- Jon Darsee was a member of the University of Iowa’s 1980 Final Four team and a three-year-old basketball man of letters.
- He now lives in Iowa City and works with the University of Iowa to foster innovation.
As the specter of inflation swirls around us and random supply chain challenges continue to disrupt the status quo, I remember living in Brazil in the 1980s, where inflation was rampant and the Supply chain disruptions were a way of life.
In 1986, I was playing professional basketball for the city of Rio Claro, a two-hour drive from Sao Paulo. It was a largely agrarian community, much like many in Iowa, except the crops that dominated the scenic landscape were sugar cane and oranges.
I landed in Brazil on July 4 feeling freshly liberated. My trainer picked me up in Sao Paulo and we drove straight into the countryside, swapping the hot summer days in the US for the mild Brazilian winter. The air was punctuated by the songs of unrecognizable birds and the smell of burning sugar cane. I quickly satisfied my curiosity that the water is indeed going around the drain in the opposite direction in the southern hemisphere and that the southern cross – made famous to many of us by Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young – is as prominent in Brazil’s night sky as the Big Dipper is in ours.
I had been advised to negotiate my salary in US dollars; but without preparation, without an agent and just delighted to be able to live my dream, I did not push it. My Brazilian coach seemed to have my back, and the first monthly payment came in dollars as we had agreed. A month later the management issued an apology insisting that they had to transfer my payments to Brazilian cruzados. I had little bargaining power and they knew it.
The first few months I didn’t notice any inflation, the team paid for most of my expenses and I kept my head down trying to shake off the rust and do my best to hide the fact that I hadn’t played organized basketball since dressing for the Hawkeyes four years earlier. Although inflation was not yet on my radar, I was very aware of exchange rates. Over the next eight months, I would see my salary in cruzados drop by 40% against the US dollar.
Grocery prices determined at checkout
One day I walked into my grocery store and couldn’t find any prices. I walked down each aisle until I realized that the prices were no longer displayed on anything. It was maddening. When I went to check out the queue was seven deep and crawling. Twenty minutes later, I arrived at the cash register to find the cashier slowly entering prices after scrolling through page after page of lists stapled together. I just popped a joint. I couldn’t express my frustration in broken Portuguese, but I’m pretty sure no one around me escaped that. I left the store feeling “ugly American” for the first time – something I never wanted to be accused of.
As soon as I got home, I phoned my American teammate Larry Hutcheson, spitting vitriol before he could calm me down. “Hutch” was originally from Oklahoma and had been playing ball in Brazil for a decade. He patiently explained that inflation was increasing by more than 10% every month. The prices are constantly changing, he said. There was no way the grocery store could keep up. I hung up the phone feeling like an idiot, wondering how I could have been so naive.
According to World Bank data, Brazil’s annual inflation rate was 147% in 1986, climbing to 228% in 1987. Inflation struggles would increase dramatically over the next few years, including a period in the early of the 1990s when Brazilians were faced with hyperinflation. — defined as an increase in price pressure of more than 50% per month. Can you imagine? A recent Washington Post article about the current hyperinflation in Argentina, people are hoarding non-perishable food as an investment; or swap any excess income to buy dollars, pounds or euros as cover.
When I arrived in Brazil, prices for meat and dairy products were set by the government. It had worked at first, but soon inflation rose and cattle ranchers went on strike to protest the rapidly declining profits. Finding meat has become an obsession. Fruits and vegetables were always in abundance, but finding milk and dairy products could be problematic. One day the grocery store cooler would be full of milk, and then there might be no milk for days. I lived two blocks from the grocery store and got used to answering urgent calls from teammates asking if I could run to check if the store had this or that.
But it’s the quest for red meat that I remember very well. Friends networked over landlines to find out as soon as they heard someone had meat, then raced around town hoping to make it in time. Barbecue in southern Brazil is just as popular a ritual as it is in the United States. Word that a butcher or supermarket had meat would spread like wildfire. It was helpful to know someone or have US dollars to spend. Being recognized as a member of the local professional basketball team didn’t hurt.
The things that didn’t work drove me crazy, but the locals just adapted
It seemed like everything could be periodically in short supply, from electronics to gasoline and even beer was a commodity you couldn’t take for granted; I remember feeling a sense of gratitude when we were able to find everything we were looking for; it made barbecuing even more delicious and beer even more satisfying.
The indelible observation etched in my memory is how the Brazilians have adapted; living where some things didn’t work, weren’t always on time, or just weren’t available drove me crazy and could bring out the worst in me. It took me a long time to realize that while for many of us time is synonymous with money, in Brazil time is more often synonymous with friendship. Seeing the resilience of Brazilians, their ability to be creative and help each other while maintaining their characteristic zest for life made a lasting impression. In some ways, it reminded me of Depression-era stories about farmers in Iowa (albeit a bit more stoic) helping each other harvest, build things, or pool their creativity. to fix stuff when money was tight.
Living in Brazil provided several relevant lessons for a rapidly changing world. It taught me to be wary of setting expectations for things beyond my control or that it’s rarely good to make assumptions about people’s behavior – both can lead to disappointment or worse. But more importantly, Brazil’s struggles with inflation have shown that watching people band together during times of adversity to help each other will always be one of the greatest sights on earth.
Jon Darsee was a member of the University of Iowa’s 1980 Final Four team and a three-year-old basketball man of letters. A former head of medical devices and digital healthcare, he now lives in Iowa City and works with the University of Iowa to drive innovation.