Corruption is a feature, not a bug

Corruption Brought Back Rats in Budapest

Orbán’s breeding efforts dubbed the “2018: Year of the Family” were an unparalleled success among two groups of Hungarians: politicians and rats.


The radio in the grocery store was uncomfortably loud. It announced that Budapest authorities have set aside another billion for pest control because sightings of rats have skyrocketed in the last few weeks.

“Finally!” said a lady. “At least they are doing something.”

“Orbán is a good minister, he always does something,” replied her friend.

The exchange would be cute if it wasn’t so disturbing. “Doing something” in this case meant spending 4 times the money on a company that failed to do its job in the first place. After they took the contract away from the incumbent that did a great job.

For 47 years, Budapest has been rat-free. As a recent report on described, the current incumbent has taken over pest control duties in Budapest in 1971, and after an initial two-year pest control campaign, they pushed down the number of rats to 0.01 rat per human, which is essentially rat-free – especially compared to other major cities in the world.

I can personally confirm that Budapest has been unusually rat-free. During my 30-odd years here, I have never come across a single rat, nor have any of my friends or anyone I know – unlike pretty much everywhere else in the world.

Not anymore.

Last year, cronyism reached pest control. In their search for new businesses, industries and public procurement contracts to gobble up, some terribly lucky businessmen set eyes on the Budapest pest control money. It is a mere million euro a year – but still a tasty sum for hungry minor cronies.

The long-term incumbent, Bábolna Bio, charged a little less than one million euros a year (let’s say 1 million for simplicity), on four-year contracts. In 2018, however, a new competitor appeared and offered to do the job for approximately 15% less (3 million per four years).

This is where it is worth to pause for a moment and remind ourselves of the age-old public procurement trick of lowering the initial bid to win the tender – but overpricing maintenance, follow-up and ‘unexpected future expenses’. No EU competition watchdog (certainly not a Hungarian prosecutor…) could find fault in the process, where the upfront ‘cheapest’ offer won.

In the end, however, the final cost of the contract will balloon out of proportion. If they offered to deliver 10 light bulbs for 10 euros, they will end up delivering 100 for 1000 euros each plus maintenance (say, 10 euros per day) and ‘unexpected expenses’ like having to install said light bulbs. Then the light bulbs break down and they need to replace them for 2000 each.

After the new company took over rat control, three weeks passed without any control happening during the summer of 2018. Possibly because the new company has never, ever done any rat control before – only some mosquito thinning in the southern town of Szeged. Or because of the breathtaking labor shortage that makes one wonder how they presented the necessary number of pest control workers – on top of their missing know-how.

The hiatus also happened around the time when the centralized Bin Holding was refusing to pay waste collection companies for political reasons (and to take over the bin collection business from private companies by forcing them into bankruptcy) and trash started to pile up all over the country. So the new rat population was also immediately presented with a lovely place to raise their families.

As one Hungarian rat couple breeds up to 800 offspring in a year, those three weeks were a good start. By the end of summer rat sightings were everyday occurrences. This lady filmed a rat in their second floor window in downtown Budapest – trying to get into her daughter’s room.

News and videos about rats roaming the streets of Budapest are a new YouTube theme and even news portals have stopped reporting after a few weeks. This is the new normal in a city that never had to deal with rats.

Even the dubiously reconstructed metro line had to be shut down because a rat made it into an electrical cabinet and caught fire – authorities were unusually tight-lipped in admitting that the “small-sized mammal” causing the fire was actually a rodent.

After weeks of rat-related news in the independent media and skyrocketing number of calls to the pest control authorities, the announcement was made that Budapest triples the money spent on rat control.

That’s what the ladies in the grocery store were so delighted about.

That their tax money was misspent on a visibly dubious public tender – then it was tripled to clean up the mess it had caused – and the victims were delighted that “something is being done“. Or, to be specific, that Orbán is “doing something“. As all strongmen do – posing against the problems they caused.

This is how crony infestation brings you rats – and charges you an extra for it. Nasty politician rats with strong support as well as the cute ones with long tails.


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