Let’s be realistic on social overhead fund
I avoid talking about the presidential election as much as possible. It has become an incredibly popular topic. And yet, a concern rose recently about money. As I looked at the series of welfare pledges presented by major presidential candidates, I began to worry that it will become very costly, no matter who wins. To implement all the pledges, an analysis predicted tens of trillion of won would be needed to cover the costs.
No matter who wins the election, the new president will try to realize that at least some of the pledges would be impossible. The budget simply won’t be enough. The president will likely find a large sum of money that appears to be easily diverted: the social overhead capital budget. Next year, the government has a 343 trillion won ($315 billion) budget, and 24 trillion won (or 7 percent) is earmarked for social overhead capital projects.
Because the new president promised to expand welfare benefits, it won’t be acceptable to cut the welfare budget as well as money for defense and education. But the social overhead capital budget is a different story. There are already significant numbers of the people who are unhappy with the size of investment in social overhead capital.
It is likely the new president will want to use a large sum of the budget earmarked for infrastructure projects for welfare benefits. He or she may think the public won’t notice that several social overhead capital projects were skipped.
Am I worrying too much? Probably not.
The Seoul Metropolitan Office of Education budget, revealed recently, is a classic example. While increasing spending on free school lunches and child care by 82.2 percent, or 362 billion won, the office the amount allocated for new toilets and windows, updating classrooms, and other capital projects fell by 42.7 percent, or 231.9 billion won.
The Seoul Metropolitan Government increased its welfare budget while postponing a significant number of infrastructure projects. There is something that needs to be stressed. Investing in social overhead should not be separated from spending on infrastructure. When new roads and railways are built in poor areas, enormous numbers of people from all different classes benefit from them. That’s why this is called the universal welfare benefit. Social overhead capital is also an important factor in competitiveness. We are living in the information technology era, but without a free and fast exchange of goods, we cannot improve competitiveness.
That is, however, missing in the candidates’ pledges. That’s why I am worried that social overhead capital has become a nuisance and money for it will be diverted for welfare benefits. I seriously hope candidates look at social overhead capital with cool heads. That will save the country, nurture a city and accommodate the people.
*The author is deputy national news editor of the JoongAng Ilbo.
By Kang Kap-saeng