One of the most important lessons in economics I learned happened when I saw a car unknowingly topple down a series of steps. To be fair, the steps were indiscernible from our vantage point, and the car did make it down in a single piece, casting doubt as to whether the driver knew something I didn’t or just managed to pull it off in the same way a diver does when they bellyflop, claiming that it was the intention all along. The crowd was entertained either way.
How to not crash a car wasn’t the lesson, though situational awareness certainly has economic implications. What happened was this: while in Brazil, Andrea and I were staying at a hotel in “Natal,” in as loose a definition of Natal possible. We heard of such false advertising ruses before, but up until then we’d been lucky enough to experience realities that matched our expectations – a true blessing in any facet of life, let alone for lodging arrangements in a foreign country. This place, however, was tucked away in a residential neighborhood that was a 2 hour walk or 50 real (R$50) cab ride away from Natal each way. Though not grossly expensive, the problem was that nobody had heard of this hotel before, and finding it was like searching for a pulse with your thumb; virtually any building could have been it. The address online led us to an abandoned office building, a prospect that soaked me with dread. Here we were, a week removed from my grand romantic gesture of proposing to my girlfriend at Cristo Redentor on top of a Brazilian mountain, and we were about to get kidnapped and murdered in a place where no one could find your screams. Not exactly how I planned my engagement.
We circled through the labyrinth of houses over and over, running laps on the meter. You’d think the cab driver wouldn’t mind, but even he looked genuinely worried that he taxi’d us too far down the rabbit hole. He started to ask us directions, which struck me as both terrifying and borderline unethical. At one point on lap 6 or 7 (they all blurred together) our eyes met, and we nodded in mutual understanding that this would be our new home, our new sitcom-worthy family of a Brazilian cabbie, Mexican firebrand and lovably dimwitted Canadian.
But before I was able to detail the Swiss Family Robinson schematics of our living arrangements in my mind, a resident flagged us down to get a ride, and we were able to get directions – apparently the dead end that lay before us was actually a crude stone staircase that led directly to the hotel. We paid the cab driver and I shook his hand, tempted to kiss him as a sign of gratitude, just something gentle on the forehead so he would know he parted with my blessing. Physical intimacy scales any language barrier. But with my newly titled fiancé present, I thought better of it, opting instead to give him a generous tip.
Realizing how difficult the ordeal was, as well as the bond we forged out of our shared adversity of aimlessness, I asked if he could meet us at that same point at 10:30 the next morning to pick us up. He agreed, and we were relieved to have an experienced explorer in our pockets. No more fretting about how to get to and from the beach and our hotel. It’s worth noting that ours was not a unique experience. Along with the other guests, we established a fraternal bond over our taxi horror stories trying to find this place.
The next morning we were meeting up with friends to go to the World Cup game, and they were staying further outside the main part of the town, meaning the cab ride would unquestionably exceed the R$50 toll we had previously paid. This was a dilemma, exacerbated by the fact that our credit card payment for the hotel didn’t go through, forcing us to fork over an extra R$500 each in cash that we brought for miscellaneous spending. So we were feeling a budget constriction for the first time on the trip. At any rate, we waited on the road, honoring the commitment we made the night before. This is when the car lurched forward over the cliff of hidden stairs, somehow riding along past the hotel at the bottom. In hindsight, it was an ominous sign.
At about 10:40, a man who lived on the road we were on approached us. He asked what we were doing, and learning that we were waiting on a taxi, he saw the opportunity. The offer was R$50 flat, no matter where we went. This was capitalism at its finest, competition for the same customers with the same service. Andrea and I, the consumers, won, because we wouldn’t have to pay as much. This new man also won, because he got to make money he didn’t anticipate making, and apparently he would do so without having to wear a shirt. Everybody won, right? The man, who was most likely not wearing a shirt due to the fact that they don’t exist in peculiar enough proportions to adequately cover the warped dimensions of his flat chest and inner-tube torso, casually guided us back into his house so he could write down the address of our destination. I was starting to get nervous – what about our friend from the night before? He was late by our standards, but by Brazilian time he was still in the grace period that constituted punctual. I kept my peripherals vigilant, hoping we could be on our way before he showed up.
Each moment that ticked by, I grew more impatient. Yes, we were here for the World Cup, we hoped Brazil would win, it is so nice to meet your 90 year old mother – can we get this show on the road? I tried to express that we needed to leave immediately, pointing my finger downward repeatedly to emphasize our haste, but the message was lost on him, and he inspected my feet more than either of us felt comfortable with. But once we loaded up the trunk with our luggage, I relaxed. We were practically free. But of course, as we pulled out of the driveway, the cabbie from the night before arrived right on cue. This began the tug-o-war between my conscience and my wallet.
As we pulled out, my eyes met the other cabbie’s, and I felt compelled to be upfront with him. Surely his disappointment would be underscored with understanding – we were all out to get the best deal for ourselves, after all. Brazil is a rapidly developing capitalist powerhouse, its citizens well-aware of the necessity of competition. The friction of competition lights the fires of progress. Couldn’t he see the big picture of how important it was for me to take the better deal? If I didn’t, I’d be undermining the economic processes that were catapulting Brazil into one of the strongest economies in the world, the Chris Bosh of the developing world’s big 3 (compared to the Lebron James of China and India’s Dwayne Wade). The truth would set us all free, I surmised.
For whatever reason, however, this cog didn’t see the rest of the wheel, and was simply upset. We told him to come and pick us up, he chastised – what was he supposed to do? This was his job. But this guy is doing what you do for cheaper, I explained. If you can match his deal, we’ll gladly ride with you. It was then that he and the new chauffeur started arguing, their Portuguese too fast and too unfamiliar for me to know exactly what arguments were being bandied about, though it wasn’t difficult to figure out.
* * *
Shamefully, I feel the need to state plainly that I am, indeed, a capitalist. To demarcate my economic beliefs seems hollow, like a salesman anticipating an objection while he makes his pitch. Truthfully, that’s exactly why I felt it necessary to include, because so often my personal values of empathy, compassion, and understanding have warranted the blockheaded labels of Marxist, hippy, or commie. Of course to most, capitalism does not exclude such values, but in a culture where the noisiest is confused with the most accurate, those labels are woefully commonplace. Capitalism is unquestionably the most efficient, productive system for innovation and widespread prosperity. So that’s that.
You don’t have to be an economist to appreciate the importance of competition – if you’re into sports, video games, or simply had older brothers, you understand that steel sharpens steel, and a rising tide raises all ships – two idioms that I deem “momisms,” since I can’t help but say those without hearing the echoes of my brother’s family-famous mock voice of my mother. But it’s true. If you’re used to wrestling with your older brothers, wrestling with kids your age is a breeze. If you’re used to playing basketball with the varsity squad, the JV practice becomes an attempt at a highlight reel. Competition makes us raise our ability, push us to the shores of our potential – it brings out the best in all of us. When it’s done right, capitalism is not a zero-sum game, and acts as the vehicle for widespread prosperity beyond simple finances; it ends hunger and lifts people out of poverty. But it’s not always done right. People can, and do lose. In sports you say, “don’t be a sore loser, it’s just a game.” But when it’s more than a game, when that competition means whether or not you’ll be able to pay your bills, put food on the table for your family, buy your kids books – it’s harder to say “don’t be a sore loser.” It’s not so simple, especially when the loser is in plain view.
* * *
Portuguese, like all latin-based languages, is truly a beautiful language to listen to. It’s imbued with a certain romance, a fluid charm of a lounge singer. It sounds like how it feels to be perfectly buzzed. Suave, confident. But when people are arguing in Portuguese, it quickly faceplants into belligerent drunkenness, digging into your ears until it settles in the walls of a migraine. I had to do something. The plan backfired: the original cabbie demanded R$50 for coming all the way out there, and was fiercely determined to get it. I’m no mathemagician, but we figured out that R$50 for the cabbie’s inconvenience plus R$50 for the new driver was probably more than just paying the guy we told to come get us. So we threw in the towel and went with the original driver from the night before; the other guy had only backed out of his driveway, so there wasn’t much of a comparison. In the end, the drive cost us R$80 after the tip, roughly an extra $15 USD.
Far be it from my insight to know the cab driver’s specific socioeconomic situation, but I think it’s safe to say that two tourists who paid thousands of dollars to fly across the planet and watch a sporting event were probably more adequately buoyant in their finances. That I had caused such heated conflict over fifteen bucks, which was split between Andrea and I, seemed embarrassingly silly. But like a true Canadian, I showered him in apologies the whole way.
What is personally advantageous is not always right, unfortunately. While economics can sometimes reconcile these oft-conflicting ideas, it’s a woefully imprecise science. Competition is great on a macro scale: it thrusts the greater bulk of society forward. It’s an all-too-familiar appeal that allows us to justify our own greed and selfishness. Alas, capitalism, while the most effective, broadly beneficial system of financial and social organization to date, is not perfect. It suffers from the ills of competition, that there can be losers. And it’s not just a game. Worse, sometimes it’s not even a fair loss. It’s easy to fall back on the logic of the big picture, but when the loser is standing right in front of you, it becomes harder to rationalize that competition, and capitalism, is simply and inherently good. That extra $15 USD went a lot further for him than it would have gone for us.
Capitalism is great, but the rhetoric of its flawlessness is tiresome, not to mention false. Capitalism, when done right, should create enough excess to pick up the losers. Compassion, empathy, understanding – these are not conflicting ideals to capitalism. They should be pillars of it. There are countless microcosmic examples of it permeating our daily realities. Maybe we need to shift the focus to include what is right, instead of the single lens of what is correct. Most of the time, we’ll discover that all we’re really arguing about is a couple more dollars. I think we can afford that.