One of the most frequent criticisms of the current Hungarian government is that its spokesmen are unable to explain to the people the necessity and the consequences of the reforms. According to the critics, even those who are sympathetic to the goverment, their communication skills are dismal. Politicians, especially the socialists, have agreed that the fault lies with them and have apologized profusely.
Personally I find the explanations given by the government cogent and easily understandable. There is no lack of information: one can find it in newspapers and on the radio, television and the internet. Moreover, judging from the call-in programs, I am not alone. Some of the better educated people seem to understand the basic principles that govern a modern capitalist economy. I suspect, however, that the overwhelming majority of the people do not understand it, especially those who are less educated. One must keep in mind that in the Kádár regime only about 40% of the population finished high school, only 10% finished college, and the rest–50%–completed only eight grades. One cannot expect these people to understand the connections between national debt and liquidity, supply and demand, the budget deficit and the euro, revenues and expenditures, or employment and inflation.
Moreover, capitalism is not part of the mindset of most Hungarians. After all, even people who are between the ages of 35 and 40 spent their formative years in a country where there was no personal income tax until 1988, the price of many products was fixed, and–if there were price changes–they were initiated by the party and government. Rents were kept low, energy was cheap and wasted, no one checked what doctors did and did not do, drugs were not very good but dirt cheap. Culture was also heavily subsidized. The government and party had only one important consideration: living standards had to go up because they didn’t want to have a second 1956. And indeed, the living standards went up and up, but at what price? The country borrowed heavily and eventually was close to bankruptcy. The socialist paradise, modest but secure, was falling apart.
And suddenly here is this Ferenc Gurcsány and his team who want to teach modern economic principles to ordinary Hungarians. I’m not at all surprised that they don’t understand. Any of it. Moreover, it is not in their interest, at least in the short run, to understand it. Who wants to pay more for natural gas (which, by the way, is still lower than the price MOL pays for it, the balance comes from government subsidies), who wants to pay tuition at the universities, however modest? Who wants to pay health insurance when until now it was unnecessary since no one asked whether you were insured or not? It is very, very difficult to explain all this. The ordinary Hungarian knows that in the Kádár regime the world didn’t collapse when he didn’t have to pay tuition, medical co-payment, more for energy. And why now? Gyurcsány can talk and talk about modern Hungary, personal responsibility, order. The ordinary citizen doesn’t care. He hates it all.
This blog was inspired by a caller to "Megbeszéljük!" (Let’s talk it over) on Klub Rádió. The reporter today was Ferenc Vicsek. The caller responded to every economic observation: "It doesn’t matter." "But what about the national debt?" asked Vicsek. The caller: "It doesn’t matter!" Those who know Hungarian should listen to it here: http://www.klubradio.hu/index.php?id=33%23c ( January 14, parts 2 and 3). It takes a bit time to download the whole segment, so be patient.