[OUTLOOK]Economic woes start slowlyA disease is not made overnight. It takes several decades for most chronic illnesses to be expressed. You can see a spot as small as a pin head where over 10 billion cancer cells already exist. You might feel trivial symptoms such as fatigue, frequent coughing or loss of appetite, but it is easy to dismiss them.
Similarly, you would see unusual but trivial symptoms when the economy is not feeling well. The economy cannot fare well if the members of the economy prefer partying over working hard, expect a lot more than they have earned or resort to sharing the existing goods and pursuing an easy life instead of endeavoring to creating something new. A young man might not be affected much from overwork, but an aged man could easily get sick. The more developed the economy is, the easier it could be to develop chronic diseases. When the per-capita gross domestic product is over $10,000, it means the economy is already not so young.
Many developed countries have experienced economic declines in which a generation was less fortunate than the generation before. There is no guarantee that Korea is an exception. Historically, the downfall of a nation or collapse of a civilization owes more to internal causes such as social disturbances than to natural disasters or foreign invasions. When a nation faces the end, the population, especially youth, will decrease and people will shy away from hard work and adventure. Gambling and superstitious beliefs prevail, and the leaders are distrusted.
What about the Korean economy now? We are seeing many not-so-lucky signs. Despite the favorable turn overseas, economic growth has nose-dived. Unemployment is growing rapidly and market conditions are worse than ever. We might comfort ourselves by saying that the market cycle happened to hit bottom and it will soon rebound. But we should consider at the same time that the economic slump might not be a temporary fall but an early symptom of more serious chronic disease. The potential growth rate is declining and the demographic composition is distorted because of the aging of the society and a growing aversion to having children.
It is worth a moment to seriously consider why we are experiencing these symptoms. A man cannot maintain his health without a healthful environment, mind-set and lifestyle. Similarly, an economy needs the right social environment, systematic support and self-reliance. We need to try and reduce harmful factors that might erode economic vitality and even strike a death blow.
First of all, the economy, it seems, is neither loved nor respected. If an economy is to thrive, it needs to be treasured and nurtured. But people seem to think we can be half-hearted in handling the economy. Before you know it, economic theories have taken a dive in esteem and are considered mundane and materialistic. The economy may deserve that treatment in a way, but it is an overriding social trend to look down on the economy.
One side will vehemently accuse businesses in order to uncover financial scandals and the other side will beg and give excuses that the investigations will practically kill them twice. Senior business officials are under investigation seriatim. What does that look like from the inside and outside? The atmosphere is too gloomy for the economy to revive.
Secondly, we are short of specialists who are responsible and seasoned. An economy is bound to get sick. Today, the diseases an economy can have are more complex and come with different complications. It is important to make the right diagnosis in the early stages and prescribe the right remedy. But we have failed to catch the symptoms quickly enough and have not provided the right treatment. When we have no caretaker or sponsor, we need to find a remedy for the economy by ourselves. We have made a trivial illness into a serious disease. The doctors have cut the abdomen open for surgery, but are still discussing how to eliminate the cancer. Let’s consider how the government and the financial sector responded to the credit card crisis. We could face a similar crisis any time soon, and yet we failed to set a precedent for how to smooth out economic turbulence.
Thirdly, when few people are enjoying what they are doing and feeling happy to do their jobs, the economy can never prosper. This is the biggest illness of all. We see too many people who lay aside their own calling and want to participate in everything else. The new breed of dilettantes is prevailing, and the economy is experiencing frequent paralysis and calcification. When everyone has a dream of his own, works hard to achieve it and explores his creativity, the economy will surely develop.
The elite, especially, need to set an example and take the role of the engine for the rest of the citizens. If you really want to revive the economy, the answer is simple. Everyone should be sincere and earnest in his own occupation. At the same time, the territory of others should be respected. Most of all, be patient and give the economy a chance to regenerate.
The Korean economy has gotten through several crises, and the optimists hope that we can overcome the one we are facing now. But the crises so far were mostly caused by external factors and were resolved naturally when the situation abroad got better.
But this time the problems come and grow from the inside. We should be concerned that the illness the economy is experiencing right now might be something as fatal as a cancer.
* The writer is the vice chairman of Samsung Economic Research Institute. Translation by the JoongAng Daily staff.
by Choi Woo-suk