Lack of logic — and dignity
The author is a columnist of the JoongAng Ilbo.
Basic income has become the sole contested policy in a presidential race already stained with negative campaigning. At the center is Gyeonggi Governor Lee Jae-myung. He vows to hand out 1 million won ($868) to every citizen within his five-year term starting with 250,000 won from 2023 if he wins the election on March 9, 2022. Lee also promises a separate allowance for young people. To fund this, 20 trillion won is needed in 2023 alone and up to 57 trillion won annually in later years.
Whether Korea will become the first country ever to implement universal basic income is uncertain. Still, a debate on a common issue for the country’s future should be deemed positive. But Lee’s approach to addressing the issue has been disappointing.
When Choe Jae-hyeong, former head of the Board of Audit and Inspection (BAI) and a presidential hopeful from the opposition front, called the handout of 80,000 won a month “not basic income, but pocket money for dining-out,” Lee snapped. “To him, 80,000 won a month may just cover dining-out costs, but to someone else it could be a lifeline,” Lee said.
If Gov. Lee is elected president and carries out his campaign pledge, the foundation of public finance, taxation and welfare must change completely. The shockwave could be unmatched even compared to the costly campaign pledge of renovating the four rivers under former President Lee Myung-bak and the weaning out of nuclear reactors under President Moon Jae-in. The consequences of basic income proposed by Lee will be irreparable. There are naturally huge questions and concerns.
If Lee is so sure that an 80,000-won allowance per month can really help the needy, why not have a greater sum go to them with the money that could go to the high-income group? To prevent tragedies case like a mother and her two daughters committing suicide because their living situation was so tough, why not strengthen social security instead of handing out trillions of won in free cash? Although basic income can be argued as an economic policy, a necessary tax hike to fund the program could harden the economy. The proponents of the policy contend that a tax increase from the basic income program would affect just 10 to 20 percent of the entire population. If so, why was the increase in comprehensive property tax that involves only 4 percent of the population resisted so strongly?
Lee does not answers to these questions, but evades them in his response. Whether he read “The Art of Being Right: 38 Ways to Win an Argument” written by German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer cannot be known. But Lee appears to have taken up some of Schopenhauer’s sarcastic tips — such as “Make your opponent angry,” “If your opponent has taken up a line of argument that will end in your defeat, you must not allow him to carry it to its conclusion” and “Become personal, insulting and rude as soon as you perceive that your opponent has the upper hand.”
Attacks from opponents would naturally be political. But framing all arguments in the context of haves-and have-nots is not a wise move from the proponent of a new idea. Lee may argue his straightforward talking is as refreshing as a cold drink. But a drink can be refreshing for the throat, but unpleasant for the stomach.
Lee could have got the table on his side if he had wittily responded to Choe’s comment by saying, “Please spend 80,000 won a month dining out to help consumption.” Lee should learn some of the wit and dignity of Abraham Lincoln, who turned into a political heavyweight and president after starting out as a lawyer for the poor as Lee did.