Some time ago I wrote about József Karsai, MSZP parliamentary member and mayor of Battonya, a small town near the Romanian border. It would be nice if I could call him a character, but the word “character” implies a certain charm, someone who makes us smile or laugh. Unfortunately, I don’t find Karsai amusing. Rather, he strikes me as an ignorant, inconsistent loudmouth. This man originally joined the Smallholders, then became an independent member of parliament, and finally landed in MSZP. He is wildly popular in his district and therefore, I assume, it would be impossible to get rid of him, although I’m sure that a lot of people in the MSZP parliamentary delegation would be delighted to see him go.
The first time I heard of him was in 1998 when, dissatisfied with the price of wheat, he organized a demonstration where the farmers set fire to their own crop. Right in front of the parliament building. Karsai likes theatrical performances, and he is still in excellent form. This time it isn’t wheat but watermelons. At this time of the year watermelon is plentiful and as a result less expensive. Karsai complained bitterly last Saturday on MTV’s Napkelte (Sunrise) that “a month ago the price of watermelon was very high” and look what has happened by now. Indeed, the high price of watermelon was due to its scarcity and because the early watermelon was most likely imported from the southern parts of Europe. For example from Greece. Of course, Karsai claims, Hungarians cannot stomach the “sour” Greek watermelon, as opposed to the sweet, sweet Hungarian variety. (This is especially funny in Hungarian because the Hungarian name for watermelon is “Greek melon” [görögdinnye].)
In any case, Karsai seems to find it difficult to grasp the basic economic principle of supply and demand and its connection to the price of an item. When Karsai and the farmers talk about an acceptable price they always bring up the amount of work and investment required to produce the commodity. Thus, Karsai says, “if it costs 10 Ft to harvest a kilogram of watermelon, if it costs an another 10 Ft to put the melons on the trucks, then it is impossible to sell watermelon at such and such a price.” As if the price of watermelon were determined by the cost of production. Perhaps these people have a vague recollection of the compulsory “political economy” course at every Hungarian university that espoused the labor theory of value, one of the major fallacies of Marx’s economic theory. However painful it may be for the farmer, it often happens that he has to part with his produce at a price below what he expected on the basis of his investment and effort.
So the wise farmer doesn’t go out and dump tons and tons of watermelon in front of Auchen stores. Instead of getting less than he expected, he will get nothing for the smashed watermelons. Plus he will have to pay a lot of money for gasoline to move all that watermelon from Battonya to Budapest. However, this is exactly what happened this morning: several truckloads of watermelons were brutally heaved onto the pavement of the parking lot of one of the Auchen stores. Karsai promised that as long as the price of watermelon that yesterday was 49 Ft per kg is not raised to 89 Ft he and his farmers will go to all the Auchen stores and dump tons of more watermelons in front of them.
Unfortunately his threatening strategy produced some results. It seems that Auchen (presumably figuring the cost of cleanup) broke down and agreed to a 65 Ft price. But Karsai is not the kind of man who is satisfied with less than what he demands, so I don’t know what the next chapter of his protest will be. Meanwhile Aldi, another chain, is still selling watermelon for 49 Ft/kg.
Karsai has other fantastic ideas: he would like to fire the president of the Hungarian National Bank because “his knowledge about monetary policy is zero.” Karsai knows that it is not really he who comes up with interest rate decisions but “some lady there.” I assume, knowing Karsai, that “some lady there” is meant pejoratively. The Monitáris Tanács (the body that votes once a month on interest rates) does have three female members, but decisions are based on a simple majority, and women are not in the majority. In any case, Karsai would fire the head of the National Bank and get rid of the Monitáris Tanács. Karsai is sure that his view is shared by the majority of the members of parliament; they would be only too happy to get rid of the whole lot. So much for this man’s knowledge of the world of politics.
There was one really amusing moment in the Karsai interview on Saturday. Karsai was bitterly complaining that Hungarians don’t show solidarity toward their farmers. I guess that means that the Hungarian consumer should happily pay more for Hungarian watermelons just because they are Hungarian. Then he added: “The Hungarians are not like the Americans. I’m sure you have also heard that if an American buys a Mercedes or a BMW he also buys an American car whether he needs it or not.” I almost fell off my chair I was laughing so hard. Perhaps Karsai should have a little chat with Rick Wagoner, CEO of General Motors, currently burning through about $1 billion a month; its stock is down 74% in the last year, to levels not seen since the Eisenhower administration. I guess, following the Karsai formula, GM should start smashing cars; I’m just not sure in front of what–its dealers? Congress?