The trust standard

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The trust standard


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

I arrived in Chicago to transfer to a plane heading back home. But the door leading to the gate did not open. An anxious crowd was soon formed around the door of the plane. Then an announcement was made. A new recruit was having trouble with the door and our patience was requested. The door opened a few minutes later with a flushed young man on the other side. Instead of barraging him with complaints, the crowd applauded and cheered. I found myself joining in, and thought, “This must be the dignity of an advanced country.”

The boy might never forget the compassion the passengers showed him. In all likelihood, he would return it by showing tolerance to others. Through exchanges of forgiveness and tolerance, trust builds. Trust is built through the words and behavior people show in a personal crisis. Public confidence towards others in the community and the social system tends to be high when innocent mistakes are condoned and understood while intentional ones are strictly punished. Trust can help create jobs and make a community safer, make people happier. Trust is also referred to as social capital.

Social disasters also affect trust. A poll after the Kobe disaster in 1995, when a 7.3-magnitude earthquake rocked the metropolitan area of western Japan, showed that the social capital index rose in the battered areas while it stayed the same elsewhere. Disasters raise awareness of how connected we are to others during life-and-death moments. We come to appreciate our neighbors more upon learning how fragile life can be and how tough it is to defend oneself without the help of others. There is a good reason the Bible repeatedly instructs us to treat others as we want to be treated ourselves.

Economists project that a 10 percentage point increase in trust in a society can raise the growth rate of the GDP by 0.8 percentage points. If the trust level in South Korea builds up to the 35 percent level in the United States, Korea’s GDP should be running at a growth of 2.7 percent — instead of the 2.0 percent of 2019. That would be the equivalent of fiscal spending of 50 trillion won ($42 billion). In other words, if social trust is added by about 10 percentage points, 50,000 new jobs can be created a year without any fiscal input.

Trust also can spur dynamism in a market economy by reducing the cost of trade. The Polish economy expanded by an average 5 percent a year after the collapse of the Soviet Union and the Eastern bloc in the mid 1990s, whereas Russia’s economy contracted by more than 5 percent. The biggest difference was trust. When a survey asked the businessmen in the two countries if they would say yes to a stranger proposing to sell them the same supplies at 10 percent cheaper than their current business partner, 43 percent of the Polish businessmen said they would, while the answer was a mere 1 percent for the Russians. Strangers are suspect in a society with a low trust level. Such low confidence can get in the way of lucrative business deals. As a result, the cost of deals soars as many documents are required to strike one.

Trust also makes a community safer due to increased person-to-person connections. When a gigantic tsunami hit the eastern coast of Japan in 2011, the fatality rate was lower in the area with higher social trust as evacuations and rescues were speedier among people who were more connected. The same goes for happiness. Research shows that trust mattered more than income in defining happiness. Psychological contentment and security can make people happier than wealth.

The ongoing disaster of the spread of a new coronavirus can be an opportunity to build trust, which is in short supply in our society. The warm welcome of residents of Asan, South Chungcheong; Jincheon, North Chungcheong; and Icheon, Gyeonggi, toward people quarantined in their cities after they were evacuated from Wuhan, the epicenter of the novel virus, may have comforted them in their lonely isolation for two weeks. That warmth will stay with them and one day they will show similar compassion to others in need and fear. The same compassion should go to those who had been infected and might have spread the disease to others unaware. Society will become safer and happier if we all believe that others would have tried their best not to spread the disease to others. Such faith is a kind of invisible capital that can create many jobs.

The soul cannot become pure without pain and the heart cannot be strong without training. A disaster can provide the means to measure the deepness of our soul and the warmth of our heart. We can turn a disaster into an opportunity to build social capital, and that can ultimately increase our jobs, security and happiness. A society can break down if it is dominated by those who try to capitalize on a disaster for their selfish political gains. A society in progress finds trust in crisis. Is our society breaking up or strengthening?

Translation by the Korea JoongAng Daily staff.

JoongAng Ilbo, Feb. 19, Page 31
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