Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Brazilian Protests and Frustrated Freedoms

The recent and widespread protests in Brazil present something of a paradox: Brazil's economy has been booming over the last decade (it is, after all, the "B" in BRICS).  Tens of millions of poor have risen into the demographic middle class, consumption has risen across the board, and the markets (despite recent setbacks) have boomed.  So what is there to complain about?

Bart Victor and I argue in a recent paper in World Development that development can, in certain circumstances, raise incomes and aspirations beyond what is actually achievable given social and political structures, resulting in "frustrated freedom" and a diminished sense of wellbeing.

This helps explain the Brazilian protests.  James Surowiecki, writing in his consistently insightful New Yorker column, about "Brazil's Middle Class Militants" observes that "the protests have been widespread, popular, and, most striking of all, dominated by the middle class—the very people who have benefitted from the boom."  And precisely because of the boom, these folks' aspirations and expectations of the state and market have risen.  And yet they are more inelastic, not contracting in lockstep with the economy in recent months.

Indeed, using 2012 AmericasBarometer data, LAPOP researchers Mason Moseley and Matthew Layton ("Prosperity and Protest in Brazil: The Wave of the Future for Latin America?") find that "rising education levels, increased use of social media, and widespread dissatisfaction with
public services emerge as critical determinants of contentious politics . . . [and] suggest that across Latin America, the past decade of strong economic growth, advances in education and increased
access to social media may portend a new era of protests . . . ."

Rising aspirations can fuel development in countries like Brazil--look at the boom there in consumer credit and durable household goods.  Yet such aspirations also change expectations of governance and when aspirations exceed opportunities, intense frustration and popular protests can result.