A sheep at the wheel
The author is the Tokyo bureau chief of the JoongAng Ilbo.
“It would be better to hear details from our policy chief,” Moon Jae-in, then-candidate for the Democratic Party, answered during a TV debate among presidential runners in April 2017 when centrist candidate Yoo Seung-min asked how he would finance his ambitious platform to create jobs. Some people who had believed Moon to be a modest person were surprised by the snobbish response. Yoo obviously was offended by his arrogant behavior.
In the following TV debate, Moon apologized for being rude. He truly could have been true to his words. He might have thought his policy chief could give a more accurate answer. Unlike Yoo, who holds a Ph.D in economics, Moon was not an expert in finance and the economy. A politician doesn’t need to know everything in depth.
Even in office, Moon appeared awkward when it comes to economics. The halo around the first liberal president in nearly a decade hid the awkwardness in the early days, but now the honeymoon period is over. His comments on the economy have been contradictory. In December, he ordered the cabinet to “row ahead when the tide is high,” pointing to so-called strong data. Now he thinks the economic conditions are “grave.”
At a year-end gathering with ruling party seniors, he complained about disinformation spread by the media that aggravates public sentiment on the government and economy. In his New Year’s press conference on Thursday, he said the government was aware of the “seriousness” of the economic conditions, but will “maintain government policy directions.” He did not answer when a reporter asked him the source of his confidence in sticking to existing policies when the economy is doing poorly. He passed on the question as if he didn’t need to respond.
Data is objective, but how it is read can differ. It is innately human to see what you want to see and turn away from uncomfortable truths. Policymakers, however, should be different. If one out of 10 pieces of data is bad, they must focus on the negative one. Crises can build up from small fissures. When the golden time is lost, controlling trouble can become harder.
Policymakers under the Moon administration do things the opposite way. They endeavor to dig up the positive data and paint obviously negative numbers in a favorable light. Although the youth unemployment rate remains above 10 percent, the government claims employment conditions for young people are getting better. The 2018 job data released earlier this week was a catastrophe, with the unemployment rate at the highest since data was complied under revised statistics guidelines in 2000.
No matter how much it claims the youth job situation is getting better and consumption is improving, few buy it. Every time they go back home, businessmen based in Tokyo are surprised by how quickly the business sentiment and conditions in Korea are worsening.
The president’s view on the economy is often swayed by his aides. But from his economic comments, it is hard to believe they come from a range of advisers. Despite various indications from policymakers in the Blue House and cabinet, Moon appears to be happy about pushing ahead with the minimum wage. Businessmen raise their hopes and then become disappointed. If this keeps up, predictability and confidence in public policies will weaken. Somebody must be influencing him.
The president does not need to be an expert on the economy. He can leave it up to professionals or take advice from them. It is best that a reliable deputy prime minister takes charge. But the deputy prime minister for economy is hardly regarded as the man at the wheel. The series of allegations from a former Finance Ministry official about the Blue House pressuring the ministry to issue more debt and the former Finance Ministry claiming the order was due to political judgment add to the lack of faith.
Our society can easily smell who is in power. Bureaucrats tailor policies to please the ruling power. It is how the economy has been wrecked over the last two years. When one only looks up, he cannot see below. When one only has eyes on the ground, he cannot see what’s ahead. When one follows the power, the people are disregarded. When policies follow populist needs, the country can go astray. The government and politicians are going down a poor path and the people behind are the ones who suffer.
Noh Young-min, Moon’s new chief of staff, has a lot on his shoulders. The former lawmaker once came under fire for installing a credit card machine at his office to sell his books. The opposition party has brought the issue up. But having a practical business mind could be better than being ideologically high-horsed and stubbornly idealistic. He must break the rigidity in the Blue House. He should first pluck out staff who plant narrow-sighted and strict economic perspectives in the head of the president.
JoongAng Ilbo, Jan. 11, Page 31