[Viewpoint] Welfare is a matter of persuasionMany countries envy Sweden’s welfare system, and the country has a secret behind its success. In the 1950s, demand for welfare exploded in Sweden. In order to fund the welfare programs, the government had no choice but to introduce a sales tax, which is equivalent to a consumer tax in Korea.
When the idea was first proposed, 61 percent of Swedish citizens opposed the new tax. There were also internal disagreements within the ruling Social Democratic Party a because some felt that imposing an indirect tax was against the party’s ideology of pursuing equality. Leftist intellectuals also opposed the sales tax, calling it regressive. Then, the Swedish government took the path of persuasion. It was a gradual process.
The government first called in every expert in related fields, such as professors and researchers. The government shared even the most sensitive and confidential data and listened to the ideas of both opponents and critics. The discussion lasted nearly a year, and the experts reached a consensus that a sales tax could be introduced as long as the revenue was used exclusively for welfare. The government convinced critics that it would actually alleviate inequality by properly targeting welfare policies.
Then the Swedish government invited politicians to the table. And this time, the experts took on the duty of convincing. The politicians, who adhered to ideology and political rhetoric, yielded to the unified view of the experts. Both the opposition and ruling parties changed their parties’ directions and took the initiative of persuading party members and citizens.
Two years later, 69 percent of Swedish citizens supported the introduction of a sales tax. The Social Democratic Party has hardly had a majority on its own while in power for over seven decades, and it has acquired the art of patience and negotiation from a long history of forming governing coalitions. Sweden was once so poor that one million Swedes immigrated to the United States, but it made a legendary welfare system.
Lately, the welfare system in Korea has been the center of a war. Politicians have taken the lead in dividing society and attacking each other. The country is divided over universal and selective welfare. Persuasion and compromise are nowhere to be found. Experts’ voices are buried under harsh political slogans.
Korean politicians are highly skilled at polluting the experts. Veteran welfare specialists have been invited to political camps and given political colors. Young professors remain quiet to please the senior scholars with political ambitions. At every critical juncture - from the mad cow disease scare to the Cheonan incident to the welfare controversy - experts are keeping mum.
When you meet welfare specialists in their 30s and 40s in person, you would be surprised to learn their actual opinions. They all respond that the debate over welfare is ridiculous. Welfare is a matter of policy choice, not a political issue. They also agree that poverty among senior citizens is a higher priority than free school meals and half-price tuition.
At present, 45 percent of low-income senior citizens are excluded from the national pension system, nearly twice more than Japan’s 22 percent and Greece’s 23 percent. The suicide rate is four times higher. One professor said it was against humanity to neglect an old man who is desperate enough to kill himself while giving free lunch to students and cutting tuition for college students. Welfare for senior citizens would be more feasible if lawmakers reduced the outdated construction budget and farming subsidies from the country’s industrialization era.
In Korea, welfare is not a matter of persuasion but an object of incitement. In an election, where the winner takes all, “free” and “half-price” promises have become rampant.
Another ominous sign is that both the ruling and opposition parties are choosing to play the welfare card strictly based on votes. Parents in their 30s and 40s are sensitive to free school meals, while parents in their 50s respond to the half-price college tuition pledge.
I asked one of the young professors why the lawmakers were not addressing the issue of senior citizen welfare, which is most urgent. He responded: “Politicians think that senior citizens’ political tendencies would not change and that they do not advocate their opinions on the Internet like college students and young parents. So the politicians do not consider the group to be very influential.”
From now on, Korea needs to continue to expand its welfare budget. However, welfare is not a means for politicians to win votes. We need to listen to experts rather than political promises. The experts say that Korea should model its welfare system after Japan’s rather than Sweden or the U.S. They must keep their voices low, and the experts should speak up.
*The writer is an editorial writer of the JoongAng Ilbo.
By Lee Chul-ho