Prove your competence

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Prove your competence


Kim Byung-yeon
The author is an economics professor at Seoul National University.

Peter Diamond is an American economist known for his study of U.S. Social Security at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology . He earned the Nobel Prize in Economic Science in 2010. In the following year, he withdrew his nomination to serve on the U.S. Federal Reserve after months-long opposition from the Republican Party. The opposition was steadfast, citing his lack of expertise in monetary policy. The nomination of a macroeconomics professor at the University of Oxford to the British central bank’s monetary board was blocked in 2000 on similar grounds. No matter how famous one may be, a specific public service requires greater credentials in the field of concern.

In Korea, senior public offices have long lost their weight. Confirmation hearings mostly turn into a stage for political brawls centering on morality and ideology. What matters is their loyalty and commitment to the ruling power, not their competence. Even upon failing to win legislative approval — despite strong protection from ruling lawmakers — the candidate of favor can be appointed by the president. If lawmakers only stay staunchly loyal to politicians from their candidate days, they can be rewarded with top government posts. Even upon winning a policymaking seat, one must have the knack for reading the mind of his or her boss instead of becoming knowledgeable in the field. The tradition remains intact under the Moon Jae-in administration.

Incompetence is more dangerous for the liberals than for the conservatives. A progressive tends to be more proactive in governance and acting out one’s theory. The progressives also set higher goals for community. If the liberals heedlessly pursue idealistic platforms, a society can become all muddled. The economy can be wrecked and the society divided. The Moon administration has been demonstrating three worrisome patterns.

First of all, it refuses to correct a policy that causes harm and instead tries to cover up the damage with fiscal spending. The so-called income-led growth policy is an exemplary case. When electing a liberal president, people anticipated an easing of wealth and social disparities. Instead, the funds that should have been spent on the needy went to employers to subsidize them for hires. While the nominal income of the bottom 20-percent income group (the first quintile group) stayed stagnant in the third quarter against the same period two years ago even after the government implemented wage-led growth policies since Moon who took office in May 2017, the nominal income of the second quintile group increased by 7 percent, and that of the third quintile group grew by 9 percent. Theoretic growth policies cannot ensure growth or redistribution.

Second, the government’s flip-flop foreign policy has added risks on the external and security fronts. It should have prevented past disputes with Japan from spilling over to other areas. However, its abrupt announcement to scrap the General Security of Military Information Agreement (Gsomia) with Japan has extended the conflict to the trade and security fronts. By claiming that a peaceful reunified Korea can easily beat the Japanese economy, the government has bundled diplomatic, economic, security, and inter-Korean issues. At the last minute, it managed to stop a conflict with Japan from costing the relationship with the United States by conditionally deferring its withdrawal from the military intelligence-sharing pact last week. But the damage has already been done in terms of its alliance with the United States.

Moon envisions an Asian community similar to the European Coal and Steel Community, which eventually evolved into the European Union under one currency. He aspires to create a pan-Asian economic community for a lasting peace — just as Europe did — to prevent a regional war. If that’s the design, he should have counted Japan in regardless of the discord over the past. Korea should have teamed up with Japan with similar systems and values to build an Asian community.

Third, the Moon administration has frantically been looking for breakthroughs in inter-Korean relations. If one balloon of hope pops, it flies another one to keep public eyes high in the air despite harsh realities. The government hyped the U.S.-North Korean summits in Singapore and Hanoi, Vietnam, as if they would produce landmark results. It ratcheted up the hopes similarly for the working-level meeting in Stockholm last month. When that again failed, the government floated the idea of North Korean leader Kim Jong-un coming to the special summit with Asean leaders in Busan earlier this week. The people now have come to doubt the government after it cried wolf too many times.

In a latest town hall-style meeting with the public, Moon said he was most proud of having built momentum for dialogue with North Korea and removed the war risk. But the peace we enjoy today is not permanent. It also cannot entirely owe to the current government. It is true that the government has grabbed the opportunity for dialogue, but it was unwavering sanctions imposed by past administrations that pushed North Korea out of its hostile and secluded shell. Nevertheless, many of our diplomats who worked hard to arrange and uphold the United Nations sanctions have been sacked under the Moon administration.

A country can progress when self-sacrificing conservatives and competent progressives wage a healthy competition. But a society can break up if the conservatives seeking a small government role do not address the blind spots through self-giving and decent activities. At the same time, if the progressives seeking a big government do not prove their competence, a country can be ruined. The Moon administration must depart from its failed policy of appointments. It must speak with capabilities, not words.

JoongAng Ilbo, Nov. 27, Page 35
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