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Brazilians Are Taking to the Streets to Protest Their Country's Injustice and Inequality—Why Aren't We?

A case of "outrage envy."

Photo Credit: Agencia Brasil


I have outrage envy.

For nearly two weeks, more than a million citizens across Brazil have taken to the streets to protest political corruption, economic injustice, poor health care, inadequate schools, lousy mass transit, a crumbling infrastructure and — yes,  in the land of Pelé — billions blown on sports. 

“Brazil, wake up, any good teacher is worth more than Neymar!”  That’s what the crowds have been shouting.  Neymar da Silva Santos, Jr. is the 21-year-old Brazilian star who’s getting nearly $90 million to play for Futbol Club Barcelona.   “When your son is ill, take him to the stadium,” read one protester’s sign, razzing the $13.3 billion Brazil is spending to host the 2014 FIFA World Cup and the $18 billion it will cost the country to host the 2016 Summer Olympics.  Even this soccer-mad nation is saying there’s something out of whack with public priorities, and it’s time to set things right.

The massive demonstrations have stunned Brazilians themselves, for their size, their spontaneity and their civic fury.  “If you’re not outraged,” an American bumper sticker goes, “you’re not paying attention.” Brazilians are paying attention to their problems, and they’re mad as hell.  So why aren’t we?

The Brazilian protests were sparked by a bus fare increase in São Paulo.  It’s grimly comical to see American news media explain why a 9-cent hike is such a big deal by resorting to the usual trope for covering social unrest in the developing world, like when the price of wheat goes up a few pennies.  To help us understand why this matters so much, our press relates the cost of bread or buses to the minimum wage in distant lands and points out the dependency of their diets on staples and of their jobs on public transportation.  Even though millions of Americans below the poverty line can’t make a living wage, and millions more are barely hanging on by their fingernails, the infotainment narrative of life in America is so divorced from the pervasive reality of struggling to survive that journalists assume we’d be bewildered that bus fares could start such a fire.

There are, of course, plenty of dissimilarities between the U.S. and Brazil, a developing nation ruled by military dictatorship until 1985, but there are also plenty of all-too-close analogies between what’s pissing off Brazilians and what ought to piss off Americans.

Income inequality.  Brazil is in the world’s bottom 10 percent on  income inequality, ranking 121st out of 133 countries.  But the U.S. ranks 80th, just below Sri Lanka, Mauritania and Nicaragua.

Wealth distribution.  There are only six countries in the world whose  wealth distribution – accumulated holdings, not annual funds earned -- is more unequal than Brazil.  But the U.S. is one of those six.

Education.  The annual rate of  growth in student achievement in math, reading and science in Brazil is 4 percent of a standard deviation.  But U.S. educational achievement is growing at less than half that rate: 1.6 percent, just below Iran.

Corruption.  Brazil ranks 121 in  public trust in the ethical standards of politicians, out of 144 countries.  But the U.S. comes in only at 54, just above Gabon.

Infrastructure.  The quality of Brazil’s infrastructure puts it at a dismal 107, out of 144 countries.  But the  U.S. ranks 25th – below most other advanced industrial countries and even behind some developing nations, like Oman and Barbados.

Health care.  Brazil’s health care system ranks 125th out of 190 countries.  But the U.S., jingoistic rhetoric notwithstanding, is only 38th.  Among our peer nations – wealthy democracies –  we’re dead last, and it’s only gotten worse over the past several decades.