The dream candidateDeputy Prime Minister for the Economy Choi Kyung-hwan is poised to head back home to the ruling party and the hurly burly of electoral politics. The names of potential candidates to replace the heavyweight politician, who is expected to run in April general election, are already going around. They are all too familiar - someone in the Blue House, an incumbent or former cabinet member, the head of a state-run think tank. Unsurprisingly, they have or had some kind of connection with President Park Geun-hye. Would any one of them be the perfect contestant for the important job in Park’s remaining years in office? Frankly, none of them come close. If you ask me the candidate must be very different indeed.
First, the next finance minister should not come from the political world. Even the president will be tempted to go on a binge and use whatever is left in government coffers toward the end of her term. It is easy to fall prey to the beast of populism during a final act. The incoming deputy prime minister in charge of economic and financial affairs must prevent the government from making any wrong decisions, especially on spending. He or she needs not worry too much about reviving the economy. The performance will be good enough if the economy is not further wrecked. Defense is the best offense at this point.
During his 15 months in office, Choi has done too much and with too little restraint. Real estate was artificially inflated through easing of mortgage-related restrictions, stoking consumer and national debt levels. Household debt snowballed to 1,130 trillion won ($992.7 billion) while national liabilities are expected to reach 40 percent of gross domestic product for the first time ever next year. Choi claims the debt figures are not important since they can be brought down once the economy grows at a faster pace. He reasons that debt of 100 won would be burdensome for someone earning 1,000 won, but not for someone who earns 1 million won. He is right, of course. The question is: When - or will - the economy ever run faster again? Choi also has said that past impressive rates of growth cannot be expected in the future. “Our economy and our people must face the music and accept a slow-growing economy.” Now we are confused.
To sum up what Choi has said, debt ratios won’t rise even when debt is extended without growth. What a paradox. Such riddles are not unusual for a veteran politician. But the economy speaks with numbers. Political word games cannot hide the GDP, debt ratios, trade and consumption data. We hope the next deputy prime minister speaks with figures, not flowery words.
Second, we do not want see a bureaucrat in the office. Some say a bureaucrat well versed in current government affairs is needed in order to sustain policy consistency. What that really means is that we should choose someone who will kowtow to the party and the Blue House. Instead of keeping up with Choi’s debt-financed stimuli program, we would like to see someone who says no when necessary.
Third, he or she must not be someone with a big stake in the ruling power. He or she would be tempted to show off power. Choi is famous for looking after his people. Concerning rumors of favoritism in some appointments, many are not surprised given Choi’s character. This quality may help him in his political career, but is harmful to the economy and the government. The economy cannot run on mob culture.
On top of the three “nots,” three virtues are required of the new deputy prime minister. One is an international sensibility keen enough to read the developments in global trends. The second necessity is the will to shake up the passive bureaucrat community. Thirdly, we need someone to care for the local economy as they would their own bank account. If he or she has no plan to join politics after retirement, that would be an extra bonus.
Could there be anyone like this? Korea has a lot of intelligent and qualified people. Recruiters haven’t been looking very hard. They have been looking amongst themselves. Choi once said there are many others who could run the economy better than him. He is correct.
There is talk that the president already has a candidate in mind. Sooner will be better. The candidate could face a hard time in confirmation hearings early next year because of the April general election. The economy could be affected if the appointment of deputy prime minister is delayed.
JoongAng Ilbo, Oct. 22, Page 34
*The author is an editorial writer of the JoongAng Ilbo.
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