The Question of Brazil

In the past few days, my Facebook has blown up with posts having to do with Brazil.

(Yes, I know, Facebook should not be my primary source of news, but for better or for worse, right now it is. I  am a part of enough international communities, and communities that care about international issues, that major events tend to end up there anyway–via my Brazilian friends this week; my expat friends in Turkey starting a couple weeks ago; my Taiwanese friends last month… They’re the best news source I know!)

And, as I’ve begun reading about Brazil, both in what friends post and in other reports across the web, I find myself wondering: What is the answer?

For those who haven’t seen everything coming out of Brazil, here are a few links to get you up to speed:

A good article from The New York Times on the topic.

And this wonderful, thought-provoking video produced by a native Brazilian:

 

 

What it boils down to seems to be this: People in Brazil are fed up with years of inequalities, most recently made worse by the stadium builds going on for their upcoming role as host to the 2014 World Cup and the 2016 Summer Olympics, and so are protesting for a better, less corrupt country that will do more for their people and less for the world stage.

Now, I have to be honest, I don’t know enough about Brazilian politics as a whole to comment on their government, either how it is or how it should be. I’ll leave that discussion to people who are from Brazil, or who live there or have been following the issue for longer than the last few days. I won’t do those issues the dishonor of my having an uninformed opinion on them; they deserve better than that.

But for me, as an American, another question surfaces, one that I feel compelled to at least consider, even if I don’t have a pert answer for it: How should international sporting competitions be arranged?

Because, to an outsider, it would seem that hosting not one, but two massive, worldwide events would be good for Brazil. To an outsider who has, for the past seven years or so, heard nothing but glowing praise for the burgeoning economies of places like Brazil and China, it would seem only natural that they would begin hosting events. To an outsider who has heard, time and again, that people from places like Brazil–indeed, Brazil seems always to be the go-to example of this–often find themselves disappointed by the relative poverty of places like the US compared to their home, it would seem indicative of Brazil moving, justifiably, into the world’s spotlight.

But then you look at the details. You watch things like Carla’s video that I linked above, and you realize that having international events costs billions of dollars, and those costs come down on the country’s people, whether they want them to or not. You look at things like the 2008 Beijing Olympics and their controversial eviction of 1.25 million citizens to make way for the games, and you see them coming up again in Brazil. In fact, many have argued that hosting the Olympics is actually not good for the local economy at all.

The abandoned beach volleyball courts from Beijing 2008, circa 2012

With conditions this rough, it would be easy to make the argument that all major international sporting events, if they continue to exist at all, should be hosted exclusively by countries with a proven track record of financial and social stability; countries that can absorb the shock of a difficult hosting job. Countries like the United States, the United Kingdom, Canada, Australia, Japan, Germany–first world countries.

But can you imagine the fallout if the powers that be actually did that? If you put economics to one side, what would be the implications of pushing all the World Cups, all the Olympics, into the countries that are already in the metaphoric 1%, handing yet another wand of power into the hands of the already powerful?

There would be outrage. Horror. Cries of institutionalized discrimination against developing countries; charges that growing countries could never fully blossom without the opportunity to compete on their own home turf. Accusations that the Powers that Be were further complicating the preexisting prejudice in favor of the favored few by directing all the world’s interest and money elsewhere in yet another venue.

And they might be right. In terms of educational value, having international sports shifting from country to country highlights the diversity of the world; children grow up seeing each unique culture of the host countries exerting influence on their favorite sports, learning about the unifying nature of humanity in friendly competition. And isn’t that the point of international sports, anyway? They show off athletes in the peak of their abilities, certainly, but isn’t it equally important that they show off each country in the peak of their abilities?

I don’t have an answer for this any more than I have an answer for the protesters in Brazil. There is clearly a problem, and it becomes more obvious with each new country left scurrying before and after the tornado of the international sporting spotlight touches down on its shores. I feel for the people of Brazil, and I sincerely want the best for them.

But what is it?

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The Weight of a Quarter

“If you have one quarter, two dimes, four nickels and seven pennies, how much money do you have?”

My European teammates looked at me, determined, dependent on my expertise. My brain reeled–I hadn’t thought about money in terms of American coins for almost a year. Maybe more–who used coins anymore? It was July, and I was on vacation in Cairns, Australia, one of the only Americans there—and here, in my hostel-wide trivia contest, I was the only one. Sweet.

I double-checked my math, nodded, and announced my result: “72 cents.” They scribbled down my answer and we moved on to the next question. Thank goodness my knowledge of the absurdity of American coinage hadn’t completely left me. Actually, if anything, it’d gotten stronger.

Roaming about the world this last year, I have come to realize that America has a strange sort of relationship with cash. We use it less and less, and yet we go into conniption fits if someone suggests that, say, we eliminate the scarcely-used and cost-inefficient penny.

As a traveler, I’d go to a country, exchange some money, and then go about paying for everything in cash–20 NTD here, 30 baht there, with $1.50 AUD and ¥ 200 spent along the way. Sure, I had a credit card–and a debit card, in Taiwan, where I was living–but I used them only as a last resort. Coins jingled wherever I went, and I got well-used to knowing how much money I had handy based on the weight of my wallet.

In Taiwan, there was the hefty brass 50 coin, which could always be counted on to buy a nice tea, or a meal at Chialing’s or Ali’s, and the slick silver 10 coin, two of which could usually snag a nice 7-11-brand drink, or more, if paired with a few of the smaller 5 coins or penny-lookalike 1 coins. A vast number of my purchases revolved around some combination of these four, and my daily routine included rooting around in my coin purse trying to make exact change, or else wondering where all of my coins had gone and reluctantly handing over a bill. Money had a sound, and a weight, that I knew.

Then I came home. I knew, academically, of course, that I had been using cash much, much more abroad than I ever had in America. (Because, again who uses cash in America??) What I hadn’t realized was how that fact would skew my new image of American coins.

In essence, they’re puny. And insignificant. Out of Taiwan-born habit, I’ve handled a fair amount of cash since coming home, and every time I go for my coins, I have a mini heart attack as I pick up a quarter and nearly fling it off the table for its sheer lightness. Money is supposed to weigh more than this! My subconscious screams at me, assuring me that the piece in my hand cannot possibly be worth more than one or two cents. It’s jarring, and unpleasant, and just plain weird–did American coins decide to go on a starvation diet while I was gone? Or have they really always been this small?

Here’s the basic American coin set: quarter, dime, nickel, penny. (And, while we’re on the subject, why the names? Just to favor lone American citizens in hostel trivia contests?)

Quarter, dime, nickel, penny….oh, flimsy American coinage…

Already, we’ve got strangeness issues. The quarter’s worth the most, and it’s biggest. So far, so good. But then there’s the dime, and–hold on a sec, why is it so tiny? Then we jump up in thickness and size for the nickel, for some reason, and then there’s the penny, which is just bigger than the dime. (Which, again, makes sense how?)

By way of comparison, here’s an (admittedly incomplete) set of Taiwanese coins–50, 10, and 1:

I seem to have spent all my 5s before leaving the country…see, usable coins!

Now let’s take a look at it in relation to a few other currencies I happen to have picked up this year. Here’s the difference I can’t seem to get my head around–the quarter vs. the 50 NT coin.

Out. Classed.

And MASSIVELY outweighed.

And, of course, the other American coins compared to other Taiwanese currency:

EVERY SINGLE TAIWANESE COIN (bottom) is bigger than EVERY SINGLE AMERICAN COIN (top)

10s…which do YOU want to carry?

…not to mention Australian coins:

These coins are worth nearly identical sums–25 cents American and 20 cents Australian. So why is one dwarfing the other???

L-R, Australian $2, $1 and US 25 cents. To be fair, the US *does* have $1 coins, but they are almost never used…

…or Japanese:

OK, so American money may have more heft here. But Japanese money has more useable amounts, AND they have holes in the middle. Pretty cool.

…or even Thai:

5s…

The punyness is not my imagination.

And, size aside, it’s no wonder no one uses them, because they have next to no useability. In Taiwan, it made sense to pay for a snack purchase with coins, because you could usually do so with, say, a 50 and a 10. Assuming roughly equivalent prices (which is a pretty accurate assumption, if you’re talking about imported junk food) and an exchange rate of 30NT to $1 US (which is also pretty accurate), the smallest number of widely-circulated American coins that could be used to pay for the same purchase is eight. And who feels anything less than awkward and juvenile when you reach into your wallet to pay for your peanut M&Ms and can of soda, only to come up with a handful of quarters?

No. Just walk away, my friend, just walk away. Your coins are no good here, 6-year-old-kid with sticky hands and glasses. Go get your mother to pay for your gluttony–or whip out a credit card to hide your junk food shame under the protection of an ‘adult’ payment method.

In Australia and Japan, I was bemused and charmed by the larger-valued coins in common use. (Until I went to exchange money, that is, and was reminded that almost no one will change coins, no matter their worth. Incidentally, if anyone wants to buy a ¥ 500 coin…) Australians commonly use $1 and $2 coins–and while I would point out here the strangeness of a $2 coin being smaller than the $1 one, both weigh significantly more than the smaller values or than American coins in general, so I’m going to have to give them a pass. After all, at least they do have useable coin values in common circulation–American lawmakers wish they could say the same.

Sigh. If only American coins made sense, and came in ordinary, useable amounts, maybe people would go back to using cash. And, call me a Luddite, but there’s something special about feeling the physical weight of your money before you spend it–it makes the whole ritual seem a bit more real than the facile swipe of a card. If the weight of a quarter were just a bit heavier, maybe Americans would take just a moment more before flinging it across the counter for a load of trash.

Although, if American coins were easier, my group might not have won second place in that trivia contest…