[FORUM]Chuseok? Bah, humbug!Ginseng wrapped in paper with a presidential emblem; 1 or 2 million won in cash; anchovies. These are a few of a politician’s favorite things. Or, at least, these are some of the gifts that some politicians received from our presidents during the Chuseok holidays in the past, according to Millennium Democratic Party chairman Chyung Dai-chul.
Mr. Chyung was apparently disappointed at the rumors that President Roh Moo-hyun was not giving out any Chuseok gifts this year. He worried that an absence of gifts would be seen as a sign of apathy on Mr. Roh’s part.
Answering that remark, the Blue House scoffed that it was preparing to send out wild strawberry wine from the Honam region and traditional wheat cakes from the Yeongnam region as Chuseok gifts.
Mr. Chyung huffed indignantly and told everyone that his remarks were not just because he wanted a bottle of wild strawberry wine but because, taking into consideration all this tension between the “old group” and the “new group” within the party, he thought it was only right that President Roh should pay attention to small details. That sounds, well, lame.
Chuseok holiday spirits are already limping without adolescent bickering from the political leaders of our country. Why is everyone complaining that they can’t feel the Chuseok spirit? Probably because they can’t afford to.
Had there been people bustling in the outdoor markets, department stores and restaurants, with so many people and goods circulating that the streets were jammed, people would not have had a hollow feeling even though society suffers from ideological conflicts. It’s the gloomy economy that’s making the social and political air more chilly.
There are quite a few aspects to how the economy, or the lack of, stole Chuseok.
First, the current recession was caused more by structural problems than a natural dip in the economic cycle. This recession is not the recession that comes after a period of prosperity and will be followed by another round of prosperity. This recession did not come because our production capabilities reached their limits. The economy has dropped so low that it does not seem likely that any rise in demand will revive it any time soon. There is no room to lower interest rates to boost the economy, either.
The current recession is the hungry recession of a lean economy, the result of a lack of investment in new industries and new factories. We should have invited in more foreign firms and encouraged domestic firms to invest more here. This could have enhanced our productive capacity which in turn, would have raised household incomes and allowed consumption to support the economy once more.
Why didn’t we do so? We were too busy wasting energy fighting among ourselves to do anything productive. Do you want details of the fighting I’m talking about? Sorry, but I don’t want to be accused of spoiling the Chuseok spirit.
Another change we are seeing near Chuseok this year is that instead of the friendly give-and-take of traditional “rice-cake money,” there is a public investigation going on over the huge amounts of political money transfers.
Mr. Chyung mentioned ginseng wrapped in fancy paper and “trifling things that memory fails to recall” when talking about past gifts from presidents, but it is not only presidential gifts that are changed this Chuseok.
Although there is still a long way to go, politicians are holding their hands out less and less at the doors of big, rich firms.
In reality, it was the firms’ spending that had boosted the Chuseok economy in the past. There would have been a “Chuseok economy” if firms had splashed around “rice-cake money,” corporate gifts and bonuses.
Things are different now. Not only are firms incapable of big spending in this recession, but getting caught giving or receiving bribes now means the end of careers for businessmen and politicians.
Add to that the changes in lifestyles; there is smarter and smaller household spending during the Chuseok holidays and that makes Chuseok no longer the special day it used to be.
Gone are the days when Chuseok was the day of the year when people bought new clothes and prepared a feast of food with the money they saved during the rest of the year.
Because the Chuseok holidays fall on Wednesday to Friday this year, there will be more workplaces, stores and restaurants closed than in the years before. Coincidentally, the five-day workweek system will soon be integrated into our society. What’s the use of a longer weekend if we don’t have money to spend on entertaining ourselves?
It is time for our society to bury the memory of “rice-cake money.” Chuseok holidays and longer weekends just won’t be much fun without an economy in which the regular spending of firms alone would be sufficient to stimulate the holiday spirit and weekend festivities.
* The writer is a deputy managing editor of the JoongAng Ilbo.
by Kim Su-gil