Brazil Economy & Business Financial Regulation Fiscal and Structural Reform Freedom and Prosperity Latin America

Freedom and Prosperity Around the World

February 26, 2024

Economic reform is crucial for growth in Brazil

By José A. Scheinkman

Table of contents

Evolution of freedom

The evolution of the aggregate Freedom Index in Brazil is clearly hump-shaped. During the first half of the period of analysis, from 1995 to 2013, the freedom score either increased or was relatively stable, driven mainly by improvements in just two indicators of the economic freedom subindex.

The first of these is the women’s economic freedom, which shows a clear step-change in 2002, although the reasons for this are not clear. During that year, there was a change in government, and the Worker’s Party (Partido dos Trabalhadores) took office. They were very much committed, at least in rhetoric, to increasing women’s economic freedom. In 2003, some parts of the civil code were reformed, which did lead to an improvement in women’s rights. However, it seems unlikely that this one legislative change can explain the 17-point increase in this indicator. Around the same time though, married women’s property rights improved, and punishments for sexual harassment—especially in the workplace—increased.

The second positive trend began in 1996, an important year for the stabilization of the economy. The liberalizing reforms introduced by the government of President Fernando Henrique Cardoso led to significant improvements on the trade freedom indicator. Sectors such as telecommunications and energy were opened to competition. There were also proposals for trade liberalization, even if some of these did not pass into law. Even the early years of Lula’s (Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva’s) government were very favorable to trade freedom, and the data seem to suggest that trade freedom did not decrease until after 2018, with the election of President Jair Bolsonaro. Bolsonaro did not create any barriers to trade, but very soon it became apparent that European countries did not want to continue negotiations on a trade deal with Bolsonaro.

In terms of political freedom, elections in Brazil are superb, and this is well captured by the elections indicator. They are fast, efficient, transparent, and the system is very secure. Even in locations where the electoral process is computerized, it is completely offline, decreasing the security risk. There is a slight fall on this indicator, starting in 2015, which is possibly attributable to polarization: when society is very politically polarized, you will always hear claims about the “unclean” electoral process. This is something we have seen recently in the United States and other countries.

Similarly, the political rights indicator shows a decline in recent years that is hard to identify in reality. It may be that, when the level of polarization is high, there are always segments of the population that can feel disenfranchised. And perhaps the indicator is capturing the repression of protests against President Dilma Rousseff’s government in 2015–16, or President Bolsonaro’s rhetoric regarding the Supreme Court, both of which may have caused anxiety about political freedoms. But there has been no obvious objective fall in political rights. The same applies to civil liberties. For example, when President Bolsonaro was elected, he publicly attacked journalists and other groups, but he took no concrete action against them. So, the feeling that political and civil rights have been reduced is understandable, but there have been no substantive changes that would allow us to say that people in Brazil were less free—and certainly not enough to justify a 33-point fall in the score.

Legislative constraints on the executive increased in the last few years, and here the indicator score is an accurate reflection of reality. However, while progress on this indicator is generally intended to be read as a positive shift, in Brazil’s case there are reasons to see greater legislative power as problematic. In 2016, President Rousseff was impeached. People connected to the Worker’s Party would say it was a “legislative coup,” a common accusation in many Latin American countries when similar situations arise. I am not of that opinion, but it is clear that a nontrivial share of the population is. During the President Bolsonaro years, a group of legislators, mostly interested in pork-barrel projects, gained a lot of power, to the point that the Supreme Court had to intervene to shut down their “secret budget”—effectively a slush fund for paying off supporters. The same group of legislators has continued to hold power after Lula’s election. This situation may have increased the impression that political rights were deteriorating, because presidents elected by the people seem, in reality, to be constrained by Congress.

The evolution of legal freedom, especially concerning judicial independence, is easier to agree with. The judicial system has been affected by executive interventions, justifying a deterioration of judicial independence scores. Moreover, the same indicator also measures judicial effectiveness, and here too the worsening situation has been very evident since 2014. Even before this, Brazil’s scores—of between 85 and 90—seem unjustifiably high because the country has long suffered from an ineffective judicial system. Only 10 percent of murders in Rio de Janeiro end up with a trial, and the numbers have been bad since at least the 1990s, when I was looking at crime and social interactions in the city. The fact that the accused do not receive any punishment until the appeals process has been exhausted means that some court decisions are only implemented ten years (or more) after they are handed down.

On top of this structural problem, in the last decade the judicial system in Brazil has become very influenced by politics. As a result, we see the Supreme Court making a decision, only to completely reverse it two or three years later, with essentially the same set of judges. This appears to be captured by the clarity of the law indicator. Laws in Brazil are very badly written—a lawyer’s dream. To give just one statistic, the value of all the unresolved tax claims in Brazil’s judicial system equates to 75 percent of Brazil’s gross domestic product (GDP). The macroeconomic impact of the low level of clarity in the law is serious, but there are always those interested in the obscurity of the law.

From freedom to prosperity

The evolution of the Prosperity Index, and in particular the fall in Brazil’s score in the last decade, seems to be driven by the minority rights indicator, which is proxied by religious freedom. Brazil has been experiencing fast growth in the percentage of its population identifying as evangelicals and, in particular, neo-Pentecostals. This has created at least two sources of friction. Neo-Pentecostals complain about persecution from the Catholic establishment, liberal legislators, mainstream media, and tax authorities. For example, even though there is no income tax on the profits of religious organizations in Brazil, nonprofit organizations are not exempt from paying social security or taxes imposed on purchases. Neo-Pentecostals feel they should enjoy full exemption from tax and regulations such as city codes. Second, Catholicism and Afro-Brazilian religions are often thought to be connected to “progressive” politics in Brazil, while evangelicals are usually more right wing, so the increase in political polarization may also partly explain the evolution of this indicator. As evidence of this tension, there have been attacks on followers of African-rooted religions by some neo-Pentecostal groups, occasionally allied to local drug gangs.

There is no question that income in Brazil stagnated in the last decade. But Brazil’s economic performance has been mediocre for the last fifty years. In the early 1980s, labor productivity was around 55 percent of the US rate. Now it is less than 25 percent. An exception is the agricultural sector, which has experienced remarkable productivity growth. Development means catching up with the technology frontier, and that is something Brazil has been unable to do. Japan, South Korea, Spain, and many others were able to do so. India and China are doing it now. But not Brazil; we can say the country is, in fact, un-developing.

President Cardoso’s government (1994–98) implemented programs to help the poorest in the country. The effort was amplified during President Lula’s administration (2002–06), which explains the overall positive trend in equality. The problem is that Brazil started from a very high initial level of inequality. Short-run fluctuations are likely to be explained by the fact that inequality is counter-
cyclical: when the economy goes down, inequality goes up. Since the COVID-19 crisis, there has been some temporary expansion of social programs, which has helped decrease inequality, but the long-run fiscal sustainability of these programs is by no means clear.

There has been an improvement in health in Brazil since 1995, mainly due to programs aimed at ensuring that the very poorest have access to regular check-ups and vaccinations. These efforts bore obvious fruit during the rollout of COVID-19 vaccines, because the whole system was already in place, so the vaccine program was relatively effective and fast. Health often requires a small marginal investment to generate large benefits, as was the case here.

Finally, it is undeniable that there have been some improvement in terms of years of education and enrollment in Brazil, and these are the metrics captured by the education indicator in the Prosperity Index. However, with the exception of very few states, there has been very little improvement in educational achievement—something that is not captured in the indicator. Progress is even lower in terms of preparing youth for the labor market. This explains why labor productivity is falling despite years of schooling increasing, which may otherwise seem a puzzle. It is worth highlighting one state in particular, Ceará, which clearly outperforms all the others in terms of educational spending effectiveness, despite its relative poverty. My advice to everyone involved in education in Brazil would be to simply copy whatever Ceará is doing, because the results are encouraging. The current minister of education was the governor of Ceará, so we may see some improvements across the country. However, there is reason to remain skeptical because education leaders usually prefer to reinvent the wheel instead of just replicating whatever is working in other places. This seems to be a universal law of decentralized public systems of education.

The future ahead

Labor productivity in Brazil is a clear signal of the economic prospects for the country—though I think it is a symptom of those prospects rather than a cause. Businesses in Brazil face a huge number of hurdles: We have very high and inefficient taxes. Firms are more worried about paying less tax than producing in a more efficient way. Regulations in Brazil are also especially inefficient, and there are important difficulties regarding long-term financing, related to the legal risks and fiscal deficits in the country. The labor market is very rigid, and even if President Temer and President Bolsonaro tried to remove some of these frictions, President Lula has announced plans to impose more labor regulations. These regulations would hurt firms and the overall economic prospects for Brazil.

A second important challenge for Brazil is security. A special concern is the relatively new route for drug trafficking from producers in Colombia, Peru, or Bolivia to Europe, which goes through Brazil. It is similar to a negative technological shock. Gangs fight with each other for control of the new routes, and this increases crime. Some paramilitary groups are also gaining strength, and these are more organized than the gangs and often affect legal businesses. For example, Rio de Janeiro’s largest electricity company, Light SA, may go bankrupt due to the amount of electric supply that is stolen and then resold to consumers and firms. These groups also control the transportation and construction sectors in some urban areas. All these things have large economic effects. And many states in Brazil lack an efficient police force. The police in the states of Rio de Janeiro and Bahia are particularly violent and inefficient. Unless the security situation improves, it is hard to foresee improvements in other dimensions.

What is going to happen with Brazil? Well, some things will help, like the proposed tax reform, which hopefully will simplify the tax code and curb exceptions, loopholes, and litigation. The finance minister is also committed to tackling the fiscal deficit. It is not clear how he will do it, but an improvement of the fiscal situation inherited from President Bolsonaro would greatly help the country.

Top firms in Brazil are excellent and, if the cost of doing business in the country was smaller, they could truly contribute to growth. Brazil has the cleanest energy mix of any country, and should be able to deal effectively with the illegal deforestation in the Amazon. Reforestation of the Amazon forest could be a source of cheap carbon capture at scale. This could make Brazil a big exporter of goods that have an excellent climate footprint—an exceptional opportunity for the country. Brazil missed an opportunity in the 1980s, when they could have educated their growing labor force, and now it is presented with a similar opportunity again. But the country needs to deal with all of the challenges discussed here.

José A. Scheinkman is Charles and Lynn Zhang Professor of Economics at Columbia, professor of economics (emeritus) at Princeton, and research associate at NBER. Scheinkman is a member of the National Academy of Sciences, recipient of a Guggenheim Fellowship, docteur honoris causa from Université Paris-Dauphine, and board member of Cosan S.A. Scheinkman’s current research focuses on the economics of forest preservation in the Amazon.


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Image: A staff worker stands behind the national flags of Brazil, Russia, China, South Africa and India to tidy the flags before a group photo during the BRICS Summit at the Xiamen International Conference and Exhibition Center in Xiamen, southeastern China's Fujian Province, China September 4, 2017. REUTERS/Wu Hong/Pool