Sit down, you’re rockin’ the boat

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Sit down, you’re rockin’ the boat

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The August referendum on free school meals at elementary schools in Seoul brought about a cataclysmic change in Korean politics, and it all originated from a dispute over 69.5 billion won ($61.7 million), the amount that Seoul Mayor Oh Se-hoon refused to provide to fund the program. The amount in dispute represented 32.4 percent of the free school meal budget.

But the latest promises from the major parties make the 69.5 billion won look like pocket change. In the run-up to the general election, the Saenuri Party and the Democratic United Party are competing with programs that involve trillions and tens of trillions of won.

When the Democratic United Party promised free medical services at a cost of 7.6 trillion won, the Saenuri Party responded with free breakfast at public schools, at a cost of more than 1 trillion won. One side wanted to raise the basic pension payment, and the other side offered compulsory high school education. Both were passionate about the half-price college tuition plan, which is expected to cost more than 2 trillion won. One party pledged to raise the monthly salary for private soldiers to 400,000 won, and the other side offered to put 300,000 won a month in a reserve fund. It may be foolish to ask whether we can really trust these promises.

Both parties have clearly gone too far, yet voters realistically have no other option but to choose between them. Meanwhile, uncertainty remains. Can we really afford to spend taxpayer money so liberally? It was just six months ago that the nation was divided over a mere 69.5 billion won, and that feels like a long time ago.

There is a famous theory in management education called the Abilene Paradox that might explain what’s happening. The theory says that members of a group will agree to a collective action that is opposite to the desire of any one person in the group so as not to rock the boat. It illustrates this through the story of a family in Abilene, Texas, who decides to drive 53 miles for dinner even though all any of them want to do is sit on the porch. None of them speak up because they think their opinion runs counter to that of the group.

We all understand the importance of welfare. But it is frustrating that politicians only want to spend money while neglecting ways to make or save it. The family in Texas managed to return home after four hours, but what makes me really nervous is that we have set out on a journey from which there is no return.

The author is an editorial writer of the JoongAng Ilbo.

by Noh Jae-hyun

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