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[INSIGHT] Political Renewal: The Greatest Gift

Dec 30,2000
A Healthy Economy Will Recover, but What If Society Gives Up Hope?
by Joseph W. Chung

It is the end of the year again. In ordinary times at this time of the year, I would be dusting off bookshelves and going over fragments of forgotten memories. But this year, I am filled with shame because I cannot even understand the mechanisms of how our society functions, let alone the ultimate goal of human life that I am supposedly old enough to know.

I want to tell you about a little act I recently put on in the economics class I teach. I began by telling my students that the school has decided on strict academic management and that it is compulsory to fail half the students. A dreadful silence descended upon the students. I told them I could not bring myself to fail half the students when all of them studied so hard.

So I would be grateful, I said, if some of them volunteered to receive an "F," because surely some of them have enough academic credits under their belt that they could afford to fail a class. Some of them also must have rich parents so that they could afford to enroll for another term, didn't they? I then called on the students to raise their hands if they wanted to volunteer.

Naturally, no arm budged an inch. So I told the class representative to call on his classmates at random and begin a martyr hunt. The representative turned deadly pale and the students, all desperately trying to avoid meeting his gaze, had the trapped look of a deer facing a hunter's rifle in a dead-end ravine. I continued my charade for about five minutes, but in that time, the students must have felt crushed under a great weight of helpless frustration.

I ended my act by telling them, "Suppose this little drama represented one phase of the restructuring and layoffs the Korean economy is experiencing today. What would you do?" The students were too shell-shocked to answer.

I then felt a bit guilty because I knew the fate of the workers to be driven out of their work places onto the cold streets does not deserve to be used as the material for an inept performance by an economics professor.

I admit I would have broken out in cold sweat had any of the students asked me what I thought should be done. There must be something wrong with the economic theories I learned or else I did not learn them properly, for I now believe that they are largely useless.

Unemployment causes great suffering even for those with financial and other means to fall back on. The jobless with no savings and no prospects of finding another job?ow great their frustration and fury would be? Should we be so easily irritated at the frequent news reports of workers' strikes if we really, truly understand that they are the last resort in a frantic struggle for survival?

But restructuring is an emergency decree for our economy. Although there can be no adequate comfort for the pains the jobless must be suffering, it is also our reality that we cannot delay restructuring because of them. The last administration introduced a financial reform bill in August 1997, which the presidential candidates decided to kill because they did not want to take the risk of alienating voters.

This failure to pursue reform then ultimately caused the nation to beg for bailout funds from the International Monetary Fund, a fact that elicits anger and regret even today. The nation had to endure punishment for delaying the reforms?elling banks to foreigners and pursuing forcible mergers, acquisitions and layoffs. But we have nothing to show off after three years of painful efforts and sacrifices in compensation for our past failures. Even if we manage somehow to stave off today's suffering with some hastily conceived measures, it will undoubtedly return later with a greater vengeance.

I want to ask whether there were no better methods, of course. For instance, the government decided that labor unions' agreement to personnel reduction is a precondition for corporate sales or public fund transfers. But who can single out their coworkers and ask them to become victims? I sometimes think that simple sales of companies would have been an easier alternative to the mergers and acquisitions currently under way as part of the government's initiative to tackle corporate insolvency.

Take students, for example. They object to an F grade if it is the result of a unilateral instruction from the school board, but otherwise they accept it as the natural result of failing a test.

Sometimes I also think the 150 trillion won that has gone into restructuring, which failed to produce any satisfactory outcome, might have been more effectively used by protecting bank deposits and devising anti-unemployment programs instead.

The economic situation moves in a constant cycle. A healthy economy can go into decline, but it also picks up again sooner or later. The thing that is really frightening is when a society gives up hope that the economy will ever improve again.

If the mission of politics is to inspire hope among the people, then the greatest New Year's gift of all would be politics taking a new turn toward renewal.

The writer is an editorial writer of the JoongAng Ilbo.


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