Breakfast in Brazil

So it’s Carnivale week here in Rio, and your intrepid Power Line Southern Command bureau chief decided to dress up in the scariest festival costume imaginable—American tourist—and take in the street scene last night.  My keen journalistic conclusion: Carnivale is a cross between Pasadena’s Doo-Dah parade and the drums and space segment of a Grateful Dead concert, with a dash of the Stanford marching band thrown in just for some extra anarchy.  Occupy Wall Street take note: these folks down here really know how to do a drum circle.  I’d post some video if my bandwidth was a little better.  On the other hand, if my bandwidth was better, I’d probably also be tempted to post the video I got of the dude in the thong dancing . . . a little too exuberantly.  (The TMI category clearly ceases to be operative here during these street festivals.)

I’ll be giving a wide-ranging talk in a couple of days about some aspects of Brazilian energy and environmental policy, the subject of many misperceptions in the U.S., and a couple of other things.  But one thing that comes to mind is the first impression many Americans get of urban poverty here in Rio and other Latin American cities.  Here in Rio

This one's right out my cabin window

and also Sao Paulo the hillsides are filled with the favelas, which appear to be slums only one or two steps above a shantytown.  But look closer: almost every building has a satellite dish on the top.  Look closer still and you will see similar signs that lead to an important conclusion: this is not Detroit you are looking at.  To the contrary: these are neighborhoods and people on their way up to the middle class, not the way down.  Like many cities in Asia, Brazilian cities have swollen from people moving from a near-subsistence existence in the countryside in search of a better life, and despite many obstacles (insecure property rights, corruption, etc) are succeeding in getting out of poverty as fast as they can.  American eyes mislead us: what we’re seeing is akin to the lower east side of Manhattan 100 years ago.  The guide on the bus from the airport mentioned in passing that many of the favelas are gentrifying—that’s not the term she used but what she meant in effect—as can be seen by the fact that improved dwellings in favelas with good ocean or bay views will sell for as much as $200,000.

It’s worth six minutes of you time to watch an excerpt from a terrific TED talk on “squatter cities” from Stewart Brand, founder of the Whole Earth Catalogue.  Brand walks through this phenomenon in a highly original way.  The other good guide to understanding what is occurring—and what ought to be done to improve matters—is Hernando de Soto’s various books, especially The Mystery of Capital.

Now off to the beach, for some more first hand reporting on how Brazil’s swimsuit industry helps the environment by economizing fabric materials.

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