[Viewpoint] The true politics of empathy

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[Viewpoint] The true politics of empathy

The German forces were making a stand against the British Army. In the freezing winter, the soldiers had to sleep in a standing posture in the trenches alongside the dead bodies that were piling up. The trenches were full of garbage, and a foul smell filled the air. It was Christmas time.

As night fell, a strange thing happened. The German soldiers lit candles on a makeshift Christmas tree and started singing carols. Their British counterparts stared blankly at first, but they slowly joined in one after another. They moved up to the enemy camp, and thousands of soldiers emerged from the trenches. They shook hands with their enemies, smoked cigarettes and shared biscuits. They showed family photos and talked about their hometowns.

On Dec. 24, 1914, five months into World War I, this dream-like incident actually happened in Flanders. Jeremy Rifkin, the internationally acclaimed scholar and author of “The End of Work: The Decline of the Global Labor Force and the Dawn of the Post-Market Era,” begins his latest book, “The Empathic Civilization: The Race to Global Consciousness in a World in Crisis” with this Christmas Eve incident. The soldiers were on the battlefield, where they had to kill their enemies, but they sympathized with each other and celebrated their collective survival. Rifkin considered this drama of empathy as the key to reviving the world from destruction.

“Empathy is not just being sympathetic or compassionate. It is an act of penetrating into the lives of the people, sharing their experiences and feeling their needs,” Sohn Hak-kyu, the new head of the Democratic Party, said about the politics of empathy. It would be so great if the ruling and opposition parties could end their consuming political battles and open an era of empathy with the people.

On the face of it, the two major political parties give the impression that they are promoting empathetic politics in an era of empathy. The underlying tone of the policies of the Lee Myung-bak administration in the second half of its term is a people-friendly and fair society. Under the leadership of Sohn Hak-kyu, the Democratic Party has promoted similar people-friendly welfare policies.

The two parties are not much different in terms of how they envision putting the policies into action. Ruling party leader Ahn Sang-soo promised to reinvent the Grand National Party as a reform-minded centrist conservative party by offering welfare benefits to 70 percent of the citizenry, including the lower and middle classes. The Democratic Party’s platform aims to expand social services such as medical services, childcare and education for the benefit of all citizens. The only difference between them is the scope of the welfare services they offer, but both parties are singing populist carols, offering free school meals, free education, free childcare and free medical services.

Last year, the government had a deficit of 43 trillion won ($38.12 billion). The estimated national debt is astronomical - conservative estimates put it somewhere between 360 trillion and 1.6 quadrillion won. The debt has increased over four times in 10 years. In this year’s budget, welfare expenditures were 115 trillion won, 35.2 percent of total government spending. Next year, the ruling and opposition parties are competing to push that number even higher. Ten years of sharing by the progressive administrations have emptied the cellar and dried up the well. The conservative party was given control of the government with the assignment of shoring up the warehouse, creating more jobs and reinforcing the system, but it also wants to increase spending.

We are just so oblivious. In the last days of the Roh Moo-hyun administration, the leftist camp reproached itself for the failings of its progressive supporters and the fact it had failed to present viable alternatives. At the time, the progressive journalists at the Kyunghyang Daily published a book underscoring this assessment. Entitled “Passions and Frustrations in the Twenty Years of Democratization,” the book begins with an examination of the progressive camp and includes specific cases of how Roh’s “Participatory Government” had decreased the quality of life for the working class. The authors say that the movement failed because it wasn’t able to respond to the emergence of the neoliberalists with policies of its own.

The conclusion is that the progressives will not thrive in Korea unless they answer the question of whether the people can survive on democracy alone. The progressives should not just give out free food but also help people develop the ability to find and make their own food. The book was published only three or four years ago, but conservatives and progressives alike have forgotten the lessons it tried to teach and are now competing to devise more of the same policies.

Let’s look at the case of Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva. He grew up working as a shoe shiner and street vendor. Later he led the leftist Worker’s Party, which battled against the rich. But when he was elected president, he devised an economic policy that would revive the middle class. Instead of giving his people fish, he taught them how to catch their own. While maintaining consistent market-friendly policies, the Brazilian government has worked to eradicate hunger and extreme poverty.

As a result, 20 million Brazilians, over 10 percent of the population, have joined the middle class. The country’s GDP tripled, its foreign currency reserves increased by 10 times and prices were cut in half. The exiting president boasts an approval rating of 80 percent. The Brazilian leftist has proved that progressive ideas can also feed the people.

The only government investment in the future that we have is the four-rivers restoration project. But the opposition is urging the government to shift a portion of the project’s budget to support increased welfare benefits. The ruling party initially proposed to lower the corporate tax to create jobs, but now it has changed its position, calling it a tax cut for the rich.

The ruling party should not attempt to boost the president’s popularity by offering more benefits. They do not need to repeat the mistakes of the progressives by doling out excessive welfare benefits.

When small- and mid-sized businesses are thriving, the nation’s wealth will grow. When we have a solid middle class, the economy will also prosper. When conservatives and progressives agree on these indisputable principles, they will be singing the true carols of empathy.

*The writer is president of the Gyeonggi Cultural Foundation and former president of the JoongAng Ilbo.

By Kwon Young-bin
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