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Confused values in times of rapid economic growth

By Martin Rama   December 15, 2018 | 10:04 pm PT
Vietnam will one day become an advanced economy but the transitions can be costly.  
Martin Rama, Chief Economist for South Asia at the World Bank.

Martin Rama, Chief Economist for South Asia at the World Bank

The last time I was in Hanoi I felt frightened. As I was returning to my hotel late at night, and was about to cross the beautiful Ly Thai To street, dozens of roaring motorbikes suddenly emerged out of nowhere, thundering in front of me in a frantic and potentially lethal race. It was one of these "games" where one of the motorbikes is chased through town, at very high speed, by all the others.

Of course, I had witnessed many of these absurd races when I lived in Hanoi, until 2010. But this time the game seemed wilder. To my surprise, the "players" now included young women, two by motorbike, behaving as dangerously as the young men. And nobody was wearing a helmet. Given the crazy speed of the race, and the acrobatics to touch the chased team, the risk of instant death was high.

The horde disappeared like a flash the dark of the night, as rapidly as it had emerged. As the city center became quiet again, I wondered. These young people enjoy opportunities their parents could not have even dreamt of. Previous generations went through the hardship of two wars and the subsidy period. The new one can study, prosper, communicate, travel... So, why were they risking their lives in such a gratuitous way?

I could not refrain from thinking about a dear Vietnamese friend who is closer to my age. When she was a child, as American bombings escalated, her school had been relocated out of Hanoi. She and her classmates lived for a long while with farmers, riding bicycles back to the city with their teacher every couple of weeks, to be with their parents for just a few hours. They did so in the dark of the night, making sure that they would be back to the countryside by daybreak.

That was a dangerous night ride on wheels too, but of a different sort. Like today’s young racers, my friend and her classmates wore no helmets. Instead they had dramatically oversized conic hats intended to protect their little heads from the shrapnel of possible explosions.

Remembering this story, I felt puzzled: how come a much easier life has led to such confused values? I also thought about the many other signs of social disruption I often hear about: the explosion in the number of divorces, the multiplication of frivolous affairs, the consumerism intended to impress others, the reliance on debts rather than work... For sure these problems have existed in all times, but they seem to be exacerbated among young people in periods of rapid economic growth.

The street of Hanoi. Photo by VnExpress/Valentina Aru

The street of Hanoi. Photo by VnExpress/Valentina Aru

This is not just a Vietnamese problem. In the 1950s, the American movie "Rebel without a Cause" showed how rich youngsters risked their lives by playing "chicken game" on a road outside town. In a chicken game, two drivers race toward each other on a collision course until one swerves... or both may die in the crash.  The expensive cars these rich youngsters used to risk their lives were out of reach for the average American worker of the time.

This very successful movie was intended to portray the moral decay of an enormously affluent group in society. The plot was rich in exaggeration and simplistic in its psychological interpretations. But it is telling that James Dean, the star actor, died in a road accident at age 24, even before the movie was released. He too had become enthralled by fancy cars and mindless speeding.

In the 1980s it was Spain’s turn to experience a period of social turbulence. For decades, under fascist dictator Francisco Franco, the country had been under the moral lid of a conservative and patriarchal Catholic mentality. But after Franco’s death in 1975, with the transition to democracy, came the "destape" (the removal of the lid). To older and more traditional Spaniards, it felt as if young people were suddenly involved in a senseless race to multiply the number and complexity of sexual relations.

As for Vietnam, a tale of confused young people is powerfully told by Nguyen Huy Thiep in his wonderful novel "To Our Twenty Years," published in the 2000s. The plot is inspired by the story of his own son. It narrates a young man’s struggle with drugs, his enthrallment with motorbike racing, and his complete disinterest in studying, working or raising a family. Common to other writings by Thiep, this novel conveys a sense of deep ethical disarray.

The U.S. in the 1950s, Spain in the 1980s and Vietnam in the 2000s had something in common. In all three countries those were times of unprecedented economic prosperity and neck-breaking social transformation.  And in all cases the sudden bounty of resources and opportunities made the disciplined and sacrificing mentality of the older generation seem absurd to many young people.

Transitions of this sort do not last forever. Sooner or later a new equilibrium is reached. The U.S. and Spain are nowadays advanced economies with fine societies. Concerns about rebels without a cause or gratuitous sexual promiscuity have gone away.

I have no doubt that Vietnam will one day become an advanced economy too, and I am not really worried about long-lasting moral decay. In fact, I am impressed by the solid work ethic and strong sense of responsibility of the Vietnamese people.

But these transitions can be costly. Along the way many families are wounded by untimely death, drug abuse, heavy debts and household discord. For these broken families, knowing that problems like theirs will recede some day is no consolation.

As someone who loves Hanoi I see another damaging consequence from this period of confused values. The character of a city can be easily lost in times of rapid economic growth. Investors are willing to demolish anything, and to push anyone away, in their search of an instant profit. And in doing so they are supported by the buyers of the new apartments, and the shoppers in the new malls, who aspire to show-off consumerism even at the cost of high debt. 

Hanoi needs committed allies to remain charming and livable. She needs to be understood and protected, for the wellbeing of its inhabitants when all this craze will be over. But these young men and women who take prosperity for granted do not care about the wonderful city where they grew up. And this thought is what frightened me the most as the horde of roaring motorbikes disappeared toward the Old Quarter, in the dark of the night.

*Martin Rama is Chief Economist for South Asia at the World Bank and Project Director at the Center for Sustainable Urban Development, under the Vietnamese Academy of Social Sciences. The views expressed are his own.

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