The Hungarian version of Soviet-style economy was often referred to as “goulash communism“—it was a more permissive, generally more prosperous variant than what existed in several other Warsaw Pact countries. If the unique capitalism that Hungary is creating is to be “goulash capitalism,” it’s going to be a low-fat version. This will give yet another reason for some older folks wistfully to declare that “at least in the good old days, goulash used to be goulash.”
(This seems like a good time to point out that goulash is a soup, and a very good one. It has beef, potatoes, paprika, sometimes beans, and other things. It is not some kind of a stew, or, worse yet, ground meat with some sauce.)
Hungary rarely gets on the front page of the New York Times, but the new Hungarian tax on fatty, sugary foods was such a bold step towards a healthier Hungary that even American journalists took notice. While the justification for the tax is the national need for a leaner populace, the real reason is probably the government’s need for a fatter treasury. Those of you taking Comparative Economic Systems are probably crying “soft paternalism!” right now. Or “hard paternalism.” As to the financial consequences: if the tax really cuts down on the consumption of unhealthy foodstuffs, not only will there be little revenue generated form the tax, but the very low Hungarian life expectancy will rise, costing the state more in health care expenditures. Continue reading Goulash capitalism?
For articles geared for more scholarly audiences, check out the article at the New Palgrave Dictionary of Economics(available from on-campus IP addresses), or a lengthier treatment, chocked full of descriptive statistics, is Lawrence Officer’s extensively documented piece at the Economic History Association’s webstite, EH.net.
Some of you are aware that the summer Olympics have been taking place over the past few weeks, with athletes all around the world convening in London to kick each other, swim and dive in perfect synchronicity, throw balls into nets, and perform other feats of strength. As a way of monitoring each country’s progress, it is customary for the IOC and the media to keep a tally of how many medals each country has accumulated and then talking about it as if it had some great import. This year the United States amassed a whopping 104 total medals, with the People’s Republic of China coming in a distant second with 88 and Great Britain with a mere 65.
That metric never seemed quite right to me, though, because many events seem kind of like made up sports, and others involve teams, yet the team victory seems to just count as one medal.
Those issues aside, there is also the more fundamental issue that a country like, say, Grenada doesn’t have very many people in it. Indeed, it might be the case that the Chinese sent more athletes to London than the entire population of Grenada combined. Yet, Grenada and China are set on equal footing in the ubiquitous Medal Count competition.
That’s why we’re fortunate to have Medals Per Capita dot Com keeping it real for us. The site does what you’d expect, adjusting the medals count based on population to produce the coveted “population per medals” metric.
And, on that score, the rankings change dramatically. Indeed, tiny Grenada, with only 110,821 people, leads the way with one medal and a population per medal score of 110,821. This bests second-place Jamacia’s score of 225,485 by a lot. But Jamacia did come in with an astonishing 12 medals despite having a population slightly larger than the Pittsburgh metro area. Trinidad and Tobago and the Bahamas are also among the top five.
I should also mention — before somebody does it for me — that Hungary is an impressive 8th with 17 medals for a population of 10 million, which is about one medal per 600,000 inhabitants.
What about the “medals count winners”? Well, the mighty US with its 104 medals is only about one medal per three million people, good for a measly 49th place, while China is way down in 74th on a per capita basis, with only a medal per 15 million people.
So, to put things in perspective, a simple linear extrapolation suggests that if Grenada had China’s population, it would have amassed more than 12,000 medals. In contrast, with 84 medals per 1.3 billion people, if China had Grenada’s population, it would have netted only 0.0068 medals.
On the one hand, this illustrates why it is probably a good idea not to put too much stock in linear extrapolations, but on the other hand, these types of comparisons are important, as any sort of comparative analysis needs to have some reasonable baseline or measure of perspective.
The Medals per Capita dot Com page has a whole menu of metrics for you to play with, so with the fall term at least a week away, go ahead and start playing.
I have finally started reading Capitalism, Socialism, and Democracy by Joseph Schumpeter. And now I simply can’t put it down. This has not happened to me with an economics book since I read The Road to Serfdom by Hayek. Schumpeter’s work is pure gold, prescient, wise, analytically crystal clear, and beautifully written (yes, every so often one must reread a paragraph-long sentence). I can’t wait to discuss the details in our CS&D reading groups.
The second part of the book is on capitalism, and Schumpeter make some arguments that seem decidedly Marxian, resembling conclusions that Marx “reached.” Which is probably why Schumpeter found it important to start the book with a first part on Marx’s work. Schumpeter’s critique of Marx is balanced, even generous, but penetrating. I have read before that Schumpeter succeeded best by far in putting Marx’s work in perspective, and now I can see how. (Not that I have much expertise on Marx.) Yes, Schumpeter says, I reach some similar conclusions, but make no mistake, dear reader: there is a world of difference between how Marx got there and how Schumpeter did. And there is a world of difference between the implications of Marx’s “analysis” and Schumpeter’s.
I particularly enjoyed Schumpeter’s analogy between Marxism and religion. I have read others who make the same point, but Schumpeter makes it so much better. Marxism is not just a theory of economic change, but a theory of the world. And so it gives followers a lens through which they can see and interpret everything. The Witness is a Hungarian cult movie from the sixties on the Soviet system. In one scene, the head of the state secret police says, “whether you eat baked potatoes or pork roast, the class struggle is intensifying!” People quoted this phrase for decades to come in an ironical voice in comments on the political and economic situation. Yes, it is possible to see everything as a manifestation of class struggle. And once you see everything that way, it is difficult to think outside that system. Though I grew up in the last stages of goulash communism, I was to some extent exposed to that world view, partly in a very personal way. My great-uncle was a true believer in Marxism well before it was fashionable in Hungary. In fact, his own father was in and out of jail in the 1920s for being a communist. (At that time, right-wing Hungary’s police stations had copies of a thick black book—a list of undesirable, suspicious people to watch out for. My great-uncle’s father was listed as guilty of being a Communist and a Jew.) My uncle, after he came back from Auschwitz, got to work in helping build the communist future. He taught Marxism in evening classes to those who needed to be “educated.” And even though he lived through the many failures of that system, he remained a believer to some extent till the end of his life. Yes, Marxism offers a theory of why things are bad, who’s to blame, and hope for inevitable salvation.