A populist race startsBasic income has become a political football. Kim Chong-in, head of the emergency committee of the main opposition United Future Party (UFP), formally called for discussion on basic income last week. “How can we speak on freedom — the basic conservative value — when people don’t have the money to buy food?” he sarcastically asked. Despite some internal voices of concern, basic income became the key party agenda. The ruling Democratic Party (DP), which first floated the idea, has pushed it as a top agenda of the liberal party. Ahn Cheol-soo, head of the minority centrist People’s Party, also called for study to concoct a Korean-style universal demogrant.
Conservatives in the past have strongly opposed the concept of basic income if a leftist party or presidential-hopeful raised it. But instead it is the Blue House who said the time is not right. Rather than calling for prudence in the scope of fiscal expansion and the bruise on the public finance, the opposition party has become more eager to push the idea of handing out universal grants. The unprecedented Covid-19 crisis along with the long-term need for social security against the threat on human jobs by machines has stoked the discussion. For the UFP, it is more politically motivated as it needs a strong agenda to win next elections. The debate on basic income could be a contest of more grants instead of a serious contemplation on the country’s future.
Gyeonggi Governor Lee Jae-myung and DP lawmaker Kim Doo-kwan are calling for a second or even third round of universal emergency grants even as the first one has not been entirely doled out. The rush contrasts with the United States and some European nations where social security programs have been studied for a long period. They have been discussed to replace their multiple welfare programs lacking efficiency with social security in cash. But Korean politicians are proposing to hand out cash allowances on a regular basis without fixing existing welfare programs and cash subsidies.
Nobody would say no to free money. But where will the money come from? Fiscal deficit this year is estimated to reach a whopping 112 trillion won ($92.6 billion). Tax shortfall also is estimated to reach 18 trillion won this year. Who will take responsibility if the state coffers run out of money? Without a serious and prudent approach, the discussion on basic income would end up in populist wrangling. Without the condition of a tax hike, basic income cannot be feasible. Whether it be a selective or universal increase, the hot issue must be put forward for public discussion.