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.

Oil Again: Keep an eye on OPEC members

OPEC’s decision earlier this week is being interpreted as something that will lead to an “oversupply” of oil. Prices of the commodity seem to be going down already. There are several political implications, and perhaps the most interesting countries to watch are the OPEC members themselves.

Many oil-rich countries end up affected by the so-called “resource curse”. Due to cronyism and other types of interventionism, they distort the economy and focus too much on that one special resource they have.

As a result, whenever the artificial bubble of that sector is hit, the effects are disastrous. Many of these countries need to develop – and that’s across the board, not just the resource sector. This is bad enough, but there’s more. If you consider the corruption of cronyism, it’s not necessarily the case that the country will be well when things go well in that sector.

OPEC reminds us that the state is not a unitary actor in world politics. Their collective decision to supranationally plan the supply and price of most of the world’s oil has deep consequences, some of which are negative for their own people.

In order to understand this, you have to look inside that “black box” of the state and look at the winners and losers of this foreign policy decision. The ruling elites and the cronies want to remain in charge and extract as much as they possibly can from each decision.

However, this may undermine their own position in the long run. This is because those on the losing side, the have-nots, often get very annoyed and do something about this, especially when the state apparatus is weak and lacks legitimacy. In fact, many of the conflicts related to the “resource curse” today include something of this component as part of their root causes.

If OPEC has been used as a tool of crony capitalism, the effectiveness of this move for those running the show is partial, and even questionable in the long term – it might turn out to be a shot in the foot. And it certainly doesn’t help the poor, the local population, the ones who would benefit from a very different approach.

Instituições e Cultura do Capitalismo de Compadres

Lá, em meu blog, um breve comentário sobre o novo índice da The Economist.