By Dominic Elliott
The author is a Reuters Breakingviews columnist. The opinions expressed are his own.
Michael Reid’s astute new book has a stark warning: the country of samba, sex and soccer is teetering on a knife-edge. “Brazil: The Troubled Rise of a Global Power” explains why protests against this year’s World Cup are turning increasingly violent. Reid, a journalist for The Economist, persuasively urges a return to the broad liberal consensus that served Brazil so well between 1994 and 2006.
Brazil taxes and spends like a European country and shares other bad habits with the West. Yet it produces “distinctly Latin American” results, says Reid. GDP per person is still a disappointing $12,000, about two-thirds of the level of Argentina, and it remains the world’s twelfth most unequal country. The masses understandably want more opportunity, as well as better hospitals, schools and public transport.
The book’s central argument is that Brazil’s underlying problem is a dysfunctional political system, built on a “bastardised version of liberalism,” made illegitimate by patrimony and elitism. Reid’s on-the-record interviews with Brazilian presidents past and present sit alongside a masterful analysis of the hard data. Everything points to the urgent need for profound reforms.
Rare economic advantages that provided air cover for an overhaul are evaporating fast. Brazil’s economy briefly replaced the UK’s as the world’s sixth biggest by GDP in 2011. But Chinese demand for Brazil’s commodities is waning, and the population is ageing rapidly after an almost Chinese decline in the birth rate from six to two children per woman over the last two generations. Brazil already spends as much on pensions as southern European countries, and that can only rise.