[Viewpoint] In government we trust?

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[Viewpoint] In government we trust?

An elderly lady who lost the precious savings she earned from years of hard labor at the now-suspended Busan Savings Bank Group wrote a teary letter to a newspaper publisher. She recounted how she endured numbness in her hands while working as a car washer during winters in the hope of saving for a comfortable life in her later days. The savings would have kept her and her husband secure, or would have supported her disabled husband if she were to die first.

“I believed money would be safe with a bank,” she wrote. “But one day all my money was stolen from us, together with our future.”

In the elderly lady’s eyes, the savings bank represented the state. She took her money to the bank because it offered an interest rate about 1 percent higher than commercial banks. That would boost her return by 40,000 won ($36.60) a month, or about 500,000 won a year, for savings of 50 million won, which makes a huge difference to an ordinary working household. But she had more savings than the government-insured 50 million won.

The bank’s owners squandered the woman’s hard-earned money as if it came from their own piggy banks. A bank that fools authorities by lying about its capital-asset ratio can easily cheat clients. The consumers trusted the government’s system and its financial authority, and they were utterly betrayed.

We are naturally attracted to restaurants and cafes we’ve seen featured on TV food programs. In the shows, entertainers beam with mouthfuls of food and, with silly gestures and pretentious language, say that their taste buds have been overwhelmed by exquisite recipes.

When we actually try the restaurant and its food, we discover its offering are mediocre and that we have been fooled. But people continue to go, not realizing that the restaurants, the celebrities and TV producers are all in cahoots.

We constantly hear of the merits of a market economy. And we generally believe that a market economy is better than a controlled one because an economy that runs on free individual choices is more effective than a state-led one. But that requires the premise that each individual is well aware of real circumstances and individual judgments culminate into the best possible transaction with the help of an “invisible hand.” In order for a market to work, reliable information must flow without diversions.

But the bank and restaurant scams show that the pillars of a market economy can be weakened. The people standing at the intersections of the information highway have diverted traffic for their own self-interests. The Financial Supervisory Service, which is supposed to keep watch on banks, took bribes to look away. Broadcasters that are supposed to deliver the truth, got paid to spread lies.

When untended, the market can turn wild. Large conglomerates are equipped with human and financial resources to run around government restrictions. They can buy legislators and hire senior government officials to lobby on their behalf. They can vault any rules or regulations enacted to enhance a fair market. Because of such inherent weaknesses in a market economy, the government and media are required to do their jobs based on a strict code of ethics.

We are discouraged to discover that the people playing the role of market police don’t have an iota of conscience. The regulator of the financial markets gave away its supervisory role in exchange for payola. Our economic problems - the widening wealth gap between large and small companies and among individuals - may be attributed to such poor oversight and ethics in public officials.

The recent fiasco at a cabinet meeting exhibited the pitiful state of our government. The weekly cabinet meeting, held while the president was on an overseas trip, almost couldn’t be held because half the ministers were absent or late. The cabinet members were obviously most concerned about pleasing the president instead of serving the people who pay their salaries.

If the government can’t even convene a cabinet meeting if the president is away, we can hardly expect responsible behavior from its members. What ever happened to government discipline?

Loyalty and obedience have become yardsticks for recruiting government officials instead of ability, integrity and honesty. Such complaints tend to be opportunistic. They feign work and concentrate on scoring points with the boss without really caring what goes on in state affairs.

What use is all this talk of the future when today’s fundamentals are rotting? Large companies care about nothing but to grow themselves, and the government and media, which should constrain them, are busy indulging themselves. Even if the economy now generates a per capita income of $40,000, the benefits go to the strong and rich. We need a market economy and growth. But it must be a fair and healthy one. To ensure this, we need a government we can trust.

*The writer is a senior columnist of the JoongAng Ilbo.

By Moon Chang-keuk
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