Path of doom

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Path of doom


Lee Hyun-sang
The author is an editorial writer of the JoongAng Ilbo.

The assumption in classic economics theory is that human actors make optimal choices with given information. It’s called rational choice. But behavioral economists claim reason alone cannot explain consumer behavior. Many psychological factors can come into play, including a bias toward the status quo, risk aversion or fairness.

The tendency of the powers that be to turn a blind eye to the reality of our economic situation and stick to favorable data can be explained by an overconfidence bias. There have been ample examples of that bias. The government claims the economy is doing well in spite of external headwinds. It refuses to see the failure of its own income-led growth policy even when everyone else blames it for a downturn in the economy. Even after the Bank of Korea pushed interest rates to an all-time low, President Moon Jae-in in a parliamentary address touted fiscal soundness, improvement in incomes and the best youth employment figures in 12 years.

Bias and stubbornness do not end with economic policy. The ruling power does not reflect on the damage to society caused by the appointment of Cho Kuk as justice minister — even after his wife was arrested. The president made no mention of it in his parliamentary address. He stayed figurative, calling for corrections of “legitimate unfairness” in the system. No one seems to take any responsibility in the Blue House. It is entirely defensive to counter an opposition whose voice became louder after the exit of Cho. To those who have been taught that politicians should speak of unity, it’s hard to comprehend the language of exclusivity from the powers that be. They cannot be reasonable.

Being reasonable is defined as being within the bounds of common sense. But that is a textbook definition. Seeking the optimal means to achieve one’s goal would be a more realistic definition. According to 19th-century social scientist Max Weber, when individuals are rational, they make commitments to certain subjective goals and adopt means that are effective in attaining these ends. From his view, the ruling power is perfectly reasonable. They have 40 percent approval from the people. Although the support has been halved from 80 percent when Moon started in office, the approval rating rarely falls below 40 percent. No other government in the past enjoyed such unwavering support. The blindly faithful give their die-hard support to Moon and his beloved reformist Cho by refusing to notice any dirt attached to them or their relatives.

The powers that be became uncomfortable with unions over fixes to the 52-hour workweek rule, but they are nevertheless birds of a feather. It is more reasonable to seek out a familiar supporting base instead of being portrayed as submitting to the conservative forces. To them, Roh Moo-hyun Foundation head Rhyu Si-min’s giving an all-out defense of the Cho family could seem perfectly normal.

But closed rationality cannot last. Inner paradoxes and contradictions can pile up. The Blue House swiftly apologized after the media exposed the contents of a tablet PC of Choi Soon-sil that proved that she was receiving briefings on state affairs — even though she was a friend of then-President Park Geun-hye without any official title. It could have thought the scandal would die down by admitting to a simple mistake. It did not see the buildup of power abuses and authoritarian ways. It only realized it was wrong to quickly admit and apologize after the explosive spillover. Irresponsible political ideas can breed a bigger tragedy. Why is the ruling power now going down the same path of doom?

The conservative opposition has only strengthened the self-righteousness of the powers that be. Rationality will come from the judgment of the people. But the opposition does not appear a formidable player. Who would have confidence in the people who beam as if pushing Cho out of his justice minister post was all their doing? The never-ending power struggle among splinter conservatives is an equally pitiful sight.

“Orthodoxy on one side of the Pyrenees may be heresy on the other,” 17th-century French thinker Blaise Pascal said. The mountain between Gwanghwamun in central Seoul and Seocho in southern Seoul was higher and wider than the Pyrenees. Truths in our society are becoming more muddled.

JoongAng Ilbo, Oct. 25, Page 34
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