Don’t be afraid to rock the boat

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Don’t be afraid to rock the boat

The presidential transition of President-elect Park Geun-hye is finally in full gear. The rising power will no doubt abound in eagerness and the public is equally highly expectant. The media is scrambling to cover the nuts and bolts of its work and activities.

Despite such high eagerness and hope, however, everyday lives won’t likely change just because a new government is in place. I do not mean to pour cold water on people’s hopes, but that’s the reality. Park and her transition team may be working hard to concoct various programs and policies to impress people. But what they come out with in a month’s time won’t likely be new or great. It is nearly impossible to produce a complete solution to the host of problems and challenges the country faces today. Some will be sweet to taste but bad for the body, and some will taste bitter but be healthy. Some also will lack ingredients or need more time to cook.

The most urgent task for the incoming government is to push the economy out of the low-growth cycle. With the economy moving at a snail’s pace, it cannot solve the dilemma of polarization or serve to increase jobs. With fewer jobs and worsening wealth discrepancies, people can hardly be happy. No words of comfort and cheer would inspire people struggling in a sluggish economy. But unfortunately, there are no signs of the end of the tunnel. The economy is hit with a double whammy of global recession and internal structural problems.

No government can solve those problems merely with eagerness. It cannot alone reverse the trend of the global economy or combat demographic challenges from a low fertility rate and aging society. As there is no immediate solution to tackle low growth, it would likewise be difficult to increase jobs or ease economic polarization. If they were so easy to fix, the incumbent Lee Myung-bak administration - in lame-duck mode or not - would have had a go at it.

Low growth also restrains the new government’s ability to finance its welfare programs. When the economy turns bad, demand for social welfare and security grows. But the government is tight in spending as tax revenues will decrease from lower growth. It is a poor time to take office. Facing a cruel reality will be the starting point for Park and her transition team.

When circumstances are bad, it is best not to raise the stakes or make a bold move. Overenthusiasm can only generate disappointment and unwanted side effects. Fortunately, Park appears to be fully aware what she is up against. Heading the first transition meeting, she said, “A wrong diagnosis could produce a wrong prescription.”

But if immediate results are hard to expect, the government should look farther down the road. If the factors behind low growth cannot be solved in the near future, they should be incrementally addressed for the long run.

The long-term solution is to come up with a new engine for growth. We need a program and mechanism for sustainable growth that can produce jobs for 10 to 20 years and finance the growing welfare cost for an aging society. The measures and steps to the goal do not show their effects immediately and won’t likely help the new government in winning public favor. But in the long run, it will have done a great job of setting the country in the right direction.

Popularity is meaningless to a single-term president. What should matter is how they are evaluated by history. A president without the burden of running for a second term should work to leave behind valuable accomplishments instead of chasing higher approval ratings. Park has the chance to make her mark as a president who provided a breakthrough and turning point to the country.

At the same time, she should be attentive and caring to the immediate needs of the people. The painkiller can’t make the grave illness of low growth go away. Margaret Thatcher, whom Park considers as a political role model, earned the nickname “Iron Lady” for her uncompromising will to implement deregulations and reforms despite vehement resistance and eventually curing the so-called British disease. Park can be remembered as a heroine who saved the sinking “Korea Inc.” if she pursues programs to build a new engine for sustainable growth.

She should seek the right talent to help her. Park should forgo public favor and provide bitter medicine to the people. Instead of pleasing citizens, she will have to make demands from them, and listen to their complaints and try to persuade them as well. And the new president would need to hire people who will do the tough jobs for her. We hope her government is filled with many who can wonderfully perform unpopular roles.

*The author is an editorial writer of the JoongAng Ilbo.

By Kim Jong-soo
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