In Search of the Real Ideas

From The Economist, "Germany's oddly vapid election":

The German people are in a “very unusual” mood, says Werner Weidenfeld of the University of Munich. Past elections involved clashes of ideas and angry finger-pointing between the big parties. In the 1970s, recalls the professor, voters turned out in record numbers to cast their verdicts on Willy Brandt’s entente with the Communist east. In television debates voters used to ask leaders about the “society of tomorrow”. Today, they have “zero” interest in such lofty questions, inquiring instead about optimal levels for health-insurance contributions. In the depths of the biggest economic crisis in 70 years, many Germans feel that their country has weathered the storm well.

Alas, this crisis is deeper than German politicians admit. Germany’s social-market model still faces severe tests. It is specious to boast that it should be exported widely, even within Europe: Germany’s combination of wealth, wage discipline and post-war obsession with consensus is pretty unusual. Cosy, smug introspection may be right for a Bavarian country fair. Elsewhere, though, it is time for Germany’s leaders to debate real ideas.

It's probably not just in Germany, but complacency is the keyword. It's also probably true that in advanced, developed economies, division of labor has conferred the task of "imagineering" or "the art of the possible" to the politicians. The political systems in those economies have usually worked well in all these post-war years, and usually they are backed by both competent bureaucracies (such is the case in Japan) and strong, healthy economies.

I'm not so sure if our generation (specifically, those of us who were born in the 1970s), the generation that is taking up the baton of social and economic responsibilities, will ever be able to engage in those big actions.

We are probably seeing the ends of the "post-" talks there were so prevalent in the 90s. But that does not mean the "end" of things. No, no eschatology yet1. But, like that article in The Economist says, people are probably more concerned with their health care and retirement pensions—admittedly also big issues—than problems at a larger scale. The problem now is whether we should ask bigger questions, because issues like health care and pension are really just manifestations of those bigger troubles, or if the system one's having—here the term "YMMV" can't be more appropriate—is still trustable and well-geared.

If you ask me to come up with a few big words quickly, the top two big items on my list would be like:

  1. Whether economic development can be done without political freedom (the even bigger question: whether the values that we see as "modern" and in particular "Western" are universal, or are they relative): Would moral relativism prevail?

  2. Will the pension scheme in my country go broke? I wonder if this is going to be a generational issue in many places in the world, where the schemes were designed long ago on premises that are probably no longer true today (e.g. assumptions on demographical growth, economic growth, promises to certain classes, etc.). I say it's a generation issue because our generation is never consulted on those many designs2. It's a harsh scenario, but what if the pension scheme (again, YMMV and depending on which country you are from) is a Ponzi/Madoff scheme?

There are also a few Taiwan-specific big questions, naturally, although I won't say we're complacent about them (like the German people, who at least from the article seem to be confident in their tested system), but rather we're paralyzed. The questions themselves (the "who are we, from where we have come, and to where will we go" questions) become an impassé and trying to ask those questions, meaningful and important doing so is, can make you an unpleasant dinner guest. So we actually face a meta-problem here: Whether it's possible to have meaningful discussion on them at all3.

There are admittedly very difficult ones. But I don't think we can afford staying where we are either.

  1. For example, differences between this title to this title are telling. 

  2. In this respect, the bigger question is whether our existing social contract would still hold. 

  3. Although this again boils down to the Number One issue on my list. The faith in the meaningfulness of discussion (reads: open, democratic discourses) is itself the faith in certain solid values.