[OUTLOOK]Dreams of debate and principle

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[OUTLOOK]Dreams of debate and principle

In an election year, economists are often asked whether they work for a presidential candidate. An innocent smile prompts differing responses. Either the questioner will suspect that you hiding something, or he will dismiss you as a minor-leaguer. Some economists have not been asked to be policy makers; others may have declined the opportunity.

My true distress lies with the hesitation by so many scholars in laying out for the public the researcher's slant on economic issues. To be sure, there are academics who are removed from value-oriented studies, but those who are more or less involved in practical affairs should establish their own positions. That experts are unable or unwilling to unveil their thinking about candidates on issues that are related to their disciplines is shameful. Watching pitiful snoopers riding on all sorts of personal connections, keeping quiet may perhaps be seen as a mark of true integrity. Still, keeping one's silence when meaningful voices are sought is in no way preferable.

Steering Korea's economy through the shoals of reform calls for a considerable degree of vision and knowledge on the part of our political leadership. The policies of the past may require modification, and the canny campaign manager does not always provide the keen economic insight of a cabinet minister. Ultimately, the buck stops with the president himself. It is regrettable, then, with the election just around the corner, that even pundits have difficulty discerning the economic policies of our presidential contenders. Needless to say, there are candidates who voice positions on ideologically driven issues such as taxation and social security. But positions are easy to take on individual issues. What is needed is a coherent road map which illustrates the processes and constraints of procuring and distributing national resources. Talk-talk may be an effective tool in rounding up the votes of a few interest groups, but in the discerning eyes of an expert, it smells like a clever but crude and deceiving scheme.

For instance, the "wealth tax" per se does not pose problems. In the past, income was an important benchmark for taxation, but recently the argument for taxing spending has been gaining weight. Liberals emphasizing the equitable approach, may wish to consider taxing property as an alternative to taxing income. But there is going to be a lot of opposition to a plan that can easily be seen as a tool for lynching the wealthy. The same goes for social security. The debate should be conducted along the lines that appropriate income distribution boosts growth potential so that we do not approach the issue from an ideological point of view. Also, the financial prospects of any social security network should be thoroughly examined, since its fabric once woven is hard to undo. Making ends meet is a lofty goal, so hasty attempts to paint dreams in the sky will only further undermine the credibility of a new system.

The policy towards the jaebeol is another sore point. On one hand, we have a candidate whose policy, though fairly rational, is passive in highlighting the problems posed by these mammoth conglomerates. On the other, we see someone who purports to want reform measures that are just a new wrinkle on the failed policies of the current administration.

There's more. Who are they to propose a quota system or any other means of arbitrarily procuring national income and tax revenues from here or there? Debating ways to social equality, pondering over how best to use the money instead of how much -- these considerations should be best addressed before any strategic tally of how many votes a policy may gain. Facing off with each other over who can deliver larger economic growth figures is also appalling. At this point, one begins to wonder whether the rhetoric all stems from incompetence or simply a desperate attempt to win as many votes as possible.

We cannot afford to allow our leadership to go the way of the naked emperor. Even if a candidate's presidential bid is upended, we would like to see an honest contribution to society laid on the foundation of what he has learned during the campaign. We would rather witness a warrior who perhaps may have lost the battle, but nonetheless won the war. It would be truly heartening to have, for a change, a man who reviews the fabricated public campaign pledges presented to him for consideration by his staff and declares that he will uphold principle at all costs, including that of an election victory.

* The writer is a professor of economics at Ewha Womans University.

by Chun Chu-song

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