The Vanity of Ambition
By B. Michael Rubin
Brazilians are famous for their vanity. Let’s forget for the moment the North American view of vanity as egotistical because I live in Brazil, and I delight in this gorgeous country where kissing women when meeting them for the first time is considered polite. Where women spend hours trying to look their best, so that in the supermarket in high heels and full make-up, I can observe them carefully caressing mountains of voluptuous tropical fruits until they find one in perfect ripeness. They will open and smell several bottles of laundry detergent before choosing the right one.
Rio de Janeiro, Brazil’s most picturesque city, is the most popular destination for foreign tourists. Every year during the Carnival parade it hosts the most extravagant display of vanity and costume design anywhere in the world. Rio itself, all-year-round, is filled with beautiful tourist attractions and possibly the most extraordinary harbor anywhere, immortalized in songs and movies, such as the Bette Davis classic Now Voyager when she arrives in Rio by ship and alters her life by falling in love with her new travel companion, Paul Henreid.
I want to propose that while vanity reigns in Brazil and provides us foreigners with great spectacles, it is not always positive. What worries me these days here is the vanity of ambition. While it’s impossible to fault anyone for wanting healthy living conditions – potable water, electricity, free education – I fear that Brazil is becoming blind to the seductive mirage of ambitious consumerism.
Because of high government taxes in Brazil on imported goods, Brazilians envy the prices for designer clothes and new technology they discover on their visits to the US. While the number one tourist destination for Brazilians in the US is Disney World, they never miss an opportunity to shop Florida’s clothing outlet stores. They return to the US practically hidden behind their airport carts, overflowing with extra suitcases. US airlines that have regular flights to Brazil – American, Delta, United – have discovered they must extend their weight limits on luggage to the maximum: 70 lbs (32 kilos) per bag.
Brazil has been the focus of the international media for the past several years, thanks to a booming economy and its inclusion in the BRICS configuration, a label for emerging markets that offer promise to foreign investors. It didn’t hurt that a previous popular and charismatic President, known simply as Lula, was able to ride a wave of worldwide enthusiasm to its unlikely conclusion, attracting both the World Cup this year and the Summer Olympics only two years away.
With all the media attention, it’s no surprise that Brazil is hungry with ambition. When financial experts who invented the term BRICS declared that Brazil should no longer be labeled a third world country, Brazilians naturally began to expect improvements. However, today, the booming Brazilian economy has sunk into recession with zero growth.
Additionally, Petrobras, the Brazilian oil monopoly and once the largest company in Latin America, is splashed across the headlines nearly every day because of a large corruption scandal that involves the government. Some journalists have now fastened the label of “the most indebted company in the world” onto Petrobras.
It would seem that having the spotlight of media attention – with the huge sporting events and also a visit from the new Argentine Pope – has had a tremendously negative effect on the country. Attention, when too closely focused, tends to expose the blemishes of vanity, like looking at a beautifully sculpted body with a magnifying glass to reveal plastic surgery scars.
While the Brazilian government searches for a solution to awaken this sleeping giant in 2015, the sad truth is, like all countries doing billions in international trade, Brazil participates in a worldwide economy. The boom of 7 percent GDP growth a few years ago in Brazil was closely tied to massive trading with China in raw materials like iron ore and commodities like soy. China is Brazil’s largest trading partner, but as China’s growth has cooled creating less demand for Brazil’s products, along with a weak economy in Argentina, another large trading partner, a slowdown in Brazilian growth was inevitable. Additionally, much international trading is done in dollars, and a rising dollar has hurt the real, Brazil’s currency.
“The commodity boom allowed governments and companies to avoid hard choices,” Andrés Velasco, Chile’s finance minister from 2006 to 2010 says. “Even Argentina grew by 5 to 6 percent per year for almost a decade.”
It’s not surprising, then, that Brazil is in the grips of economic ambition, desperate to relieve itself from the combined devastation of recession and rising inflation.
Many Brazilians blame their government for the economic doldrums, but the reality is Brazil is not doing anything differently with its foreign or domestic policies than it was in 2007 when the economy hit record growth. In fact, the ruling party, PT, has been in power since 2002, and it hasn’t changed its direction or intentions significantly during these dozen years.
However, with a close presidential election this year, following massive street protests last year, the PT government in Brasília is under pressure to adopt new economic policies. President Dilma Rousseff’s response has been to hire a new Finance Minister, and allow him to enter the Cabinet Ministry even before her second term begins on January 1. (The Cabinet-level position of Finance Minister in Brazil is the US equivalent of the Treasury Secretary and the Federal Reserve Chairman rolled into one.)
Dilma, as she is called in Brazil, chose Joaquim Levy, a US trained economist, as the new Finance Minister. His appointment has already provided some needed support to nervous Brazilian businessmen who had lost faith in the President, as well as offering encouragement to foreign investors.
However, I am nervous about the ambition that motivated the choice of Levy. If he should adopt the American economic route of budget cuts and social program austerity, it will have the opposite effect of helping the economy, as seen in the austerity programs in the US, Japan, and Europe. Austerity and a shrinking federal budget will only continue the sluggish growth, rather than pumping the economy with new investments.
The famous economic theories of Milton Friedman of Chicago, where Levy got his Ph.D., suggest a balanced budget as the key to economic health. In fact, Brazil needs to spend more money on infrastructure and education and healthcare as a way to keep the population working and healthy and keep consumers spending money. Recessions inevitably bring unemployment, which means less tax revenue, less consumer confidence, slower growth, and the country being less attractive to foreign investors.
I suggest that it’s time for Brazil to be less ambitious. Maybe a booming economy and its handmaiden, unbridled consumerism, are not the best path. Let the US continue to build resorts like Disney World for the world’s tourists. Why can’t Brazil focus on more critical efforts like an education system that has public school children in school all day. Instead of making sure every Brazilian has enough money to buy a car, why not add more courts and judges and pay police better salaries so that Brazilians can trust the criminal justice system. Instead of installing air conditioning in homes and offices, why not restrain energy use to lessen greenhouse gases and make sure São Paulo doesn’t run out of water. Why not find a way for agribusiness to co-exist with environmental protection. If the future of Petrobras looks bleak because of mismanagement and the falling price of oil, why not use Petrobras profits to invest in wind and solar energy.
If Brazilians are famous for their vanity, for taking pride in their physical appearance, perhaps in the coming years they can take pride in a population that doesn’t succumb to the temptations of bribery. Why not cultivate a culture that respects the law, values integrity and the rights of women, and that doesn’t value money over leisure time. As Americans have discovered, feeding economic ambition requires a tremendous sacrifice of time and effort, time spent working rather than enjoying life.
The well-known postcards of the beaches of Rio filled with joyful Brazilian families frolicking in the waves or kicking a soccer ball with friends is the picture I would like to see remain here.
Michael Rubin is an American living in Curitiba.