Problems of affluence

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Problems of affluence

“The paradox of our time in history is that we have taller buildings but shorter tempers; wider freeways, but narrower viewpoints. We spend more, but have less; we buy more, but enjoy less.”

That quote is the beginning of an essay written in 1998 by the Rev. Bob Moorehead, now retired. It has been posted and reposted on the Internet, and wrongly attributed to people including the Dalai Lama and Ban Ki-moon. Clearly, the thought sticks in our minds that something is wrong with today’s world - something has gone terribly wrong. The American pastor’s essay speaks both to global disasters and to a lack of community spirit and tolerance.

Change is inevitable in the world, and change is disturbing to many people, and we Koreans have probably had to cope with more social changes over the past seven decades than almost any other society. Not only do we continue to have a neighbor that wishes to destroy our society and rebuild it in a totalitarian image, but we have moved from an era of thatched roofs to one of high-speed Internet, luxury automobiles - and increasing social polarization, an aging society and rising youth unemployment.

But as we welcome a new year, the Year of the Blue Sheep, we have an opportunity to think about not only the ancient Oriental symbols of our calendar, but also about what we can do to change what needs changing and preserve what should be preserved in today’s world.

Yes, there are terrible things going on in the world, from Ebola to the Islamic State to weather-related disasters to economic uncertainty. But we also have more tools than ever before to fight these problems. As Steven Pinker, a Harvard sociologist and author, noted in a recent article, mass murder, dictatorial governments and warfare have actually been decreasing over the past few decades. We need to look more at trend lines, he says, and less at headlines.

Here at home, as we try to cope with issues of youth unemployment, the graying of our society and choices between development and preservation, we must remember that these are problems caused by prosperity, and would have seemed amazing to Koreans of a few generations ago. The problems must be addressed, but we have the luxury of working on them using resources that were not available to our recent ancestors.

A new head of the liberal party in the National Assembly has just been named, and his election reminded me of the advice by Peter Drucker, the leading management analyst of the 20th century: Institutions - governments, corporations and social groups - must continuously reinvent themselves to stay relevant in the information age.

Our thriving but young democracy in Korea is not immune from this need for creative change. Older Koreans like myself are probably even more eager than younger people to ensure that our country continues to develop and prosper; we saw the amount of hard work and social disruption it took to get us to where we are now, and we want to spare future generations from any return to the disorders of the past.

That is where Drucker’s ideas apply to Korea’s politicians, and thinking about creative reinvention, I wonder whether a liberal or a conservative would be better as the next occupant of the Blue House. My main concern is that politics stop at our seashore, and that our leaders and politicians make foreign policy decisions in a bipartisan manner. That does not mean there should always be sweet harmony in policymaking; it does mean that liberals and conservatives should see their ideology as a starting point and not as a straitjacket.

Where will Drucker-style creative reinvention come from? In my view, it will come from the clash of ideas advanced by one party and challenged by the other. Without lively debate and full discussion, good ideas may be overlooked, or a synthesis of several ideas stronger than the original ones may go undiscovered. Creative reinvention of our institutions will not take place without competing ideas for voters to judge.

Change is necessary to keep up with a rapidly moving world. Change is often uncomfortable and sometimes has bad side effects. But change is inevitable, and our task is to adjust to it, not to resist it. Even though I am sometimes tempted to agree that “we have taller buildings but shorter tempers,” I do not long for the good old days. I sometimes curse my iPhone because it refuses to obey me, but I continue to use it.

As we welcome the Year of the Sheep, my wish for our country is that our political leaders continue to debate ideas vigorously, but also remember that the national interest is more important than partisanship. We can be proud that the Economist Intelligence Unit has ranked Korea as a “full democracy,” tied for 21st in the world in the strength of its democratic practices (and only two steps below the ranking of the United States). We depend on our leaders to exercise the power given them by the people in a responsible way.

*The author, former ambassador to the United Nations, is president of the World Federation of United Nations Associations.

by Park Soo-gil

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