The recency effect

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The recency effect

Choi Sang-yeon
The author is an editorial writer of the JoongAng Ilbo.


The past is not always the same as we remember. Our memories of previous events are affected by the emotions we felt during that time, according to Daniel Kahneman, a Princeton University psychologist and the winner of the 2002 Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Sciences. So, if we were to get a colonoscopy without anesthesia by a clumsy doctor, the longer he or she takes to finish the procedure, the more painful we would feel and have a bad memory of the experience. But rather than the pain we feel throughout the entire process, Kahneman says, it’s the severity of the last pain we feel that defines our memory. So even if the total size of pain we feel is big, we would later look back and think of the whole operation as bearable — as long as the size of the last pain is small.

The same logic can be applied to governments. The Kim Young-sam administration made significant contributions to Korea’s political democratization and social reform, yet the 1998 Asian financial crisis that erupted toward the end of his term makes people think his government was the worst. President Roh Moo-hyun had a similar fate. Presidents Kim Dae-jung and Lee Myung-bak, on the other hand, ended their terms on a comparatively positive note. Such last-minute turnarounds are possible as long as administrations reduce the pain at their final stages.

The cause of the pain Koreans are feeling today has to do with the Moon Jae-in administration’s incompetence, but it’s not just that. It is his administration’s brazen attitude and how it refuses to acknowledge its misdeeds, let alone apologize or take responsibility for them. Such problems are vividly shown in how this administration handles real estate policy. Deputy Prime Minister for Economic Affairs Hong Nam-ki insists on blaming the former Park Geun-hye administration for soaring real estate prices, saying the effects of policies usually last for four, five, seven years, which is why the current mess was actually caused by the Park government. If this is true, the current administration would not be able to bring down home prices within the remainder of Moon’s term. It also means that the rise of housing prices in the Roh administration was actually caused by his predecessor Kim Dae-jung, while the stabilization of home prices under the Lee Myung-bak administration was made possible by his predecessor Roh.

The Moon administration has made it a habit to blame all bad on its predecessor and credit all good to itself. A Blue House aide who previously served as a lawmaker publicly blasted the Park administration several times for jacking up real estate prices. But when we think about it, the remarks came from a person who used to be a politician — people who are so underestimated by the public because their statements barely reflect reality. The role of deputy prime minister for economic affairs is normally considered more of a professional expert role, which is why hearing Hong’s politician-like blaming of the past government is distasteful. The truth is, two-thirds of the public think the Moon administration’s real estate policy is failing.

Real estate is not the only problem with this administration, and Hong is not the only minister who blames the Park administration. Members of the cabinet take turns blasting the Park and Lee administrations while tarnishing the Four Rivers Project, damaging the Korea-U.S. alliance and pushing through a nuclear energy phase-out. As a result, Korea is now walking on thin ice.

National debt is climbing to a record high and diplomacy is faring no better. Some critics say the country looks like a comedy from afar, and a tragedy up close.

Moon is expected to reshuffle his cabinet soon. If he wishes to alleviate the public’s pain and change their impression of his administration, he must fire ministers who are responsible for that distress. Unlike the Moon administration, past governments usually used cabinet reshuffles as a way to swap failing ministers and revise policies. Will the upcoming reshuffle be any different? I doubt it. Even if Moon does come up with a pleasant surprise, someone in his cabinet will still point the finger at the Park administration. Moon has always placed great emphasis on hiring like-minded people.

The U.S. presidential election shows what happens when a country is led by divisive politics. Once known as the exemplar of democracy, the United States cannot even transfer power peacefully due to the seeds of division Trump had sown over the years while caring only about his supporters. Korea is no different. When Moon came into office, he vowed to hire aides far from his political circles and fill up his cabinet with people from all walks of life. All he has to do now is follow through on that promise. That’s the only way to make up for his past failures.

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