The vision thing
The author is an editorial writer of the JoongAng Ilbo.
The next presidential election is 110 days away. It is best to avoid sensitive issues in private, but as the atmosphere is heating up lately, I hear opinions of people around me. I want to discuss two cases here. A business owner in his late 60s said, “I am more confused when I watch the news. I am not sure which policy is right and whose words are true.” An entrepreneur in his 30s — from the so-called Generation MZ — said, “In the end, I have to choose the lesser evil.” What’s embedded in the minds of the conservative voter in his 60s and the young voter who values practicality over ideology is despair. In short, they don’t see presidential qualities in the candidates of the ruling Democratic Party (DP) and opposition People Power Party (PPP). That is not different from the results of polls.
What kind of president do Koreans want? I want to ask what qualifications are needed to be a president. As I thought the answer might be found in history, I looked up the book “Leadership” by Pulitzer Prize-winning historian James MacGregor Burns, who was an expert in presidential studies in the United States. He wrote presidential biographies, starting from the first U.S. President George Washington to Franklin Roosevelt, who helped the country overcome the Great Depression.
The background for Burns to focus on the presidents is surprising. The role of the president has never been easy in the U.S. as well. As the Republican Party and the Democratic Party were often at odds, there were many incidents of the people being divided. While the U.S. became the superpower based on free market economics, the country always had social, economic and political discord, including racial conflict and a gap between the rich and the poor.
Naturally, as being a president is hard, fundamental questions on leadership have to be raised. The first chapter of Burns’ “Leadership” is called “The Crisis of Leadership.” He believed that presidential leadership should be rooted in abilities to present dreams and a vision capable of being shared by anyone of the time, and to transform the world through the people.
But Lee and Yoon’s promises on current issues such as the real estate market, spending, welfare and youth employment don’t seem to reflect the spirit of the times. Soaring real estate prices made people either suddenly poor or the target of higher taxes. It was a disaster created by Moon Jae-in administration’s anti-market policy. Solving this problem is what the people really want, the zeitgeist of our times. Lee’s pledge of a land ownership tax and the establishment of a real estate oversight agency are stronger anti-market policies than even the current administration’s. In the end, they are likely to intensify market distortions. Meanwhile, Yoon’s pledge to build 2.5 million apartments seems to be in line with market principles, but it will be a disappointment if the promise is not backed by concrete action plans.
The disaster relief grants are a contest of populism and irresponsibility. Lee said that surplus tax revenues have been accumulated, but that’s not true. As the government had insufficient tax revenues, it had to issue government bonds worth over 100 trillion won ($84.7 billion) last year and this year. As it became controversial, the name of the relief grants was changed to a disease control subsidy. But it can be a bankrolled election that goes against the spirit of the times. Yoon promised to spend 50 trillion won to make up for actual damages small business owners suffered. Despite the good intention, I wonder where he can find the money. As Korea’s rate of debt increase is the highest in the world, the source of such hefty handouts cannot be found anywhere. Both candidates also have failed to present any plausible plans for our struggling young generation.
I don’t want to see an election where the voters pick the lesser of two evils. Presidential candidates must present dreams and visions the people can trust. As we are to pick our 20th president, the time has come for them to do that.