursin—a tool specially designed for the job. Sloan doesn’t own one, so he uses his wife’s nail scissors. Inserting the tip into the mouthparts, he snips off an itty-bitty piece and trims the top third of the shell to reveal the roe. He spoons out a fillet and places it on your tongue: The sensation is soft and pillowy. “I love the taste of urchin when it’s really good,” Sloan says. “You start with sea salt, then you get a big iodine hit, and, at the end, a distinctive sweetness that sits in your mouth for hours.”


Oyster farmers in the United States have lately twisted the term terroir to create “merroir,” which refers to the flavors imparted by different areas of the sea. In the urchin’s case, flavor depends on the species and the seaweed it eats, says John Lawrence, who wrote the book on the subject (it’s for sale: Sea Urchins: Biology and Ecology, $200, Academic Press).

The merroir of oysters varies widely—generally, smaller varieties tend to have a slightly metallic taste. We ask: In the urchins’ briny universe, does size matter? “The urchin gonad is both a nutritive reserve organ and a gametogenic organ,” says Lawrence, a professor at the University of South Florida. “It is a nutrient reserve organ because it produces nutritive phagocytes that store protein and glycogen. These are produced in the gonads during the first part of the reproductive cycle and are transferred to the gametes. The gonads are most flavorful when they consist primarily of nutritive phagocytes and not gametes. It is possible the gonads of small urchins consist primarily of nutritive phagocytes.”

Simply said, Sloan’s finest urchins are much like a juicy cut of Wagyu steak: lots of energy stored. The nutritive phagocytes of the roe and the fat of well-marbled beef account for their robustness. Sloan has an even simpler explanation for why his greens are so exquisite. “By June, when the midnight sun arrives, there’s lots of algae for them to eat,” he says. “Everything grows slowly up here, so the urchins taste better.”


Both fragile and destructive, the urchin is a tempest in an environmental seapot. In every corner of the planet, there seem to be either too few or too many. The French and Irish exhausted their resident stocks years ago. In Maine, Nova Scotia and Japan, urchin populations have been drastically reduced by overfishing and disease.

Meanwhile, off the coasts of California and Tasmania, overfishing the animal’s natural predators and large-scale change in ocean circulation—believed to be an effect of climate change—have turned vast stretches of seafloor into “urchin barrens” that remind you of moonscapes. The urchins multiply, chew down the kelp and devastate marine ecosystems. “Management of the sea is the only way,” says Sloan.

He culls his wild urchin beds on a five-year rotation, and wants Norway to adopt a hands-on approach—instituting quotas and establishing fishing zones. In return, a hunter of urchins might produce an underwater map or feed them kelp washed ashore when natural supplies are scarce.


From a jetty in Nordskot Harbor, Sloan gazes over the sea, but a gray mist obscures the cliffs and slopes. “I’d like to plant maple trees on my land,” he says, a bit wistfully. A neighbor told him the trees wouldn’t produce sap for at least 25 years: “You’ll be very, very old.” Sloan told the neighbor, “That’s not the point. I’m looking to the future.”

Sloan would be happy if the future looked a lot like the present. “I’ve got a smart woman as a wife and an old, fat Labrador,” he says, laughing at the Norwegian jokiness of it all. “I don’t need a Ferrari. I can’t watch more than one TV. I can’t sleep in more than one bed. If you have enough in life, that’s all that matters. I’m just clearing sand off the bottom of the ocean.”

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15 Jul 15:00

The Ocean Is Full of Worms and Gonads and Monsters

by Lynne Elkins

Lynne Elkins’ previous work for The Toast can be found here.

Today, I am not here to talk to you about science*. Instead, I would like to share a truth that you may not have fully realized, which is that the ocean is a horrifying place full of monsters.

You might be thinking, “But I always wanted to be a marine biologist! I love dolphins!” And to be fair, dolphins can blow coordinated hunting bubbles and have names for each other and probably are much less prone to sexual assault than folks like to say. But most of the ocean is not made of dolphins, or even mammals. It is mostly full of worms.

Okay, fine, maybe not “mostly.” or “full.” But there are a lot of worms. Here, again, you might be saying, “But I wanted to be a marine biologist and study things other than charismatic megafauna! Marine worms are beautiful!” Sure, some of the worms have pretty colors and crazy fringes, which they obviously use as a glamour to fool gullible humans. But you are forgetting the most important thing: THEY ARE GIANT WORMS. And some of them look like this:


Less beautiful.

Don’t get me wrong: marine worms are fascinating. This is because monsters are terrible and fascinating. Consider, for example, the very famous Giant Tube Worms that live around deep sea volcanic vents. This is a 7 foot-long worm that can grow 5 feet in under two years, with no digestive tract, with which is red because it contains hemoglobin. In other words, it is a worm that nearly has blood that is taller than you and uses its mouth as its anus.

(These monstrous properties, of course, are the true reason to celebrate the 1991 discovery of the Tubeworm Barbecue.)

You might now be asking, “But what about non-worm things?” Sure. Let’s talk about some other creatures, like, say, echinoderms. Everyone likes starfish, right? Everything that isn’t hunted by starfish, I guess. Have you ever seen the inside of a sea urchin? I have, and please let me tell you about it: These alien monsters are almost completely hollow, except for a skinny intestinal tube that floats around inside their body, and the whole “Aristotle’s Lantern” skeleton mouth thing, which contains rasping teeth so hard they might be able to grind through rock (debated! these are things you debate about monsters.) The little hole at the top of the spiny shell is, in fact, the anus. Marine animals probably could be classed as horrifying simply based on the positions of their anuses. I would also like to address the whole “five-sided skeleton” thing, which, while interesting, is wrong and should not exist. Also, crinoids (sea lilies and feather stars) were echinoderms that reached a meter tall or more in the geologic past; and now we know that they are, in fact, still around, floating about or walking on their fronds like legs. I have touched them and seen YouTube and can confirm this is true. Summary: echinoderms are monsters.

Moving along: cephalopods, once the enormous monster predators of the oceans, are terrifyingly intelligent, curious, capricious thieves that can squeeze themselves through tiny holes and instantaneously mimic random objects (and to be fair, they still include some enormous predators, such as giant squid.) The mimic octopus takes cephalopod mimicry skills to terrifying heights. Blue-ringed octopods are some of the most venomous creatures on the planet, and they do bite humans. And the extreme deep-sea vampire squid (whose full latin name literally means “vampire squid of Hell”) is blood-red with “limpid, globular eyes,” can release a bioluminescent mucus into the water from its “writhing arms” which blinds opponents in a crazy light show that lasts up to 10 minutes, and can, you know, turn its own body inside out. Of course.

We have not yet discussed isopods. That is mostly because I wanted to delay the horror for myself. They are horrifying for many reasons, such as, for instance, what they look like:


Or this. Or this.

But those examples, while terrible in appearance, are not the worst isopods, which honor is reserved for the parasitic isopods. Those are the ones that attach themselves to the tongues of fish, causing the tongue to wither and fall off; they then take up permanent residence in their host fish’s mouth. Some live off whatever food the fish is eating, while others drink the fish’s own blood. Oh God. Why am I writing about this.

Read more The Ocean Is Full of Worms and Gonads and Monsters at The Toast.

14 Jul 01:00

Crowdsourced Data Reveals Most Beautiful Urban Walking Routes

by Urbanist
[ By WebUrbanist in Destinations & Sights & Travel. ]

best walking routes study

Using a mapping algorithm coupled with citizen reviews of sights and scenery, a team of researchers has developed a way to choose paths through cities based on beauty, quiet and happiness rather than simply the shortest distance between two points.

shortest or beautiful route

The project employed Google Street View and Geograph as well as Flickr images and their metadata to build out an initial estimation of probable best paths, then solicited human feedback (to check and enhance the results) from a group of participants on the website UrbanGems (shown above).

london main sites map

The study, published by Cornell University’s arXiv, came up with a number of route suggestions in Boston and London and contains a number of interesting findings. For starters, the ‘beautiful’ routes were only slightly longer than the shortest routes, and significantly shorter than typical tourist-oriented directions and guided-tour paths. As the algorithm improves, it is increasingly able to generate paths through new cities via metadata alone, reducing reliance on input from people.

beauty and shortest boston

boston main sights map

The project’s creators included Daniele Quercia and Luca Maria Aiello of Yahoo Labs in Barcelona and Rossano Schifanella of the University of Torino, Italy. From their abstract: “When providing directions to a place, web and mobile mapping services are all able to suggest the shortest route. The goal of this work is to automatically suggest routes that are not only short but also emotionally pleasant.

beauty walking route london

shortest walking route london

The assessments are not simply qualitative value judgments, but a hybrid of human and machine input: “Based on a quantitative validation, we find that, compared to the shortest routes, the recommended ones add just a few extra walking minutes and are indeed perceived to be more beautiful, quiet, and happy.”

happy walking path london

quiet walking route london

From UrbanGems: “Buildings and neighbourhoods speak. They speak of egalitarianism or elitism, beauty or ugliness, acceptance or arrogance. The aim of UrbanGems is to identify the visual cues that are generally associated with concepts difficult to define such beauty, happiness, quietness, or even deprivation. The difficult task of deciding what makes a building beautiful, or what is sought after in a quiet location is outsourced to the users of this site using comparisons of pictures. With a comprehensive list of aesthetic virtues at hand, we would be more likely to systematically understand and re-create the environments we intuitively love.”

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14 Jul 11:00

Folha de S.Paulo - Opinião - Monoglotas de espírito - 14/07/2014

Vinicius Mota

Monoglotas de espírito

SÃO PAULO - A exportação de talentos faz mal ao futebol brasileiro. Os craques têm de ficar perto da torcida e dos treinadores locais. Essa tem sido a solução decantada no interminável debate sobre como revigorar o esporte nacional após a coça da coças, os 7 a 1 do Mineirão.

Giramos, giramos e voltamos ao mesmo lugar. A conclusão de que a exportação de jogadores é problema a ser combatido reincide no atavismo autárquico que impregna a cultura política brasileira e atrasa o país.

Quem deseja usufruir das vantagens do mundo moderno, ser produtivo como os povos mais prósperos, adquirir os saberes mais atualizados, no futebol e fora dele, precisa se abrir, viajar e receber estrangeiros em profusão, exportar e importar em cópia, falar a língua global.

Monoglota de fato, a população brasileira teve a felicidade, durante a Copa, de lidar com turistas de várias nacionalidades nas cidades-sede. A hospitalidade e a cordialidade equilibraram a falta de hábito e de recursos comunicativos. Que tal se tornássemos a experiência mais frequente e menos chocante?

Monoglotas de espírito, dirigentes no futebol e fora dele empastelam a abertura e a modernização. Alguns iludem-se e iludem-nos com ideologias nacionalistas ultrapassadas, como se as dimensões continentais do território e da população transformassem o Brasil, automaticamente, num país que se basta a si mesmo.

A nação que se fecha, evita acordos comerciais, manda poucos trabalhadores e estudantes para fora e pouco recebe os de outros países está condenada à mediocridade. Passará ao largo das rotas de prosperidade na economia, na cultura, na ciência e também no futebol.

Jogadores que foram atuar fora do país experimentam o que há de mais avançado nas práticas futebolísticas. São hoje melhores profissionais do que jamais poderiam tornar-se na triste realidade dos clubes brasileiros. Viva a exportação de craques!

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13 Jul 16:00

A Jellyfish Tank Installed in an Abandoned Building in Liverpool

12 Jul 16:00

fer1972: Today’s Classic: Daedalus and Icarus 1. By Peter Paul...


Today’s Classic: Daedalus and Icarus

1. By Peter Paul Rubens (1636)

2. By Anthony van Dyck (1620)

3. By Andrea Sacchi (1645)

4. By Charles Le Brun (1642)

5. By Frederic Leighton (1869)

6. By Pyotr Ivanovich Sokolov (1777)

12 Jul 20:00

honkshu: 心中天網島 Shinjū: Ten no Amijima (Double Suicide) - 篠田 正浩...


心中天網島 Shinjū: Ten no Amijima (Double Suicide)

- 篠田 正浩 Shinoda Masahiro(1969)

12 Jul 12:00

Virtude rara

by Míriam Leitão
 Míriam Leitão - O Globo

Enviado por Míriam Leitão e Alvaro Gribel - |

Coluna no GLOBO

Virtude rara

“O Brasil sai da euforia para a tristeza sem passar pelo ressentimento.” A frase é do embaixador Marcos Azambuja, tentando consolar amigos diante da derrota humilhante da seleção brasileira esta semana. Lembrava que nós não culpamos os outros, mas sim a nós mesmos, e que os jogadores brasileiros não reagiram de forma truculenta em campo, mesmo diante de derrota tão absoluta.

Ele diz estar recebendo telefonemas de amigos de vários países que dizem, em elogio às nossas virtudes, palavras que ele resume assim: “Marcos, esse seu país não existe.” O melhor de nós mesmos, a alegria em receber, o clima de encantamento em que envolvemos os hóspedes foram exibidos nesta Copa.

A visão pode ser resultado do inarredável otimismo com que o embaixador vê o Brasil, mas ele não pode ser acusado de falar por desconhecimento do temperamento de outros povos, já que viveu e representou o Brasil em outros países. Quando era embaixador em Paris, estava ao lado das autoridades francesas quando perdemos a final por 3 a 0, gols de Zinédine Zidane e Emmanuel Petit. “Foi horrível, eu tive que dar os parabéns para as autoridades francesas e estava dilacerado. Depois, fui cumprimentar os jogadores no vestiário. Eles eram tão jovens, meu Deus!”

Se atravessarmos este fim de semana sem que a hostilidade esportiva entre brasileiros e argentinos provoque qualquer episódio desagradável, teremos passado bem por uma parte da Copa do Mundo. O brasileiro mostrou o melhor dele mesmo, tentando compensar falhas nas obras atrasadas de infraestrutura.

Ninguém poderá dizer que é o vencedor político da parte que deu certo na Copa, e isso é ótimo. Os assuntos transcorrem em campos muito distantes. A política terá seu tempo, que começa agora, em que os candidatos tentarão conquistar o voto dos eleitores com jingles, frases criadas pelos marqueteiros, filmes motivacionais e, eventualmente, propostas. O triste é que as propostas ficam quase sempre em segundo plano.

A economia não ganhou muito com a Copa. Houve investimentos, mas que ficaram incompletos, e sobre alguns pairam dúvidas a respeito dos custos e opções feitas. Não houve o que o país sonhou como legado da Copa, como obras estruturantes de um novo padrão de mobilidade urbana. No trimestre anterior à Copa não houve crescimento econômico provocado por algum aumento de atividade. Pelo contrário, as previsões de crescimento estão murchando para o ano.

Os excessivos feriados e interrupções da atividade produtiva, para superar os problemas de mobilidade nas cidades-sede em dias de jogos, e mais a necessária parada para as disputas nas quais estava a seleção brasileira reduziram ainda mais o ritmo da economia. Em alguns países que sediaram o evento, o PIB teve aumento devido à Copa, em si. Em outros, isso não aconteceu. Ficamos, infelizmente, no segundo grupo.

Há novo evento internacional marcado para daqui a dois anos, e o Brasil pode tirar várias lições da Copa. Treinar mais o ensino de inglês de pessoas que vão lidar com o público porque o país não pode contar apenas com sua simpatia na hora de receber os estrangeiros. Ter um pouco mais de respeito aos prazos fixados pelas autoridades olímpicas. Investir mais em tecnologia de informação. Ter um planejamento urbano que não nos obrigue a suspender atividades educacionais e produtivas só porque há um grande evento internacional acontecendo.

O maior teste da primeira frase deste artigo foi agora. Conseguimos viver a tristeza desta semana sem ressentimentos. Em vez de culpar terceiros, analisamos nossos erros. Tem razão o embaixador: essa é uma das nossas virtudes.

11 Jul 12:07

O Governo Brasileiro Gasta Pouco em Saúde?

by Luiza Niemeyer

Sempre que os problemas da saúde emergem no debate público, uma proposta recorrente é o aumento do nível de gastos. Mas será que o governo brasileiro gasta pouco em saúde?

Um exercício simples de comparação internacional indica que o nível do gasto público em saúde do Brasil é compatível com o de países com renda similar. Esta conclusão é ilustrada no Gráfico 1, que contrapõe o gasto público em saúde per capita com o PIB per capita dos países da OECD[1] e BRICS[2], e revela que o nosso padrão não difere muito dos demais BRICS ou mesmo de países da OECD com renda um pouco mais próxima a nossa como Chile, México ou Turquia[3].

Gráfico 1: Gasto público em saúde per capita e PIB per capita (US$ PPP) – 2011

Fonte: WB/WDI

Fonte: Banco Mundial, WDI

Só que há uma particularidade que difere o Brasil da maioria dos países de renda similar: o tamanho do nosso governo. O gasto público total, como proporção do PIB, alcançava quase 40% em 2011, nível similar ao do grupo de países mais ricos. Por outro lado, apenas 8,7% do total de gastos era destinado à saúde, nível muito inferior ao apresentado pelo mesmo grupo de países. O Gráfico 2 mostra que o nível do gasto de saúde do Brasil, apesar de razoável para os países de renda similar e governo menor, está muito abaixo da média quando se considera o tamanho do governo brasileiro. Além disso, de 2000 a 2012, a proporção dos gastos públicos destinada a saúde pouco variou, revelando a ausência de um esforço para priorizar mais o setor.

Gráfico 2: Gasto público em saúde  (%PIB) e gasto público total (%PIB) – 2011

Fonte: WB/WDI e IMF

Fonte: WB/WDI e IMF

Um aspecto que contribui para dificultar qualquer conclusão são as ambições do SUS. Assim como um indivíduo pode destinar toda sua renda para adquirir um bem de consumo e ainda assim ficar insatisfeito por não possuir o melhor disponível, o mesmo pode acontecer com um país. Nosso sistema público de saúde garante que todos tem acesso (universalidade), a todos os serviços de saúde (integralidade), de forma gratuita (igualdade). Além de ser difícil encontrar qualquer outro país que se comprometa com mais de um desses princípios, todos os países que lograram atingir só a cobertura universal já são mais ricos e gastam mais em saúde do que o Brasil sob qualquer ótica que se avalie. Portanto, se as nossas ambições estiverem acima da nossa capacidade de financiamento, qualquer nível de gasto sempre parecerá insuficiente.

O que essa simples análise indica, portanto, é que os atuais gastos públicos com saúde no Brasil são adequados ao nível de renda do país, mas pouco relevantes dados o tamanho do governo e o que o SUS se compromete a fazer. O pouco espaço para o crescimento de gastos públicos e a perspectiva de gastos crescentes com saúde que surgem com o envelhecimento populacional indicam que, sem uma revisão das atuais prioridades no gasto governamental, é difícil imaginar que o já débil serviço público de saúde não seja comprometido. Desta forma, o debate sobre como e o que financiar na área de saúde terá que entrar na agenda política. Mas independente do rumo escolhido, sempre que as nossas expectativas estiverem além do alcançável com o nosso nível de renda, qualquer nível de gastos não será suficiente.

[1] Grupo de 34 países, em sua maioria, desenvolvidos.

[2] Grupo de países de renda média que inclui Brasil, Rússia, China, Índia e África do Sul

[3] A conclusão não muda na análise que inclui os 190 países disponíveis da base da Organização Mundial de Saúde.


11 Jul 21:06

Triumph des sambens

by Tiago de Thuin
A se julgar por parte dos comentários que circulam pelas bocas e teclas em torno da Copa, cada resultado de partida de futebol - aziago ou alvissareiro - seria a representação das qualidades essenciais do povo representado, sejam elas suas virtude e força ou o contrário. Se James fez mais gols que Neymar, é porque o povo colombiano tem uma paixão alegre e saudável pelo futebol, ao contrário do Brasil corrupto e assassino. Se a Argentina foi à final, é porque a raça, a garra, a determinação de um país cujo zagueiro dá o cu pela pátria brilharam. Se a Holanda massacrou a Espanha, é a vitória da alegre e maconheira Holanda sobre o vetusto império espanhol. Se o Brasil venceu Camarões, é porque os africanos - sim, os africanos, é um país só - são crianças inconsequentes, e talvez não seja inteiramente fortuito que o único exemplo pró-brasileiro que achei ter tido do outro lado um time africano. E por aí além, num festival de essencialização, de metonímia, de investimento simbólico, que deve ter rendido sorrisos a Leni Riefenstahl no inferno. Sim, até o inferno tem folga em dias de jogo da Copa.

Até aí, é do jogo, com o perdão do trocadilho. O esporte coletivo internacional tem sido visto por esse prisma desde os seus primórdios, e mesmo o doméstico; Barcelona catalã contra Real Madrid franquista, Flamengo favelado contra Fluminense pó de arroz... a lista é grande. Mas uma dessas manifestações do triunfo da vontade, e uma que deixaria Leni Riefenstahl particularmente sorridente, é a que reza que a vitória acachapante da Alemanha sobre o Brasil seria o triunfo da "seriedade alemã contra a malandragem brasileira." Não difere do resto na sua essencialização de um fato passageiro; afinal, mesmo que acreditássemos que os resultados no futebol demonstram a força de um povo, o Brasil ainda tem cinco copas contra três da Alemanha, que até Domingo quando muito diminui a liderança. Nem a maior população explica tudo, já que o Brasil só superou a Alemanha nesse quesito em 1965, sem nem levar em conta o dinheiro. Também não difere da maioria das outras na hierarquia de povos presente nessas essencializações. Mas talvez seja particularmente forte como triunfo do estereótipo sobre a realidade.

A idéia de uma América do Sul lúdica e uma Europa operosa não resiste às estatísticas de trabalho. Fora as horas trabalhadas - que sempre foram muitas -a América do Sul é cada vez mais operária, e a Europa cada vez menos; um continente industrializa-se e o outro se transforma numa economia de serviços. Mas deixemos isso pra lá, que falar em quem tem mais "seriedade" é coisa pra quem acredita naquelas essências nacionais todas. Vamos reduzir o campo de visão e olhar só para os times. Alguém vê na Alemanha um time sério e vetusto e no Brasil um alegre e festeiro? Eu vejo o contrário, uma Alemanha caindo na gandaia tanto dentro quanto fora do campo, numa ilha tropical, cantando hino do Bahia, fazendo amizade com meio mundo. E um Brasil sisudo, concentrado na fria Teresópolis, sem festa, sem sexo na concentração (e não estou falando do David Luiz não querer, mas de a ninguém ser permitido), sem brincadeira. Um Brasil felipônico, mortalmente sério, que não estava ali pra brincadeira nem dentro nem fora do gramado. Batalhador, com vontade de vencer e não de jogar bonito. Aliás, insuspeito de jogar bonito. Se alguém ganhou, foi justamente a malandragem alemã contra a seriedade brasileira, até em termos bem práticos - o excesso de peso dado à partida, de pressão, resultou no pânico brasileiro. E talvez essa derrota devesse levar ao questionamento da sisudez como da CBF. Sonho, eu sei.

No futebol, claro, essa idéia do vencer e pra isso deixar de lado a alegria vem do acaso de 1982; fora dele, ignoro. Quem sabe veio do futebol mesmo. Mas difunde-se cada vez mais o par de idéias que exalta os vencedores e a seriedade, como se só o que importasse na vida fossem a seriedade e a vitória, como se elas tivessem um valor moral próprio, e esse valor é um valor do peso, da densidade, que rechaça a leveza como leviandade, que significa levar tudo a sério, que vê em cada adversário inimigos a serem derrotados com choro e ranger de dentes. No fundo, tanto o vencedorismo quanto a sisudez são facetas de uma apologética do peso, vitoriana, quase o contrário da leveza com que sonhava Ítalo Calvino em suas Seis Propostas Para o Próximo Milênio. Vitoriana ou stalinista, tanto faz. E estridente, infinitamente estridente. Engana-se quem pensa em vitorianos calados; é a grande era do jornalismo no Tennessee, das jeremíadas, da indignação... o peso só é calado nas próprias fantasias de gravitas romana, a pedra de moinho guincha mais que a roda de brincar. E a alegria - como ser alegre, num mundo de tanta desgraça? Como admitir a alegria, se há coisas importantes em jogo? A alegria é um pecado, um aleijão moral, que nos atrapalha na corrida rumo à sonhada vitória, rumo à utopia, ao paraíso (e ao gozo de ver os inimigos no inferno). O reino de meu pai é outro, mas pelo menos o cristianismo sempre teve festas; hoje o feriado atrapalha o faturamento da Fecomércio em dois ponto quarenta e oito bilhões de bruzudangas.

Se Paolo Rossi em 1982 realmente impulsionou essa corrida ao peso, desconheço. Mas tomara que os sambantes - e vitoriosos -  Klose, Kroos, Özil, Schweinsteiger, Neue, Götze, Gmbh tenham conseguido deixar a lição oposta.

PS Orlando - no livro da Virginia Woolf - via no século XX a libertação dos grilhões vitorianos. A segunda é de lei?
10 Jul 20:00

The Oldest Song In The World Sounds Like The Zelda Theme

by Mallory Ortberg

I mean, obviously everything sounds like the Zelda theme when you play it on a midi keyboard. I’m not trying to make any sweeping claims here. But listen to this:

and tell me it isn’t just this:

and this:

put together.

Oh, also, you can listen to a few minutes of the Epic of Gilgamesh in Akkadian here, while we’re on the subject of ancient Sumer. It doesn’t — I mean, he could be spitting gibberish for all I know, but it sounds authentic.

Read more The Oldest Song In The World Sounds Like The Zelda Theme at The Toast.

12 Jul 20:20

Mental Health Break

by Andrew Sullivan

A music video that catches the eye:

10 Jul 22:00

How to Calm a Friend Who has Made a Disturbing Discovery

by Scott Meyer

Just so you know, the paper edition of Off to Be the Wizard is half price for a limited time. Just Sayin'.

As always, thanks for using my Amazon Affiliate links (USUKCanada).

10 Jul 18:41

Lições de outro campo

by Míriam Leitão
 Míriam Leitão - O Globo

Enviado por MÍriam Leitão - |


Lições de outro campo

A economia sabe tudo sobre derrotas, recomeços, superações e humilhações externas. Se olharmos através da linha do tempo que nos trouxe até aqui, veremos momentos em que parecíamos destroçados. Houve episódios da renegociação da dívida em que estrangeiros diziam que não tínhamos palavra. O dia do Plano Collor foi um momento de pânico, raiva e dor.

Era uma sexta-feira, os bancos estavam fechados havia três dias, tínhamos que esperar até segunda-feira para saber o que restara nas contas-correntes do que cada família tinha economizado ao longo do tempo. Foi desesperador. Dez milhões de pessoas correram aos bancos na segunda e a fúria era tal que, em uma das fotos que revi, anos depois, uma bancária se agachava atrás do balcão enquanto a multidão gritava descontrolada.

De fato, era forte demais. Uma sensação de ressaca se espalhou pelo país quando enfim entendemos o que as autoridades, de forma atrapalhada, tentavam nos dizer: o dinheiro ficaria prisioneiro do banco por 18 meses, pelo menos. As derrotas dos outros planos econômicos, como o Cruzado, Bresser e Verão, chegaram devagar. Ao longo dos meses a gente ia percebendo que falhara mais uma vez na luta contra a hiperinflação. Era só ver a volta das remarcações, os ágios cobrados nos preços congelados ou o desaparecimento das mercadorias. No Plano Collor, a violência veio de uma vez só. Uma pancada forte. Meio tontos, os brasileiros oscilavam entre a raiva e a apatia ou a tentativa de entender o que estava se passando.

Como foi muito violento, o país quis, num primeiro momento, que nem se tentasse mais controlar a inflação. Alguns ligaram um “deixa pra lá”. Depois, quando a inflação alta voltou a incomodar, o Brasil quis o plano sem traumatismos. E a população se esforçou em entender complexidades da economia, até que se livrou da doença que nos derrotava durante décadas. Por isso, é perigosa qualquer complacência com esse inimigo.

Na economia, aprendemos que não há vitória que não seja construída devagar com alguns elementos básicos: análise sincera do que houve de errado nas derrotas, estabelecimento da meta desejada, persistência na caminhada, mesmo quando o caminho é longo. E mais: jamais considerar que uma derrota, mesmo devastadora, sela o nosso destino.

Na economia, vivemos também o descrédito internacional. Era olhar a cara do mundo e sentir vergonha. Nossa fama era de caloteiros. Nossos negociadores passaram por situação de humilhação diante da arrogância dos credores. Houve uma vez em que negociando com o Clube de Paris, o saudoso Francisco Gros disse: “isso é tudo que o Brasil pode prometer.” Ele era presidente do Banco Central, nós estávamos no começo dos anos 1990, e Clube de Paris é a entidade na qual se negociam as dívidas entre governos. A delegação brasileira estava há dois dias numa maratona de negociação de 48 horas, descansando por revezamento num ônibus estacionado na porta de um prédio em Paris. “O Brasil nunca cumpriu o que prometeu”, disse um dos credores.

A dívida havia sido contraída de forma irresponsável, tratada de forma leviana, durante o governo militar. Erros assim cobram seu preço. O Brasil enfrentou o descrédito, renegociou, pagou num projeto de longo prazo de resgate da credibilidade. A derrota que nos levou à hiperinflação nasceu da soma de pequenos erros que, no dia a dia, pareciam sem importância.

As difíceis travessias econômicas que o país fez ensinam algumas lições para qualquer momento de tristeza. Inclusive no esporte. Recomeçar, fazer um projeto de longo prazo e persistir nele. A cicatriz ficará, mas as vitórias virão se trabalharmos por elas.

11 Jul 06:54

Fuel and Fire

by Greg Ross

In 1941, New Jersey pacifist Theodore Kaufman self-published Germany Must Perish!, a 104-page booklet advocating the sterilization of the German people and the distribution of their lands. Kaufman was almost a complete nonentity — few shared his views, and the book received few sales or notices. But it made him a giant in Germany, where it became a mainstay of nationalist propaganda, stoking the very fires that Kaufman had hoped to extinguish.

In his diary on Aug. 3, 1941, Joseph Goebbels wrote, “He really could not have done it better and more advantageously for us if he had written the book to order. I will have this book distributed in millions of copies in Germany, above all on the front, and will write a preface and afterword myself. It will be most instructive for every German man and for every German woman to see what would happen to the German people if, as in November 1918, a sign of weakness were given.”

Hitler approved, and soon the propaganda ministry had produced a brochure presenting and commenting on Kaufman’s book. “Above all,” Goebbels wrote, “this brochure will finally and definitively do away with the last remnants of a still-existing softness. In reading this brochure, even the stupidest idiot can figure out what threatens us if we become weak.”

American journalist Howard K. Smith witnessed these effects firsthand in Germany. “No man has ever done so irresponsible a disservice to the cause his nation is fighting and suffering for than [Theodore] Kaufmann,” he wrote. “His half-baked brochure provided the Nazis with one of the best light artillery pieces they have, for, used as the Nazis used it, it served to bolster up that terror which forces Germans who dislike the Nazis to support, fight and die to keep Nazism alive.”

Kaufman protested, weakly, that German anti-Semitism had existed long before his book appeared. But the boost to propaganda was undeniable. “Few Americans have ever heard of a prominent fellow-citizen named Kaufmann,” wrote The Nation in November 1942. “In Germany every child has known of him for a long time. Germans are so well informed about Mr. Kaufmann that the mere mention of his name recalls what he stands for. In one of his recent articles Dr. Goebbels wrote, ‘Thanks to the Jew Kaufmann, we Germans know only too well what to expect in case of defeat.’”