Politicians, Stop Using Elderly Farmers as Election Fodder
United Daily News editorial (Taipei, Taiwan, ROC)
October 21, 2011
Summary: Each time an election rolls around, politicians reenact the same old charade. They demagogue the issue of subsidies for elderly farmers. This time however, the KMT refused to take part in the bidding war. Instead, it proposed indexing subsidies for elderly farmers to consumer prices. It sought an alternative to the annual mudslinging. But Green Camp legislators, joined by some Blue Camp legislators, remain committed to subsidies for elderly farmers. They oppose any such change. As a result, reformers still face a tough battle in the legislature.
Full Text Below:
Each time an election rolls around, politicians reenact the same old charade. They demagogue the issue of subsidies for elderly farmers. This time however, the KMT refused to take part in the bidding war. Instead, it proposed indexing subsidies for elderly farmers to consumer prices. It sought an alternative to the annual mudslinging. But Green Camp legislators, joined by some Blue Camp legislators, remain committed to subsidies for elderly farmers. They oppose any such change. As a result, reformers still face a tough battle in the legislature.
From a purely strategic perspective, this move by the ruling KMT was unwise. One. Elections are at hand. The DPP will surely seize the opportunity to accuse the Ma administration of "demeaning farmers." This charge alone will be enough to give the Ma administration indigestion. Two. Farmers assumed their subsidies would be increased by several thousand dollars. Now they are being increased by only 300 dollars. Their expectations have been shattered. They are certain to be disgruntled. Three. The Executive Yuan proposal excludes wealthy farmers, non-agricultural income, and new farmers who own 50 million dollars or more in real estate. The higher eligibility threshold is not going to win any votes among new elderly farmers. Four. Internal dissent within the Blue Camp has been endless. A powerful backlash among legislators from southern Taiwan agricultural counties is making policy decisions particularly difficult.
The pressure has been overwhelming. But for that very reason, the Ma administration was able to set aside "winning is everything" thinking. It was able to consider the plight of every disadvantaged group within society. It was able to devise a rational system for increasing subsidies. The decision-making process was not easy. By contrast, when Tsai Ing-wen was in office, she threatened to engage in "tax resistance" against subsidies for elderly farmers. But now she is in the opposition. Now she resorts to underhanded tactics to sabotage her political opponent. Now she has no qualms about damaging the nation's fiscal health. This reveals her opportunism and her lack of principles. The DPP's strategy is to raise a hue and cry over subsidies for elderly farmers every four years. Elderly farmers have become political pawns for demagogues seeking political office. Who really cares about their dignity?
Consider the new system. Some elderly farmers understand the issues. They feel that having subsidies indexed to consumer prices is fair and reasonable. They support the exclusion of wealthy farmers. But other elderly farmers have angrily denounced the new system. They say civil service salaries have increased by several thousand dollars, whereas subsidies for elderly farmers have increased by only 300 dollars. They say the gap between the two is too wide. But these elderly farmers do not understand the difference between subsidies and salaries. They do not understand that subsidies are government-issued social welfare. Salaries, on the other hand, are payment for work performed by civil servants. The two are completely different. They cannot be compared. Long term vilification by politicians has persuaded many farmers that civil servants and teachers are a privileged elite. In fact, what right does Kunbinbo (Uncle Kun-bin) have to complain about civil servants and teachers?
Elderly farmers complain that they earn less than civil servants and teachers. But compared to other disadvantaged groups, they enjoy far more visibility and have receive far more attention. Over the past decade, subsidies for elderly farmers have been increased three times, once during each election. The total amount of subsidies has doubled. By contrast, other subsidies for low-income households have been neglected, because no one speaks on their behalf. This is another sort of social injustice. This is why the KMT increased subsidies for eight other disadvantaged groups when it increased subsidies for elderly farmers. It indexed subsidy increases to rising consumer prices. This is not merely more reasonable. It is also more just. Elderly farmers complain that their subsidy increases have been too meager. But how many elderly people are even poorer? How many of them envy the elderly farmers' good fortune?
Subsidies for elderly farmers has long been a political football for the ruling KMT and opposition DPP. Observers assumed the current presidential race would degenerate into the usual bidding war. They assumed the Blue Camp would join the Green Camp in sacrificing the nation's fiscal health. They assumed the KMT would join the DPP in writing blank checks to buy votes. But to everyone's surprise, the Ma administration resolved to break this vicious cycle. It refused to go along with the DPP. It refused to engage in a bidding war. It refused to wave a magic wand. Instead it considered the need for fairness. It considered the need for fiscal accountability. It devised a convincing system for indexing subsidy increases. The Ma administration's decision has enabled other disadvantaged segments of society to share in the social welfare pie. Most importantly, it has broken the vicious cycle. It has put an end to the politicians' bidding war. Political opportunists can no longer use elderly farmers to advance their political agenda.
If democracy on Taiwan is to progress, someone must stand up. Someone must point to the things that are wrong and say, "Enough!" Elderly farmers have worked hard their entire lives. The state should provide them with a reasonable safety net. But it should not give them money and be done with it. It should not think of them only every four years. It should not think only of buying their votes. Over the past decade, the issue of subsidies for elderly farmers has been like a phantom. It has appeared and reappeared during each election. It has been a projection of our social tragedy. Every election season, it has been the DPP's ATM machine. Only when people tire of the charade, will they consent to its systematization. The best solution is for Blue and Green Camp politicians to stop making elderly farmers their poster child.
Some have ridiculed the Executive Yuan's proposal as deceptive, as "one fish, prepared three ways." They accuse the Executive Yuan of trying to be all things to all people. But first, the Executive Yuan's proposal hardly pleases elderly farmers. Second, it runs the risk of inviting an internal backlash, leading to unfavorable election results. How can it possibly be considered "one fish, prepared three ways?" The important thing is that the Ma administration Insists on doing the right thing, And by doing the right thing, it has enabled the people to see the ruling administration's sincerity and wisdom. This is a true "blue ocean strategy."
The systematization of subsidies for elderly farmers is a courageous, wise, and just move. It deserves the public's support.