Wednesday, November 26, 2014

The Roots of Chile’s Malaise

SANTIAGO – Margaret Thatcher famously once said that “there is no such thing as society.” Today, the people of Chile are showing just how wrong she was.

For more than a year, young Chileans have been taking to the streets to protest. Many foreign observers have declared themselves surprised. Why would the citizens of a successful emerging country be so upset? What could they be upset about?

Chile’s student-led protest movement has generated much re-thinking within the country.  Intellectuals of the old left, pointing to persistently high income inequality, have argued that the economic gains made in the 22 years since the return of democracy were more illusory than real. In this view, Chile’s economic model has failed its citizens and is in the process of “collapsing.”

Defenders of Chile’s current rightist government, pointing to ongoing economic growth and unemployment under 7%, have argued that there is no deep reason for discontent. In this view, if the government stays the course and the economy keeps growing, the malaise will pass.

Recent survey data and a detailed study by the United Nations Development Program (UNDP) suggest that both of these oversimplified views are mistaken.

In public-opinion polls, Chileans declare themselves to be quite happy, and say that they live much better now than they did a decade or a generation ago. They also overwhelmingly claim that education and hard work are the ways to get ahead in life. And many poorer citizens report growing satisfaction with the health care and pensions to which they have access. This is hardly the stuff of a country whose development model is on the verge of “collapse.”

But, while Chileans are quite happy with their own lives, they are upset with the society in which they live. Respondents report that they are increasingly resentful of economic inequality and social segregation. They do not trust politicians and political parties, judges, captains of industry, or even members of the clergy.

Many Chilean parents send their children to private schools, but polls report a growing demand for better public schools, which they value as a place where common values are forged among children of different backgrounds. Many are happy about growing home ownership, but are unhappy about the scarcity of public spaces – safe streets, parks, arts facilities, and community centers – where they can come into contact with their fellow citizens.

This is where Thatcher’s famous statement has proven to be so wrong: there is such a thing as society, and the quality of interactions within it matter profoundly for people’s satisfaction with their lives.

Uncertainty and fear are two reasons why many middle-class Chileans report being unhappy about their society. Making it into the middle class requires decades of hard work, but it can all come to naught as a result of an accident, an illness in the family, or the loss of a job. Chile’s social insurance system, these citizens are saying, is insufficiently social and does not provide enough insurance.

The other key source of malaise, the UNDP study reports, is the persistence of discrimination and mistreatment. Too many people report being mistreated on account of their gender, race, socioeconomic status, and even physical appearance. Discrimination in the labor market is widespread. Plum jobs, middle-class citizens report, seem to be set aside for people with certain last names, from certain neighborhoods, or from certain schools.

So the issue is not that people are turning against a system that promises a better life for those willing to work hard and get a better education. Far from it. People are upset that – because of prejudice and abuse – the system is failing to deliver what it promises, even to people with many years of schooling who exert themselves day in and day out.

This much is clear to those of us who are listening to what the citizens of Chile are saying. Traditional Chilean politicians, however, do not seem to be doing much listening. Their infighting continues to upset people, while most of their policy proposals have little to do with the problems that ordinary citizens face. For the sake of Chile’s future, that will have to change.

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    1. CommentedRodrigo Abarca del Rio

      Well, beautifully said, but ... he does not say a thing about another core of the problem... Nepotism and he's part of the problem ...

    2. CommentedZsolt Hermann

      This article is a beautiful example of the paradox of the 21st century.
      On one hand humanity has achieved a much higher standard of living than we ever dreamed of (at least at parts of the globe), but at the same time in the very same countries we find the most unhappy and unsatisfied people.
      The rate of depression, suicide, divorce, drug and other substance abuse is the highest in the richest countries of the world, and usually in the highest social layers.
      More and more people realize that simple material wealth, comfortable life, chasing physical pleasures cannot fulfill us completely, many times achieving the opposite making as emptier than we were before, there is still something missing.
      As the article concludes we are truly a society, humans are social creatures moreover today we have evolved into a global society with unbreakable physical and virtual connections.
      The next phase of human evolution is not about material wealth and well being (of course we still have to bring the still poor parts of the globe above the poverty line) but about how to create positive, mutual relationships in between human beings, especially when we fully depend on each other for every aspect of our lives.
      The greatest revelation of this new age is the understanding that humanity has become a single, unified network, and by optimally using this network we can infinitely multiply our capabilities and prosperity.

    3. CommentedJ St. Clair

      you are promoting make it bigger...sorry guy....not voting for that.....

    4. CommentedRoss Clem

      These are problems that arise as the problems of material well-being are overcome.

      The problem is clear - what are the proposed solutions? Government cannot provide all the answers.

    5. CommentedFrank O'Callaghan

      There are different local characteristics to the global malaise. The fundamental problems are the same. Inequality is at the core of the issue.
      Our societies are blighted by inequalities of power, wealth, personal freedom, work, leisure, education and health.
      Chile is no different.

        Commentedradek tanski

        Why blame inequality? That's just talent and resourcefulness trying to manifest among the sour grapes.

        CommentedAndrés Arellano Báez

        Frank, you are right. But I think that we should persist in find equality of opportunity to everybody and no equality in life conditions. If we all as society give equal opportunity to everybody, we, at the same time, can accept the inequality in life.