The Inequality/Insecurity-Industrial Complex

photo_01.jpgIf you want to see a film where lawyers are unabashedly portrayed as “the heros,” the free-wheeling documentary Manda Bala would be a great choice. Brazilian AG Claudio Fonteles and other attorneys pursue a corrupt politician for years. I won’t spoil the ending, but rather focus on how the film’s other main theme–the kidnapping crisis in Sao Paulo–challenges the idea that lawyers drag down the economy by redistributing (rather than creating) wealth.

Sao Paulo’s population of 20 million is a study in extremes. Millions lack basic infrastructure, but there is more money concentrated there than the rest of Latin America combined. Recalling Lang’s Metropolis, the upper class lives in high-rises and country houses, maintaining a massive fleet of helicopters to avoid the favelas and traffic below. The helicopters aren’t merely a convenience: an epidemic of kidnapping has made driving (even in bulletproof cars) extremely dangerous. The movie draws an uncomfortable parallel between the politicians who siphon off state funds designated for the poor northern provinces, and the kidnappers who demand ransom from wealthy urbanites: “One steals with the pen, the other with the gun.”

But any suggestion of moral equivalence fades away as the brutality of the kidnappers becomes apparent. Some cut off victims’ ears, to prove they “mean business.” At this point the film takes a surprising turn, interviewing a wealthy plastic surgeon who has pioneered ear reconstructions via transplants of autologous rib cartilage. Other members of the inequality/insecurity complex earn profits by providing bulletproof cars or courses on how to escape from kidnappers. An entrepreneur plans to “chip” customers with a GPS positioning system that can home in on signals put out by a subcutaneous pellet.

photo_07.jpgHere’s one reporter‘s response to the film:

[T]he cottage industries sprouting up around crime in Brazil tell us [something] about our own GDP valuation. When you’re looking at a completely different cultural context, where entrepreneurs are filling needs like digit replacement, car bullet-proofing, and personal microchip implantation (so you can be traced if kidnapped), it’s easy to see that not all economic growth is good growth.

Compared to those expenditures, lawyering designed to keep officeholders honest seems quite valuable–even if it “produces” nothing.

The reporter called the film a “kinetic and brutal tour of decadence, wealth and corruption,” and I think I’d agree if the director didn’t insist on having so much of it said twice (once by the interviewee, another time by a translator). Nevertheless, the juxtaposition of the film’s bleak subject matter and brilliant soundtrack of Brazilian music made it unforgettable for me.

The film’s director doesn’t have high hopes for it changing much in Brazil:

Q: What do international organizations do when they’re dealing with this kind of corruption?

JK: It’s institutional in Brazil. It’s from the inside out. So, this isn’t supposed to be an activist film . . . .It’s not going to change anything. So, I really don’t consider this an activist film. I think, you know, documentaries at their best can serve as a historical marker of where any society is at that moment. History’s important, right? It’s good to know what the hell’s going on. So, I don’t think a movie like this or simple, little changes can do anything. Brazil is a very big country — it’s the size of the continental United States. It’s very, very wealthy with 160 some odd million people. Illiteracy rates are over 50%. It’s a third world country with first world cities.

To think that it may be only the “rule of law” that keeps the U.S. from going in the same direction. We need to safeguard that type of government accountability, as this example of “signing statements” shows:

Aug. 8, 2005: The Department of Energy, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission and its contractors may not fire or otherwise punish an employee whistle-blower who tells Congress about possible wrongdoing.

Bush’s signing statement: The president or his appointees will determine whether employees of the Department of Energy and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission can give information to Congress.

One of the core lessons of administrative law is that the government ought to be kept accountable. Manda Bala shows what happens when this ideal fades.

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