Monday, September 8, 2008

Recognizing the "B" in "BRIC"

One of James Thurber's better one-liners (probably a caption for a New Yorker cartoon) was:

She heard Brazil was bigger than the United States; so she called the FBI!

Our current Administration being what it is, we have to wonder whether or not the full force of the Department of Homeland Security may be directed at Brazil, now that they have discovered deepwater hydrocarbon fields that could make them, as reported by BBC NEWS, "one of the biggest producers in the world" of both oil and gas. After all, as a result of its discovery, Brazil was invited to join OPEC by Iran; and it is hard to imagine Homeland Security sitting on their hands when that news hit the wires. Ironically, it did not take Brazil long to decline the invitation; but the country's "other priorities" (as energy minister Edison Lobao put it) may concern Homeland Security as much as the prospect of Brazil sitting next to Iran during Cartel meetings that determine the price of oil.

The real concern may well be that President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva has a plan for rethinking the very nature of governance, particularly in terms of the relationship between the government and the governed, in a new context of economic wealth at a time when most of the economies of the developed world are hemorrhaging. Here is how the BBC reported his recent television address to his country:

"Brazil does not wish to be a mere exporter of crude. On the contrary, we want to add value to our oil by exporting derivatives which are worth more," he said.

Brazil aimed to have a sophisticated oil industry and in the coming years would build five new refineries, dozens of drilling rigs and platforms, as well as hundreds of ships, Lula said.

"We won't allow ourselves to be dazzled and go spending money that we still don't have on silly things," he added.

"(The reserves) are a passport for the future. Their main destination, I repeat, must be for the education of new generations and combating poverty."

In other words Lula wants to take a country that has suffered some of the worst kinds of poverty, often as a result of some of the worst forms of exploitation, and create an effective base of national wealth that can then be applied to the overall national good. This used to be enough to send any "red-blooded patriotic American" running into the streets screaming "Socialism!" and then trying to place a direct telephone call to J. Edgar Hoover. I would like to think such days have long passed; but, after John McCain invoked that "any willing patriot" phrase in his acceptance speech, I know better than to make such assumptions.

There is at least one interesting irony in this potential change in Brazil's fortunes. According to its Wikipedia entry, the BRIC (Brazil, Russia, India, China) concept was first introduced in 2001 by Goldman Sachs:

The acronym was first coined in 2001 and prominently used in a thesis of the Goldman Sachs investment bank.[1][2] The main point of these papers was to argue that the economies of the BRICs are rapidly developing and by 2050 will eclipse most of the current richest countries of the world. The Goldman Sachs thesis proposed something like an economic bloc, or a formal trading association, like the European Union.[3]

These days you cannot throw a cat in a newsroom (at least in the ones that remain) without hitting some journalist working up the latest story on economic growth in Russia, India, or China; but Brazil has received relatively little attention. Part of this may be due to Lula himself, whose personal sense of pragmatism eschews the sort of flamboyant behavior associated with the likes of his (also oil-rich) neighbor, Hugo Chávez. Lula may actually be that rare bird, the founder of a "Workers' Party" (the Partido dos Trabalhadores) who actually cares about the quality of life for the workers in his country. Of course one need only visit Lula's own Wikipedia entry to see that things are not quite that simple:

From the beginning of his political career to the current days, Lula has changed some of his original ideals and moderated his positions. Instead of deep social changes as proposed in the past, his government chose a reformist line, passing new retirement, tax, labor and judicial laws, and discussing a university reform. Some wings of the Worker's Party disagreed with these changes in focus and have left the party to form dissidences like the Workers' Cause Party, the United Socialist Workers' Party and the Socialism and Freedom Party.

Nevertheless, he continues to pursue visions of an across-the-board improvement in the economic and social well-being of his entire (not to mention diverse) population; and it is, at the very least, interesting that his first public reaction to his country's new source of wealth should be framed in terms of those visions. He at least gives the appearance that these visions are more important than whether Goldman Sachs wants to keep the "B" in "BRIC," particularly at a time when they should be worrying about more serious matters.

One of the many interesting insights in Arthur Schlesinger's biography of Robert Kennedy is the suggestion that John Kennedy had a lot to learn from Jawaharlal Nehru, whom he first met when he was still a Congressman, but that he failed to grasp what Nehru was trying to tell him about such sensitive issues as the colonial present of the West in Vietnam. As we consider who our next President will be, Schlesinger's lesson should remind us that a candidate's capacity and willingness to learn is usually more important than his portfolio of what he already knows. Goldman Sachs could not look at Brazil and see beyond the balance sheets that calculate return on investment. Will our next President look at Brazil and see lessons in governance, rather than just a new trading partner for energy resources? On the basis of what I saw at the Republican National Convention, I find it hard to think about John McCain in terms of such a capacity and willingness to learn. I would certainly like to think about Barack Obama in those terms, and I shall be watching his performance closely between now and November to decide whether such a desire is well-grounded or misplaced!

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