Thursday, 12 May 2016

Is What's Going On in Brazil Politics A (Soft, Light, Parliamentary, Peaceful, Constitutional, Democratic) Coup?

Few, I assume, have missed the high level political developments in Brazil, where this night the Brazilian senate voted to impeach president Dilma Rousseff. Otherwise, some updates are here, here, here, here, to provide just a few. The process have been truly bizarre, as Dilma is ousted by and to the benefit of truly much more corrupt politicians than herself, for a sin which looks like a minor thing in context, not least the fact that the trick of hiding a budgetary deficit has been an accepted practice of Brazilian governments for a long time. In any case, the immediate result is that Dilma is now suspended from office for 180 days, while it will be determined if she is to be removed permanently. During that time, her selected vice president, Michel Temer steps up to head the government, and there he will remain if she is indeed removed by parliament.

Now, Temer is politically very far to the right of Dilma – who was once hailed as the heiress to the very popular political legacy of Lula da Silva but has then mismanaged the economy badly to lose popularity. Temer is accused of serious corruption and is probably correctly described as allied with the right wing forces (equally or worse corrupt) of parliament that want to have Dilma removed. This fact, together with a truly crazy roller coaster process of parliamentary decisions, courts and judges interfering at different levels, and a fresh speaker of parliament trying a last minute nullification of the whole shebang the other day, then making a 180° turn just a few hours later, have made commentators to the left side of typical conservative politics talk about a "coup". Not a military coup or a palace coup, of course, but nevertheless something truly undemocratic and fishy going on to remove a democratically elected political leader to the benefit of one representing a party that has performed weak to say the least in the last few general elections. This, not least, is Dilma's own main line. Some sources describing the same or very similar points are here, here, here, here, to name just a few. What's so interesting with this argument is that those who sing the coup line, do it with a long line of qualifiers. It's a "soft" coup, or a "light" one, it's not unconstitutional, but still a coup, neither is it against the democratic process of Brazil, but a coup nevertheless. And so on. So, one may wonder, with that definition of a coup, what's not a coup in the area of democratic states changing leaders?

Let's face it. Brazil is a constitutional democracy. One might prefer changes to its constitution, but that goes, of course, for all constitutional democracies. None of them are perfect. Within this constitution, Dilma has been elected for president by (strong!) popular vote, and it seems that none of the coup advocates complain about that, so Brazil democracy must be doing OK also by their light. Likewise, within this constitution, Dilma has selected Michel Temer as her vice prez, probably for reasons of the power politics of forming political alliances going on in any democratic state following a general election. That is, Michel Temer is as democratically selected as any vice president or vice PM of any country. Moreover, the role of a vice prez or PM is exactly to step in when the president or PM cannot perform their duties of office. This, once again, does not make Brazil an exception from other constitutional democracies. This alone settles the fact that there is nothing undemocratic or constitutionally dodgy of having a political mirror image taking over for Dilma. It's a consequence of her own democratic political moves to form a strong government to lead. This holds whatever the reason for her incapacity to execute her office, should it be illness, disappearance, death – or criminal charges. Moreover, the impeachment process seems to be perfectly constitutional, as the democratic constitution here gives the power to drive it to parliament rather than courts. Again, this may look unsatisfactory to some, but this solution to the issue of how to deal with (suspected) criminal political leaders, is far from unique among constitutional democracies around the world. At the end of the day, therefore, the 180 day removal of Dilma from office seems to be perfectly democratic and constitutional, and the consequence of this removal is that Temer now takes over, again (as we saw) perfectly in line with constitutional democratic rules and procedures.

My conclusion is that if the removal of Dilma and insertion of Temer as president is a coup, so is every constitutionally democratic (re)formation of government all over the world.

What we see in Brazil is nothing undemocratic or even a lack of democracy. It is about a deeply corrupt state and country, where political leaders sell themselves for money and form ideologically bizarre alliances for the mere reason of holding on to power, and the country's highest leader making serious political mistakes and not revising policies. This is something that needs to be highlighted much more: democracy is no guarantee for sound politics or well functioning states. It has other merits, of course, but to get at the deficiencies exposed by the latest mess in Brazil, we should look in other directions than the system for allocating formal political power, namely here.


Saturday, 30 April 2016

Is it a good idea for academics to keep track of their failures?

In the recent weeks there has been some buzz over the academic corner of the internet and social media about the "CV of failures", made public by Johannes Haushofer, assistant economics professor at Princeton. He writes:  

"Most of what I try fails, but these failures are often invisible, while the successes are visible. I have noticed that this sometimes gives others the impression that most things work out for me. As a result, they are more likely to attribute their own failures to themselves, rather than the fact that the world is stochastic, applications are crapshoots, and selection committees and referees have bad days. This CV of Failures is an attempt to balance the record and provide some perspective."

VOX picked up the story and made it larger, but Haushofer himself attributes the notion of a CV of failures to neurobiology researcher Melanie Stefan, who voiced the idea in Nature already 2010:

"So here is my suggestion. Compile an 'alternative' CV of failures. Log every unsuccessful application, refused grant proposal and rejected paper. Don't dwell on it for hours, just keep a running, up-to-date tally. If you dare — and can afford to — make it public. It will be six times as long as your normal CV. It will probably be utterly depressing at first sight. But it will remind you of the missing truths, some of the essential parts of what it means to be a scientist — and it might inspire a colleague to shake off a rejection and start again."

Many people in the academic sphere have been sharing this idea, and Haushofer's actual CoF with appreciating comments, but my reaction is a bit different. It is this: why on earth keep track of your failures at this level of granularity and meticulousness? I totally get the point that handling failures is a very important core skill of academics (as of artists and many other professional groups). I also completely emphatise with the notion that having young students and early career academics see that well established seniors have had and still have their hard time too, and that rejection is not a proof of uselessness. All hail to that! But, then again, all of this assumes that CVs of failures would be floating around without the kind of personality one would nurture by being disposed to write them up, and my reflection is about whether or not nurturing that kind of personality is a good idea for young aspiring academics, or even for academia in general. I actually don't think so, and I think our positive reactions to this piece of news of our dear colleague at Princeton, as for Stefan's original idea, have us confuse keeping track of one's failures with being open about one's attempts

What would be very beneficial for academic culture as a whole, as for seniors and juniors alike, were if we had a more open culture about our attempts to have acceptance (for papers, for grants, for jobs, etc.). Then our failures would be exposed too, as a side-effect, but we needn't spend energy on keeping track of them to document for the rest of the world to see. Or even focus on it, or success for that matter. The importance is the honest attempt, including the struggle to endlessly improve it. That would be a real improvement of the academic culture and landscape.

Thursday, 14 April 2016

Awesome Resource for Public Health Ethics Scholarship and Training Available Online for Free!

Yes indeed! Super kudos to the editorial team of Drue H. Barrett, Leonard H. Ortmann, Angus Dawson, Carla Saenz, Andreas Reis and Gail Bolan – and the sponsor CDC – for putting together this freely available, pioneering and one of a kind collection of case studies and background texts for global public health ethics study, research and training. With contribution by a pack of high octane scholars, such as Ruth Gaare Bernheim, Jo A. Valentine, Lisa M. Lee , Kayte Spector-Bagdady, Maneesha Sakhuja, Norman Daniels, Michael J. Selgelid, Janani Suraksha Yojana, Harald Schmidt, Bruce Jennings, Anthony Wrigley, Eric M. Meslin, Ibrahim Garba, Natalie Brown and Barbara R. DeCausey. 

Available for free download as PDF wherever you are. Just go here.