Presidente Marina?

As the resident Brazil “expert” (i.e., I’ve been there and wed a national) I feel I should bring you at least a straightforward update.

Brazil votes tomorrow in the first round of a general election. Where no candidate reaches an absolute majority, the races go to a runoff in 3 weeks’ time. The political landscape is fragmented, so there is never a clear majority party in the Parliament. Unlike France, Brazil has no Prime Minister. The President appoints ministers (not subject to confirmation), but must negotiate to pass every budget and law. Brazil is federal, and state governors have substantial power. I don’t pretend to grasp the whole picture. Like most outsiders, I’m mainly interested in who occupies the powerful presidency.

The latest poll is consistent with earlier ones. WSJ:

Ms. Rousseff got the most support in the survey by the Sensus polling company for ISTO É magazine, at 37.3% in the first round. Ms. Silva got 22.5% and Mr. Neves got 20.6%, a technical tie given the poll’s 2.2 percentage-point margin of error.

None of the many other candidates are significant. Dilma Rousseff has a comfortable lead but not an an absolute majority, so there will be a runoff. Marina Silva’s non-significant lead over Aecio Neves in this one poll follows a long series of polls giving her a statistically significant one, so I expect Nate Silver or Sam Wang would make her clear favourite for second place. I’ll update on Monday with the results. [Update: full names added]

All recent hypothetical polls for the runoff give Dilma a comfortable win over either rival, by 6 points over Marina and 9 over Aecio (footnote). (Let’s switch to first names as Brazilians do.) Still, three weeks is a long time in politics. Marina may not endorse Aecio – conservatives are even worse that socialists on the environment. But Aecio would have strong reasons to endorse Marina, who has promised an orthodox economic policy, including independence of the central bank. This has laid her open to demagogic attacks from Dilma that Marina would be abandoning Brazil’s poor, from which she, unlike Dilma, actually sprang. Cutting the incessant meddling by incompetent and/or corrupt bureaucrats in the economy – think of Olivares or the Permit Raj more than Colbert – would probably help the poor, though it would hit the unionized workers in protected industries that form the core base of Lula’s and Dilma’s PT party.


Marina Silva

Whom should we root for? The main interest the rest of the world has in Brazil is the conservation of the Amazon forest as the world’s green lung, and therefore an end to deforestation, preferably its reversal. Silva would quite plainly be far better on this, the issue on which she quit Lula’s government. For Brazilians, her platform is somewhat better than Dilma’s, against which you have to set her managerial inexperience and a lone-wolf style that has led her regularly to quarrel with allies. Her success in governing would depend on a wise choice of aides, as she lacks the personal skills in backroom dealings that more conventional politicians acquire early. On corruption, she is also far superior. Brazilians may have doubts on her competence, but respect her integrity.

Brazilian politics is pretty sleazy. A spoils system in the civil service, lacking a Sir Humphrey / énarque tradition of professional independence; ineffective regulation of political finance; rules on public contracts that are so complex that they are routinely bypassed; and great inequality that makes all politicians unavowably dependent on the rich few, keep it so. On top of this, Lula’s and Dilma’s PT has been in power too long and developed Chavezian tendencies of embedding itself so deeply in public institutions that the distinction between state and party is blurring. It is definitely time for a change.

The corruption issue may still be a live one. A major scandal has just emerged over the diversion of funds into political payoffs from the giant state oil company Petrobras. Its mismanagement was already a matter of record. The scale is alleged to be greater than the mensalão scandal of Lula’s first term, in which MPs were bribed to allow his legislation through. (Well, Lincoln did it too, in a greater cause.)

If the Petrobras scandal develops, and if Aecio endorses her, Marina Silva just may have a chance of becoming the first leader of a major country elected primarily to defend the environment.

Brazilian parents show an exuberant freedom in the naming of their children, as you can see from any football team. Aecio commemorates the late Roman general and statesman Flavius Aetius, who (as I’m sure you remember) defeated Attila the Hun near Châlons in 451 AD, by one account without any regular Roman legionaries at all. I haven’t come across Brazilians called Stilicho, Narses or Belisarius, other warlords from the same era. Striker, defender and midfield playmaker, perhaps.

* * * * *

Update 1 Sunday
Three polls published on Saturday show Aecio with a lead over Marina, at least one statistically significant. So it sadly looks as if it’s back to business-in-politics as usual. Aecio has no chance against Dilma in the runoff. The count results may be delayed.

Update 2 Monday 6 October

Well, well. Results (99% in): Dilma 41.6%, Aecio 33.5%, Marina 21.3%, 8 others 3.5%. So much for “experts” like me in distant armchairs.

Marina’s support really did crash in the last week; she went back to near her score in 2010, 19.3%. Why? Much of her polled support must have been very shallow, and tipped back to Aecio once she showed some weaknesses and he some strength. The swings still show remarkable volatility, which I (nursing burnt fingers) will not try to explain. It’s not necessarily a sign of immaturity in the electorate; the behaviour also makes sense as sophisticated tactical voting.

Dilma’s support also fell substantially, though by less. She got 5.3% less than in the first round in 2010, half her margin on victory in the second. There may be a turnout effect – her poll lead was so comfortable that supporters could have felt safe not to show up. However, voting is in principle compulsory and many other offices were at stake. Aecio’s team will reasonably see the swing as a sign that his and Marina’s attacks on corruption and mismanagement are drawing blood. He has moved from no-hoper to underdog in the runoff.

One of Marina’s mistakes was a flip-flop on gay marriage. Dearie me. Since Julius Caesar ran for consul and John Wilkes for MP for Middlesex, it’s been the rule that you must stick by your platform, even if it claims that 2 + 2 = 5. Obama must have realized early on that his no-mandate position in health care was a crock, but he kept it until elected.

The Pyroholic Brethren II: Kant and the fine print

My earlier post with a sermon on five steps to carbon sobriety fell flat and attracted no comments. I promised a wonkish follow-up on the underlying principles. A small ethical problem: is a promise made to the empty air still binding? Bentham would no doubt have said no, Kant yes. I’ve written the thing anyway, so, any gentle readers, here it is.

I won’t defend the particular numbers I gave; they are only relevant to my family’s particular circumstances.

I A collective action problem – but what sort?

Carbon reduction is usually discussed here as a collective-action problem.

Let me see if I get this idea. It helps to distinguish between strong and weak versions. Continue Reading…

Major Mariam

F-16 UAE Air Force_screenshotWhat the fighter jocks and hens (footnote) say about Fox’s sexist disparagement of Major Mariam Al Mansouri of the United Arab Emirates Air Force, who took part in the strikes on ISIL as pilot of a F-16 (illustrated).

Let’s also note a brilliant act of psychological warfare. Jihadists are, among other things, misogynists. They are quite ready to die as Ghazis in a hail of bullets from infidels. But the prospect of being killed in combat by a Muslim Arab woman must be deeply disorienting. The Nazi pilots and U-boat crews did not know how many of their deadly enemies were women. Had they known, the effect would have been similar.

Major Mariam is a brave officer. The publication of her name has made her a target, more than in her cockpit.

Do the armed forces have a better term for a woman fighter pilot? I constructed “fighter hen” from the Scots. A “Jock” is a Scotsman, especially a Scottish soldier; “hen” is a common term, affectionate and not pejorative, for a woman.

Mr Smith goes to Katoro

Mark rightly gives points to Gordon Brown for providing arguments for Scotland to stay in the Union (as it in the end chose to do) based on principle and sentiment, not merely interest. Contrast the absence of Tony Blair, junketing with Davos Man (or worse) and Menton Girl  somewhere sunnier than Scotland. Brown’s argument was based on shared battlefields and domestic glories like the NHS rather than Hume and Hutton. But it was fair of Mark to say that it reflected the cosmopolitan, outward-looking values of the Scottish Enlightenment. Its leading lights, apart from Burns, were SFIK all Unionists and anti-Jacobites. The mathematician Colin McLaurin actually supervised, though unsuccessfully, the defence of Edinburgh against the Jacobite army rampaging its way south. The Scots’ combination of physical courage, industry, and respect for learning have made the world their oyster.

So here’s a small salute to the whole gang, represented by Adam Smith, Professor of Moral Philosophy at Glasgow University. (Scotland had four universities by 1600 to England’s two). His best known sentence must be this, from Book I, Chapter 2 of The Wealth of Nations:

It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own interest.

(The website is libertarian. They might try reading a bit more of him; he isn’t Rand at all.)

Perfectly illustrating the point, here’s very nice and cheering photograph of Mr. Edward Buta’s flourishing solar shop in Katoro, Tanzania (pop. 11,925). (H/t Tim McDonnell at Mother Jones.)

Continue Reading…

Bravehearts and canny widows

Whichever way the Scots vote on Thursday – and at the moment it’s too close to call – the old Union is dead. Even if the Noes win, a constitutional settlement that is supported by only 51% of the people of one of the component countries of the United Kingdom is only surviving on life support.

Cameron, Miliband and Clegg, in a last-ditch attempt to save the Union, have jointly offered a major constitutional change with more devolution. Tinkering with a constitution is like removing one strut from the Eiffel Tower, you can’t stop with one piece. Why should Scottish Westminster MPs vote on English income tax? Before you know it, you are revising the entire structure.

That in fact is my eccentric reason for hoping for a No vote. It would force a proper constitutional house-cleaning in the United Kingdom. There would be a good chance of getting rid of the mumbo-jumbo about Crown privilege behind which unaccountable agencies like GCHG can shelter. The museum-piece House of Lords could be replaced by a Council of Nations like the German Bundesrat, with blocking powers on matters affecting the autonomous sphere of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. The catalogue of human rights in the Human Rights Act could be raised, as everywhere else in the civilised world, to its proper level as a constitutional, not merely legislative, guarantee.

George Monbiot, the always interesting and often infuriating Guardian pundit, argues the other way. He thinks that Westminster is so corrupt and plutocratic that the Scots need independence to have a chance of clean democracy. Besides, he hopes that the shock and example would trigger an English movement for real constitutional reform.

Whatever, the impact on England has approximately zero weight in the decision of the Scots. The nationalists have, it is now clear, not done their homework on the economic impacts, especially the currency question. That’s being charitable. See Mark Carney, Paul Krugman, and Simon Wren-Lewis on this. The No campaign, led by the former Chancellor of the Exchequer Alistair Darling, has concentrated on the large economic risks. True enough, but by abandoning the terrain of emotional identification to the Yes side, they have defined the choice as one between the reckless courage of Wallace and the dour calculation of the Duke of Queensberry in 1707. Not surprisingly, men favour Yes and women No.

But what flag-waving appeal could have worked? Part of the deal for the Scots in 1707, after the failure of their own colonial venture in Darien, was to join in England’s imperial and commercial expansion, for glory and profit. They were not cheated on this. Scots played a quite disproportionate part in the British Empire, from its trading-houses to its battlefields. Glasgow became the shipbuilder to Empire. Hong Kong was created by Scots. But that’s gone now. Cameron can still offer occasional battles to the shrunken Scottish regiments; his oath of vengeance on ISIS was not just theatre. But generally, Britain is now just another peaceful European welfare state, cultivating its gardens like Candide. There is no wider vision or ambition to stir Unionist blood, not even building Europe, an unpopular project. So why can’t Scotland be its own cosy welfare state like Denmark or Slovenia? Catalans and Basques are asking the same question, with potentially graver consequences for Spain.

Update 17 September
At LGM, Dave Brockington (an American political scientist working in England) suggests that polls understate the likely No vote, and predicts a fairly comfortable unionist win. The key argument is that the 14% Don’t Knows are likely to break heavily No. It’s not as if they don’t know what the issues are, and if they still have not been convinced by the case for independence, it would be logical for them to support the status quo.

Visa security kabuki

Lu had to go to Madrid for her interview on her application for a US visa. As it happened, this was on 9/11, and the embassy Stars and Stripes were at half-mast. Less impressively, the State Department continues the fight against the terrorist threat through searching questions on its visa form:

  • Do you seek to engage in terrorist activities while in the United States or have you ever engaged in terrorist activities?                                YES/NO
  • Have you ever or do you intend to provide financial assistance or other support to terrorists or terrorist organizations?                            YES/NO
  • Are you a member or representative of a terrorist organization? YES/NO

I bet that scares off al-Baghdadi! Do they really hope to catch idiots like Reid answering “yes”? I’ve applied for visas from China and Russia, with paranoid and efficient secret police forces, and they didn’t waste my and their time with such questions. The North Koreans don’t ask if you have ever spat on a photo of Kim il Sung. Iran just asks if you are a journalist, have a criminal record or a contagious disease, and where else you have been (read Israel).

The kabuki extends wider than terrorism – but falls well short of a full catalogue of high-profile Dr. Evil crimes. State asks if you are a money launderer, but not a currency forger; a génocidaire or torturer, but not a rapist; a procurer of forced abortions, but not a paedophile; a drug smuggler, but not an illegal arms dealer; a prostitute, but not a political consultant mafioso.

What is the mental process behind this? Is it the Al Capone tactic, of getting the bad guy through a technical offence? I don’t see how this would work. Dr Evil lies on his DS-160, flies to New York, tries to plant sarin in the subway, and is arrested. The prosecutor assembles a list of charges adding up to 2,000 years in jail. Would she weaken the media impact by adding the misdemeanour “lying on his visa application”? A similar argument holds for deportation. The false declaration only stands up if Dr. Evil’s substantive misconduct in the USA justifies deportation, in which case the false-declaration charge adds nothing useful.

The only way I can think of to generate this absurd list is an accumulation of random grandstanding by congresspersons of limited understanding. “What, Mr Under-Secretary, is the State Department doing to stop the entry into this great, pure country of foreigners guilty of the disgusting crime of [insert offence lifted from recent mail from constituent]?”

Better suggestions welcome.


The Pyroholic Brethren I: the sermon

So I’m a Polyyanna on climate, eh? You would prefer this?

Amos Starkadder rose from his seat with terrifying deliberation, mounted the little platform, and sat down. For some three minutes he slowly surveyed the Brethren,his face wearing an

Alastair Sim as Amos Starkadder

Alastair Sim as Amos Starkadder

expression of the most profound loathing and contempt, mingled with a divine sorrow and pity. [...] At last he spoke. His voice jarred the silence like a broken bell.

“Ye miserable, crawling worms, are ye here again, eh? Have ye come like Nimshi son of Rehoboam, secretly out of yer doomed houses to hear what’s comin’ to yer? Have ye come, old and young, sick and well, matrons and virgins (if there is any any virgins among ye, which is not likely, the world bein’ in the wicked state it is), old men and young lads, to hear me tellin’ o’ the great crimson lickin’ flames o’ hell fire?” [,,,]

“Ay, ye’ve come.” He laughed shortly and contemptuously. “Dozens of ye. Hundreds of ye. Like rats to a granary. Like field-mice when there’s harvest-home. And what good will it do ye?”

Second pause. [...]

“Nowt. Not the flicker of a whisper of a bit o’ good”. He paused and drew a long breath, then suddenly he leaped from his seat and thundered at the top of his voice: “Ye’re all damned!”

An expression of lively interest and satisfaction passed over the faces of the Brethren, and there was a general rearranging of arms and legs as though they wanted to sit as comfortably as possible while listening to the bad news.

Stella Gibbons, Cold Comfort Farm, 1964.

So: settle down with the chocs and listen to Mr. Wimberley standing up at his first meeting of the Pyroholic Brethren.

My name is James and I am a pyroholic. Continue Reading…

Google translates peak Chinese coal

Sometimes Google Translate is good enough. A news item in Chinese from the blog of Polaris Power, a Chinese energy trade site (via Lauri Myllyvirta’s blog at Greenpeace East Asia, picked up by others). Reproduced without a cleanup I’m not competent to do.

Polaris-fired power news

This year, the national coal market oversupply problems have become increasingly prominent, inventory remains high, prices have fallen sharply, economic sectors continued to decline, to further expand the scale of loss, coal economic operation situation is more severe.

Continue Reading…

Perovskite solar

Cross-post at CleanTechnica on recent progress in making cheap solar cells from synthetic perovskite crystals. If you are curious, it’s got enough links in it to stuff by people who actually know what they are talking about.

It was an interesting challenge for a dilettante, one I’m not in a hurry to repeat, to report on news at the research frontier to a general audience.

You shouldn’t take my piece as evidence that perovskites will win out over competing lines of development. My hunch in their favour is based on little more than an aesthetic pleasure in a project to use the very stuff of the earth’s rocks to save its biosphere, and a touch of alma mater sentimentality: one of the key labs is in Oxford. It is evidence that in the medium term pv solar is not limited to the current commercial menu, two sorts of silicon and one thin-film. The solar learning curve will continue. Just as well: it’s half of what stands between us and climate catastrophe.

CleanTechnica cut the photo of Michael Grätzel of Lausanne, the pioneer of the solar perovskite field. Doesn’t look like a superhero, but then real heroes don’t. The cell he’s holding is from a precursor project that did not pan out commercially, a useful reminder of the risks. I do hope he gets his Nobel.

Michael Grätzel holding  a dye-sensitized cell

Michael Grätzel holding a dye-sensitized cell

Free Lunch here

Yet another blue-ribbon report on the high costs of delaying action on climate disruption, this one from the US President’s Council of Economic Advisers. It won’t change closed minds. I suppose the drip-drip effect may bring round a few waverers, or shift some real journalists away from false balance.

What it should do is prompt a rethink on strategy among the reality-based.

A money graf from page 14 (italics added):

Recent research shows, however, that even if a delay in international mitigation efforts occurs, unilateral or fragmented action reduces the costs of delay: although immediate coordinated international action is the least costly approach, unilateral action is less costly than doing nothing.

Read this together with recent findings that the absolute GDP costs (footnote) of strong mitigation are very low or nil. In the wooden prose of the IPCC Fifth Assessment Report, WG 3, Summary for Policymakers, page 15:

Under these assumptions [all countries of the world begin mitigation immediately, there is a single global carbon price, and all key technologies are available] mitigation scenarios that reach atmospheric concentrations of about 450 ppm CO2-eq by 2100 entail losses in global consumption – not including benefits of reduced climate change as well as co-benefits and adverse side-effects of mitigation – of 1% to 4% (median: 1.7%) in 2030, 2% to 6% (median: 3.4%) in 2050, and 3% to 11% (median: 4.8%) in 2100 relative to consumption in baseline scenarios that grows anywhere from 300 % to more than 900% over the century. These numbers correspond to an annualized reduction of consumption growth by 0.04 to 0.14 (median: 0.06) percentage points over the century relative to annualized consumption growth in the baseline that is between 1.6% and 3% per year.

0.06% a year is well within the error of any model forecasts. Over 50 years, it’s noise. The takeaway is: to a first approximation, mitigation costs nothing. (footnote 2).

There is no free rider problem. It does not make sense for the US or the EU to wait for China. Just get started. The same argument applies for China: don’t wait for the USA. It even applies to Costa Rica (which is already showing them an example).

This calls for a rethink of the assumptions that have governed the long and hitherto fruitless struggle for a comprehensive international agreement, replacing and strengthening the partial Kyoto Protocol of 1997. Continue Reading…