Raising chickens in times of trouble

While Gordon Bajnai conducts marathon audiences with ministers and discussions with economists I will translate excerpts from an interview that caused quite a stir (and some uproarious laughter) in liberal circles. The interview took place last night on József Orosz's program, Kontra (KlubRádió); by today the transcript of the interview appeared in a blog attached to Népszabadság. For those of you who can read Hungarian here is the link: http://tinyurl.com/d4t353

The interviewee was Gábor Náray-Szabó, professor of chemistry at ELTE and a member of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences where, on the side, he also serves as head of the Academy's library. In addition he dabbles as an  "amateur" political philosopher. He considers himself a conservative and he joined the about seventy people who formed a group called the Batthyány Circle of Professors in 1995. This group belongs to what in Hungary is called the "lunar halo" of Fidesz–that is, those intellectuals, professionals, and artists who by and large support Viktor Orbán and his party. For example, a few years ago Orbán asked the Circle to develop a long-range, far-reaching vision for the country's future that the professors called the "St. Stephen Plan." It turned out to be a fairly useless treatise full of clichés. Actually, one is not terribly surprised that their efforts were a flop because the overwhelming majority of the members are scientists, physicians, and engineers.

After hearing the interview with Náray-Szabó I was curious enough about his dabbling in political philosophy to search for anything he might have written on the topic. I came across a piece entitled "Evolution and Conservatism." One doesn't have to go beyond the first few sentences to assess his philosophical prowess. He "came to the conclusion" that the essence of "the conservative point of view" cannot be summarized in one sentence, unlike Christianity or liberalism. Christianity boils down to "love thy neighbor as thyself" and liberalism can be reduced to a single tenet, "one can do anything freely as long as one does no harm to others." There was no reason to read any farther.

In yesterday's interview Náray-Szabó displayed another side: the amateur economist and politician. He outlined some of his ideas about the ideal solution to the current economic and political crisis in Hungary. József Orosz interviewed Náray-Szabó because he signed a declaration of 68 "public figures" in the name of the Batthyány Circle of Professors. The public figures, with the exception of perhaps two people, are Fidesz sympathizers or supporters and thus the declaration not surprisingly demanded early elections as the only solution to the current crisis.

The interview lasted about half an hour, and it's surprising how many words can be uttered in such a relatively short time. Therefore I will translate only excerpts. The first few minutes were spent on the pros and cons of early elections. Orosz tried to impress on Náray-Szabó that under the circumstances one can't waste about four or five months in campaigning, holding two rounds of elections, and then negotiating before the formation of a government. There is simply no time. Náray-Szabó was not convinced. First he gave as the reason for early elections the current government's "breaking the rules." When Orosz inquired what rules MSZP or Bajnai broke, Náray-Szabó responded, "they broke the unwritten rules of democracy." Orosz continued: "But the constructive motion of no confidence is not an unwritten rule. It is written down in the Constitution." Náray-Szabó: "Yes, but it is unusual." Orosz:  "Just because something is unusual doesn't mean that it is not constitutional and lawful." It was becoming obvious that our professor was a bit confused and unable to hold his own. But that was just the beginning. It got much worse.

Viktor Orbán a couple of years ago discovered a political science construct–"political illegitimacy," which basically means that if a government's support is very low it loses legitimacy. However, in ordinary English parlance "illegitimate" and "illegal" mean practically the same thing. The situation is the same in Hungarian. Náray-Szabó admitted at the end that what he means by "legitimacy" is no more than popularity. Therefore, I must conclude that Viktor Orbán's government was also illegitimate in the second half of his four-year term because its popular support was almost as low as this government's is today.

During the conversation we learned about a new idea from the right: they are organizing a "national pilgrimage" and the undersigned "public figures" as well as the professors are joining them. Náray-Szabó told Orosz that from each little village the pilgrims will start off and will all gather at one place, most likely Budapest. (An obvious holy shrine.) From here on I will translate the exchange.

József Orosz (JO): Will they start the pilgrimage from different parts of the country?

Gábor Náray-Szabó (GNSz): Yes.

JO: …. Pilgrimage? Let's say to Kossuth Square [in front of the Parliament]?

GNSz: For example, the way it happens at Csíksomlyó [a famous site of religious pilgrimage in Transylvania]. The pilgrims come from all over the place.

JO: So the pilgrims get to Kossuth Square but I gather that takes time, especially from different parts of the country.

GNSz: Yes, they will get here somehow, on foot, by car.

JO: Well, pilgrims normally walk, but let's be generous and allow them to come by car. Thus, they arrive on Kossuth Square. And what will happen there?

GNSz: They will say: here we are. We also think that we must start afresh and then there will again be a peaceful demonstration, there will be no violence but still they will show that this movement has a large following.

JO: But by that time there will most likely be a new government that will start introducing the new measures.

GNSz: Well, I will be curious how fast they will be able to implement these measures.

JO: Can you imagine how fast they would be implemented without parliament? Most likely not at all.

After the pilgrimage was discussed, Orosz asked Náray-Szabó what should be included in the austerity program. First, not unnaturally Náray-Szabó emphatically stated that no money can be saved on education. Then he continued:

GNSz: One could sit down and negotiate with the multinational companies that to my knowledge have huge tax breaks and subsidies and tell them that we are in trouble and if the country goes bankrupt, these companies will be also in trouble. We should try to agree: they will get less support from the government.

JO: Then I would say, putting myself into the role of the government, okay Professor Náray-Szabó, we will decrease the subsidies but then the CEO of the firm will say, unfortunately in this case we will have to let 2,000 workers go. And that is only one company.

GNSz: Let me interject here that I heard that Hungary gets about 2 billion euros from the European Union while the multinational companies take about 8 billion euros out of the country. One would have to negotiate about this item. We would have to tell them: please don't take so much money out of the country. If they take out that much money the whole banking system will collapse.

JO: It will not because of the IMF loans.

GNSz: But that is exactly the problem. The IMF loans are not enough. If they were enough we would have no problems whatsoever. If they were enough we wouldn't have had a change of government. [Only God knows where Náray-Szabó gets that. The change of government has nothing to do with the IFM loans.]

JO: But if the Hungarian government were to forbid the multinational firms to take their own money out of the country, well, this means nationalization.

GNSz: No, it isn't.

JO: But, of course, it is.

GNSz: No, it is simply negotiation. These are not alms. This is the recognition of their own interests because if I kill the goose that lays the golden egg nothing will remain.

JO: But this goose is their own.

GNSz: They came here to produce profit. No?

JO: And they provide jobs, they pay wages and salaries.

GNSz: What I'm saying is that on balance they gain more from us than we gain from them. That's my opinion. What I'm saying is that we should change this ratio and in the long run they will be better off. The whole system will function, it will not collapse.

JO: So then we can count on several thousand newly unemployed people. What is the next item?

GNSz: Let me remark here that I don't agree with you that such a move would create huge unemployment. But let me continue, my next step would be to stop government investments that cost an incredible amount of money. I would postpone them for better days.

JO: So even greater unemployment figures.

GNSz: It's a real question how many jobs these projects create.

JO: Building of bridges, roads. Many people.

GNSz: But I don't see too many people moving about at the building of the metro.

JO: Because they are underground, that's why they are not visible.

GNSz: But I read in the papers that the piece of machinery that makes the tunnel is not working at the moment. Then where are the people?

JO: The people are underground because they are not only boring the tunnels but they are finishing them, they are laying down the rails, building the platforms. If we stop building the metro we lose the EU subsidies and in addition we add thousands of new unemployed people. If they come up from below ground to the surface where they cannot find work.That's the problem with your idea.

GNSz: I know that it sounds a bit utopian but it is still very important that if in the villages a few people could produce their own foodstuff, one or two chickens and other animals. This way at least they would not die of hunger. Today there is no foodstuff in the villages. [This is total nonsense too.]

JO: Who ever prevented people from keeping a few chickens?

GNSz: For example, the laws the government imposes in the name of food safety. One cannot exchange different parts of the pig among people because all sorts of stamps are necessary that makes food so expensive and therefore makes food production impossible.

JO: But you talked about providing only the family with food.

GNSz: Yes, yes.

JO: But even today they can keep as many chickens as they want, they can grow cucumbers, potatoes, parsley. Whatever…..

JO: So you've had three ideas up to now: they mustn't touch education, they should negotiate with the multinational companies, and stop large government investments. And we should grow some vegetables in the garden and keep a few chickens in order to solve the problems.

GNSz: No, I didn't say that. These are just a few ideas that should be considered seriously. Up to now I saw no sign of this kind of thinking.

JO: I wonder why not? Perhaps they don't take these things seriously. I mean the chickens and the geese…..

[GNSz says something here that the reason nobody is thinking about such things is because everybody is taking a narrow view of things from their own perspectives.]

JO: Let's assume that I take a larger view but I'm a fellow who lives in the middle of Budapest. Where can I keep chickens downtown?

GNSz: This would be good even for those people who live downtown. If there is peace and quiet in the villages then the villagers will not come to the capital as homeless people.

JO: Our situations are not the same; I cannot keep chickens.

GNSz: My idea is no solution for those who live in Budapest but, after all, only 18% of the population lives in the capital, all the others live in the countryside and half of these live in the villages.

JO: Well, in this case we city dwellers lost out again.

GNSz: Well, I wouldn't say that. After all, the living standards are still higher here.

JO: In this case we should give up our extra pay.

GNSz: Something must be done. We all have to suffer but general agreement is necessary to endure the suffering.

JO: But I can't make an agreement with the villagers because it doesn't matter how much I try I can't raise chickens.

GNSz: This is what one needs trust for and a team that enjoys this trust.

JO: Pardon, but isn't feed needed for the chicken?

GNSz: The chicken needs feed, but trust is necessary for the feeding itself.

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whoever
Guest

😀 Great stuff, thanks for this.

whoever
Guest

Well, Eva, even a broken clock tells the right time twice a day 🙂
What gives the game away for me is this:
JO: Well, pilgrims normally walk, but let’s be generous and allow them to come by car. Thus, they arrive on Kossuth Square. And what will happen there?
GNSz: They will say: here we are.
There it is, the “existentialism” of Fidesz writ large – the triumph of ego over wit.
A qualification: the idea that subsidies – or bail-outs – to private industries should be exchanged for equity is a particularly topical issue, given the way the banking crisis in the US and UK has been handled. I’d argue in some cases, depending on the nature of the public money offered, there would be a case for some degree of public ownership. But then to deny that this is a logical consequence, as the interviewee does, paints a whole new dimension to his gullibility.

JohnHunyadi
Guest

What a hilarious exchange! I did not realise that the Academy of Sciences doubles as a club for comedians.

JohnHunyadi
Guest

Dear Eva,
The TinyURL link does not work. I searched for the transcript in Hungarian, but could not find it. I would love to read the Hungarian original. Where did you find it?

Odin's lost eye
Guest
Oh my Gawd! Batthyány Circle of Professors? This conjures up in my mind a group of somewhat senile old flatulents standing round in a circle dressed in a medieval outfit wearing a ladies stocking on one leg, a pair of underpants on their heads and doing strange arcane things with a loofah and a carpet slipper. They would probably chant weird chants like “Oh watana Siam, Oh watana Siam, Oh watanas Oh watanas Oh watana, Siam” etc! If Professor Gábor Náray-Szabó is an example of what is to come from the so called intellectual elite of Hungary or were part of a ‘Government of Experts’ then God help the poor people of this land. If I may take a quote from your writing and examine it in more detail to see multinational companies take about 8 billion euros out of the country.” *** I will assume that all of the 8 Billion Euros is profit. If it included imported raw materials then it even worse. It is my experience that companies are often hard pushed to make 10% Nett from manufacturing, In the retail trade it can be as low as 4 to 5% Nett. This means that the Multinationals… Read more »
JohnHunyadi
Guest

Sorry, I just realised you did state where you found the transcript. It was easy to find by searching.

GDF
Guest

In the name of all engineers who are not members of this Circle of idiots, I take exception to this: “Actually, one is not terribly surprised that their efforts were a flop because the overwhelming majority of the members are scientists, physicians, and engineers.”

GDF
Guest

I was just kidding. However, I don’t think that a group of scientists, physicians or engineers would not be able to come up with a reasonable “long-range, far-reaching vision for the country’s future”. After all what kind of training is needed for this? It seems to me that vision is less dependent on training and more on experience, general knowledge and common sense.

Mark
Guest

“GNSz: Let me interject here that I heard that Hungary gets about 2 billion euros from the European Union while the multinational companies take about 8 billion euros out of the country. One would have to negotiate about this item. We would have to tell them: please don’t take so much money out of the country.”
I look forward with interest to the next FIDESZ government’s negotiations with the financial markets and foreign investors. I’m certain that they say no to this request (in fact I wonder whether they will they will be taken remotely seriously). If FIDESZ tries to stop the withdrawal of profits from Hungary through imposing direct controls on capital movements it will find itself in breach of the terms of its membership of the EU, and will likely face international isolation. Incredible!

Mark
Guest

Eva: “The whole interview is incredible.”
Yes – but sadly not surprising. Many right-wingers have reacted by neo-liberalism since the mid-1990s not by developing realistic alternatives, but retreating into a form of thought about the economy which – if it ever if became the basis of a government’s proposals – would create a siege economy to an extent not seen since the early 1950s. This is a case in point.

Peter
Guest

Odin: your description of the Circle of Professors is hilarious and closer to reality than we all would like to think…

Odin's lost eye
Guest
Peter thanks! – You however a’int seen nothing yet. Some 1400 kms from Budapest on a bearing of about 293º true there is a ‘Place’ which not be confused with the ‘Other Place’. The ‘Place’ with its ‘crumbling spires’ (they gave up dreaming long ago as all their dreams were being turned into nightmares by the hoards of tourists) there is an outfit of intellectuals who every 100 years have to carry flaming firebrands and parade round their quadrangle singing a song about ‘Ducks’! There are other weird goings on there like a band of twits who take baths in the premises solely occupied by female persons of the opposite sex (there are also more than a few female persons of the same sex there as well. I always refer to them as being ‘ginger’). To prove their cleanliness these bathers have to remove one of the bath taps and bring it with them. GDF – No engineer has as far as I know ever darkened the doorway of the buildings where the ‘duck singers live’ except to fix something broken. Engineers are real people. Ok they have to wash their hands before going to the toilet. Engineers ask ‘how… Read more »
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