Lately two fascinating polls were taken. Both dealt with the question of how Hungarians perceive their own and the country’s economic situation and prospects. The results are, at least on the surface, baffling. Or perhaps not. Figyelő, a paper dealing mostly with economic issues, asked Szonda Ipsos to conduct a survey about Hungarians’ state of mind concerning the country’s economic situation and prospects. At the same time those questioned had to answer parallel questions about their own households. Let’s first see what people said about their family’s situation: 13% considered it excellent, 70% good, 7% bad, and 8% terrible. At the same time, when the same people were asked about the economic well being of the country, 0% thought it was excellent, only 8% said it was good, 33% considered it bad, and 53% pronounced it outright terrible.
The other assessment came from Tárki and was even more interesting because it allowed us to look at perceptions over time. By and large, the results were the same: people considered their own situation superior to that of the country as a whole. What I found was surprising in the Tárki results was that Hungarians’ optimism concerning themselves and the country has been declining ever since 2003. One ought to keep in mind that in 2002 the Medgyessy government raised civil servant and employees’ salaries by 50%, a decision which today virtually everybody realizes was a huge mistake, one for which the country has been paying heavily in the last two years. However, between 2002 and 2006 real wages grew by 30% and pensions by 40%. And yet pessimism deepened.
Tárki was also interested in what people think of the coming year. Only 10% thought that life will get better, 37% thought that it would remain the same, and 53% were sure that their living standards would decline. This at a time when things are actually getting better. Tárki also asked people what percent of the Hungarian population they think is poor. The answer was unbelievable: 61%! By objective standards it is estimated to be 15%. So while the respondents think that they themselves are living quite well, for some strange reason they think that almost two-thirds of the population is outright poor.
In trying to account for the negative bias in people’s perception of their present circumstances versus their future circumstances and of their own situation versus that of the country as a whole, I think one has to point to the barrage of "negative-speak." While they themselves don’t notice any terrible hardship, they believe the constant refrain of the opposition and the chorus of economists that the country’s situation is utterly dire. Although it is true that the economy has slowed since the austerity program began and the international economic situation is not helpful, the fact is that there is no economic crisis. However, if people hear nothing but that the end of the world is at hand, people will believe it. Why wouldn’t they? After all, they are no macroeconomic experts.
However, if the above is true, how was it possible that in 2006 the voters didn’t believe the Fidesz slogan that "we live worse than four years ago?" Well, if I am right, they didn’t believe it because they personalized the message; Fidesz said they were supposed to live worse and they knew that wasn’t true. Perhaps Fidesz should have said: "Hungary is in an economic crisis!"