The 50-year snooze
Brazilian workers are gloriously unproductive. For the economy to grow, they must snap out of their stupor
PECKISH revellers at Lollapalooza, a big music festival in São Paulo earlier this month, were in for a treat. In contrast to past years’ menus of reheated hamburgers, they could plump for pulled pork, barbecue ribs or corn on the cob, courtesy of BOS BBQ, a Texan eatery in the city. More surprising than the fare, however, was the pace at which BOS’s two tents dished it out. Over the course of two days the booths, each manned by six people, served 12,000 portions, or more than one every 15 seconds, boasts Blake Watkins, who runs the restaurant. Such efficiency is as welcome as it is uncommon. Neighbouring stands needed two to three minutes to serve each customer, leading to lengthy lines and rumbling stomachs.
“The moment you land in Brazil you start wasting time,” laments Mr Watkins, who moved to the country three years ago after selling a fast-food business in New York. To be sure of having at least ten temporary workers at Lollapalooza, he hired 20 (sure enough, only half of them turned up). Lu Bonometti, who opened a cookie shop 18 months ago in a posh neighbourhood of São Paulo, has commissioned four different firms to fix her shop sign. None has come. Few cultures offer a better recipe for enjoying life. But the notion of opportunity cost seems lost on most Brazilians.
Queues, traffic jams, missed deadlines and other delays have been so ubiquitous for so long that “Brazilians have become anaesthetised to them”, says Regis Bonelli of Fundação Getulio Vargas, a business school. When on April 12th the boss of the state-owned operator suggested that large chunks of the airport in Belo Horizonte that will not be refurbished in time for the football World Cup in June should simply be “veiled”, his remark elicited no more than a shrug of resignation.
Apart from a brief spurt in the 1960s and 1970s, output per worker has either slipped or stagnated over the past half century, in contrast to most other big emerging economies (see chart). Total-factor productivity, which gauges the efficiency with which both capital and labour are used, is lower now than it was in 1960. Labour productivity accounted for 40% of Brazil’s GDP growth between 1990 and 2012, compared with 91% in China and 67% in India, according to McKinsey, a consultancy. The remainder came from an expansion of the workforce as a result of favourable demography, formalisation and low unemployment. This will slow to 1% a year in the next decade, says Mr Bonelli. If the economy is to grow any faster than its current pace of 2% or so a year, Brazilians will need to become more productive.
Economists trot out familiar reasons for the performance. Brazil invests just 2.2% of its GDP in infrastructure, well below the developing-world average of 5.1%. Of the 278,000 patents granted last year by the United States patent office, just 254 went to inventors from Brazil, which accounts for 3% of the world’s output and people. Brazil’s spending on education as a share of GDP has risen to rich-world levels, but quality has not, with pupils among the worst-performing in standardised tests. Mr Watkins complains that his 18-year-old barbecuers have the skills of 14-year-old Americans.