Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Why do statistical offices exist?

My preferred Romanian politician, Mr. Băsescu swung into action today again. At a conference entitled "The Future of Social Change: 1989-2009: Visions and Perspectives after 20 Years of Transition" he vigorously attaced the lazy and populist Romanian politicians as - according to him - Romania is in danger to become a country of peoples depending on social assistance. Mr. Băsescu - who recently began to play safe on economic issues, he even contradicted the optimistic forecasts of the Chair of the National Bank and predicted a lasting contraction of the economy - interpreted the facts quite peculiarly. It is probably true (I havn't checked it, I only rely on other data) that a half of the country's nominal population receive regular social assistance in the form of some payments. (It is actually more than half of the real population, as millions are working abroad.) But the alleged reasons for it - populist politicians, except Mr. Băsescu himself, of course, buying votes with social transfers - is a gross oversimplification of the social processes of the transition period.

According to official data the number of employed people in Romania, a country with a nominal population of 22 million, and a real one somewhere between 19 and 21 million, is at around 4,6 - 4,8 million. (Just a slight comparison: in Hungary, a country of 10 million, where the official rate of employment is not higher than 55-56% the sheer number is 3,7-3,8 million.) Moreover the ratio of active people and those who receive pensions - either regular or so-called agricultural ones* - is below 1, at around 0,98. That means: less than one working Romanian bears the burden of providing one inactive with some kind of benefits. It is usually not considered to be a healthy and sustainable situation. (It is true that the financial transfers of guest workers make this picture less disastrous, but as it is unofficial the state can not lift its responsibilities using it as a pretext, nor enjoy some decent income from it.)

The phenomenon was a result of the transition itself, when - not only in Romania, but in many other ECE countries - the suddenly rising unemployment was "cured" by allowing people to escape into the pension systems, momentarily relieving the states from the discontent of its citizens, but in the long run causing ever growing demands on the social systems. But even retrospectively it is not clear whether this treatment was a complete failure or more logical than it seems. In many cases (Hungary, Poland, Romania, Slovakia) the respective economies never really regained the lost workplaces (in Hungary the volumen is 1 million!) and even though outmigration was a factor rapidly depleting the reservoir of unemployed people in some cases (Romania, Poland, Slovakia) the rate of unemployment remained high. (Romania was seemingly an exception, but with the huge number of pensioners it is only a statistical trick.) The FDI focused policies were not capable to ensure a low level of unemployment in two decades and with the crisis hitting ECE and undermining the former economic model it is not clear whether the nearest future will bring further opportunities.

The situation is aggravated by the fact, that Romania experienced a long period of sustained high inflation and the wages remained relatively low in order to achieve competivity. The former led to a rapid loss of real value of social payments, the latter led to the necessity to rein in state income - due to lower taxes - to give a bit more to the "ordinary people". (It was also a core element of a perceived competivity advantage, although personally I consider this argumentation dubious.) Nevertheless, state income remained low not allowing to raise social spendings, but at the same time personal income was not growing rapidly as well (except in the last two years, but it was a result of overheated economic growth, tightening labor market, therefore unsustainable, and even with this rapid rise average wages remained the lowest in ECE, except Bulgaria, somewhere around 250-300 euros a month. Therefore it is not surprising that not only pensioners but other social groups need state assistance for various reasons. (For example some subsidy or support to the natural gas consumption, that can amount in winter months higher than the monthly income of a family.)

But, not denying the role of populist politics, in Romania and in other ECE countries, the main factor behind the extended social provisions - and their limited effectivity as well - is the process of transformation itself. There is no better example for it than Romania, with its large poverty stricken social sectors, shabby infrastructure (a source of balanced budgets in recent years was the lack of investment in those areas) lifting costs of social services and low wages in order to ensure competivity. From this perspective, Mr. Băsescu was not right, rather he completely missed the point: it is not a a shame but a necessity to be a nation of socially assisted people and the only option to alter the situation is to get rid of every kind of social responsibility of the state. (Even minimal ones, as for example average pensions are not higher than 100-150 euros per month, not a huge amount for decent living, but a real burden on a state household determined to lift every tax from enterprises.) But even in this case there would be a half of the population left without the necessary means for a subsistance.

* In Romania two pension systems exist, the regular one and the so-called agricultural. The latter is composed by people earlier working in agriculture during the communist era and paying contributions into a separate system.

No comments:

Post a Comment