Opinion from The 90s Generation
“Make Your Fortune” and the Thirty Years of Recession Behind This Slogan
The rule of thumb for every candidate in every political election is that tired old adage: “it’s the economy, stupid.” It sure can get the hearts of the electorate pounding, but for a child of the nineties like myself, I enjoy no such delusions.
“Make Your Fortune” and the Thirty Years of Recession Behind This SloganBy Reader's Submission
Editors' Note: This article is translated from an op-ed from Opinion@CommonWealth
The rule of thumb for every candidate in every political election is that tired old adage: “it’s the economy, stupid.” Especially toward the end of last year (2018), “Make Your Fortune” (發大財) was reintroduced to the public consciousness as a popular campaign slogan. It sure got the hearts of the electorate pounding. Recently, Kuomintang presidential hopeful Wang Jin-pyng (王金平) rallied his base with promises of returning Taiwan to an era of prosperity when everyone was “knee-deep in cash.”
That cash had already dried up by the time I was born. I don’t know what it was like to live in such a prosperous period. When one looks at the history of Taiwan from 1987 to 2016, it’s tempting to feel wistful for that golden age, to regret the thirty years of decline after the end of glory. Perhaps I don’t feel it as strongly, but I can imagine the sense of loss experienced by the older generation. How nostalgic they must be for the good old days!
The Mad Era When Stocks Soared and Every Investment Paid Off
No economy exists in a vacuum. Taiwan’s prosperity had its roots in international politicking. Back then, the United States wanted to reorganize its trade structure with Taiwan to offset the deficit.
Section 301 of the U.S. Trade Act of 1974, which authorized the American President to counteract the policies of foreign governments that violate an international trade agreement, boosted the value of the New Taiwan dollar. In 1982, one American dollar could be exchanged for NT$40. The deregulation of the foreign exchange market in July of 1987 caused the NT$ to appreciate until an American dollar was worth only NT$25 to 28.
Hot money poured into the market; the great Taiwanese gold rush had begun.
In those mad days, the Taiwanese Stock Exchange went from a thousand points in 1986 to twelve thousand points in 1990. That is to say, the stocks ballooned to over twelve times their original value. The number of investors increased from 0.4 to 5.03 million—that’s one third of the Taiwanese population over 15 years of age. Buying stocks became a national pastime. Everyone was gambling in the stock market, so much so that foreign press dubbed Taiwan the “Republic of Casino.” (Read: How Rich Was Taiwan?)
The Burst of the Bubble and the Broken Dreams of 5 Million Investors
Inevitably, the bubble burst. In October of 1989, the U.S. removed Taiwan from the list of currency manipulators. The appreciation of the NT$ came to a dead stop. Hot money leaked out of the country.
The Taiwanese stock market was at a historical high of 12,682 points in February of 1990; in eight months, it shed a million points in a devastating death spiral. Five million investors woke to find their dreams shattered.
It just so happens I was born in that fateful year when the roaring stocks came crashing down. In my memory, my father and grandfather were avid investors who only flipped on the television to monitor the stocks. Their bulging eyes traced line after line of red and green numbers I could not comprehend. Their jittery fingers jotted down figures feverishly on stacks of paper.
That memory evolved into my grandparents bickering when I got older. Grandma railed against my grandpa for losing enough money to buy a new house. Still he fed his gambling addiction, confident he could win the money back if he just threw a little more cash onto the pyre. Papa was no better. One day he’d be giddy about making a few grands; the next day he’d be dejected because he lost it all.
Even as a child, I understood that the stock exchange was a bad influence. It never brought us happiness.
I’ve heard stories, too. I have a friend whose relative was a reputable, hardworking, honest and humble physician. Somehow, he got it into his head to bet on stocks. He had a very sound plan, too: he threw himself into his work, and handed his hard-won earnings to his wife to invest in their retirement. But in the end, they lost millions of dollars, and even their house.
He blamed his wife and took his anger out on her. He lost his taste for work, and became an abusive husband and a bad doctor. He was like a deflated balloon; he died before he reached fifty.
This is just one tragic story from that era of sadness.
All those people who already had a good thing going for them, they dreamed of riding the soaring stock market to ever greater heights. The future seemed so bright, but then the bubble burst. No one was ready. Lives were ruined in an instant. People lost their life savings, families descended into poverty, recrimination, abuse. They could not accept the years of prosperity were just a flash in the pan; they thought the cash would come back if they just kept rolling the dice.
Unable to forget the glory days, they kept trying, kept investing, and kept losing.
The “Make Your Fortune” Mentality is Nostalgia for a Lost Era
I have an idea why the “Make Your Fortune” slogan is so catchy, why voters flock so eagerly to this siren call. Perhaps, they have memories of that era of unlimited prosperity. Perhaps they’re still looking to make their fortune.
But for a child of the nineties like myself, I enjoy no such delusions.
We were born into prosperity but grew up in an age of decline and depression. We never expected to make a fortune. We began our careers knowing we could work our whole lives and never make enough to afford our own house.
And so perhaps my generation is less obsessed with the rat race, and more interested in the potential for equality and social justice.
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My elders like to complain that the new generation has their heads in the clouds, that we don’t know the value of honest work for honest pay. But when I see the politicians spinning their yarn, I realize the so-called “adults in the room” are also lost in their memories of bygone glory. They feel the world owes them another chance to make a quick buck. Those sky-high expectations coupled with cold hard reality molded their character; ultimately, this will determine their choice at the ballots.
We may be unmoved by slogans about making our fortune; we see a row of talking heads making empty promises. But we should understand that the socioeconomic backgrounds of each generation instilled in us vastly different values and worldviews.
Every generation experiences disappointment and loss. Acknowledging our difference is what enables us to move on, to try to come together in pursuit of a mutually beneficial goal.
Policy Change is What Will Make Our Fortune
When I talk to my friends, I realize the economy is not doing so bad. Our GDP has been growing these past years, but no one notices because the law of the land funnels the benefits of our bustling economy to the one percent. The wealthy elites game the democratic system to become “representatives” of the electorate. Then, they use their legislative powers to codify the corrupt rules that protect their interest at the expense of their fellow men. The society becomes ever more stratified.
For the past thirty years, the wealth gap between the upper and lower classes has gotten wider and wider.
If our politicians really wanted to help us get rich, they should rely less on foreign investments and more on policy changes that will fix our tax, property, and real estate laws, with the end goal of distributing wealth more evenly. But of course, the established elites don’t want people to know the truth. They hide behind empty promises about improving the economy to rake in the votes, then go back to scheming about how to better protect their ill-gotten wealth.
Certainly, the slogan about making our fortune is very exciting, and it soothes the soul to think we may yet return to glory. But what we need is a down-to-earth reality check. We need to see Taiwan’s problems for what they are and enact practical reforms to solve these problems. We should demand better of our politicians. Let them know empty promises are no longer enough—they need to answer to our society as a whole, not just protect the interests of a few.
Translated by Jack C.
Edited by Sharon Tseng
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