Monday, August 23, 2010

Equality & Brazilianization

It is said that money cannot buy happiness; within a certain range, this is demonstrably not true for individuals. Desperate poverty is quite an unhappy condition, and each step up from that provides comforts and security that do enhance overall well-being in a way that we can describe as happiness. Beyond a certain point, however, individual happiness is neither directly nor inversely correlated with income. Last year, Pam and I read the book Geography of Bliss describes a quest to identify societal factors that do relate to happiness, and excessive wealth certainly is not among them.

São Paulo: Geography All the Way
A more recent book, The Spirit Level, takes moderate wealth as a starting point from which to examine the influence of income disparity on various aspects of well-being at a societal level. That is, authors Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett, identify developed countries in which "economic growth has done as much as it can to improve material conditions," and within that set of countries they look at the effect of variations in income level. As reviewer Lynsey Hanley writes in The Guardian:
We know there is something wrong, and this book goes a long way towards explaining what and why.

The authors point out that the life-diminishing results of valuing growth above equality in rich societies can be seen all around us. Inequality causes shorter, unhealthier and unhappier lives; it increases the rate of teenage pregnancy, violence, obesity, imprisonment and addiction; it destroys relationships between individuals born in the same society but into different classes; and its function as a driver of consumption depletes the planet's resources.
For a while, this work was drawing a lot of interest in Great Britain, even among more conservative politicians. Eventually, however, the backlash ensued. By this summer, professional "idea wreckers" were circling around this work. In today's polarized political discourse, there seems to be little room to the left of unbridled capitalism, whose defenders pounce on any suggestion that the extreme concentration of wealth may be harmful.

Incidentally, the image above is an example of extreme wealth disparity in São Paulo, Brazil, a city I have visited quite a few times. Although Brazil was not included in the study, the disparity of incomes -- particularly in its great cities -- serve as an object lesson. In fact, the word Brazilianization refers to the process of increasing the concentration of wealth in any society. It is not difficult to find luxury condominiums immediately adjacent to favelas (slums), and it is therefore not difficult to see the problems -- for rich and poor alike -- that result from such abrupt juxtapositions. As I left the famous Rosinha favela in Rio, for example, I saw prestigious American School, where I learned that most students are picked up by armed guards. I later learned that the school was moved to a new location to avoid the stress, danger, and expense of this situation. In São Paulo, I observed police officers patrolling the wealthier neighborhoods (they do not bother much with poor neighborhoods) only in groups of four. I have enjoyed myself in both cities, and have spent time both in a variety of ordinary and luxurious locations in each. It is definitely the case, however, that the extreme poverty does interfere with the enjoyment of extreme wealth. In fact, the wealthy of each city have taken to moving about their cities only by helicopter and to sending their families for extended stays in Florianopolis, a city with less extreme but much more evenly-distributed wealth.

Over the past decade, the government of Brazil has taken a number of steps to reduce the disparities while achieving impressive gains in overall wealth. Even though wealth there is still more concentrated than it is in the United States, the trend is gradually toward more equality. Meanwhile, Brazilianization is a process that continues apace in the United States.


  1. This post made me think of a tv special I saw which documented Brazil's investment in alternative energies to reduce the cost burden of fossil fuels on its citizens.

    I'm-a liking your blog here. Looking forward to coming back!

  2. Thanks, Rybu. Yes, biofuels in Brazil really are biofuels, while most biofuels in the U.S. are just using corn as a new way of storing fossil-fuel energy. Unfortunately, the difference is both one of technique and one of available crops. Brazil found a technique that works with sugar, of which it has a lot. We have a lot of corn (and a lot of corn-funded politicians), for which a similar process has not yet been found.


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