An avoidable disaster
The author is a professor of political science at Chung-Ang University and a columnist of the JoongAng Ilbo.
Two years of restricted life under Covid-19 makes us wonder what really brings about disasters. The answer can be found in ourselves. Looking back, the root cause of the pandemic lies with humanity’s greed in its efforts to control nature.
And yet, we still fan the embers of disaster with the immediate desire for election victory. The first mishap expected to affect Korea and the rest of the world is inflation. The second one could be overblown campaign promises being fueled by presidential candidates ahead of the March 9 election.
As economic inflation has disturbed our daily lives, the pain is being felt by most of us. A relative sense of deprivation and rage from surging real estate prices in the Seoul metropolitan area has reached disaster levels. A rapid increase in food prices, scheduled hikes in utility fees and the soaring price of global commodities only forewarn us of an upcoming storm of inflation.
The news that the U.S. Federal Reserve deleted the word “transitory” from its recent report on inflation is just the tip of the iceberg. On detecting signs of a political hurricane, U.S. President Joe Biden has mobilized the Department of Agriculture and the Federal Trade Commission to quell inflationary pressures by ordering them to look into major grain companies’ violations of antitrust regulations.
Worse, Korea’s presidential elections create “political inflation” through glitzy campaign promises on top of the global inflation. Just like the excess liquidity from low interest rates over the past decade triggered economic inflation, a flood of campaign promises by presidential candidates creates so-called “political inflation.”
Let’s face three questions. First, why do our presidential candidates make overblown promises in every election? Second, how do such promises hamper a new president after he enters office? Third, who will stop the vicious cycle of excessive pledges followed by a weakened ability to rule and consequential public distrust in politics?
Presidential candidates rush to make overblown promises due to the “low price” of their words. They promise a tax cut for certain income brackets if they demand it, pledge to create jobs for people who need them and provide a government subsidy for those who need it. For instance, candidates promise to give married couples in their 30s the support “tailored for them” and offer jobs for jobseekers in their 20s, not to mention promising countless pork-barrel projects. Campaign promises are apparently limitless and nobody attempts to hold candidates into account.
The United States and Germany cherish the value of money — and honestly based on their history of democracy. The two countries’ respect for the independence of their central banks basically reflects their strong wish to maintain the value of their currency.
The two countries also try to prevent a spate of campaign promises by presidential candidates and political parties from being circulated cheaply and irresponsibly. The press and think tanks with a long history and sharp expertise have established the tradition of checking potential clashes between campaign promises and existing laws and the affordability of public finance.
This year marks the 35th year since the democratization of Korea, in 1987. But no one tries to check our candidates’ promises. Instead, media outlets, experts and think tanks choose to stay silent or help polish remarks by presidential candidates. Bureaucrats with a conscience sometimes express concern, but are quickly silenced.
The first victims of overblown campaign promises are the presidential candidates themselves. If inflation hits a country, it first affects the economically underprivileged. However, excess promises hamper a new president from May 9, when power is handed over. Despite all the flowery promises made before being sworn in as president, only half the 2022 budget will be available for use.
The voters will find once again that their presidential candidates made empty promises. When the president and voters turn their backs on one another, they are victimized by overblown campaign promises. Who can stop this vicious cycle? Our politics went astray as such fundamental problems were left unattended. Past presidents could not run the country efficiently because of excess campaign promises they themselves made. That creates a fertile ground for political mistrust.
I hope to hear some candid promises from this batch of presidential candidates and see them speak the language of cooperation, rather than taking pot shots at theirt rivals this year. On May 13, 1940, during an uphill battle against German fascism, British Prime Minister Winston Churchill famously said, “I have nothing to offer but blood, toil, tears and sweat” before asking the House of Commons for a vote of confidence in his new all-party government. That was the shining moment of the statesman taking a leap forward.
I look forward to seeing a new leader with honesty and courage — not a bloody winner — emerge at the presidential election in March.
Translation by the Korea JoongAng Daily staff.