[Viewpoint] Different parties, same commitment

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[Viewpoint] Different parties, same commitment

U.S. President Barack Obama is said to have succeeded in getting the right pitch on an economic solution across to Americans through his State of the Union address. He delivered the rhetoric working-class Americans frustrated by deepening inequalities most wanted to hear - restoring “an economy where everyone gets a fair shot, everyone does their fair share, and everyone plays by the same set of rules.”

As the prescription to attain such fairness, he reiterated sweeping changes to the tax code, including a hike in taxes for the wealthy. He called for rationalization of tax rates to incorporate the so-called “Buffett tax” - named after the billionaire Warren Buffett and his famous comment that his secretary pays a higher tax rate than he does - to have those making more than $1 million a year pay a minimum effective tax rate of at least 30 percent.

His income tax proposal came after Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney released that he paid an effective federal tax rate of 13.9 percent in 2010 despite earning over $20 million. Obama’s speech killed two birds with one stone - appealing to the hearts of voters and exposing the weakness in his potential rival in the presidential race.

Saving the economy is also a top priority among Korean politicians ahead of the April legislative and December presidential elections. Both the ruling and opposition parties are busy trotting out populist platforms on higher taxes against the rich, greater welfare benefits and equality to win the votes of the angry 99 percent.

But unlike American counterparts, economic platforms and rhetoric hardly differ between the ruling party and the opposition. Each may be hoping they will realize what Renaissance historian Niccolo Machiavelli has prophesied - that some can succeed or fail over the same remedy in public platforms. It will be up to the voters to place bets on who will be more successful.

Power and populace are forever interlinked in politics. Wei Zheng, a court official under Emperor Taizhong in the Tang Dynasty famous for being frank with the ruler, likened the people to the river and the king to the boat on the river to warn that the boat could tip over if the river becomes volatile.

In any age and society, politics cannot exist without the people. Machiavelli warned the ruler to avoid the hatred of the common people because the worst it can expect from the people is to be abandoned by them.

President Lee Myung-bak, who was elected with a staggering number of 5 million votes, will likely leave office bruised with hatred and abandonment from the people.

Power is like sweet honey. One can sink into the jar of self-indulgence from one taste. German political theorist Max Weber advised politicians “daily and hourly, inwardly have to overcome quite trivial and all-too-human enemy - vulgar vanity.”

A power would later be evaluated as a success or a failure depending on the outcome of constant battles against this all-too-human inward enemy. If politicians blinded by vanity lose their sense of proportion and responsibility, they can fall into the abyss of corruption.

We have the same episode replayed every five years on the political stage. The last government was abandoned by the people due to an obsessive pursuit of one-sided ideology. The incumbent government has found itself at the same disgraceful end. The JoongAng Ilbo in its Jan. 30 editorial hit the nail on the head by saying the government has generated a handful of morally defeated soldiers on its downhill path. The way to end this vicious and unfortunate cycle will be today’s political challenge as well as the ticket to win the hearts of the populace.

We are not the only ones who are wary of our poor political tradition. North Korean director of the General Bureau of Reconnaissance, Kim Young-cheol, pointed out by South Korean intelligence officials as the puppet master behind the Cheonan sinking, reportedly warned the government in December 2008 during a visit to the Kaesong Industrial Complex by citing Wei Zheng’s aforementioned quote.

In a dictatorship that rules with terror and propaganda, public opinion and sentiment don’t matter that much. But a democracy cannot be sustained without it. A government can be, in fact, overthrown.

When it blindly pursues populism without taking into consideration policy efficacy, the state of the country could be in danger. At the same time, if the government emphasizes the efficacy of public policy too much, it can lose public favor. To seek a balance is the challenge.

But both the ruling and opposition parties are uninterested in tackling the challenge and dilemma. They disregard the feasibility of their platforms and policy plans only if they serve to win the election. They trot out flowery and sweet words to draw votes in the next election instead of competing to create a better world for the next generation.

It is up to the public to choose their physician to administer the same set of remedies. Their scrutiny and choice will decide the future of this nation.

Translation by the Korea JoongAng Daily staff.

*The author is a professor of political science at Seoul National University.

by Chang Dal-joong

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