For a heterodox policy to combat inflation

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By CARLOS ÁGUEDO PAIVA*

How can we structure a program to combat inflation that will free us from the ills and deindustrializing effects of the monetary-exchange pegging introduced by the Real Plan?

Introduction

Em previous article, published on the website A Terra é Redonda, sought to demonstrate the urgency of overcoming the inflation control pattern in force in Brazil since the Real Plan. And this to the extent that the prevailing equation – beyond all the discourse and all the econometric paraphernalia of the Targets system – continues to be based, fundamentally, on the “interest-exchange rate” interaction: the interest rate is raised to attract foreign resources and value the real, depressing the price of imports and exports. Who suffers is the fragile leg of the tripod of tradables: the processing industry. In the two other legs of the tripod – agribusiness and mineral extraction industry –, based on natural resources, as opposed to artificial, technological and organizational resources – Brazil is doing very well, thanks.

But every time the inflationary dragon rears its head, the Central Bank triggers its adjustment scheme, revaluing the real and exposing the manufacturing industry to foreign competition. This has very serious consequences – unfortunately, still little understood and recognized by economists of all stripes, starting with the heterodox ones – on the industry's competitive capacity in the long term. Because with each change in the real exchange rate, what becomes evident is that controlling inflation is a matter of principle; the defense of industry and national productive sovereignty is definitely not.

Now, in an increasingly globalized and oligopolistic world, in which Asian (and especially Chinese) industrial hegemony is increasing, the “information” repeated since 1994, almost three decades ago, that the defense of industry is secondary and that it will be used as a “piranha ox” every new inflationary surge has consequences. And the main consequence is the depression of the investment rate and the willingness to innovate and take risks in the segment. If we want to face this sad reality that has been depressing our growth rate for decades, it is necessary to develop a new policy to combat inflation. And the beginning of everything has to be understanding the object.

 

The peculiar Brazilian inflationism

For reasons little understood and relatively little discussed in the literature[I], Brazil has a high propensity for inflation. It seems to me that this “inflationary compulsion” is yet another expression of the exclusionary and exploitative pattern of Brazilian capitalism. After all, despite inflation being defined as a “general rise in prices” (as opposed to processes of “change in relative prices”), what characterizes it is that prices do not all rise simultaneously. Those agents with greater pricing capacity raise their prices ahead of the others, and benefit over the period in which the latter are unable to reset their own prices. As the “laggards” catch up with the protagonists, they start the circuit again, often fueling processes that lead to the inflationary spiral (increasing rates).

Without a doubt, the Real Plan is a milestone and a watershed in Brazilian inflationism. Nevertheless, since its implementation, Brazil has continued to show positive inflation rates and at levels significantly higher than most developed countries and even a significant portion of underdeveloped countries. This point becomes clear when we look at Table 1, below.

Quadro 1

Inflation rates are grouped by selected periods according to economic policies and/or according to presidential terms in Brazil. The first period taken into account are FHC's two mandates, between 1995 and 2002. As in the first year of this series – 1995 – the inflation rate was significantly high (22,5%) and well above the annual average between 1995 and 2020 (6,75% pa), we also calculated the accumulated inflation only in the period 1996-2002.[ii]

The first to note is that Brazil has inflation rates above the world average throughout the period and in each of the selected subperiods, without any exception.

On the other hand, with the exception of the Dilma period (which includes the year 2015, when the inflation rate reached two digits), in all other periods Brazil has an inflation rate lower than the average of emerging countries and very close (but discreetly) lower) than the average for Latin America and the Caribbean (ECLAC area).

However, from my point of view, it is necessary to understand that: (i) the Real Plan is a “social pact” based exactly on confronting and controlling inflation and its perverse redistributive effects (income concentrators). He was the condition for FHC's victory in 1994 and 1998. Lula only manages to get elected when he assumes the commitment to keep this “social pact” untouched, in the “Letter to Brazilians. In short: the fight against/control of inflation is at the center of the “consensus” economic program in the country; (ii) the Real Plan was structured (and is structured!) on exchange rate pegging, which depends on an abundance of external resources and exchange reserves. Despite some short periods of currency shortage (always due to speculative volatility, as in 2002 and 2009), Brazil had an abundance of resources in hard currency and the Central Bank exercised its role as “sheriff” with autonomy and independence (even excessive!) anti-inflationary”, raising interest rates and depressing the value of the dollar;

(iii) When we compare our inflationary performance with the performance of the “average” of emerging countries, we are comparing ourselves with regions and countries such as the Middle East and Central Asia,[iii] involving nations located between Morocco, in Africa, to Pakistan, in Asia, passing through Tunisia, Algeria, Libya, Egypt and Sudan, in the African continent, and by Lebanon, Syria, Palestinian Authority, Gaza Strip, Iraq and Iran Afghanistan, Asia. A significant portion of these countries experienced and are experiencing civil war, coups d'état and exchange rate restrictions and/or extraordinarily heavy trade embargoes; Developing Europe, located in Eastern Europe and which lived under very high inflation during more than a decade of complex and painful transition to the capitalist economy: between 1994 and 2002 the average annual inflation of the countries of this region was 57,63%; sub-Saharan Africa, whose exchange rate problems, political instability and supply bottlenecks are as big or bigger than those of the countries of the Middle East and Central Asia.

(iv) When we take only the countries of Latin America (ECLAC area) it is necessary to understand that this region is also very unequal, which results in equally diverse inflation rates. Some countries like Venezuela have been experiencing, in recent years, a crisis associated with the fall in oil prices and the economic embargo orchestrated by the US. In this country, the annual average rate of inflation over the last 4 years has exceeded 7.000%. Argentina has been subjected to external shocks and radical changes in economic policy in recent years and its average annual rate of price increases in this period was 37,54%. If we include countries in Central America and the Caribbean – like Haiti, Nicaragua, Guatemala, etc. – it is easy to understand why Brazil achieves a slightly better performance than the average for the region. The big question is why this superiority is so discreet, why the national performance is so similar to the average Latin American performance.

The precariousness of the national performance is fully evident when we compare it with that of the developed countries. Between 1995 and 2020, the average annual inflation in Brazil was 6,75% pa, while the average for developed countries was approximately a quarter of this rate: 1,75%. Even when we remove the year 1995 as “atypical”, the Brazilian annual average is 6,17% against 1,72% in developed countries. It is worth mentioning: the average annual inflation in Brazil is something between 4 and 3,5 times greater than the average annual inflation in developed countries.

Why? For fiscal or monetary irresponsibility? … It does not seem necessary to us to use arguments to criticize this thesis of conservative common sense. Nor can these rates be explained by the absence of external competition in the sector. tradable. On the contrary: as I have defended in several texts, blogs and groups on social networks, the competitive exposure imposed by the persistent exchange rate anchor is the basis of our accelerated deindustrialization.

The pretense that, fundamentally, real wage gains above inflation are at the root of this problem is also untenable. This thesis – used by economists who use the Phillips curve to criticize the PT's employment and minimum wage policies – reveals its inconsistency when we look at the inflationary performance of the Temer-Bolsonaro period. Over five years of high unemployment[iv], the average annual inflation rate was 4,35% pa; which corresponds to 3,2 the average rate of developed countries and 30% higher than the world average.[v]

However, from my point of view, there is, in this thesis of “neo-Keynesian” inflection, a little more consistency than the radical defenders of a certain heterodoxy are willing to admit. If we take the average inflation rate of the “PT years” (2003-2015), it turns out to be higher than the rate of the “post-coup” years by almost two percentage points: 6,26% pa Simultaneously, in this period – once again , according to IMF data – the average unemployment rate was lower than the Temer-Bolsonaro years by just under 3 percentage points: 9,5%.[vi]

The issue is that (despite Brazilian inflation being irreducible to wage pressures) we understand, in line with Kalecki and the post-Keynesian current, that: (i) the rise in nominal wages in an oligopolistic economy that operates with mark-ups rigid and expressive is an element of pressure on prices and tends to contribute to the acceleration of inflation in segments not exposed to external competition and highly employing (such as services, for example); (ii) the drop in the unemployment rate (increase in employment above the growth in labor supply) increases the bargaining power of the working class and its ability to pressure higher nominal wages and this movement – ​​in itself beneficial and positive! – it also carries with it elements of inflationary pressure; (iii) government support for raising nominal wages (which have the minimum wage as a reference!) is a legitimate and necessary strategy to reinforce redistributive policies, despite involving cost pressure with a potential inflationary component.

In fact, the issue that interests us is precisely this: if, in a future left-wing government, we want to operate with a view to raising nominal and real wages, redistributing income in favor of workers and significantly raising the level of employment in economy, we will be introducing elements of inflationary pressure with great potential for accelerating and deepening the inflationary compulsion that characterizes the Brazilian economy. In this context, maintaining the relative “autonomy-independence” of the Central Bank, it will very likely be preserved the strategy to combat inflation adopted since 1994 with all its deleterious consequences for economic growth: increase in interest rates, appreciation of the real (depreciation of the dollar ), competitive exposure of the industry and, finally, deindustrialization. It is therefore urgent to develop and propose and – once in government – ​​put into practice alternative and genuinely heterodox policies to combat inflation, capable of overcoming the dualism of “monetary orthodoxy” (which results in an overvalued real) and/or “fiscal orthodoxy”. (which results in high unemployment). The purpose of the next section is precisely to point to this “third way”.

 

Fundamentals of a heterodox strategy to combat inflation in Brazil

As Kalecki tried to demonstrate in several works, in the medium term, the increase in nominal wages is only an effective instrument for the redistribution of income in favor of workers if it is accompanied by a depression in the unemployment rate. mark-up. Which is the same as saying that income distribution is a function of the depression of the (average) degree of monopoly in the economy and the deepening of price competition (Kalecki, 1938).[vii]

Now, this conception is not new within the Brazilian heterodox field[viii] and it was part of the political and economic strategies adopted throughout the PT years. As we read the anthological article by André Singer entitled Poking jaguars with short sticks (Singer, 2015), its central thesis is precisely this: in her first term, Dilma sought to face (and effectively faced!) the degree of monopoly of a wide range of business segments whose pricing power had been increased by FHC’s privatist policies . Among these sectors, it is worth mentioning: (1) the banking-financial segment, whose profitability was spurred by the new credit and interest policies of Banco do Brasil, Caixa Econômica Federal and BNDES; (2) the logistics segment, affected by the new 2013 port law, by attempts to change the regulatory framework for railroads (with the introduction of the right of way, which would suppress the monopoly of concessionaires) and by new rules and road auctions-concessions ; and (3) public utility industrial services, with emphasis on electricity generation, transmission and distribution concessionaires, which were pressured to change the concession contracts signed during the FHC period by modalities aimed at guaranteeing greater flexibility in the offer price of electric energy, with advantages for the consumer (in price drops) and for the concessionaires (in price increases, due to generation and supply problems).

I believe that one of the consequences of these “nudges” was the radical inflection of “public opinion” about the Dilma government in the transition from 2012 to 2013 (the year that began with the announcement of the new Central Bank interest policy and which will be marked by the “junine days”). The media – which had never been in solidarity with the PT governments, and had already incensed the Mensalão farce – will deepen its criticism of the third PT administration, assuming for itself the role of “opposing force”, promoting abundantly all manifestations and protests street from 2013.

Simultaneously, the political base in Congress is being diluted until it is completely dissolved, based on the movement of PMDB and PSDB leaders whose interests in port activities (such as Temer and Cunha), road activities (Padilha), and in generation and electricity distribution (Aécio Neves) had been harmed. The New Port Law was Dilma's last major victory in Congress. From then on, all of the president's initiatives to confront the large oligopolies (private health, railroads, etc.) were barred. And the dialogue between the Ministry of Finance, Palácio da Alvorada and the Central Bank became more and more truncated.

Now, on the one hand, it seems clear to me that the “Kaleckian” strategy adopted by Dilma of redistributing income, controlling inflation and leveraging the competitiveness of national production[ix] via the transfer of productivity gains from the oligopolistic sectors to prices (and therefore to society as a whole) was perfectly correct and necessary. But, on the other hand, I believe that it would not need (and, perhaps, in view of the final consequences of this process, should not) initiate this confrontation between the “hegemonic poles” of big capital: the financial system and services granted-privatized during the auctions and watering hole of the FHC government. I believe there is an alternative that would allow you to “eat the porridge by the edges”,[X] an alternative that was not tried and that should be under a new PT management (or, eventually, another left-wing government-composition).

From my point of view, the alternative of lower political cost and greater economic efficiency of controlling inflation and income redistribution via the depression of the mark-up lies in focusing directly on the high margins of trade that prevail in Brazil. More: I believe that emphasis should be placed, initially, on the segments that sell products that are part of the “IPCA basket” and that, therefore, have a direct impact on those inflation indices that guide the Central Bank's monetary policies. Let's explain.

I believe that economists – including those from the “heterodox band” – have not yet become fully aware of the degree of financialization of the Brazilian economy in general and of the financialization of the commercialization system in particular. Brazil is the only country in the world where most goods are sold in “various interest-free installments”. From airline tickets (usually sold in “several interest-free installments” directly by Gol, Tam, Azul, or by resellers, such as Submarino, Decolar, etc.) to supermarket purchases (paid with a credit card and/or with cards from the chains, such as Zaffari, Pão de Açúcar, etc.), through clothing magazines (C&A, Renner, Riachuelo, etc.) to household appliances and utilities magazines (Magazine Luíza, Ponto Frio, Lojas Colombo, etc.) , vehicle dealerships (Volkswagen, Renault, Fiat, etc.), practically everything in the country is sold on credit. Why? Because all the large commercial groups in the country are either associated with, or have their own finance companies and/or banks, and obtain most of their profits from the financing system for their customers, as opposed to the gains derived from the commercialization process in the sense strict.[xi]

This strategy of the large retailers has implications for the small capital associated with commerce. As the “spot” prices with which the large commercial chains operate already include interest (which, theoretically, is not charged when the customer “opts” for the installment purchase), these prices are significantly higher than the costs of acquisition of products marketed by the industry. This high profit margin of the large trade is perceived by the small trader as an advantage. After all, he acquires his goods in smaller lots and, usually, at higher prices and, if the margin of big business were smaller, his would also be spurred by the competition. However, this perception of the small trader is only partially true. In reality, your “earnings” are more apparent than real. Why?

Because consumers demand the same treatment from small retailers as they get from large ones: installment sales. However, in the case of small retailers, as a general rule, payment in installments (usually in more than one installment for large purchases) is made via credit card. In addition to the immediate financial costs that the trader incurs when he uses these instruments, he also incurs mediate costs, as he does not receive the full value of his sale, he will need to take out a loan (working capital) to replace stock.[xii] Well, the sale on credit by large retailers that have associated banks and finance companies generates extraordinary gains. But the same is not true for the small trader, who bears most of the financing costs granted by the banking system to his client and, by extension, to himself.

The “financial (re)balance” of small businesses is obtained by a second, equally perverse way: due to the great income inequality that characterizes the Brazilian social structure, a significant portion of the national population does not have access to a credit card and financing systems. This portion makes its purchases and payments strictly in cash, via paper money. Not for free, in Brazil today the volume of currency in circulation corresponds approximately to the volume of demand deposits in commercial banks: in 2020, both revolved around 250 billion reais.[xiii]

This part of the population – precisely the poorest! – pays the forward price in cash. As it makes a significant portion of its purchases in small businesses (located on the outskirts of cities, close to low-income housing), it contributes to the support of this retail stratum and, inadvertently, contributes to the support of a perverse pricing system marked by exorbitant margins. “trade finance”.

From my point of view, it is urgent to intervene and change this perverse relationship between trade and finance in our country based on public policies specifically aimed at this. From the outset, it would be necessary to show the “nudity of the king”. There is a collective decoy. The consumer really believes that he is benefiting from the “interest-free” installment plan. And the small trader really believes that he is benefiting by selling his products at the high price charged by the big trader.[xiv]

With a view to calculating the discount that a small merchant could grant without depressing its profitability margin (or even expanding it), I tried to calculate the average financial costs that this stratum incurs in its installment sales. This calculation, however, turned out to be much more complex than I could have initially imagined. For several reasons. First, there is the fact that the risks of operating with paper money vary in each location. I'm talking about the risk of robbery at the commercial establishment and/or the person responsible for making deposits on a daily basis. Second, credit card transaction costs are also not uniform.

New brands are entering the market and competing with traditional brands by offering better financing conditions for merchants. In addition, merchants who resort to bank loans for working capital (which supports part of their customer credit operations) are faced with diversified interest rates and bank charges (various fees, reciprocities, etc.). Finally, I heard reports from merchants of specific problems with the use of paper money (as opposed to cards) that surprised me, such as: (1) the delay in paying with cash is greater, leading to the formation of queues; (2) and the number of people at the tellers would have to be greater, but (3) not all small merchants have sufficient and reliable staff who know how to properly calculate change; among others.

It is worth noting that part of these difficulties can currently be circumvented with the payment system via pix. However, it would still be necessary to face another problem: the small merchant's lack of knowledge in finance and, by extension, his difficulty in measuring the positive impact on his profitability in the adoption of practices that free him from paying interest and bank fees.

A support policy for training and informing small traders could make them aware of the advantages it would have if it granted discounts to consumers willing to purchase goods in cash. As small as these discounts were, they make a difference for low-budget families and would have consequences on the evolution of the general price level. And this to the extent that the depression in prices at small retailers would have to be (at least in part) accompanied by a drop in prices at large retailers.[xv]

Such a program to support competition and price depression would be much more effective if it were accompanied by public systems for disclosing the lowest offer prices in trade in each neighborhood. A program that could start with an emphasis on the basket of products that make up the IPCA.

Equally well, it seems to me that it would be important to legislate and regulate the consumer financing process through the mandatory disclosure of interest rates effectively embedded in credit operations. Since the cards of large retail companies are associated with specific financial institutions, the reference for store interest must be the interest rate charged by them for personal credit.

These are just a few ideas that need determination so that they can become an effective and efficient price control program through market mechanisms that reinforce competition and depress the profit margin (mark-up). But, it seems to me, it's a good starting point. And this because it brings to light and seeks to face exactly one of the most peculiar traits of the national economy: the veiled forms of financialization and induction to purchase on credit.

Furthermore, even if one comes to the conclusion that this is not the “way to go”, I believe that the problem itself is relevant and urgent. For this very reason, I bring these points to reflection. If not here, where will we structure a program to combat inflation that will free us from the ills and deindustrializing effects of the monetary-exchange anchoring introduced by the Real Plan?

*Carlos Águedo Paiva is a doctor in economics and professor of the master's degree in development at Faccat.

References

KALECKI, M. (1938) The determinants of distribution of the National Income. In: OSIATYNSKI, J. (ed.). (nineteen ninety) Collected Works of Michal Kalecki. Oxford: Clarendon Press.Vol. II.

PAIVA, CA (2004). Reading the Real with one eye on Keynes and the other on Kalecki. FEE Economic Indicators. V. 16, no. 2. Porto Alegre: FEE. Disp. in http://revistas.fee.tche.br/index.php/indicadores/article/view/257

SINGER, A. (2015) “Prodding jaguars with short sticks: the developmental essay in the first term of Dilma Rousseff (2011-2014). In: New Studies. No. 102. July.

SYLOS-LABINI, P. (1984) “Prices and income distribution in the manufacturing industry”. In: Essays on development and pricing. Rio de Janeiro: University Forensics.

Notes

[I] Despite brilliant and innovative exercises, such as, among others, the classic work by Ignácio Rangel on Brazilian inflation.

[ii] It is usually assumed that the high inflation in 1995 would be a reflection of the “adjustment mishaps” and the persistence of the inflationary inertia inherited from 1994. However, in theory, according to the program's formulators, the inertia should have been annulled during the implementation period of the Real de Valor Unit (URV), in the first half of 1994. The fact that this “adjustment” did not occur satisfactorily and high inflation persisted for more than a year after the full implementation of the Real (in the second half of 1994 and throughout the first months of 1995) is already a first demonstration of the thesis that we are trying to defend: the inflationary tendency of the Brazilian economy and the resilience of inflation to programs of adjustment and control of the general level of prices.

[iii] A “fantasy” name that the IMF gives to contiguous Muslim hegemony countries.

[iv] According to the WEO-IMF, the average unemployment rate over these five years would be 12,49%. This rate is slightly lower than that calculated by the IBGE.

[v] It is worth noting that, as we take the World Economic Outlook as a data source for comparison and there is still no information on the 2021 inflation rate for all countries in the world, we are not including in this series the inflationary performance of last year, when the IPCA surpassed the 10%. The inflationary jump was due, in large part, to the devaluation of the real, derived from the low interest rates practiced by Bacen. Which reveals – once again – the importance of having alternative policies to exchange rate pegging to contain prices.

[vi] These results do not change significantly when we extract from the series the two years of “atypical” economic policy of PT administrations: 2003 and 2015. In these two years, orthodox fiscal and monetary strategies were adopted, which significantly increased unemployment. In the first case, to face inflationary pressures inherited from the 2002 exchange rate devaluation; in the second case (with little or no success!), with a view to easing the Central Bank's monetary-exchange policy, which was leading to the chronic overvaluation of the real and, consequently, to deindustrialization in Brazil. Between 2004 and 2014, the average annual inflation rate of the Brazilian economy was 5,6% (1,3 percentage points above the average rate for the Temer-Bolsonaro period). And the average unemployment rate (according to the WEO-IMF) was 9,2%. The inflection of 2015 – as disastrous as it may have been – poses a question that seems fundamental to me: the difficulty of operating with the effective autonomy (not to mention independence) of the Central Bank in relation to the determinations and structural economic policies of leftist governments (that is to say: the PT governments!) in contemporary Brazil. We will return to this point later.

[vii] Indeed, Kalecki claims (correctly) that the fall in the degree of monopoly and, by extension, in the mark-up, would lead to redistribution independently of any rise in nominal wages. However, in this case, the redistribution would take place with deflation and, therefore, with an increase in real interest rates. This can lead to new obstacles to the development process.

[viii] In large part, influenced by the Unicamp School, where Dilma earned Master's and Doctorate credits.

[ix] In conservative jargon: “facing the cost of Brazil”.

[X] Among Leonel Brizola's memorable political phrases, one of the quotes I like the most is: “Hot porridge is eaten by the edges. Whoever puts the spoon directly in the center and takes it in his mouth is asking to burn himself.”

[xi] It is interesting to observe that even the economic analysts of the bourgeois press point to this peculiarity of our commercialization system. It is worth reading the analyzes disseminated on the net about the causes of the failure of Wal-Mart in Brazil. Without making the entire issue explicit, there are several texts that clearly point to the visible part of this huge and dangerous iceberg, such as: https://veja.abril.com.br/economia/seis-razoes-que-explicam-o-fracasso-do-walmart-no-brasil/

[xii] Many times, the operation is automatic: the card manager (the brand, whether Visa, Master, or any other) or the bank where the merchant has an account performs the installment payment and receives the amount in installments, but delivers part of the sale value immediately to the merchant. The fact that the operation is “only one” does not change the substance of the process in any way: the small merchant is paying interest to finance his client.

[xiii] See, for example: https://www.istoedinheiro.com.br/papel-moeda-tem-recorde-de-circulacao-no-pais/

[xiv] In fact, the small trader always has a “locational advantage” in relation to the large retailer: he is closer to the consumer. Acquiring goods in small businesses involves saving buses, taxis, gasoline or simply time and the sole of a shoe. So, effectively, their prices are slightly higher than those of the big retailer. But this margin is relatively small. And it's not worth depressing her: it's the condition for her survival. It is up to clarify and highlight the financial costs incurred by the trader when selling in installments based on bank financing or VISA, Master credit card brands, etc.

[xv] If this did not happen, the percentage of sales by small retailers – which are largely employers – would be increased and the social and economic consequences of the process in terms of depression of the degree of monopoly in the economy would be equally expressive.

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