Best Writing on Brazil in 2013 – FOLHA

27 Jan

My article with Chris Gaffney, posted below, was selected as the 5th best piece of English writing about Brazil in 2013. Viva the Vinegar Revolt! Click on the pic to read the other stories. I highly recommend #2 on Brazil’s deadly cars.

Folha- In Stories

Explaining Brazil’s Vinegar Revolt

16 Jul

Opinion piece for Al Jazeera on Brazil’s Vinegar Revolt, written with Chris Gaffney. Click the pic.

Explaining Brazil's Vinegar Revolt

Beginning to Explain the Ferment of Brazil’s Vinegar Revolt

25 Jun

Last post I briefly questioned why the Vinegar Revolt came to be. Protests still continue, and at one point last week over 80 major Brazilian urban centers coordinated massive marches – in Rio, close to half a million people turned out. These are the largest protests in Brazilian history and they signal a tectonic shift in Brazil’s political culture. It is an unbelievable time to be living in Brazil. Vinegar Revolt near Candalario, Rio de Janeiro

Yesterday my buddy Chris Gaffney, a professor at the Universidade Federal Fluminense in Rio de Janeiro and author of the blog Hunting White Elephants, helped me complete a piece for Al Jazeera that should be coming out within the next few days. I guess many thinkers have been ruminating over the Vinegar Revolt and all at once seemed to fling their ideas into the public realm.

Our Piece – Taxation without Representation or Social Returns


My piece with Chris focuses on a crisis of “taxation without representation or social returns”. This is the baseline argument; the ignition for the protests is a direct result of the financial burden placed on average Brazilians — increasing bus fares, hugely wasteful spending on mega-events such as the 2014 World Cup and the 2016 Olympics, inflation’s corrosive effect on purchasing power… pick your grievance.

The financial burden is real. Brazil’s taxes have increased  from around 25 percent of GDP at the beginning of the 1990s, to the current height of 36 percent – the highest in the hemisphere. While the middle class has been growing enormously and now represents approximately 63 percent of the population, so too have taxes, debts, and most recently, inflation. Family debt just broke a new record – 44.3 percent of Brazilian families are now in the red. If you had to pay for private education, private health, private security, and the most expensive cars in the world, you’d be in debt too.

This rate of indebtednes may not seem bad for free-spending Americans, but developed countries such as the US or Canada pay low interest rates and don’t have their salaries eaten up by 7 percent inflation. In Brazil, the benchmark interest rate is 8 percent, and usurious loans and credit cards can double, triple or even quadruple these rates. My credit card (with perfect credit), as I once divulged, charges close to 160% interest per year.


So that, in part, is the argument. Apparently, it’s not very original.  David Samuels, a stellar Brazilianist scholar from the University of Minnesota wrote this piece that in many ways echoed our own, but was better written and had better numbers (!). Samuels, however, paid little attention to the question of representation, a theme which is also central to our piece. In the article, we stress how parties lack national programs and apart from parties that represent specific interests, e.g. evangelicals, they simply lack ties to the electorate.

As for the PT, successive governments have catered to the lower classes (true need meets easy votes), and have mostly forgotten about the middle classes. I also highlighted the private-regarding nature of parties, who binge at the trough of government largess,blackmailing governments for more positions and pork while weakening meritorious presidential initiatives. The rise of Brazil’s party-aucracy has paralleled the rise in taxes over the last twenty or so years: the number of cabinet ministers has increased from 24 during President Fernando Henrique Cardoso’s second term to the current 37 portfolio positions… you have to pay parties for their support, but the pricetag is higher than anyone can estimate.

Octavio Amorim Neto and the Role of the Opposition

Samuels’ piece was forwarded to me by my friend and colleague at the FGV Rio, Octavio Amorim Neto. I had called him yesterday morning to see what he thought of the Vinegar Revolt. Octavio added a second important explanation: the political opposition in Brazil. Octavio argues that the current opposition is incapable of acting as, well… the opposition. Aecio Neves, the PSDB presidential candidate, is simply too cordial and lacks the skills needed to play the part of a fierce opposition critic. Unions, NGOs, and other advocates have become disconnected from political parties. Without an opposition to represent the voices of the middle class, people took to the streets.

My own reaction is to look to the media. If opposition voices are not being heard, perhaps it’s not the opposition at all, but instead the media’s unwillingness to give the opposition a loudspeaker. Content analyses I performed on countries in Latin America during my dissertation showed that media outlets tended to support presidential initiatives rather than trying to influence the legislative agenda when presidents possessed decisive legislative control. In other words, they would defer to presidents, and provide only modest coverage of critics… Call it a working hypothesis.


The key themes above, under-representation and high taxation are good enough reason for revolt. But when you add to the mix incredible public sector corruption and private-public cronyism, to not revolt becomes perplexing. Experts estimate that corruption in Brazil sucks anywhere from 2 to 5 percent of GDP from the country. Based on no evidence, I would peg the number closer to ten percent. The problem with corruption is not the robbery itself — which is bad, of course – but the externalities. If everyone up the chain is feeding the corruption monster, what incentives are there to innovate, economize, perform… pursue a national or local program? Hence poor governance becomes pervasive – inefficiency and incompetence.

Political scientists have noted citizens’ accomodative and passive approach to corruption in Brazil. No more. The giant has awaken – a democratic citizenry. Viva the awakening!

Political Reform

The big promise now is political reform (hasn’t it always been?). In my view, the central objective should be to reduce the number of parties and alter the electoral system. The current system promotes neither an esprit de corps nor programs that priviledge the National Interest.

There are a lot of moving parts here, so I’ll concentrate on just one argument – the problem of delegation. Multiple parties create fragmented coalition politics and acute delegation dilemmas: Dilma has included 7 parties in her cabinet, and as her first year faxina or housecleaning showed, there is good reason for distrust. She delegates very little. Consequently, Brazil gets mono-thematic governments: during Lula, it was Bolsa Familia, during Dilma, it’s a few transparency measures with a little infrastructure poured into the mix. Without delegating, you can only tackle a few priorities at a time. This seems to be exactly what is happening — Brazil is decades behind on infrastructure, education… well, quite a few things.

There will be more to post on these subjects…

Vinegar Revolt

20 Jun

This is what people are calling the protests that are causing general upheaval in Brazil.

The question is, why would a country at near full employment, whose average per capita income has nearly double over the last ten years, take to the streets in protest? The answers are curiously unsatisfying. From bus fares, to egregious public spending on the 2014 World Cup and the 2016 Olympics, to poor public services and corruption, the reasons for protests seem at once limitless and incoherent. What exactly is driving these protests? I’ll try to answer this question in the days ahead.

Check out my buddy Chris Gaffney’s blog

Check out this video:


Can Brazil Buck the Latin American Trend

30 May

Recent editorial penned for Al Jazeera. Pic is linked.

Update on the Performance of Brazil’s New Freedom of Information Law

26 Feb

Just a very brief update on Brazil‘s new Freedom of Information law (12.527), which took effect on May 16, 2012.

  • During its first six and a half months of operation (2012-13), the federal government registered some 51,400 requests.
  • The government claims to have answered approximately 95% of these requests.
  • 4 of Brazil’s 27 states accounted for  approximately 60% of all requests. (São Paulo, Rio de Janeiro, Minas Gerais, and the Federal District).
  • As of January 2013, 15 states had not yet regulated the FOI law, and it is clear that numerous states and cities have not yet implemented the law. The period between legislative approval and activation was just six months.
  • FOI audits using a sample of limited requests have produced results that cast doubt of government compliance figures. A team that included FOIAnet member Fabiano Angélico, for example, sent 30 requests to Brazil‘s Federal Public Prosecutor (Ministério Público). Of these, 17 were ignored, and in the case of the 13 remaining requests, authorities admitted to not yet having implemented the law.
  • Several FOI audits are underway or planned this year, including one by Article 19 Brazil and one by three departments within the FGV University in Rio de Janeiro.


In an article published on February 12, 2013 in the Estado de São Paulo newspaper, jounrnalist Fábio Fabrini used Brazil’s FOI law to audit the handling of fines levied by Brazil‘s regulatory agencies (energy, aviation, telecommunications, shipping, health insurance, and cinema). From 2008 to 2011, R$21 billion ($US 11 billion) in fines were levied, but thus far only 6 % of those fines have been collected. Regulators blame an inefficient legal system that provides multiple opportunities for appeal, whereas other entities blame the poor enforcement attributions of Brazilian regulators.


24 Feb