Sunday, April 06, 2008

The Middle Class Is Out Of Touch

"It's absurd," commented Kismine. "Think of the millions and millions of people in the world, labourers and all, who get along with only two maids."

I suppose you can say that about any middle class anywhere. It might be the defining feature of middle-classness. In any case, a woman in São Paulo took her ex-husband to court demanding that her alimony payment be doubled from R$6,000 to R$12,000 per month because she had to turn down dinner and theater invitations, couldn't buy a newer and nicer car, and for the last two years couldn't afford to take her vacations outside of Brazil. Her ex-husband countered that she was a psychologist with her own clinic and also a university professor, and the owner of two apartments. In a victory for common sense and decency, the judge eliminated her payment. She, of course, has appealed.

This is one greedy woman, but I think her actions illustrate something about the middle-class mentality in Brazil. According to the IBGE (Brazilian Institute of Geography and Statistics) the 2007 Brazilian per capita income was R$13,515. This woman, despite her income from two jobs and a rental property, felt entitled to an additional gain of slightly less than the per capita income each month.

The minimum monthly salary in Brazil is R$415. Go to the currency converter of your choice and see what that looks like in your local currency. Think about that, and think about what the unnamed woman felt entitled to have.

In the comments to this post, Randy mentions an acquaintance who hates Lula because his administration forced her to retire at 48 rather than 53, resulting in a monthly pension of
R$10,000 rather than R$12,500. I know people in Recife who make more than that per month and complain nonstop about how Lula is killing the middle class, how difficult it is for them to get by, and so on. But the same people who complain have maids, two cars, vacation homes in the interior and/or in small beach towns, and consider these to be normal expenses.

I suppose it is possible to put some of the blame on Globo's novelas, which show office workers living lavishly in enormous three and four bedroom apartments, but ultimately the blame rests with the people who drive past homeless people begging for money on their way to work (while their spouses do the same, because the family has two cars) and yet somehow fail to perceive how much better they have it.

There's nothing wrong with the bus system in Recife, nor is there likely anything wrong with the buses in any other large Brazilian city, but adult middle-class Brazilians rarely possess the humility necessary to commute shoulder-to-shoulder with the povão. They feel superior, and entitled to luxuries that most Brazilians don't dream of. They perceive demands for basic economic justice to be extortion. In short, the middle class represents very well what is basically wrong with Brazil and why it won't change any time soon.

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