It’s the jobs, stupid!In a dead-heat presidential race, any contestant would jump at the chance if someone offers them a wild card that would guarantee a sure win. They’re looking for a promise that would deliver what the majority of the 50 million people desperately desire. It should not stop at rhetoric, but in clear, specific, and plausible language and outline so that the public can believe it could actually happen.
Having said this, the candidates must then find out what the majority wants. Would it be the dismantlement of superrich chaebol business groups to set an example for economic justice? Or is it axing university tuition fees? Should it be free child care for young working couples? Of course, there are voters who would applaud these promises. And they would be music to the ears of certain classes and voters with specific ideological preferences but fall short of moving the broader electorate and voters.
It may sound a bit out of tune, but what most people desperately crave are jobs. Few families in this country are free from worries about work. A family man nearing retirement age may be devoid of a good night’s sleep, so would be his son or daughter in the next room without a job or hope of finding one after graduation.
No issue in the run-up to the election could top jobs in terms of universality and urgency. It will likely overshadow other topics in the final stage of the campaign trail, given worsening job and economic prospects. Who makes the best pitch on improving the job outlook could determine the outcome of the race.
Although none of the main candidates appear to have noticed, the Korean economy is headed into a structural slowdown. Its growth is widely expected to fall under 3 percent this year. Under the current pace and circumstances, the economy won’t likely move any faster next year and beyond. Major investment banks and economists forecast next year’s growth at mid 3 percent, but Samsung Group estimates that growth won’t reach 3 percent next year and is drawing up a business strategy against a lengthy downturn.
The growth rate does not immediately translate into job figures. The country has earmarked 4 percent as the Maginot Line for annual growth rate because any number below that will be insufficient to hire hundreds of thousands of young job seekers every year. Growth is driven by consumption, investment and exports, and corporate investment creates jobs. When demand at home and overseas slumps, companies cannot increase investment and likewise jobs. Jobs for young people have been on the decline for the fifth consecutive month.
The moment of truth will soon arrive. The unemployment figures will reflect the sharp slide in the third quarter that ended in October. Voters will feel unrest about their own jobs when they see poor employment data ahead of the presidential election. A fall in job figures will increase those of the unemployed. The president who is inaugurated in February will face the first test of tackling economic collapse and serious joblessness of young people.
By then the talk of economic democratization and cuts in university tuition fees will likely be muffled by cries for jobs. Tax revenue will decrease, having little room for financing for new welfare spending. It would be too late by then to regret having not elected a president based on the ability to restore the economy and new jobs.
If one disagrees that jobs can be the determining factor for the upcoming president, just look at the presidential election in the United States. Both Democratic and Republican parties place a top priority on jobs numbers.
In recently released September job data, the U.S. unemployment rate slipped to 7.8 percent - below the threshold of 8 percent that historically prevented any incumbent U.S. president from being re-elected. Democratic President Barack Obama beamed at the news, having suffered a setback after failing to make a good case against his Republican opponent Mitt Romney in the first debate. Republicans now accuse Democrats of manipulating the figures and claim they are misleading. They are staking everything on job creation. Yet our candidates are leisurely talking about increasing social benefits and institutionalizing democracy in economic practices.
Many believed that installing equality and fairness in economic culture and improving social welfare would be the key issues in the election earlier this year. They called it the zeitgeist, or the spirit of the times. But that was when the economy was muddling along. The economy is quickly losing steam and likely to come to a full stop, leading to a cascade of unemployed people on the streets. Public sentiment quickly sours in times of trouble. Pounding on chaebol families or increasing welfare benefits will fall on deaf ears of the people without jobs and incomes struggling to get by.
Anyone pledging job security for older people and creating new ones for the younger generation will have a good shot at a seat in the Blue House. But he or she must first demonstrate a plausible action plan and will to carry it out. I would happily cast my ballot for that candidate.
* The author is an editorial writer of the JoongAng Ilbo.
by Kim Jong-soo