November 16, 2015
If we asked Polish citizens to put in one word what they expect of the government, I have no doubt that ‘change’ would be the prevailing answer. Wanting change is not something unique to Poles and has a broader dimension to it, both economic and social.
Since the financial crisis of 2008–2009, global economic growth has been lacklustre and hesitant, aggravating social tensions in emerging and developing economies which were hit the hardest by the recession. In many of them, the turmoil has given way to civil war. The situation was made worse by a steep decline in crude oil prices, which caused a shift of nearly two trillion US dollars from producers to consumers, depriving many emerging and developing economies of a major source of revenue. Causing a significant, prolonged reduction in incomes, the crisis has also reverberated across Europe.
Climate policy is and will remain a driver of change in Europe. Its objectives are more widely accepted by society than its costs, which are differently distributed among industries. As the Volkswagen scandal has shown, even the value system of a major automotive corporation, hailing from a country which aspires to be a climate protection leader, could not withstand the confrontation with the growing cost of climate and environmental adjustments. A lesson to be learnt from the Volkswagen affair is that the knockout blow came from a country which takes effective measures to protect its own industry from unfair competitors.
In the meantime, social processes have been considerably accelerated as a result of the IT revolution. Sociologists believe that generation change now takes place every eight years! Today, few compare their quality of life to that of their parents when they can look at what other countries, especially richer ones, have to offer. Unable to continue living in their homeland, Syrian refugees have set their sights on Germany. They have chosen a country which, according to information available on the Internet, offers the best starting conditions. The youngest generation in developing countries simply want the same life they could have in a developed economy. Since change is their bread and butter, they choose the shortest path to financial success and migrate in search of work. In emerging economies, so called because of their rapid growth, young people used to leave for abroad to find education and experience, but would eventually return to their own country to work, because a rapidly growing economy offers the best conditions for cultivating one’s career. Contributing to this predisposition towards economic migration in those economies is both the difference in per capita incomes and, to a significant extent, the prospect of one’s own country’s growth. I remember that just ten years ago a Chinese official or businessman who could speak English was a rare sight. Today, Chinese officials boast degrees from the best foreign universities, and no one finds it surprising.
I have recently taken part in the 20th Civic Congress, whose leading themes were expressed in such slogans as ‘Poland of tomorrow’ and ‘We can be better!’ Nearly one and a half thousand attendees gathered at the Warsaw University of Technology to debate change and how to effect it. The roads to a better Poland (ten ideas of the Civic Congress) proved very helpful. ‘Let’s create relationships and ties’ was voted the winning idea, followed by ‘Let’s respect and value each other’, for which I myself voted. I can change and so can you – we can all become better citizens.
What interests me the most, however, is how this Poland of tomorrow should look like. What should we change to awaken our growth potential, which I believe we are far from fully utilising? I am not talking about machinery and equipment, but about the way we think about growth as society. Is it not true that we ourselves set the mental boundaries which we are too afraid to cross? In the energy sector, the boundary corresponds to the energy balance horizon, i.e. 10–15 years, which is the typical length of the design and construction cycle for a coal-fired power plant. If we want to have more power generation capacity in 15 years, we must begin planning for it today. We have no other choice but to use existing technologies, as only these are available. Thinking in this way limits development to investments and is useful in the process of economic modernisation. When renovating a house, we know what should be replaced or repaired.
Let’s go back to history for a moment. Since the beginning of the transformation, the objective (mission) of Poland’s development has been to ensure security and bridge the development gap through democracy and by creating a market economy. This mission has been tied to a vision of Poland in Europe and NATO, which has been pursued in stages: from the Europe Agreement (association agreement of December 16th 1991) to Poland’s full accession to the European Union (May 1st 2004) and the obligation to join the eurozone after meeting the convergence criteria, and from the Partnership for Peace (February 2nd 1994) to full NATO membership (March 12th 1999). Although limited in many areas, we still have the opportunity to continue this mission. Essentially, the vision for Poland in Europe created at the beginning of transformation has been fulfilled, and the mission is now subject to constructive criticism. Furthermore, external circumstances are no longer as attractive as they had been before. The direction in which the EU should be heading (pursuing deeper political integration or just creating institutions of a uniform European market) is uncertain, as is the future of the cohesion fund, which has been so beneficial to Poland. What is more, the drivers of Poland’s growth have been depleted and are in need of an overhaul: society is growing older, productivity is declining, imported technologies no longer boost efficiency at the micro level, and labour costs are less and less competitive. There is a growing need for change.
Where to start? First of all, the growth horizon must change. It is high time we stopped thinking short-term, focusing only on what we want and must have right now, and instead consider what we want Poland to become in Europe and in the world, what our long-term role is, and what values we carry. This is a question about whether or not we have an educated world-view, and we need to work hard on an answer. We should begin with understanding the world around us and identifying the long-term trends and challenges we will have to face. Then we should determine our own position in this process: where we are now and where we would like Poland to be in 30–40 years or more. Thinking about growth must be long-term, because the longer the horizon, the greater the flexibility, which is a necessary condition of all change. At the same time, there is less conflict about defending the status quo as the pie to be sliced up grows. There may be many visions of growth and many ways of pursuing them. The path we choose should be divided into small stages to make it easier to control and monitor our progress. The world never stops changing, and we must be able to react to such changes flexibly. When choosing our path, we should identify and interpret the incoming changes in the context of social interest, bearing in mind our long-term growth mission, tied to our system of values.
We have achieved much and have a lot to offer in many areas. We have already realised that following others limits us. To take the lead, we must know where we are going and persuade others to come with us. Since our objective can be reached through different paths, we need to have a compass to show us the way – a socially-accepted, knowledge-based development mission for Poland.adamczyzewski