Why some countries are stuck in poverty

It is fairly common for young children in Brazil (or at least in Rio de Janeiro, the part of the country I know better) to call adults “uncle” or “aunt”. My closest friends’ children call me uncle and I’m totally ok with that. I do see them as my nephews and nieces. That also happens in schools: children up to 11 or 12 call the teachers “aunt”. Some people think that this is normal or even cute. However, I studied in a school that strictly forbid children to call the teachers aunt. The teachers were supposed to be called simply “teacher”. One interchange became folkloric in my house: “Am I your father’s sister? Am I your mother’s sister? Am I married to your uncle? Then I’m not your aunt.” Ouch! As gruff as it might sound, that’s the mentality I grew up with. My mother was also never totally comfortable with some of my friends calling her “aunt”.

One of my favorite interpretations of Brazil came from Sérgio Buarque de Holanda (1902-1982). In his book Raízes do Brasil (Brazil roots, 1936) he made an analysis of the country, saying that the problem with Brazilians is that they are cordial. Using Max Weber’s categories, Holanda said that Brazilians don’t know how to conduct formal, impersonal relationships. It is really hard for them (or I should say, for us) to understand that the guy in office is the guy in office and not our friend.

I would say that many times I saw Holanda’s interpretation in action. Students who thought they were my friends and that because of that I would go easy on their exams. Colleagues who thought I wouldn’t fine them when I was working in the library. People I barely knew, who were friends of my friends, who thought I would give them answers for the exams. I managed to be friends of some students, but that was the exception. Most students had a hard time distinguishing between “Bruno, my friend” and “Bruno, my professor”. Worse, some, I don’t know how, came to the conclusion that I was their friend.

Lula da Silva, Brazil’s former president, presented himself as a father. He introduced Dilma Rousseff, his successor, as a mother. Getúlio Vargas, the horrendous dictator from the 1930s was widely known as “the father of the poor”. I’m sad to say that Jair Bolsonaro, Brazil’s current and supposedly right-wing president, doesn’t really scape this logic. It may be nice and cute when little children call adults aunt or uncle, but it sickens me when grownups use this language. Even more so, when they use it to people they don’t even know!

Sergio Buarque de Holanda is one of the few things from college I profited from reading. It helped me to escape the Marxist bog that is much of Brazilian humanities academia. Years later I read Good Capitalism, Bad Capitalism and I discovered that Brazil was not alone. That is the problem with many so-called capitalist countries that still lag behind. They are not really capitalist in the sense that the US, much of Western Europe or Japan and other Asian countries are, and one of the main reasons for that is that people don’t know how to conduct impersonal, formal relationships. The teacher is not your aunt, and the country is not a big family.

130 years of Republic in Brazil

Yesterday Brazil celebrated 130 years of Republic. It might be a personal impression but it seems to me that there is growing support for monarchy among conservatives. It’s very funny.

Brazil was initially a monarchy. Dom Pedro I, the prince regent of Portugal, declared Brazil’s independence from his father’s country in 1822. But he had to go back to Portugal less than 10 years later, leaving his son, Dom Pedro II, in Brazil. Dom Pedro II was too young to govern, and the 1830s were a mess in Brazil. When he effectively became emperor, things got much better.

Dom Pedro II ruled Brazil for about 50 years. To my knowledge, he was a wise man, genuinely concerned about Brazil. The 1824 Constitution was fairly liberal, and so were the emperors. Centrally, Dom Pedro II wanted to abolish slavery, but he was going against Brazilian elites on this. It’s not a coincidence that slavery was abolished in 1888 and the monarchy fell in the next year.

To my knowledge, Brazil had two good emperors and the constitution that ruled the country at that time was mostly good. However, Brazil was extremely oligarchal, and there was little that the emperors could do about that. I believe that Dom Pedro II was a wise and patient man, who slowly did the reforms the country needed.

I don’t know if Dom Pedro II’s daughter, Isabel, would have been a good empress. But I know that Dom Pedro II himself didn’t offer resistance when some republicans changed the regime. He peacefully went to exile in Europe. Dom Pedro manifested on some occasions that he was a republican. Maybe he was being ironic. Maybe not. In any case, I believe that he was glad to see the country coming to age, and being able to take care of itself without an emperor.

The first 40 years of Republic were not too bad. They were not perfect either! Slavery didn’t make a comeback. The republican constitution was written after the American one. The economy was mostly free, was it not so from the fact that coffee oligarchies ruled things to benefit their business. Things got really bad when the horrendous dictator Getúlio Vargas came to power in 1930.

I think there is something funny in the way some conservatives miss the monarchy. It wasn’t too bad. But it was also a time when Brazil suffered a lot under slavery and oligarchy. I’m certainly not sure if the monarchy was the best antidote to that.

Jair Bolsonaro: the Devil?

Scott Sumner wrote recently on The Library of Economics and Liberty a piece in which he apparently buys into Reason’s understanding that Brazil’s president Jair Bolsonaro is “the most extreme and repellent face of a resurgent, evangelical-driven right-wing attempt to drag the country backwards by decades”. Reason, on its turn, is buying into The Intercept’s understanding of Bolsonaro.

There is little new on the piece: Bolsonaro is a racist, a misogynist, a homophobic, a fascist… All the accusations that mainstream media is used to throw at him, mentioning no clear examples or just inventing ones. And once again, it is my job to defend not Bolsonaro himself, but the truth.

Bolsonaro was born in 1955. He is in many ways a typical aging Brazilian man. Coming from a lower middle-class family, as a young man, he joined the army. He was very young but lived the years in which the military took over power to defend Brazil from the communists. Many people today might think that the communist threat didn’t call for that. Nevertheless, this is not what common people in the 1960s understood. They were afraid and begged the Army to defend the country. Most people were happy to give up democracy in the name of security. Bolsonaro was among them. Maybe they were very wrong, but one should try to empathize with them.

Because of the environment in which he grew, statism and protectionism are in Bolsonaro’s blood. Actually, that’s how we all grew up in Brazil. We expect that the government will solve the problems, and we are not used to asking where the money will come from. We also believe that the government has to protect the Brazilian workers and businesspeople against foreign competition. To become economically conservative in Brazil is crazily hard. You have to fight against a deeply established culture. Bolsonaro seems to be fighting against his best instincts that tell him that he should protect the Brazilian market and promote development.

I seriously doubt that Bolsonaro is corrupt. In any functional democracy, this should be a given, but sadly in Brazil, especially after the PT years, to have an honest president is a great relief. I’m certainly not saying that he is incorruptible. Also, Bolsonaro was not virtuous enough to give up many of the privileges he had over the years as a politician. Nevertheless, compared to much of the Brazilian political class, he stands as an honest guy.

In a sense, all this talk is pointless. Bolsonaro was elected. He is the president. He is profoundly against all that the PT government did. The PT government brought Brazil into its deepest economical, political and moral crisis. Bolsonaro and the people around him are trying to revert this. I’m certainly not saying that he shouldn’t be criticized. But he needs help. And Brazilians need help as well. Our real enemy is certainly not Bolsonaro.

Back in Brazil: bureaucracy

After two years away, I’m trying to put my life back on tracks in Brazil, and one of the main obstacles for doing so is the country’s crazy bureaucracy. Maybe this will come as no surprise for many, but Brazil is known for its big fat bureaucratic system, and basically, any rational analyst I’ve ever heard or read believes that this is one of the main obstacles for the country’s economic growth.

One of the problems I’m facing is getting the money from my FGTS. FGTS stands for “Fundo de Garantia do Tempo de Serviço”, a compulsory savings account that all Brazilian workers are forced to have. The moment you get a job, your employer is responsible for putting a percentage of your salary in the account. In case you are fired (or retire, or get cancer – seriously), you can get the money.

FGTS was created in 1966, at the beginning of the military regime that lasted from 1964 to 1985. Funny enough, people on the left, who demonize the Military governments, are today the main defensors of FGTS. Reality is, as you can probably tell, that this does little to help workers. FGTS has a very low interest rate, lower than the country’s inflation. That means that you actually lose money with it. Any other private investement would be better. Besides, it is clear that its reason to be is not to help workers. FGTS was created because bureaucrats realized that Brazilians had no culture of savings, therefore the government had to create one in order to have some money reserve to use. And using it government did. FGTS accounts have frequently been used by the government to try to boom the economy Keynesian style. Trying to get your FGTS money is crazily hard. Bureaucracy turns into a maze and can win you by fatigue. Perhaps I should just leave my money with the government.

The Bolsonaro government is trying to modernize the economy, and part of the process might involve putting an end to FGTS and other peculiarities created by Brazilian bureaucrats in the past. The left, however, complains that workers are losing rights. I can tell by personal experience that I would be losing my right to have a very poor savings account that I didn’t choose and that I have a very hard time to get access to. But try to explain this to millions of workers that are still hostages for labor unions and left-wing political parties.

Back in Brazil: more impressions

Another thing that calls my attention in Brazil (or rather, in Rio de Janeiro) are the crazy traffic jams. All day long, traffic moves painfully slowly. Really. There is no rush hour. Every hour is rush. The reason is not hard to understand: there are way too many buildings for too few streets and poor options in mass transportation.

Thinking about this, I came across this excellent text. It is in Portuguese, so for those who can’t read it, I’ll summarize. Basically, zoning laws in Rio de Janeiro through the 20th century were completely crazy, following a very nasty relationship between politicians and real state companies. A company wanted to build taller buildings and profit, the city hall would not oppose, especially when a luxurious apartment was waiting for the mayor. The result is that old neighborhoods like Tijuca and Botafogo simply have no space on the streets for so many cars.

But what is the problem with many tall buildings? That’s what New York is all about, and I simply love the Big Apple! Well, that’s true, but NY has something that Rio doesn’t: a great mass transit system. Rio has four subway lines. Or three. Wait, maybe it’s just one. Here is the thing: on paper, Rio has four subway lines, which already makes no sense, since it only has lines 1, 2 and 4. Line 3 was planned but never built. Line 4 is just an extension of line 1, and line 2 trains enter line 1 (!). Although the system was privatized in the 1990s, it is very clear that it maintains a very suspicious connection with the state government. Sergio Cabral, Rio’s former governor, and presently in jail, was married to a lawyer who defended the Metro company. It is also clear that bus companies subsidize politicians who maintain their interests. In sum, Cariocas are hostages to a terrible public transport system that favors a criminous relationship between big companies and politicians.

Rio ends up representing very well a problem we see all over Brazil: people believe this is capitalism. Because of that, they vote for socialist parties. It should be painfully obvious from the examples of USSR, Cuba, Venezuela, Nicaragua, North Korea, China, Vietnam, Eastern Europe, and so many others that socialism simply doesn’t work. But here is the thing: people in Rio (and actually in Brazil and Latin America in general) suffered and suffer so much under crony capitalists that they can’t help but thinking that socialism might be the answer.

Hear, World! Socialism failed, just like Mises predicted. But as long as people suffer under crony capitalists, it will still be appealing, be it in a poor neighborhood or a college campus in the US, be it in a poor country in Latin America. The job is not done. Freedom isn’t free. We still have a long way to go freeing people from evil.

Back in Brazil: first impressions

After almost two years living in the US, I’m back in Brazil, more precisely in Rio de Janeiro, for a short visit. When I left Brazil two years ago, I was hoping that Bolsonaro would be elect president and that with that things would start to change for the better. I still have hope, but change is slower than I would wish.

Things in Brazil are crazily expensive. One liter of milk is almost 4 reais. One liter of gasoline is 5 reais. Considering that a poorly skilled worker makes less than 2 thousand reais, imagine how much it costs to live in Rio de Janeiro. If you live in the US, just remember how much you pay for a gallon of milk or gasoline. And also how much a poor, very simple worker makes in the US.

But thankfully Brazil has universal healthcare! Only that hospitals have always been terrible here. Seems to me that Brazilian TV has a video that they just play in a loop, showing how terrible it is. Sadly, mainstream media continues to ask the government for better health (and better education, and better services in general) instead of admitting that government-run services will simply never be good.

Brazilians (or at least people in Rio) are also very aggressive. I believe I understand why. Everyone here has been deeply hurt.  “It´s the law of the jungle”. Or “grab what you can and let the devil take the hindmost”. Injustice has hurt these people pretty deeply.

So, yeah. Keeping desiring Socialism! Keep supporting the likes of Bernie Sanders and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. Nothing has helped poor people over the years more than free markets. Few things have hurt them more than socialism. Coming back to Brazil, I can tell.

Brazil’s Military Coup, 55 years later

Fifty-five years ago, in 1964, Brazilian president João Goulart was overthrown and substituted by Castelo Branco, a military president. Until 1985 the country was governed by military presidents. To this day people are still debating the coup (some even denying that there was a coup), much because the victims and perpetrators are still commanding the debate. In light of that, I’d like to offer some thoughts about 1964 here.

In 1789, only thirteen years after the American Revolution, a small group of Brazilian discontents planned an independent attempt in the region of Minas Gerais. The movement failed miserably, leaving one infamous victim, Tiradentes, who would much later be considered the patron of Brazilian independence. In the following years Brazil saw many other revolts and independence attempts, but in 1808 a significant change of events took over the country: instead of fighting in Europe a war against Napoleon he believed he could not win, Dom João VI, the Portuguese prince-regent, decided to move his capital from Lisbon to Rio de Janeiro. However, some years later Dom João had to choose between staying in Brazil or losing his crown. He decided to go back to Portugal. His son, Dom Pedro I, remained in Brazil as a new prince-regent. Legend has it that, when embarking back to Europe, João turned to Pedro and said, “make the independence of this country before someone else does.”

And he did: on September 7, 1822, Dom Pedro I proclaimed Brazil’s independence and became the country’s first emperor. His son, Dom Pedro II, would succeed him in 1840 and rule until 1889 when the monarchy was overthrown, and the republic established. Now, just imagine if the king or prince of England or Spain proclaimed himself emperor of America. Well, that’s what happened in Brazil. It seems to me that people forget how absurd this scenario really was.

Fast-forward: Dom Pedro I followed his father’s steps in 1831. He had to choose between staying in Brazil or jeopardizing his family’s position in Europe. He went back to Portugal but left his son to become emperor in Brazil. Because Dom Pedro II was still only four years old, that wouldn’t happen until almost a decade later. And so, the 1830s were a very turmoiled time in Brazilian history. The country was ruled by several regents and was about to be torn apart. This favored speeding up Dom Pedro II’s coronation. Although he was only 14 years old, his rise to power helped to heal several wounds and bring a union to Brazil. The country’s subsequent history, at least until the proclamation of the republic in 1889, was lived under the shadow of the 1830s. To a high degree the Brazilian elites were afraid that without a strong central power, represented by the emperor, the country would fall apart, much like Hispanic America. On top of that, Brazilian economy was majorly dependent on African slaves, and the same elites were afraid that the Haitian Revolution of 1803 would be emulated in their country in the absence of a strong centralized government.

These are in my view the basics of Brazilian history in the 19th century. To prevent regional fragmentation (as in Hispanic America) or a slave revolution (as in Haiti) a very strong and centralized government was established. Liberal on the surface, but very far from that in reality. I don’t question that in the absence of this choice Brazilian history might have been quite different. However, I think that it is important to notice that Brazilian political history didn’t have a very democratic beginning.

As I already mentioned, the monarchy in Brazil ended in 1889. Dom Pedro II suffered a textbook coup d’état: some economic elites colluded with the military (mostly the army) and took over the power. The first forty years of Brazilian republic were notoriously oligarchic, ruled mostly by the coffee elites of the states of São Paulo and Minas Gerais. These elites, however, tasted their own medicine when, in 1930, Getúlio Vargas took over power by force. He would be the country’s dictator until 1945.

Vargas deserves special attention, both because of his long time in power and his enduring influence. On many occasions, he has been classified as a fascist, or something close to that. Populist is also a label that has been associated with him. I prefer to label him as “getulist”. To be sure, Vargas had some resemblance to fascists in Europe and populists in Latin America, but I understand that this is mainly so because all these governments share in their anti-liberalism, centralization of power and tendency to extreme violence.

Vargas peacefully stepped down from power in 1945, only to come back (democratically elected!) in 1951. He committed suicide in 1954. The whole period of 1945-1964 was lived under his shadow. Many tried to be his successor. Juscelino Kubitsheck, president from 1956 to 1961, began his political career as Vargas’ protégé and remained faithful to the mentor until Getúlio’s death. Leonel Brizola, governor of Rio Grande do Sul (1959-1963) – Vargas’ home state – also tried to continue Getúlio’s legacy. Even more so did Brizola’s brother in law, João Goulart, president from 1961 until the 1964 coup.

Even more than Juscelino Kubitsheck, João Goulart began his political career as a protégé of Getúlio Vargas, but never achieved the political brilliance of his mentor. Jango, as he was called, was not a communist by any means. Very much like Vargas, his ideology was a confused mix of positivism, laborism, populism and any other -isms. Very pragmatic. However, above all, Jango was a fool. He was unable to understand that the World had changed. What was successful for Vargas in the 1930s could not be reproduced in the 1960s. Because of that, amid the Cold War scenario he was mistaken for a communist by some. Others, more pointedly, realized that he was too oblivion to the communist threat Brazil was facing.

Communists had been trying to come to power in Brazil (rarely democratically) since the 1920s. The Cold War only intensified this threat. After the Cuban Revolution of 1959 many feared that Brazil would be the next domino to fall.

And this is in short, the scenario in which the military came to power in Brazil in 1964. As late Brazilian economist Roberto Campos very lucidly pointed, democracy was sadly not an option for Brazil in 1964. The country had to choose between a right-wing or a left-wing dictatorship. I believe they chose correctly. The communists took power in Cuba in 1959. They are still there. The military seized control in Brazil in 1964. They pacifically laid over power 21 years after and never tried to come back. I am not saying that a right-wing dictatorship is a good solution against leftism. Anyone who reads this here is reading his prejudices solely. What I am saying is that Brazil sadly has little democratic tradition and had even less 55 years ago. Therefore, we should not be surprised that the military took over power in 1964. Surprisingly would be if things happened in any other way. I don’t celebrate the military government of 1964-1985. Just the opposite: as with so many things in Brazilian history (or in life!) it is not something to celebrate. Just to accept and live with it.