Measure economics in terms of humanity

By Yang Fang-chih 楊芳枝  / 

Sat, Feb 03, 2001 - Page 8

The recent ruling by the Council of Grand Justices regarding the Fourth Nuclear Power Plant (核四) ignited a so-called "nuclear explosion." But this explosion is not only about the Constitution -- it is also a cultural issue.

First of all, no economy exists outside of culture. Our understanding of the economy is itself a cultural construct -- one produced by the mass media. In turn, such an understanding affects our economic, political and social policies. The debates unleashed by this "nuclear explosion" reflect and strengthen our understanding of the economy. The purpose of this article is to point out how such an understanding has had an unwholesome effect on the majority of Taiwan citizens.

Look at how the media have linked the nuclear plant issue to the economy. Turn on the TV or open a newspaper and we see headlines such as, "Halted construction of nuclear plant costing NT$30 million a day," "Fortune Electric to win NT$210 million in orders if nuclear plant project continues," "Nuclear plant impasse increasing social costs," and so on. Here, the plant is construed as a purely economic issue, which is then defined as the only issue affecting our society. Such commentaries shed no light on how the plant is related to environmental protection, disadvantaged groups, or future generations. All we can see are the assertions that the plant can save our economy and nation -- that it can supply the electricity needed for high-tech development, and, therefore, that it can solve our social problems.

Such a discourse is based on one premise -- "the economy will save the nation." The economy is viewed as the supreme yardstick of national development, as if economic development always improves people's welfare. But can economic development eliminate all problems? Look at what we have got from the past 10 years of development under the slogans of globalization, internationalization and liberalization. We have seen the farming population sacrificed (remember the slogan "Use agriculture to raise the industries" [以農養工]?), the uneven development between north and south Taiwan, and between urban and rural areas, the exploitation of female laborers, widening gaps between rich and poor. The list goes on. These are the results of developing industries on the sole basis of economic considerations -- especially the benefits of a certain social class.

The capitalists, their politician friends and the mass media are the biggest beneficiaries of the media's "Save the nuclear plant, save the economy, save Taiwan" logic. Think about it. "Fortune Electric stands to win NT$210 million in orders" -- what effect will it have on a vagrant begging near the Taipei train station, in comparison to the effect on the company's shareholders? High-tech development, which began in the 1980s, has not brought welfare to "all the people," but has simply created a new class of "high-tech nobility" and made jobs not related to technology increasingly worthless.

The way the media, academics and opposition parties are depicting the plant as the only means of saving the economy -- and economic development as Taiwan's only means of development -- reflects the cultural and political logic pervading Taiwan. Under this kind of logic, being "anti-business" becomes tantamount to being "anti-people." As a result, activities that run counter to "economic benefits" -- such as education in the humanities -- have their budgets slashed.

This is a political culture where we habitually view things in terms of how they will benefit a certain class economically. We should define and measure the economy with a humanistic yardstick instead in terms of how much money the capitalists can make.

Yang Fang-chih is an assistant professor of English literature at National Dong Hwa University.

Translated by Francis Huang