An era of extremes

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An era of extremes

If life becomes tough, one becomes bitter and easily provoked. Subdued depression and stress can spill over and explode. The frequency of cases of child abuse and road rage may be related to a heavy pall over Korean society. People pine for comfort in hard times. They pay closer attention to campaign pledges in hopes of a better world. It is all part of the downside of a society in recession.

Misery was widespread during the Great Depression of 1929. Germany, which had to pay huge compensation after its defeat in the First World War, suffered high levels of unemployment and inflation. People succumbed to a kind of collective madness. Adolf Hitler won the hearts of the populace with his provocative oratory and racist, nationalistic Nazism. So began the Second World War. The Great
Depression came to an end not because of the New Deal programs of U.S. President Franklin Roosevelt, but thanks to the war buildup. The world was wrecked and recreated after the war. An economic downturn demoralized mankind to the extent of starting a terrible war.

The 2008 financial crisis was the worst disaster to hit the world economy since the Great Depression. The world has barely recovered since. The United States and Europe kept up through unbelievable levels of monetary easing, and rapid growth in China helped fuel a slow-moving global economy to some extent. Yet the economy remains stubbornly lethargic, and the protracted slowdown has begun to have a detrimental effect on societies. People seek out aggravation and stimulation.

Politicians are attuned to changes in national mood. The surprising surge of Donald Trump in the Republican nomination race in the U.S. presidential election stems from public disgruntlement and frustration about the prolonged status quo. The shockingly abrasive, frank and improvisational billionaire gave voice to what the American masses — especially on the conservative side — have been feeling all along but had refrained from saying out of a sense of civility and politeness. Trump debunks trade liberalism and champions protectionism to revive the U.S. economy — hardly a Republican approach. He promises punitive tariffs to steal back jobs from the Chinese and accuses Mexican immigrants of contaminating America with drugs and crime.

The genteel American middle class was shocked and offended. But white, blue-collar Americans raved over the unaffected ways of Trump. They felt relief from the outbursts of Trump lampooning political and social conventions, and are beginning to believe he can make their lives different. The Democrats faced a similar upset from a formidable challenge by an outsider, Bernie Sanders, a self-proclaimed democratic socialist. Traditional politicians like Hillary Clinton are now leaning left to fight for public favor.

After a decades-old recession, Japan was enthralled by decisive right-wing Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, who said he would create a strong — instead of self-conscious — Japan. He was relentless on his economic and security agenda. Japanese who found themselves going nowhere for the last two decades rallied around a leader who finally raised their hopes for a way out of the rut.

Abenomics has pretty much run out of steam, and yet Abe has already become one of the longest-serving and popular postwar leaders. A lengthy recession can push politics and society into unfathomable territory.

Such aftershocks have reached Korean shores. During the April 13 general election, the ruling Saenuri Party campaigned for a so-called Korean version of quantitative easing to finance corporate restructuring. Printing money to purchase bonds in large amounts even when there is still room for monetary easing by shaving the base interest rate of 1.5 percent goes against reason. Easy liquidity would only extend the lives of ailing companies. Increased public debt would land in the taxpayers’ laps. Quantitative easing is a monetary tool that economies like the United States, Europe and Japan can afford. A similar action in Korea could spur capital flight. The Minjoo Party of Korea achieved a surprise triumph in the election to become the largest party in the 20th National Assembly by borrowing the famous U.S. campaign phrase, “It’s the economy, stupid.” It focused its attacks on large companies. Kim Chong-in, head of the party, claimed that the Korean economy is in a pitiful state because it has been dominated by large companies and financial institutions, with the richest 10 percent stealing the opportunities and share of the remaining 90 percent.

Right or wrong, cynical or genuine, the words hit home with the populace. Young people, frustrated and demoralized by job insecurity, gave their votes to the opposition. People can become senseless during hard times. They turn to extremities, and reason becomes muted. Elections will get dirtier if the economy does not improve. Candidates for the presidency will use sensational promises to woo voters. Then society will become more divided and sink deeper into economic stagnation.

JoongAng Ilbo, April 25, Page 28

*The author is acting editor-in-chief of the JoongAng Ilbo.

Koh Hyun-kohn
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