[Outlook] Let my people golf!

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[Outlook] Let my people golf!

Some taboos are absolute during an economic crisis. But sometimes you must speak out about them nonetheless.

We need to have more flexible thinking, like a Korean who says you must take a shortcut when you’re in a hurry.

So some may criticize what I am about to say, but I’ve got to say it.

The taboos I’m going to tackle: the alternate-day driving ban for public workers based on whether their car registration numbers end in even or odd numbers, and the restrictions on playing golf.

The odd-even car ban was first implemented on July 15 last year, when oil prices were at their peak, around $135 to $140 per barrel. Public employees - all workers at public agencies and public corporations, policemen, soldiers and military staff and teachers in public schools - are required to observe the ban.

It has caused many side effects so far, and some people have invented ways to break it in secret. But most of all it causes many civil workers serious inconvenience.

Higher-paid senior public officials can afford to take cabs if they need to. But many public employees in the lower ranks live far from big cities and have to commute long distances.

As they often have to work overtime or come to work early, some sleep over at jjimjilbang - public saunas - near their workplaces.

Many civil workers park their cars in parking lots or on hills near Gwacheon where the administration complex is located. But when they have to go out to other areas to attend meetings or appointments they run into serious difficulties.

Ministers and deputy ministers sometimes use cars allocated for work when they attend lunch or dinner meetings. Some maintain that the ban infringes on their right to own property and say taxes on their vehicles should be reduced if they will not be allowed to drive their cars as much as they want.

Oil prices have fallen to around $50 per barrel, and oil-producing countries have even cut production. We need to examine whether we should keep the ban because of the economy. In fact, it is ridiculous that the ban still applies to public workers now that oil prices have returned to normal.

I do not mean to side with public workers. But we need to think about how public workers live and how to make administration policies more effective. President Lee Myung-bak struck such a blow to civil workers’ morale after he took office that public sector workers lamented, “Who would want to work in this atmosphere?” If public workers do not work with passion, measures to handle the economic crisis will not be implemented properly.

Under these circumstances, the Ministry of Knowledge Economy, which is in charge of the ban, drew up a measure to abolish it last year, but shortly afterward the ministry withdrew the proposal.

The official reason was energy conservation in a bad economy, and that civil workers may be inconvenienced, but less traffic benefits ordinary citizens.

A more fundamental reason is, however, that President Lee is convinced that the ban must be continued. It is said that the ministry, which the president favors, stepped up and suggested abolishing the ban, but was scolded.

Since then the ministry has not dared even mention abolishing the ban. This is a good example of how hard it is to lift a regulation once it is implemented. One wonders if the president stubbornly believes that only he is right.

We also need to rethink the idea that civil workers and those at public corporations should refrain from playing golf. It is widely agreed that discipline in the public sector must be established, as there was a scandal in which a businessman bribed a worker at the Blue House by getting him a prostitute.

However, it is not a good time to act on this. As the economy rapidly slows, the rich must spend in order to revive the economy.

Former President Kim Dae-jung advised people around him to play golf shortly after the 1997 financial crisis broke out as consumption froze and the economy plunged.

Of course, public workers playing golf won’t lead to a drastic increase in consumption. But psychology is an important factor in the economy. The rich opens their wallets when an atmosphere of spending is created.

Discipline in the public sector can be established in other ways, such as by enhancing secret monitoring of public servants’ activities.

One wonders if a drastic measure like the ban on golf is needed when it reduces consumption in society. Golf outings for bribery are not good, of course, but it is not good either to drive public workers from golf courses.

These two issues are so sensitive that it is difficult to resolve them openly in public. But if we could do so, the bans could be effected more flexibly and then lifted as though they never existed in the first place.

And that will help the country’s economy.

*The writer is the senior economic news editor of the JoongAng Ilbo.

by Park Eui-joon
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