[FORUM]The power to distort historyWatching the taekwondo match on the last day of the Athens Olympic games, I was worried. Moon Dae-sung’s opponent was a Greek with the home field advantage. He was bigger and aggressive and reportedly trained by a Korean coach. The forecast on each country’s number of medals by U.S. economists fanned my anxiety. According to the forecast of the two professors known for the pinpoint accuracy of their predictions for each country’s ranking and number of medals in the Sydney Olympics four years ago, South Korea and Greece would jointly rank eighth with 27 medals in total. But they predicted that in the number of gold medals, Greece would outrun South Korea by winning 10 while Korea won only six. I was concerned that the gold medal in taekwondo might be awarded to Greece because Korea had already won eight gold medals, whereas Greece had only six medals before the taekwondo competition.
But the match was over early. Moon Dae-sung quickly knocked out Alexandrous Nikolaidis with a left turning kick. So the economists’ forecast of the number of medals greatly missed the mark. In their predictions, they used four major variables: population, per capita national income, previous performance and the advantage of the host country. In the case of Greece, they seem to have overestimated the home field advantage.
When it comes to per capita national income, recent data from the Bank of Korea say that Greece ranks 48th in the world with $11,660 in 2002, while Korea ranks 49th with $11,400 in the same period. The situation was much different in 1980, when Greece’s per capita income was $5,000, three times higher than ours.
But after the Greek socialist party came to power in 1981, the Greek economy began to shake. Greece depends heavily on agriculture and service industries. The country usually earns a great deal of money in tourism and transportation thanks to its geography and history. It also receives subsidies of about four percent of its gross domestic product from the European Union. Also, an enormous amount of official and unofficial remittances are made from ethnic Greeks living abroad. In this good environment, the Greek economy could have bloomed if it had been supported by good government policies.
But the populist policies it espoused impeded the country’s economic growth. Take for example a few cases that I saw while conducting an investment environment survey in Greece in the late 1990s. Bus fares in Athens were free during rush hours. Tax evasion became a customary practice because the government set the tax rate high but did not collect taxes for fear of the people’s resistance. While expanding welfare benefits to put a priority on distribution, the country saw its debt snowball. Labor unions, which had supported the socialist party, were triumphant. The government took over declining private businesses through an organization similar to the Korea Development Bank and appointed union leaders as the new managers.
As the economy became chaotic and corruption spread, voters became sick and tired of the socialist party’s rule and replaced it with the New Democratic Party, a moderate conservative party, in last spring’s elections.
What position will South Korea and Greece hold in their economies and number of medals in the Beijing Olympic games four years from now? I wonder, with concern, what the results will turn out to be if South Korea introduces left-leaning policies and Greece continues implementing right-leaning ones. But what is more worrisome than Greece is China. China surpassed Russia again to rank second in gold medals. Enjoying the advantages of both its economic power and being the host country, might China not achieve an overwhelming victory in the next Olympic games and avail itself of that gathered momentum to distort history in earnest?
* The writer is an editorial writer of the JoongAng Ilbo.
by Ro Sung-tae