“I quit Századvég because it became apparent to me that the whole think-tank is merely a money-laundering factory.” – Tamás Mellár, former head of research
The following text is an interview by Tamás Ungár made with former Századvég research director and economist Tamás Mellár. The interview originally appeared in Népszabadság Online on 30 October 2014. Since the appearance of the original piece, Századvég has filed a lawsuit against Mellár for defamation. We offer below an English translation of the full interview for the benefit of our readers.
The main speaker of a Tuesday Pécs protest against the proposed internet tax, economist Tamás Mellár, says the objective of the government is to chase the bulk of multinational internet service providers out of the country in order to set up a state service provider in their stead. Mellár, a professor at the University of Pécs, was talking to us about how Prime Minister Viktor Orbán does not tolerate criticism any more, and that he, Mellár, left Fidesz’s primary think-tank, Századvég, because it became clear for him that the organization is simply a money-laundering factory for the government.
Népszabadság: Why would the government want to take the place of multinational service providers?
Tamás Mellár: A state service provider would offer one type of service package for free and another type for a charge. The government aims to put news that is uncomfortable for them in the latter package.
NSZ: This would obviously violate EU regulations.
TM: Yes it would but this government was never bothered with facts like this. The EU will call them out on the plan, the government would hold discussions with them, promising to amend the regulations. They would then do just that but not quite changing anything substantial; that would trigger another warning, discussion and amendment. In the meantime, time flies and the EU would eventually only be able to force the government to retract its regulations violating the universal right to the freedom of information years later. By then many and more people will be dumbed down. And the government would explain the whole thing anyway with the notion that downloading for a fee is not a peculiar form of censorship, but obtaining essential information costs money even for the state, and this is why consumers are expected to pay for being well-informed as well.
NSZ: As an economist, why do you think that the net tax is a mistake?
TM: You have to pay for accessing the internet even now, and it already carries a tax burden. Why would you just impose another penalty-tax on it? This is no alcohol or tobacco, nobody needs to be protected from the net. Thanks to the world wide web we can access information in a fast way, and this is an enormous help in research, education, industry, agriculture and commerce. If we make this service expensive, than we will slow down economic effectivity and growth. What is more, the HUF 20-30 billion income expected from net tax is not a significant item in the state budget. If government officials are not aware of this fact, then they don’t know what they are doing. And they are incompetent if they do not know that only those economies are competitive that have a very strong information-communication sector.
NSZ: At the Pécs protest you spoke about the Hungarian economy being ineffective mostly because it is corrupt to its core.
TM: Corruption is present in every country but in the developed world if the involvement of a politician becomes clear then he or she will be obliged to resign. This is something that you cannot imagine in this country. Hungarian society is weak and is unable to exercise pressure on politicians. It can happen in Hungary that András Horváth, a tax authority official, reveals suspicions about a 1 billion euro tax fraud and the answer of the Tax Authority to this is that everything is just fine. In a normal country the whole management of the Tax Authority would have been suspended from their jobs, leaving prosecution to an international team of experts. Instead, they initiated a case against András Horváth.
NSZ: Why is it that neither this case nor the tobacco-shop scandal, let alone the controversial distribution of state-owned arable land, wavered the electorate of the governing party?
TM: The behavior of a dedicated party electorate is irrational. I always say that partisan people tend to make emotional choices, and if their leader shot into them they would still elect him. This is because there is no public discussion that would reveal the fallibilities, crimes and mistakes of leaders, and there is no solidarity to defend the weak from stepping upon them. This society never cared about the withdrawal of 88 billion forints from the universities between 2011 and 2013. Those in power took money from the exact place that would have needed extra funds in the interest of our future. People did not care. They said that this is none of their business. Even my own relatives answer my concerns about this issue with: “What do you care? Do not pay attention to this. Stay silent. Why does this concern you?”
NSZ: Many people think you talk this way because you fell out of grace at Fidesz
TM: Yes, and they also say that I am just offended because I was not appointed as the head of the Office of Statistics. This is not the case. I simply realized that I cannot take part in what Fidesz wants to do. I had many discussions with Orbán about this issue, and it became clear for me that he is not the leader who would take an advice or with whom you can conduct a sensible discussion. When I had the guts to tell him in the company of 3 or 4 other people that “No offense, Mr Prime Minister, but you are wrong” in this or that, then everyone around me became speechless, and Miska (Mihály) Varga (Minister of National Economics) started dragging my arm, ordering me not to tell Orbán such things. I immediately realized that Orbán does not tolerate criticism any more. By now there is no serious economics expert besides him.
NSZ: So you left Századvég because they were not interested in your views any more. Or were you simply dismissed?
TM: I have not been dismissed. I quit because it became apparent to me that the whole think-tank is merely a money-laundering factory. More and more purchase orders were coming from the government, to do this research, or that, and I, as director of the research department, said that we are unable to take some of the orders because we are not competent in the field. “Do not worry about this,” they replied, “you have to do it anyway, just churn something out, we will pay you anyway.” This is when I realized that I was needed only to countersign everything. The ministry sends the money, I sign the papers, ministry advisors collect large sums while not doing substantial work. They were being paid via our institution because the government was unable to payroll them directly as advisors. Since then each and every colleague I invited to Századvég left the job, as they saw that their professional contribution is not needed.
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