Friday 25 March 2016

On Happiness: Brazil,Canada, Coups, and Corruption

Permit me to briefly wallow in how we do things, in other words, in human politics. Politics are the products of the intelligence of individuals acting together. It is of a higher order than that which you display when going about the business of your own life. This may explain why it is so very hard for most of us to understand what the hell is going on when a presidential candidate like Donald Trump attracts followers, especially when he says out loud that the State should use torture to deal with terrorists.

In the US, they are big on the politics of happiness. It's so important a purpose of American political life that it's listed as an inalienable right in the Declaration of Independence. Its pursuit is something Jefferson (and Locke before him) thought that the State exists to protect. The Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, a more modern document, is prudently silent on the subject, yet Canada, we were told last week, ranks very high on the World Happiness Report. We're number six. The US is several ranks below.

This list has been compiled and released with ballyhoo every year, for the last four years, on World Happiness Day, brought to you by the UN, a notoriously unhappy institution. The Happiness Report is mainly written  by economists--practitioners of the dismal science. So what exactly is happiness in a political context and how is it measured? The World Happiness Report is compiled from statistical data derived from various sources, but also includes the results of interviews with several thousand individuals in each country listed. Nation is then pitted against nation and ranked.

One of the economists involved is John Helliwell of the University of British Columbia. I first read his work in the 1980s when he wrote about the energy pyramid, the relationship between the price of oil and gas and the amount that can be found and brought to market:the higher the price, the greater the available resource. This idea of an elastic supply was a startling notion at the time: organizations like the Club of Rome were screaming loudly then that we were running out of oil and thus the world economy was about to collapse. Another economist behind the Happiness Report is Jeffrey Sachs. As a very young professor at Harvard, he was asked to re-engineer the economy of Bolivia as it transitioned from top-down control to democracy and a free market. The result was an ugly process which created considerable unhappiness and may have contributed to the rapid expansion of the cultivation of Bolivian coca, the precursor for cocaine. Yet Sachs was invited to provide similar advice to various East Bloc states, including Poland and Russia, as they made the same shift.

You can look up their methods of measuring happiness here.

Canada's rank apparently means that we`s all happy here, almost as happy as those who live in the five countries above us (all western, all northern). Brazil, the biggest country in Latin America, is at number 17. In general, Latin America and the Caribbean are not as happy as North America, despite all those travel brochures showing clear blue waters and pristine beaches, and despite the deaths of hundreds of thousands of Mexicans in the drug wars plus the millions who voted with their feet and trekked to the US in droves, which drives Donald Trump crazy. Brazilians are allegedly much less sad than those who live in China, or Burundi which appears on the bottom of the list at number 158.

The Report`s definition of happiness turns on statistical facts like life expectancy, GDP per capita, income equality, and perceived levels of government corruption. Corruption, they insist, makes people unhappy.

And yet: the same week the Happiness Report placed Brazil fairly high on the happiness list, millions of Brazilians were marching in cities throughout Brazil to protest rampant government corruption. These were, for the most part, middle class people very, very unhappy about the shenanigans of their leading politicians and their corporate friends.  Brazil's Congress, we were told by Stephanie Nolan in the Globe and Mail, is about to impeach its President, Dilma Rouseff, for moving money from one government department to another to get around banking rules--not to enrich herself or her cronies, you understand, but to pay for government programs. Many of the other top politicians in the major Brazilian political parties are embroiled in legal troubles of their own. One leading fellow is under criminal indictment for stashing ill gotten gains in Switzerland: many are enmeshed in a vast kickback/money laundering scandal known as Lava Jato. Lava Jato means carwash. The Brazilians have many clever, mordant nicknames for their dank business/ political relationships. My favorite, shared with me by an old Brazil hand just before my first trip to Brazil as a reporter, is jeitinho--little arrangements. When Brazil was taking its first steps toward democracy in the early 1990s, certain forms of jeitinho were organized to be legal. Brazil permitted only charities to make campaign contributions to political parties and candidates, an absolute no no in Canada and the US. It also permitted non governmental groups outside the country to donate to such politically connected charities, also a no no in Canada and the US --for obvious reasons. For more, see Cloak of Green, my first book ( if you can find it.)

Lava Jato is jeitinho on stilts. Allegedly, billions of of reais have been plucked from the pockets of the Brazilian government via Petrobras, the state oil company. Its board is presided over by politicians. Dilma Rousseff chaired the board herself during the presidency of her mentor, the former trade unionist and mill worker, Lula da Silva.  While she has not been directly implicated in Lava Jato-- yet--others just below her have been. It is alleged that company officials were paid off by contractors who got contracts awarded in return. These officials allegedly put some of that money in their own pockets, but significant sums were also kicked back to finance political campaigns. A judge and prosecutors in the city of Curitiba stumbled on this scheme when an individual arrested for one thing began to sing about these things.

Judges have investigatory powers in the Brazilian legal system. The Brazilian legal system is also famous for its complexity and politically inflected outcomes. Former Brazilian President, Getulio Vargas, the un-elected strong man of Brazilian politics before World War II, the elected strongman after, who  killed himself while in office in 1954 ( or was it just made to look like suicide?), used to say: "for my friends, anything, for my enemies, the law." Vargas was the fascist/nationalist who created Petrobras. Petrobras and the other state-owned companies Vargas set up became the means by which military officers enriched themselves when the military ran the country for thirty odd years. So this sort of Lava Jato is traditional in Brazil.

The investigating judge and his prosecutors went so far as to have the former president, Lula da Silva, arrested at home for questioning about how he came to enjoy the use of a beach front condo owned by a certain contractor. In order to protect da Silva from worse, Rousseff appointed him to her cabinet. Cabinet officers may only be investigated by the Supreme Court which takes its sweet time to do these things. But that appointment was declared void, as the judge released wire-tapped conversations between Rousseff and da Silva, and da Silva and others, though some of the conversations had been improperly tapped after legal authority had run out. The judge, according to Nolan, has become a hero in Brazil, someone who is determined to finally stop impunity in its tracks. Others are a little worried about the judge's judgement. Still others, like da Silva and Rousseff, are calling these actions  tantamount to a coup. Rousseff was tortured during the military dictatorship which came to power via a coup so she knows a lot about coups. The last time I was in Brazil, in 2012, to speak to the alumnae of a very famous military school, many there took me aside to allege that da Silva, through his family, had been on the take while in office, and that the Rousseff government had to be gotten rid of. So a coup is not so far fetched.

All this mayhem among the happyish people in Brazil made it into the front sections of Canadian newspapers, which is unusual. Mainly we ignore Brazil though it is one of Canada`s most serious trade competitors. However, it is also true that we ignore lots of things going on at home. For instance, a corruption story that broke last week in happy Canada did not get lavish attention. The former deputy leader of the Quebec Liberal Party, Nathalie Normandeau, who once stood at former Premier Jean Charest's right hand, was arrested, along with several others, and accused of various forms of wrongdoing adding up to Brazilian style corruption. The others arrested were either long- time fundraisers for the Quebec Liberals, or for the Parti Quebecois. One had worked for the Liberals and also went to work at the engineering company Roche which got municipal contracts, allegedly in return for political contributions rendered. One commentator, Chantal Hebert, argued that this was the first time in her memory that any leading politician had been arrested for such wrongdoing. Of course there was an inquiry into former Prime Minister Brian Mulroney's relationship to one Karlheinz Schreiber who handed out what the Germans call schmiergeld (no translation required) to get the attention of politically useful folks who could get contracts issued to the right parties. Though Mulroney eventually admitted taking $225,000 of Schreiber's geld, he vehemently denied ever rendering such services ( and Schreiber actually sued him for failing to do anything for the money). No criminal charges were laid.

Those arrested in Quebec were investigated and charged by a police unit set up specifically to poke into political corruption after a number of political scandals unfurled in Quebec. The list is long. First came the Sponsorship scandal associated with the last referendum, which led to the Gomery Commission, which was not kind to Prime Minister Chretien and officials in his office but only led to criminal charges against ad executives and civil servants. The Sponsorship scandal led directly to the fall of the Paul Martin government and the rise of Stephen Harper. Then came the Charbonneau Commission of Inquiry into municipal corruption in Quebec. That's where we learned that major municipal infrastructure contracts, especially in Laval and Montreal, were handed out to a few engineering firms that operated as a cabal, deciding among them which would bid on which contract at what price, working hand in glove with political officials, civil servants, labor union officials, and of course, the Mob. This resulted in puffed up prices for municipal infrastructure projects, and also provided the wherewithal for kickbacks to municipal politicians and civil servants who turned a blind eye, or granted the necessary approvals. The Commission, appointed by the Premier, did not probe hard at whether or not such collusion went on at the provincial level. We heard about cash stuffed in socks, and cash wrapped in plastic, and rides on flashy boats, and expensive dinners and trips.

And don't forget the SNC-Lavalin affair which unraveled at the same time. It was triggered by a Swiss investigation into the affairs of an executive of this major international engineering firm which is based in Quebec. Allegedly, its executives played expensive ($100 million plus) footsie with Gadaffi's sons to gain contracts in Libya (and did the same thing with others in other governments in other countries). SNC-Lavalin also came to some sort of agreement with the director of the McGill University Health Network, Dr. Arthur Porter, which allegedly resulted in SNC winning the contract to rebuild the Centre. Millions were allegedly improperly paid out.  While running the McGill deal, Porter was also appointed by Prime Minister Harper to head the SIRC, which oversees the workings of Canada's security and intelligence service. Porter, SNC-Lavalin, and several of its executives were eventually charged with various acts of fraud in regard to that hospital contract but Porter decamped to the Caribbean and then to Panama. He died of cancer before Justice had its say. Have I mentioned that two very prominent political personalities, a former Conservative Senator, Hugh Segal, and a former Liberal Senator, Lorna Marsden, served on the SNC-Lavalin board which was apparently unaware of these issues?

And lest you think these problems are peculiar to Quebec, the Globe and Mail reminds us in an editorial this week of all the other places in this country where corruption is the order of the day.

But what the heck. We`re number six on the list.

So maybe corruption doesn't make people unhappy after all.


  1. peace and prosperity love, My name is Jamaal Harvey and I'm a student of history and archeology. Im currently reading your "Bones" book. I have some questions. Please email me @ thankyou

  2. peace and prosperity love, My name is Jamaal Harvey and I'm a student of history and archeology. Im currently reading your "Bones" book. I have some questions. Please email me @ thankyou