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Turnout (updated)

According to the survey firm IPSOS, based on exit polls, the final turnout for today’s election is 56.1%. Voter_Turnout_updated Here’s how that compares to previous presidential elections:


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Turnout

It’s 9:00 (Polish time), but there are no results yet in the presidential election.  The “electoral silence” has been extended 90 minutes because of delays in one Silesian precinct.  Until all the polling places close, no results can appear (not even exit polling).

One figure can be announced: turnout.  So far it seems comparatively high: as of 5:00 p.m. 40.51% of the eligible voters had cast ballots.  That might not seem good, but during the first round the figure at 5:00 p.m. was only 34.41%. I predicted that high turnout would help Komorowski, but breaking it down by region muddies the picture.  Although the voters of Warsaw have been voting at a rate of 44%, the far southeast (PiS territory) is equally strong.  So stay tuned…


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Presidential Election Countdown

Poland is about to enter into the so-called “cisza wyborcza” (electoral silence) which will extend from midnight Friday until at least 9:00 p.m. on Sunday, when the polls will close.  During this time the media cannot discuss the presidential election, and the candidates must stop all campaigning. Even comments on Twitter are forbidden, so during the first round of the voting we saw tweets about the rising and falling prices of bigos (Bronisław Komorowski) and budyń (pudding, Andrzej Duda).  That stew ended up costing 33.8 złoty, but dessert was much more expensive than anticipated at 34.8 złoty.  And everyone was surprised to find a ciasteczko (cookie—Paweł Kukiz) added to their bill for 20.8 złoty. It was necessary to walk right up to the line of legal discussion with the socialist candidate Magdalena Ogórek, whose name actually means “pickle,” but as it turned out no one was buying any gherkins this year so that wasn’t a problem.

So what will Poles be feasting on come Sunday night? Many are unhappy because of the unhealthy options: both the bacon-filled bigos and the sugary pudding are bad for one’s waistline.  The biggest question now is how many will decide to skip supper altogether

The polls aren’t particularly helpful.  Here are the most recent results from the major survey firms:

Election_PollsCrucially, the OBOP and CBOS surveys were just among likely voters, the others were among eligible voters.  The IBRiS poll found that 59% of respondents intend to vote on Sunday, whereas Estymator predicts a much lower 47% turnout.  Millward Brown splits the difference at 54%. Although TNS and OBOP are the same firm (they merged in 2012), the two surveys here were carried out for different media clients. I wish I could call forth my inner Nate Silver, but unfortunately I don’t have access to enough of the raw data to comment on the relative merits of each firm’s methodology, or to offer more fine-grained analysis. But TNS has provided a bit more information, showing that among those who didn’t vote during the first round, Komorowski leads 48% to 35%, but among those who voted for some other candidate last time, Duda leads 46% to 42% (with an even more impressive lead of 57% to 32% if we just consider Kukiz voters).

So turnout is going to be the key to who wins this vote, as I argued in my previous post. Both Duda and Komorowski have dedicated the past couple weeks to wooing those who voted for other candidates during the first round, but that might not have been the correct strategy.  Or to be more precise, it may have been the best path for Duda, but not for Komorowski.

From the beginning of this campaign Andrzej Duda has performed a balancing act: he had to energize his far-right base without closing off the possibility of appealing to some moderates.  To the former audience he needed to convey the message that he would faithfully represent the views of Jarosław Kaczyński and the Law and Justice Party (PiS).  To the latter he needed to show that he was his own man, and wouldn’t be beholden to Kaczyński’s dictates.  He succeeded in the first task, both winning the PiS voters and inspiring them to vote in droves.  The districts he won in the first round had the highest turnout rates.  But to turn that into a victory on Sunday, he needs to persuade another 20% or so of the electorate, and outside the ranks of diehard PiS supporters, both that party and its leader (Kaczyński) are deeply unpopular.

Komorowski had a different challenge.  Typically an election campaign involving an incumbent becomes a referendum on his or her performance in office, but that’s not the case this time in Poland.  For a decade every election in Poland has really been between two parties: PiS and not-PiS.  Komorowski, just like the Civic Platform party that was his political home before becoming president, represents a combination of the relatively small bloc of moderate liberals (the party’s core voters) and a much larger, ideologically diverse group that fears a return to the tumult of 2005-2007, when the Kaczyński twins controlled both the executive and legislative branches of government. It is not possible to spin a positive message that will hold that sort of coalition together.  In other words, the upcoming vote is yet again a referendum involving neither of the two candidates on the ballot—it’s about whether Kaczyński returns to power or not.

If a majority of Poles recognize this, they will turn out and vote for Komorowski.  For many this will entail a serious moral and ideological compromise, because there is a lot of anger at the status quo represented by the sitting president.  Young people in particular worry about a future in which long-term employment is rare, in which inequality is rising, and in which the social safety net is perilously frayed.  This isn’t a cohort likely to vote for PiS, because of that party’s nationalism, conservative social values, and religiosity.  But neither do they share Civic Platform’s fondness for capitalism, though in the past they have supported that party when push came to shove.  If this demographic turns out to vote they will probably back Komorowski, but they may well decide to just stay at home.


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The Polish Elections: Round One

What just happened?

Readers of this blog are doubtlessly aware already that yesterday’s election in Poland brought an enormous upset, with Andrzej Duda from the far-right “Law and Justice Party (Prawo i Sprawiedliwość, or PiS) winning 34.7% of the vote, compared to 33.7% for the sitting President Bronisław Komorowski, from the centrist Civic Platform (Platform Obywatelska or PO). Even more surprising was the strong showing of Paweł Kukiz, a musician with little political experience and a strange ideological biography (more on that in a moment).

Up until very recently the debate among the political cognoscenti in Poland has been whether President Komorowski would win during the first round, or be forced into a run-off. The prospect that he might actually lose was hardly considered outside the election committees of those campaigning against him. In fact, even most of them were taking for granted (off the record) that the President would get a second term. Komorowski has enjoyed a stratospheric approval rating; in fact, a poll taken just last month by the respected Public Opinion Research Center (CBOS) showed that an amazing 73% considered his presidency to be either good (59%) or very good (14%). How can we possibly reconcile information like that with his dismal showing yesterday?

Today the Polish media is filled with discussions about what happened, with most commentators agreeing that the election is now wide open. The dominant theme in all the analysis is that the frustrated, marginalized, and excluded have made themselves heard, with parallels being drawn to recent growth among “outsider” parties from the left (Podemos in Spain, Syriza in Greece) or the right (the National Front in France). This conclusion is fair enough: in Poland as elsewhere in Europe, the old political structures have lost an enormous amount of legitimacy after so many years of policies (particularly austerity economic policies) that seem disconnected from the lives of ordinary people. The so-called “democracy deficit” in Europe is far more threatening than any budget deficits could ever be.

The strong showing for Paweł Kukiz is particularly significant in this regard. He became famous as a rock musician before jumping into politics in 2010 with his support for some far-right extremist groups. He spoke out against gay rights and endorsed the efforts of a neo-fascist organization (a term I use advisedly) called the National-Radical Camp (though he did eventually pull back from any official affiliation with that group). But his support in this year’s election did not come (only) from those extremists. His campaign mainly stressed one theme: an electoral reform that would replace today’s complicated proportional representation system with single-mandate districts. That’s hardly the red meat that typically mobilizes the far right.  Exit-polls show that 27% of Kukiz supporters had voted for Civic Platform in the last parliamentary elections, and only 12% had voted for the radical right previously (though a whopping 24% said that they didn’t vote last time, mostly because they had been too young—40% of Kukiz voters were under 30 years of age).

Meanwhile, Andrzej Duda from PiS got 31% of his votes from people over the age of 60, and 34% from those with less than a secondary-school education. Looked at from the other direction, if the elections had been held just among those under 30, Kukiz would have gained 41% and Komorowski wouldn’t have even made it to the second round. If it had been held just among those 60 or over Duda and Komorowski would have been virtually tied with 44% each. Duda got more votes among those in their 40s and 50s as well, so wasn’t entirely confined to the elderly (in fact his greatest strength seems to have been among those between 50-59, and for personal reasons I refuse to classify that cohort as “elderly.”)

So Komorowski lost the young, and he lost those who are… (ahem) middle-aged and above. He lost those with a basic education, and he lost those who live in the countryside (decisively). He also lost the east, showing that the electoral geography of Poland hasn’t changed – ever.

Voting Map But here comes the punch line: none of this may matter after the second round of voting on May 24. In the rush to interpret this surprise result in terms of who people voted for, many commentators are missing the most important part of this story: the people who didn’t vote at all.

Voter_Turnout

As is clear from this chart, Poles don’t much like going to the polls (did you really expect me to avoid that pun?) Their participation rates are among the lowest in Europe, and yesterday’s vote had the lowest turnout for any presidential election. In other words, everything we say about the Polish electorate doesn’t come close to telling us the full story about the Polish population.

The pattern in Poland, like elsewhere in Europe and North America, is that those who vote for more extremist parties (left or right) are more likely to vote than those who support centrist parties. The real struggle isn’t Komorowski’s attempt to gain votes in the countryside, Duda’s struggle to win votes among the young, or any campaign for this or that demographic constituency. Rather, it’s all about turnout. The only elections that have brought significant victories for the far right have come in the very low-turnout parliamentary elections of 1991 and 2005. In both cases the very next election led to a backlash—not because voters suddenly turned away from the right, but because a bunch of non-voters were reminded that they really should vote if they don’t want Poland to be ruled by PiS.  And surveys have been very consistent on that point: a huge majority of Poles (despite having virtually nothing else in common) share a strong desire to avoid a return to the 2005-2007 period when the Kaczyński twins ruled.

So yes, if we add up the votes for Duda and Kukiz from yesterday’s first-round voting, and assume that those are right-wing voters, then Duda is poised to win the second round. But it is very unlikely that the electorate in the second round will be the same one that came out for round one. Given the sense of inevitability surrounding Komorowski’s victory (until yesterday), lots of people simply didn’t bother to vote. As we can see from the chart above, there are almost always a lot of people who sit out the first round, assuming that the “real” election will come with the run-off.  And a more careful breakdown of turnout results shows that turnout in the countryside was already reasonably high—the no-shows were the city folk.  In no major metropolitan area did more than 40% of the population vote.

So what is going to happen when the second round comes on May 24?  Civic Platform has prospered as the anybody-but-PiS party; will that be the case once again?  Urban voters may not be enthusiastic for Komorowski or Civic Platform, but most of them definitely don’t want to see a PiS victory.  Many of these voters are on the left, and their disengagement comes at least in part from a lack of any viable leftist candidate.  The Komorowski campaign (which has been managed poorly so far) must spend the next few weeks reminding people that behind Andrzej Duda stands the actual leader of PiS, Jarosław Kaczyński. I’m sure President Komorowski will make an effort to win votes for his candidacy, but that approach is not the key to his victory. Rather, he (or his proxies, because he needs to stay somewhat above the fray) should just repeat “Kaczyński, Kaczyński, Kaczyński, Kaczyński” for the rest of the month.  If they do that, then I think we can count on the missing urban voters to show up next time, when it really matters.

 


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Pope Francis and the Coal Miners

A couple days ago in the New York Times there was an interesting letter to the editor from Maciej Grabowski, Poland’s Minister for the Environment. He is responding to an article about Pope Francis’ forthcoming encyclical on the environment, which promises to include a strongly-worded statement about global warming and a discussion of the links between environmental degradation and poverty. In the United States, politicians and business leaders on the right are very concerned about the impact this document will have, and it adds to their overall dissatisfaction with the Pope’s outspoken comments about inequality and social injustice. Though Mr. Grabowski’s party, Platforma Obywatelska (Civic Platform), is typically described as “center-right,” he wants to make it clear that he welcomes the prospect that the Pope will take a strong stance on the issue of climate change. He writes, “[The Pope’s] new approach and highly anticipated environmental encyclical could play an important role in the coming Paris climate negotiations, especially in countries like Poland, where there exists a strong relationship among tradition, history, and Christian values. As Poland’s minister of the environment, I find that my job has been made easier.”

Why did Mr. Grabowski write this letter? Let’s accept that in part this is simply an expression of his own concern about global warming—I like to believe that even politicians are sometimes capable of sincerity. But government ministers in Poland don’t routinely write letters to the New York Times, so why did this article (which wasn’t even about Poland) elicit a reply? I think that this short text offers us a fascinating window into the complexities of Poland’s domestic and international politics. Externally, this letter serves to counter the bad press that Poland has received because of the country’s resistance to constraints on coal emissions. Over the past few years in particular, the Polish government has tried to water down EU climate control standards because Poles rely so heavily on the mines of Silesia and the power plants those mines supply. Though understandable on a political level, this stance has given Poland a reputation internationally for defending pollution. Grabowski is therefore trying to ride the coattails of the Vatican towards a greener respectability.

More interesting to me, though, are the domestic politics of this issue. Poland’s main coal mining regions in the southwestern part of the country vote solidly for Platforma overall. The only two powiaty (local administrative districts) in all of western Poland to vote for Prawo i Sprawiedliwość (Law and Justice, or PiS) in 2011 were Lubin and Polkowice (near Legnice), and both Upper and Lower Silesia are Platforma strongholds. On the other hand, among miners themselves support for PiS is very strong, and the head of the PiS-affiliated trade union, Solidarity, is a miner named Piotr Duda. In a country with a unionization rate almost as low as the United States, the mines remain a rare bastion of labor militancy. Over the past few years they have used that strength to push the government hard, winning concessions both for the miners directly and for the coal industry more generally. Prime Minister Ewa Kopacz would like nothing more than to see this source of opposition weakened, but a direct assault has proven difficult.

It is a peculiarity of Polish politics that the Solidarity trade union is very close to the Roman Catholic Church. If the Pope’s environmental message is as strongly worded as most expect it to be, it’s going to put the Polish clergy and Solidarity in an awkward position. In an election year, that’s going to be a valuable gift to Platforma, but more importantly it is going to help Kopacz isolate the mineworkers going forward. Surveys have shown that Poles are inclined to support the demands of unionized miners in the abstract, but (with familiar inconsistency) oppose any concessions that would increase utility costs. With the Vatican pushing Catholics towards more environmental sensitivity, it will further undermine one of the last unionized industries in Poland. In that sense, it will indeed make Minister Grabowski’s job a lot easier.


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Polish Debt & Greek Debt

With the Greek debt crisis in the headlines, and the German government posing as the voice of moral rectitude and responsibility, it might be tempting for the Poles to feel a bit smug themselves. Sure, their debt is higher than the apostles of austerity would like, but it certainly doesn’t compare to the massive levels the Greeks accrued. Nowadays one hears more and more about a shift in the European axis from west-east to north-south (with “backwardness” and “irresponsibility” always positioned geographically inside the troublesome doppelgangers of the “real” Europe). Of course Poles remember the bad old days when Edward Gierek’s wasteful spending and reckless borrowing brought the country to ruin, but fortunately those days are long gone, and Poland now gets to sit at the table with the grownups (eating a very spartan meal, of course—though the Spartans themselves no longer see the virtue in that).

Time for a reality check. Not in order to put Poland in its place, but to offer a corrective to the austerity-mongers (not that they will listen). I admit that I always took it for granted that Gierek’s debt was monstrous. After all, every history textbook tells us so (including my own—gulp!). So it never occurred to me to compare the debt-to-GDP ratio of the 1970s to the present situation. Surprise: the debt of the III Republic has always been higher than the debt of Gierek’s PRL, not just in nominal terms (that’s obvious) but also as a share of the overall economy. Only in the late 1980s did Poland’s debt really spiral out of control, and that was tied up with the profound crisis that ultimately led to the collapse of the PRL itself. So if Gierek was irresponsible, he shares that with every single Polish politician of the post-communist era.

Looking at the chart below, I’m sure one will notice right away that the size of the debt relative to the economy declined radically after the fall of communism. Here is exhibit #1 for the austeritites. Poland brought its debt down, and look what happened: the most dramatic rise in prosperity in the country’s history. Not so fast: let’s remember a moment in March, 1991, when the group of lenders known as the “Club of Paris” agreed to reduce Poland’s debt from 33.5 billion to 16.5 billion, simply writing off the other 17 billion as a loss. Moreover, they restructured the remaining debt so that Poland’s regular payments would be reduced by 80%. When the Greeks proposed a similar package of relief earlier this year, the response by IMF Managing Director Christine Lagarde was “A debt is a debt and it is a contract. Defaulting, restructuring, changing the terms has consequences on the signature and the confidence in the signature.”

It does indeed have consequences. In Poland the 1991 deal allowed the country to pull out of the depths of shock therapy and begin the process of reconstruction that has eventually led to today’s “new Golden Age” (as the Economist recently characterized Poland’s current prosperity). Let’s imagine for a moment what would have happened had today’s fiscal gurus been setting policy a quarter century ago. Does anyone seriously imagine that Poland could have ever emerged from the crisis of the late 1980s had the country been saddled with those massive debt repayments? Does anyone seriously imagine that Poland would be growing today if the country were not (for the time being) still able to exceed the arbitrary debt and deficit limits mandated by the Eurozone?

If I thought for a moment that the faith-based economics of austerity was vulnerable to historical counter-evidence, I would be optimistic that this reminder of Poland’s recent past might do some good. Sadly, it won’t. Back in the early 1990s debt forgiveness for Poland was vitally important to prove that supply-side economics had triumphed over communism. Now a similar concession to Greece would strengthen the arguments of the likes of Syriza or Podemos. In that context, “a debt is a debt.”

 


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John Paul II and Francis

The “Polak-Katolik” equation is demographically inaccurate for today’s Poland, deeply misleading for describing Poland’s past, and (not least!) filled with enough ideological baggage to trigger excess fees on even the most generous airline. I’ve spilled too much ink over the years in an attempt to debunk the idea that Polishness is subsumed by Catholicism, and I’m not interested in rehashing those tired arguments (those interested could click here or–if you are more ambitious–here).

But the 10th anniversary of John Paul II’s death has prompted a lot of rumination about the contours and dynamics of Polish Catholicism, and that’s a more interesting question. One typically hears that Polish Catholics are the most conservative Catholics, and that Catholic Poles are the most conservative Poles. Like most historians I’m allergic to overgeneralizations of any sort, and this is no exception. It isn’t just a matter of ignoring the voices within the Church calling for a more open engagement with the modern world. Such individuals are a minority nowadays, and have little support within the Polish episcopate, but we certainly don’t want to erase them from view. An even greater problem, though, is that “conservative” is a singularly unhelpful adjective in this case. Many Polish Catholics promote a worldview that is far too radical to conserve much of anything.

One generalization we probably can make is that Polish Catholics are John Paul II Catholics. What does that mean? Not much, to be honest. His very name has become what we call (when we want to sound sophisticated and jargony) an empty signifier. But wow—what a signifier it is! I doubt there is a word or name or phrase in Polish that comes so close to bearing a universally positive value. A survey taken last month showed that 95% of Poles consider Pope John Paul II to be a “moral authority,” compared to only (only?) 84% for Pope Francis. In the United States, surveys show that Catholics seem to be a bit more enthusiastic about the current pope, though it has taken them some time to warm to him. Benedict’s approval rating among American Catholics ranged between 67% and 83%, whereas John Paul II’s ranged between 91% and 93%. Though Francis started at 84%, he has now reached 90%–but 57% have a very favorable view of him (compared to 48-53% for John Paul II). A full 70% of all Americans like Pope Francis, including 68% of those who say that they have no religious affiliation at all.

All these figures show that popes tend to be more popular than Catholicism itself, and that they pull their popularity from across just about every cultural dividing line there is. But in Poland, John Paul II does this to an even greater degree. Let’s face it: there is nothing that 95% of Poles agree upon. Only 75% consider Vladimir Putin to be a threat, and that’s probably the biggest point of consensus in Polish public life today. I doubt that even Pope Francis’ approval rating would translate into an equivalent level of support for any of his specific beliefs, and I know that this is true for Pope John Paul II. Poles might say that they consider him to be a moral authority—but that only stands if we recognize that respecting authority figures and actually obeying them are two entirely different things.

Data from CBOS.

Data from CBOS.


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Speaking English in Poland

My students often tell me that they would love to travel to Poland, but they are concerned that it will be hard to do so without speaking any Polish.  Of course my first response is to chastise them for not knowing Polish!  What possible gap in their education could explain their failure to master this crucial language?  So many of them have wasted their time with inconsequential dialects like French, Spanish, or German….  But that’s our woeful American educational system, and we have to deal with it. Fortunately, I can reassure them that they will do just fine in Poland with English.  It turns out that the Poles are among the best in Europe in terms of English language abilities, according to the most recent edition of the English Proficiency Index, a 60-country survey prepared each year by “English First,” a European firm specializing in international education. Because EF’s testing is done on-line, the comparative results are somewhat skewed by differences in internet access, but let’s not let methodological rigor get in the way of a good story!  According to this test, Poland currently ranks 6th in Europe, behind only the Scandinavian countries and the Netherlands, but slightly ahead of Germany, and far ahead of the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Hungary, Italy, Spain, or France. Perhaps even more important, the Polish scores have shown stunning improvement over recent years, with a 20% rise since 2011.

But let’s be sure that no one concludes from these figures that there is no need to learn Polish!  It is now the fifth largest native language in the EU, after German, English, French, and Italian (and tied with Spanish).  If we add together native speakers with those who have learned Polish as a second (or third…) language, it falls to sixth place.  English then becomes first (51%), French second (27%), then German (24%), Italian (16%), and Spanish (15%).  But still, I think it is impressive that 9% of the entire population of Europe speaks Polish.  These figures (from the Eurobarometer survey agency) are based on self-reported speaking abilities, so they too should be taken with a grain of salt.  Moreover, the survey in question was taken in 2012, and since knowledge of Polish as a second language has been steadily growing in Europe for many years, the figure today would be somewhat larger.

So learn Polish!  But while you are working on it, you can travel to Poland with confidence that you’ll have no problem communicating.


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More on the Happy Poles

I’m sure no one missed the big holiday last week: International Happiness Day (March 20)!

Well, perhaps this hasn’t yet become a major tradition where you live, but it is the occasion for the European Commission’s “Eurostat” agency to release its annual report on the quality of life in Europe. That organization has developed a composite metric that blends together a bunch of different measures of subjective well-being (those interested in the methodological details can click here). Suffice it to say that this is more than just a simple inquiry asking people “are you happy”? Rather, it encompasses questions about how satisfied respondents are in a many different aspects of their lives, and translates that into a percentage that is supposed to determine overall subjective welfare.

Recalling my post from a few weeks ago about Polish optimism, I was eager to see how the country ranked alongside its neighbors. It turns out that with a mean life satisfaction index of 73%, the Poles scores quite well—not as joyful as the Scandinavian countries (80% for the Swedes, Finns, and Danes, 79% for the Norwegians and Icelanders), but a lot happier than the Bulgarians (48%), or Hungarians (62%). The Poles are more cheerful than the French (70%) the Czechs (69%) the Italians (67%), and the Spaniards (69%), and they tie the Brits and the Germans.

Obviously we wouldn’t want to draw too many conclusions from an index like this one, but it does highlight some patterns that are worth attending to. For example, most European countries show a rough consistency in happiness ratings across various age groups, but in Poland the contrasts are stark. If we only measured people aged 16-24, the Poles would come only behind Austria, Finland, and Iceland with a score of 81%. The scores for those over age 65, however, plummet in Poland to 69%, far down to the bottom dozen countries on the list.

The other pattern that jumped out was the way this has changed over time. I remember the sense of gloom that one felt in Poland back in the 1980s; more than any of the “objective” problems facing the country at the time, I thought that the depressed and depressing mood of the place was an indicator of serious problems. A friend explained at the time that this was deeply rooted in Polish culture, because those who seemed too cheerful were thought to be insincere and superficial.  Well, so much for those deep roots….

Happiness_Index


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The Limits of Independence

I’d like to describe this as a buried news story, but that would imply that it even reached the news. The European Central Bank (ECB) issued a statement last Tuesday “urging” the Polish government to further revise the law regulating the relationship between the Polish National Bank (Narodowy Bank Polski, NBP) and the Polish government. The issue here is the “independence” that each national bank in the EU is supposed to enjoy: the ECB statute prohibits member institutions from “seeking or taking instructions” from any national government. Polish law, meanwhile, states that the national bank must forward its draft policy assumptions to the government.

I fear that I may have lost most of you with that less-than-exciting lead paragraph. But don’t go yet!

The 7-page statement from the ECB is a highly technical document, and most of it deals with various administrative and procedural inconsistencies between the ECB statute and a proposed reform of the laws regulating the NBP. It makes for great bedside reading, assuming that your goal is to doze off as quickly as possible.

But this sort of stuff deserves more attention. It has become commonplace to observe that the most fundamental challenge facing Europe today is the “democracy gap,” the sense that the decisions that really matter have been taken entire out of the political process and that unaccountable bureaucrats have an outsized influence. This is grist for the populist mill, and it’s way too easy to twist this complaint in a direction that feeds the paranoid nationalist groups that now exist in every EU country. Yet there really is a problem here, and it is captured in this idea that central bank “independence” is a sacred principle.

I know the arguments: if central bankers made their decisions—particularly those regarding the money supply and interest rates—according to the whims of public opinion, it would encourage reckless policies that would result in inflation. Poles in particular can remember the hyperinflation of the late 20th century, and no one wants to return to those days. Safeguards need to be in place to reduce the likelihood of such events, but by using the word “independence” we make it seem like a moral principle or a political ideal. Who can be against independence—particularly in Poland?

What if we used the word “accountability” instead? Because that’s what we are really talking about here. By fetishizing “independence” the EU has reached the position it is in today, where a network of central bankers and other financial experts continue to impose a doctrine of fiscal austerity on a continent that is struggling to ward off deflation, not inflation, even as public support for these policies falls to the vanishing point. Even many professional economists (well, at least Paul Krugman, but he’s important enough to be called “many”) are baffled and frustrated by the obstinacy with which Europe has been driving itself off a cliff these past few years.

Economists routinely try to wall themselves off from politics, as if their discipline should be the firmly in the realm of “rationality,” isolated from the vagaries of emotions, interests, and desires that are channeled through political life. Modern economic thought relies heavily on the notion of a rational actor, and since such beings don’t exist in the real world, the next best thing is to cordon economic decision-making into a realm where “irrationality” is forbidden. We then don’t have to worry, for example, about the “irrationality” of those who get upset when millions of young people are doomed to long-term unemployment, or the “irrationality” of those who argue that deflation or poverty might sometimes be a greater danger than inflation or budget deficits. Economists don’t need to concern themselves with the ignorant whining of those of us who can’t grasp their subtle mathematical gymnastics.

The fact that Poland has not adopted the Euro has permitted a little bit more leeway in fiscal policymaking—not much, but at least enough to allow the country to avoid the austerity trap that has ensnared the rest of the continent. I’m not suggesting that the continued existence of the złoty is the only (or even necessarily the primary) reason for Poland’s expanding economy, but it is undeniably one of the factors. Even if I’m wrong about that, my general point stands: although it is necessary to build some walls between short-term political demands and long-term economic policymaking, it is deeply misguided to suggest that these barriers must be defended absolutely, as a matter of principle.

There may well be factors I haven’t considered regarding this specific issue, but it seems to me entirely reasonable to inform the government about the forecasts and assumptions being used by central bankers in their rate-setting deliberations. Either way, this is an example of how Europeans have allowed the parallel rhetorical pairings of economics/politics and rationality/irrationality to set the foundation for absolutist claims about the inviolable status of central bank decision-making. Have we not yet learned where this sort of thinking can lead us?