Can the Administration Really Blame Failed Policy on Experts?
China Times editorial (Taipei, Taiwan, ROC)
November 6, 2009
Speculation over whether an energy tax would be levied provoked panic in the stock market. In the Legislative Yuan Premier Wu Deng-yi publicly declared that the administration had no intention of levying such a tax for the moment, and the storm gradually subsided. But afterwards, President Ma and Premier Wu each solemnly declared that the energy tax controversy arose because researcher issued a statement before the policy was finalized, creating a headache for the administration. In the future, they said, researcher should be more discreet, etc, etc. We are deeply puzzled by both chief executives' statements. We believe that passing the buck for policy disputes onto the researchers is extremely irresponsible. But the mindset and contradictions behind this incident are what really deserve closer attention.
As we understand it, the professors researching the energy tax were commissioned by the Ministry of Finance. They were merely implementing its research projects. In mid-October, before the tempest over the energy tax erupted, the case had already been presented to the Executive Yuan many times. It had also been discussed four or five times during working sessions, joint sessions of commissioners and consultants, and formal sessions of the Tax Reform Commission. Take the joint session for example. Nearly 50 people attended. If one includes outsiders, no fewer than 100 people attended. They all saw the research data and the presentation. The composition of the Tax Advisory Commission is complex. It includes business and industry representatives, legislators, former heads of government, and others too numerous to list.
Tax Reform Commission members include academics and a number of government officials. Every time the commission holds a seminar, it supplies almost every reporter with a press kit. Ministry of Finance officials were forthcoming in their response to questions from reporters. The matter has been discussed repeatedly, far and wide. The media has reported on it. The Presidential Office and the Executive Yuan know about it. How did it suddenly become an problem of unauthorized statements to the public? Over a hundred people people have deliberated the issue for nearly two months. How can President Ma and Premier Wu possibly know that those who spoke without authorization were the academics in charge of research? Are we to understand the National Security Bureau has carried out an investigation? Can government officials indiscriminately blame academics in order to shirk their responsibility? Do they think the academics will silently accept the blame?
In fact, the role of scholars and the media is similar. Both are loved and hated by government officials. The media criticizes and comments on current affairs, it presents the truth, it reports policy, it exposes the darkside, it comments on the current situation. It often exerts no small pressure on the ruling administration. Academics are good at studying policies from a detached and abstract perspective. Their systematic and rational analysis constitutes another form of criticism. Because the media can harm them, politicians generally attempt to cultivate their goodwill. They hope to moderate the criticism to some degree. They hope the media will work with the ruling administration, that it will become its cheerleader. But as soon as a policy provokes controversy, and invites a public backlash, many officials will say "The media took my statement out of context. It was irresponsible in its reporting." They will completely disown all responsibility for mishandling their affairs.
The energy tax controversy is about proposed tax increases. Tax increases of any kind, at any time, levied by any means, will always be controversial and invite protests. This is virtually inevitable given the political environment on Taiwan. It has nothing to do with which academic said too much or too little. The real issue lies elsewhere. Since the content of the energy tax is consistent with President Ma's White Paper, these politicians must ask themselves, "Do I dare implement it?" Is the chief executive psychologically prepared to face the problem and solve the problem? Will he back down the moment a controversy erupts? Will he blame the academics helping him research the issue? If so, that can only be described as disappointing.
With regards the media, scholars on Taiwan have an even more awkward role. Because the media has the ability to counter-attack, politicians who criticize the media seldom go beyond a certain point. Seldom do they speak in tones of contempt or blame. But that is not the case with academics. Traditionally Chinese intellectuals have conventions they abide by when criticizing others. But in an era in which science and technology are king, these conventions are declining. Government heads are surrounded by large coteries of political appointees with Ph.Ds. This makes it harder for them to distinguish between independent academics and their own subordinates. They are under the misconception that intellectuals are underlings at their beck and call. Hence the ridiculous phenomenon of high officials putting down scholars and experts.
Chiang Kai-shek was trained in a Japanese military academy. He always demonstrated heartfelt respect for experts from academia. He frequently hosted scholars from universities for days on end, consulting them on state affairs. He is said to have paid personal visits to scholars, bringing them blankets and other gifts. Today, the President and the Premier are both star alumni from National Taiwan University. The tiniest of controversies panicked them into laying the blame on the doorstop of academics. Regarding the ministries responsible, they were utterly silent. Scholars engaged in research dedicate themselves the pursuit of knowledge. The ruling administration might not give them the respect they are due. But must they make them scapegoats for their policy troubles? The controversy touched off by energy taxes has been blamed on academics. But what about the controversy over the loosening of restrictions on imports of U.S. beef? Surely no academics leaked this information? Is the adminstration going to search for an official with an academic background, and parade him through the streets for shirking his duties?