Where can the U.S. look for a model of a democracy that actually gets things done, that solves problems, that puts pragmatism ahead of politics?
Would you believe Brazil? A country that well into the 2000s, according to the New York Times, "was living through its own version of the economic crisis that the West now confronts: debt, runaway inflation, chronic joblessness"?
Unlike us and our political gridlock, however, they depoliticized the quest for a better economy. They moved beyond ideologies. They valued facts over beliefs. They formed a right-left consensus: a bustling market and an active government; not either/or, but both.
Elected representatives pledged to work for the common good. They did not pledge to follow the dictates of an unelected official, like our Grover Norquist and his very narrow for-the-top-one-percent agenda.
Thus Brazil is simultaneously pursuing what appear to be contradictory revolutions: unshackling the market and giving companies incentives to grow and hire and profit; and at the same time reducing poverty by continuing labor laws that give some cushioning to the poor and by pumping money into poorer regions.
And they are having success. The economy grew at more than 7 percent last year, yet, unlike many other fast-growing countries, they are narrowing their formerly wide and violent gap between rich and poor.
Until recently, Brazil was the most unequal country in terms of wealth. But between 2003 and 2009, the income of poor Brazilians has grown more than that of rich Brazilians. Poverty has fallen from 22 percent of the population to 7 percent.
Although several factors account for reducing the income gap, one program is mainly responsible, Bolsa Familia (Family Grant), which is based on a program that originated in Mexico and has spread to many countries.
The plan gives regular payments to poor families if they meet certain requirements, such as families must keep their children in school and go for regular medical checkups, and mothers must attend workshops on matters like nutrition and disease prevention.
The idea is to reduce poverty today while breaking the cycle of poverty for tomorrow. This also puts more money into circulation, increasing the spending that drives the economy, thus creating jobs to meet the increased demand.
This is the opposite of gridlock, of pledging to do nothing for the common good. Compared with Brazil and some other countries like Russia, India and China, whose governments are moving like effective adults in a positive direction, we are stuck, almost like stubborn toddlers who refuse to move.
Not that Brazil is any kind of paradise on earth, but as a Dec. 5 New Yorker article by Nicholas Lemann summarized:
"The gap between the rich and the poor in the U.S. is widening alarmingly, but in Brazil it is beginning to narrow. Twenty-eight million Brazilians have moved out of severe poverty in the past decade, while poverty in the U.S. is at its highest rate in years. Brazil is at peace. It has forsworn nuclear weapons. It has a balanced budget, low national debt, nearly full employment, and low inflation. It is, chaotically, democratic. It has a free press. Brazil also has one-quarter of the world's arable land."
Former Brazilian President Fernando Cardoso commented on a difference between Brazil's outlook and ours, a difference that explains our current one percent v. ninety-nine percent divide: "The idea that the individual is really the essence of society is more vigorous in America than in Brazil. We are more collectivist. We believe the state is important."
A Brazilian priest observed: "Brazil is building a market economy, socially oriented toward the common good." They have included "the 99 percent" in the action, in the wealth, and they have turned around a stagnated economic mess in less than a decade.
Meanwhile, we have been bogged down, pledged to policies that strengthen the one percent and that put politics ahead of pragmatism.
(James Lein is a community columnist for The Minot Daily News)