[Outlook]Public neglectA bench in a public park is easy to destroy, even if it is made of the same material used for benches found in private houses.
But people do not care about taking care of a bench in a park. Private property is maintained well by the owner, but public property is often neglected. When public property is damaged or becomes dirty, taxes ― another type of public asset ― must be spent to fix it or clean it up.
Some throw cigarette butts out of the car window while driving. They keep the inside of their cars clean because the cars are their personal property, but the street is not.
People usually keep their houses tidy, but some throw garbage carelessly out on a mountain. When a small amount of garbage is dumped somewhere, it is a matter of time before the spot becomes really messy.
Public assets are easily damaged, as seen in these examples. In economics, this is called the tragedy of public assets.
The now destroyed Sungnyemun is an extreme case of that tragedy. However, it had long been predicted. Many people testify that for years, homeless people have entered the property without much difficulty at night. They slept there, cooked instant noodles or even drank alcohol inside Sungnyemun. Some made a fire in a small can when they slept there on a cold night.
How would it have been different if an individual owned this invaluable treasure? He or she would have bought a very expensive insurance policy and guarded it heavily day and night. On a stormy night, the owner would have lost sleep worrying about the structure. He would have prepared detailed measures in case of a disaster. Unfortunately, however, Sungnyemun was a public asset. Because of that, the structure was soaked with the smell of homeless people’s excrement and urine and finally lost in flames.
The amount it was insured for tells us how poorly treated Sungnyemun was. The entire structure burned, but the compensation money is around a mere 95 million won ($100,510). As far as the insurance payment is concerned, the national treasure’s value was less than that of a small apartment. Sungnyemun is gone now. A herd of people are visiting the scene with white chrysanthemums, just like mourners at a funeral. But no matter how sad they are, Sungnyemun will never come back to us.
There are some types of people whom everyone seems to love, but it is not unusual that these people don’t have anyone to love themselves or truly be loved by. Sungnyemun was like that. It was the National Treasure No. 1, everyone’s treasure by title but no one’s treasure in practice.
An apartment is well taken care of by the owner, but Sungnyemun was never loved so dearly.
It will be even more regrettable if we do not learn a lesson from the tragic incident. Any public asset can face a tragic destiny if we do not take good care of it. This is the most precious lesson we can learn from the recent disaster.
Tax money is one good example. Before we pay taxes, the money is our precious asset. But the moment it changes hands and becomes the government’s, it becomes a public asset. From then on, the money is neglected like a park bench. It is precious when it is in our own pockets, but when it is in the government’s vault, the money is spent carelessly. A finders-keepers rule is applied. Powerful organizations or top officials in the government who seize an opportunity ahead of others willingly use it as if they were the owners.
The Bongha Village is another good example. There is nothing wrong if those who admire President Roh Moo-hyun spend their own money to welcome him when he settles there after leaving office. But it is another story if tens of billions of won in tax money is spent to build a residence for the outgoing president to live after retirement and to develop the neighboring area.
The shortage in the national budget is almost always cited as a reason when something that needs to be done cannot be. So people wonder if it is absolutely necessary to use tax money for a project of this kind. According to reports from the central and local governments, 7.5 billion won will be spent on the development of the village, 3 billion won on the so-called well-being forest on Bongha Mountain, 6 billion won on a facility for ecosystem activities in the nearby Hwapo Stream, 25.5 billion won for a cultural center in Jinyeong, 4 billion for the renovation of the Jinyeong sports arena and more, making 49.5 billion won in total.
To pay taxes is said to be among the most important duties people have to their country, but most people are unhappy when they pay taxes. That is because they think once their money becomes a public asset, it is wasted all too often.
*The writer is the senior business editor of the JoongAng Ilbo.
by Shim Shang-bok