What The U.S. Can Learn From Upbeat Brazil

Amid continued political gridlock in Washington, New York Times Columnist Anand Giridharadas says governments should depoliticize the economy. He recently reported in Brazil, where he says jobs and yacht sales are up, and young locals are ecstatic about the future. He speaks with host Michel Martin.

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MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Coming up, we'll talk about that tweet sent by a Kansas high school senior that was heard, well, not quite around the world but in the Kansas governor's office. It set off a controversy about free speech and manners in the digital age. We will talk to the student who sent it in just a few minutes. But first, we want to talk about the economy.

At this point most of us are painfully aware of the gridlock in Washington over economic issues. In fact, earlier this week Fitch Ratings Agency changed it's outlook for the U.S. from stable to negative because of the failure of the congressional supercommittee to come up with a deficit reduction plan. And Europe's difficulties in coming up with a coherent recovery and currency strategy is also dominating the headlines. But what has not been getting so much attention is how far some other countries have come in getting their economic houses in order.

And now, some analysts are wondering if these countries might have a thing or two to teach the U.S. about getting our economic priorities straight. One example some are pointing to right now is Brazil. During the last decade Brazil has gone from experiencing a debt crisis with spiraling inflation and unemployment to becoming an economic powerhouse. New York Times columnist Anand Giridharadas covers this. He covers developing countries. He recently returned from a reporting trip to Brazil and he's going to tell us more about it.

Welcome back. Thanks so much for joining us once again.

ANAND GIRIDHARADAS: It's great to be with you.

MARTIN: So now, Anand, Brazil is one of the so called brick countries: Brazil, Russia, India and China that are considered sort of the leading edge of the developing world. What drew you to Brazil and to write about their economic recovery?

GIRIDHARADAS: I think what fascinated me - I spent about a week there and, well, just talking to a lot of people about how Brazil has gone in a very kind of short blink of history from being this country that Charles de Gaulle famously called the country of the future that always will be, to being very much a country of the present. The economy is booming. Business is booming. There's private equity in hedge funds and all of that stuff, but inequality which is terrible in Brazil, is actually going down at the same time.

And so, they, you know, at least from the outside seem to have a bit of it all right now and I spent time asking people how did this happen. And what really struck me and then began to depress me about my return flight home was that they were very much in the same situation we were in. They had a very bad kind of funked-out economy and they had really serious ideological divisions. The people who believed in the free market and the people who believed in kind of unions and government regulation and action for the poor didn't speak to each other and took turns kind of pushing one extreme policy to the other and then they all got over themselves.

They had first President Cardoso and then Lula who was a trade union...

MARTIN: President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, who everybody calls President Lula.

GIRIDHARADAS: ...who was a militant union leader, further to the left than anybody in the American congress who said, you know what? I still have those commitments to helping the poor but I'm going to add to them a new commitment to accept the market to make the world easier for business because there is no justice without growth also, and he was in a way just a leading edge of a lot of Brazilians from every side, saying, you know what? Let's get ourselves.

Let's make facts more important than principles and let's start to rebuild an economy simply based on the ideology of whatever works.

MARTIN: You make the point in your piece that, you know, the kinds of divisions that we have had in this country and, you know, pro business policies versus the idea of reducing inequality that Brazil did both at the same time. Now one of the things you said is that everybody decided to get over themselves. How did they decide to get over themselves? What made them get over themselves?

GIRIDHARADAS: I think there are a few elements and this is not just in Brazil. You see this in India, you saw this in China; which is, that in a way they all had crisis moments. In Brazil it was just this prolonged slog of unemployment, inflation; people were literally having to go to the bank everyday. And I think that kind of walking up to the brink convinced people to get over themselves. But it was also leadership and it was also, you know, in logic they call it an argument against interest. The most persuasive argument someone could make is an argument against their own interest because you say wow, that person must really mean what they're saying.

And you have leaders in all of these cases who made profound arguments against interest, whether it's a union leader saying the market is good, or I met a lot of business people in Brazil who said equality is our problem too. If we have rampant inequality in this country we won't have enough customers. We'll have 20 million customers instead of 200 million. We will be living in fortresses afraid of crime and this country will never be a great country.

You need people to make argument against interest and to say you know what? I'm over here, but I like a little bit of what's being said over there and I accept it.

MARTIN: You saying your piece of the numbers tell the story that according to the World Bank gross domestic product or GDP growth last year was 7.5 percent. According to the planning ministry, estimated growth this year will be around 3.5 percent, which is, you know, something that's being experienced around the world. How are Brazilians feeling about their lives? I mean, sometimes that, you know, the numbers say one thing but people feel another thing. Do Brazilians feel better about their country?

Do they feel optimistic about their futures that they're kind of in this in it together?

GIRIDHARADAS: It is when I landed from the moment I landed I was struck by the fact that the kind of emotional atmosphere was exactly the ying-yang opposite of what you feel in this country right now. Just as in this country the kind of fundamentals and the numbers lead to a kind of culture, an emotional environment that we feel in the air. So, it is there but the opposite. It feels to be honest younger than the U.S. and it is demographically younger.

Half the population under thirty or something like that. You know, not very long ago when inflation was in the 1,000's of percentage points it was not a country where it was easy to believe in the future. Now, they really believe in the future - at the very moment when this country is losing it's belief in the future.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us you're listening to TELL ME MORE from NPR News. We're speaking with New York Times columnist Anand Giridharadas. He's talking about what the U.S. might be able to learn from developing countries particularly Brazil where he just returned from a reporting trip. In the time we have left Anand talk a little bit if you would about India and China. You know, Brazil and India are both democracies and it requires the kind of, you know, what you're talking about requires people from different political parties, different ideologies to figure out a way to agree and move forward together.

China has a very different system of governance. So, tell me a little bit if you would about India and China, which are both such big players on the economic stage right now.

GIRIDHARADAS: I think what you're pointing to is actually something that's very important that doesn't get talked through enough. I think a lot of these countries - and China's a slightly different case because of the authoritarian system, but certainly India and Brazil and to an extent China - are doing something fundamentally different from what the West did, because you have to remember when the West was going through the changes that India and China and Brazil are going through in terms of moving from rural to urban, fostering development, building capitalism, building a regulatory state, most people in the West, in Western countries, could not vote.

Women couldn't vote. A lot of minority groups couldn't vote. There were land qualifications. And so these very big difficult reengineering to the society in the West, a lot of it was done before you had to ask everybody's permission. What's now happening in Brazil and India is you're doing those same things that we did maybe a 100 years ago but you have to do it with everybody voting and that actually leads perhaps to a different model of development in which this idea of inclusive growth as the Indian leadership calls it, is actually baked in from the beginning and is not a slogan.

But it's the idea that, when you try to do the construction of a capitalist market economy with 100 percent voting rights, it fundamentally looks different and, in some ways, it makes us think that we're at a disadvantage.

MARTIN: Well, before you go, Anand, the implicit message of your piece is that there are lessons to be learned, particularly by the U.S. from the example set by, particularly, Brazil, which has had a lot of these factors. I mean, we didn't talk about race, but you know, racial division is certainly a part of life in Brazil, you know, grotesque economic inequality, sluggish growth, you know, debt and so forth.

And you talked about the need for people to sort of move past their ideologies and embrace different points of view and be pragmatic and fact driven about the economy and there's an implicit criticism here of the U.S. that, you know, the U.S. should do this.

You know, President Obama said during the campaign, famously, in this exchange with - you remember Joe the plumber. He said, look, I think things work best when we spread the wealth around a little bit and then that became something that his political opponents used to bludgeon him with. He's still trying to kind of maintain this point of view in kind of reaching out across the aisle to the point where members of his own political party are criticizing him.

What do you think, based on your reporting, not just in Brazil, but also in India - what does it take to break that gridlock? Is it a powerful personality? Is it, what, people from the business community reaching out? What is it? Is it people outside of government demanding that they do so? What is it?

GIRIDHARADAS: Let me take a moment to kind of make the implicit point explicit and you could talk about what leaders need to do, but I'm going to skip that because I don't really have much hope in them right, at least.

Let's take a moment to ask your listeners, who are educated, thoughtful people, to pause the blame on Washington, who deserves to be blamed, but let's just put that on pause and ask each of ourselves in what way we might need to get over ourselves.

What can each of us do to get out of this hole? What ideas that we've clung onto for 40 years can we accept are no longer valid in light of new realities? What principles can we let go of? What idea from the other side, even within our own family debates, can we say have some sense?

And we need to look around and say, whether it's by working harder; whether it's by being better parents who, you know, unplug the video games; whether it's any number of things that actually the government has no control over; whether we are living up to what we need to do to get this country out of what is a very, very deep hole right now.

MARTIN: OK. So I'm going to put the question to you. What are you doing to get over yourself?

GIRIDHARADAS: That's a great question. I'm, you know, sitting on NPR. No. I think, for me, it's a question of - I've spent a lot of time this year traveling to parts of this country. You know, I live on the East Coast. I live in places where, although I don't take public stands, I'm surrounded by liberals and I've spent a lot of time in this country talking to people who have very different views than the people I live around and trying to see kind of what's in common beneath those conversations.

And you know what? There's a lot in common. It requires some intelligent reframing to make people see commonalities that they don't otherwise see. To me, the Tea Party and the Occupy movement are, in many ways, saying the same thing, but it requires a bit of imagination to get people to see that.

MARTIN: Anand Giridharadas is a columnist for the New York Times. He's the author of the book, "India Calling." He reports on developing countries around the world and he was kind enough to join us today from the studios at Harvard University.

Anand, thank you so much for speaking with us.

GIRIDHARADAS: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MARTIN: Coming up, he's been in love with anything with wheels since the age of five and now, as he hits the top ranks of NASCAR, he wants to see more people like him in the stands and behind the wheel.

A.J. RUSSELL: It's a really neat sport and the sport is lacking a little bit of color.

MARTIN: A.J. Russell is believed to be the first Native American to compete in the top tier of NASCAR. He's with us. That's coming up on TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin.

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