‘Comfort money’ for all citizens?

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‘Comfort money’ for all citizens?

President Moon Jae-in’s suggestion of handing out a “comfort fund” to every citizen has stoked controversy in the political community. The ruling Democratic Party (DP) cheered the president’s endorsement of the party’s proposal for funding for relief and stimuli amid the protracted Covid-19 pandemic. The main opposition People Power Party (PPP) attacked the idea for “pampering and deceiving the people” with tax money. Yoo Seong-min, a former conservative lawmaker, lambasted at a “vote-buying” move based on the bizarre idea of comforting people with tax money they had paid. Gyeonggi Gov. Lee Jae-myung of the DP accused conservative lawmakers of “disgracing” the people as if they could be won over with money. A presidential spokesman said the president supported the idea to “encourage” people during hard times.

A universal handout, if administered, would be the fifth round of disaster relief since the outbreak of the pandemic. The idea has been floated when the scope and timing of the fourth relief has not been set. The government spent over 20 trillion won ($19 billion) to fight the Covid-19 fallout.

But it has not helped ease income disparities. The gap between the bottom and top 20 percent income class widened due to a loss of wage and jobs for the poor. Cash handouts and social benefit increases also have taken a heavy toll on public finance. National liabilities are expected to top 1,000 trillion won this year. Relief funds should go to the self-employed and small merchants whose businesses have been hard-hit by social distancing measures, as well as low-income earners.

“Encouragement” funding can only be aiming at the April 7 mayoral by-elections in Seoul and Busan. A special act to build a new airport on Gadeok Island in Busan has passed the standing committee and will likely pass the legislature in February. The DP leadership has been campaigning for universal checks whenever they can. None of this racket would have taken place if elections were not coming. Politicians chasing votes are understandable. But the president with the final say in governance should not join the chorus. The government’s debt issuance to cover deficit will exceed 100 trillion won this year after the fourth relief fund.

The DP has benefited big from a universal handout ahead of the general election in April last year. The then DP chairman proposed to give out 1 million won to every four-member family. At the time, campaigners implied that voters would not be able to see the checks if opposition candidates won. A similar campaign is going on ahead of the Seoul and Busan mayoral races in April. The president touting the best partnership between the party and government should not be dancing to the reckless tune. He must stress more prudence and awareness for the normalization in public finance.
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