For a prime minister the lack of even a rudimentary knowledge of economics is a real handicap. Unfortunately, Viktor Orbán is totally unfamiliar with the world of economics and business. Most of his speeches on economic matters are full of misconceptions and wrong facts. I don't quite understand why he doesn't ask somebody to take a look at his texts before he delivers a speech. Perhaps because by now thinks of himself as the fountainhead of all knowledge.
His speech at the Chinese-East European Economic and Business Forum in Budapest (June 25) began with some unbecoming groveling before the Chinese prime minister and his entourage. The normal "esteemed Mr. Prime Minister" (tisztelt Miniszterelnök Úr) wasn't enough. It had to be "deeply honored (mélyen tisztelt) Mr. Prime Minister." The people present were greeted not with simple "respect" but with "great respect" (nagy tisztelettel). Sure, Hungary is a small country and China is big, but I have never heard a Hungarian prime minister speak in this manner with, let's say, the president of the United States.
Since Orbán was talking at an economic forum, he obviously felt compelled to say something about economic matters. It has become quite obvious in the last few years that Orbán is convinced that real economic value can be produced only through physical work. And as we found out from this speech, without "industrial production" there is no possibility of economic growth. Doesn't that hark back to the time of Mátyás Rákosi who wanted to make Hungary a country of iron and steel?
He began with a brief history of the current world economic situation. He claims that "a new world came into being as a result of the western financial-economic crisis and the subsequent recession and stagnation. The strong became weak, the weak became strong." So, let's pause right here. If Orbán is referring to China and/or India, their economic growth is certainly not the result of the recent economic crisis. And to describe the crisis as a purely western phenomenon is also inaccurate. The crisis reached China as well, where many workers lost their jobs.
According to Orbán we will find out "in a very short time" who will be the winners and who will be the losers in this economic reshuffle. "The number one champion" certainly is China, and why? Not just because it is a big country with a large population but because "China remained true to some principles on which we in the West turned our backs." Among these principles is that one cannot consume more than one can produce. Globally, of course, Orbán is right. It is not true, however, that Hungarians cannot consume more than they produce; trade imbalances help to measure the disparity.
But Orbán goes much further: he indicates that debt is outright sinful. According to him, in the Lord's Prayer the word for debt and sin was the same in the original Greek. All was well so long as the West, the cradle of civilization, stuck to this equation. Let's stop right here. I did a little research on the Lord's Prayer and unfortunately Orbán got mixed up about "debt" and "sin." The Lord's Prayer appears in two versions, one in Matthew (6:9-13) and the other in Luke (11:2-4). In the Matthew version one can read about debts while in Luke about sins. But let's not quibble over word usage. As for the cradle of civilization, the Chinese visitors might have been offended. After all, Chinese civilization preceded that of the West by centuries.
But more important is a total misunderstanding of the engine of economic growth. In the good old days when in Europe capital accumulation was practically nonexistent and when credit was unknown, the economy progressed at a snail's pace. The Christian ban on charging interest surely didn't help matters. Although according to Orbán's retrograde quasi-Marxist view, no value comes from any activity other than labor, in fact the real economic take-off occurred when banking and financial markets began to appear, stimulating business investment and hence economic growth.
But Orbán seems to want to return to those "good old days" because according to him the troubles started when "we abandoned that sober thinking [about work] and the birth of new teachings and utopias caused the world to stumble from crisis to crisis in the last few decades." It is time, he argues, to re-embrace the idea of hard work and to abandon the sinful ways of debt. (In brief, to add to his economic pastiche the good old Protestant ethic.) There is a new world that requires adherence to new rules that reflect old values. The people in Central Europe, he contends, are flexible and understand the new rules.
I might be wrong, but flexibility is not exactly a trademark of the people in the region. I also doubt that "people know full well that well being will not come to them as a gift. They know that they have work very, very hard." This is doubtful, especially since the members of Orbán's government claim left and right that Hungarians are lazy, don't want to work, cheat in order to get disability payments and assistance in all forms. The government at the moment is in hot pursuit of those who allegedly cheat the state. Yet Orbán mentioned at least twice in his speech that "the Hungarian people understand the rules of this new world."
At this point Orbán said, talking about Central Europe as a whole: "It is an open secret today that the most substantial reserves can be found here, in Central Europe between the Baltic and the Adriatic." Is he talking about the exploration for shale gas, most notably in Poland? He kept that "open secret" to himself.
And finally he indirectly praised the Chinese system by placing emphasis on the necessity of a strong state. According to Orbán, "the Hungarian people realize that after the 2008 economic crisis only those countries will be successful that build strong states." And he repeated that "one cannot build a robust economy and security by relying solely on the service economy and the financial sector. One needs a massive industrial sector." In the information age.
There were many other accolades about the greatness of China and about the sixty-two-year-old Chinese-Hungarian friendship. Well, the great Chinese-Hungarian friendship had a few bumps along the road. Mao Zedong was one of the most zealous communist leaders who insisted that the Soviets quell the Hungarian revolution. The long-standing Sino-Soviet dispute also left its mark on that great Chinese-Hungarian friendship.
Well, history is not Orbán's strong suit either.