[FOUNTAIN]Bears, dragons and drunks

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[FOUNTAIN]Bears, dragons and drunks

A bear and a dragon went to sell liquor to visitors who came out to enjoy the spring blossoms. They prepared one coin, a penny, to give change. But the bear could not refrain from the temptation of alcohol. He gave the penny to the dragon for a glass of liquor, muttering, "It doesn't matter who buys the liquor as long as he pays."

The dragon, suddenly feeling thirsty watching the bear drinking, gave the penny back to the bear and also bought himself a glass of liquor. The one cent coin went back and forth between the bear and the dragon. The liquor made them feel good and they believed they had earned a lot of money. But they ended up with one penny and two empty bottles.

That anecdote was cited by Shintaro Ryu, a Japanese economist, to criticize the Japanese economy in the 1960s, which was more intent on growth than on creating real value. He called it "an economy intoxicated by the exchange of free drinks." Japanese newspapers recently borrowed Mr. Ryu's anecdote to criticize the U.S. economy.

Companies colluded to exchange revenue, inflating the paper values of their revenue and profits. Using insider information and money, executives profiteered by selling stock or pocketed money. They were the bear and the dragon who drank up each other's bottles for one penny.

But there is no such thing as free drink. Enron and Worldcom went bankrupt. The U.S. government, which was supposed to weed out the foolish dragons and bears, is mired in a controversy that it had also hit the bottle. Even President George W. Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney are under fire over scandals involving company book-rigging and insider trading.

"The current crisis in American capitalism is not just about the specific details -- about tricky accounting, stock options, loans to executives, and so on. It is about the way the game has been rigged on behalf of insiders. And the Bush administration is full of such insiders," Paul Krugman wrote in the New York Times last week.

But not only the United States is drunk; in fact, the U.S. tolerance for alcohol is fairly high. We should instead worry about ourselves. Book-rigging and collusion were prevalent just a few years ago. We paid the price in the Asian financial crisis, but our accounting system is still not trusted. Scandals involving the sons of President Kim Dae-jung and other government officials pop up one after another. Have we sobered up? Or are we not yet worried about how we can pay the price?

The writer is an editorial writer of the JoongAng Ilbo.

by Sohn Byoung-soo

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