Things Fall Apart
Notes from 2012. Starting in April of that year I look towards Brazil. The country was growing rapidly. I speak Portuguese and the jobs were plentiful. My wife is half-Brazilian and always wanted to move there. McKinsey always had available projects looking for staffing and I had no kids. Why not?
Fast-forward a few months later, my wife and I rent an apartment in São Paulo in the Fall of 2012. It was booming — all the restaurants were full, startups springing up like mushrooms, educated Europeans streaming into the country in droves to escape their economic malaise. People were making money and they were happy. Dilma Rousseff, who as of writing is being impeached by the Brazilian Congress, is described admiringly as an “iron lady”. The labor market was “strong”; Brazil had finally broken free from decades of poor growth. It had finally found a winning formula.
But then, it didn’t.
It’s now clear that those months were the peak of the bubble. However at the time, nobody expected it to collapse; those that saw it slowing never expected anything this drastic. The denouement continues to this day with nearly every politician facing some form of corruption charge, the country’s oil wealth an illusion, commodity prices slashed by slower Chinese growth, and with the Olympics a few months away, the economy in free-fall.
I don’t always appreciate the stability around me and how quickly it can all fall apart. Today, I live in San Francisco, a world where “disruption” is king. But change is only attractive in a world where the underlying society is stable. The rule of law, property rights, an effective executive branch and a rational monetary policy keeping chaos at bay. It’s all more fragile than we appreciate; anything can happen here.
Looking through my prior notebooks, I find pages from a trip to Egypt in January, 2010. I stayed a few blocks from Tahrir Square. It was a school trip and we spent the days site-seeing and visiting government offices. The nights were filled with hookah and meanderings. People were optimistic. While some might say what followed could have been foreshadowed, nobody we spoke to mentioned anything even remotely close — not even a hint. Sure the country had its troubles but so did most of the world; Mubarak had been in power for decades. What would change?
The Arab Spring was only nine months away. Violence led to optimistic revolution that devolved into chaos. Coups led to imprisonments, and the former head of the military is now President.
And so too elsewhere: Venezuela’s election of Hugo Chavez and its fall into a populist quasi-dictatorship. The destruction of a once stable economy in only a handful of years; Argentina’s continued decline since the ’90s. Black market money dealers lining downtown streets as buildings falling into disrepair. Rampant corruption at an unprecedented scale. No clear way back to prosperity; Syria, Iraq, Libya, Afghanistan, Honduras, Guatemala… Hundreds of millions of people’s lives altering overnight, their dreams destroyed.
Things fall apart. Chaos accelerates before it quiets. Stability and entropy in constant struggle. Every day with peace is a day worth cherishing.
On Twitter: @gascasf