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Nice or smart

Mar 01,2019
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Hong Nam-ki, deputy prime minister for the economy, gives a briefing on 23 infrastructure projects to be exempted from preliminary feasibility studies. [NEWS1]
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Hong Seung-il
The author is the president of the JoongAng Ilbo Design.

Nice or smart: what do parents want their kids to be? The subject calls for a survey, but my experiences suggest most would want the latter. I was short and always sat at the front of the classroom, and I often overheard the conversation between parents and teachers. To the mothers of average students, there were a few good things to say other than “nice and hard-working.” Yet the teachers’ attitudes changed when talking to the mothers of students who did well. The students were praised, and mothers seemed happy to hear the compliments.

When “be nice” is the most valued quality that most elementary schools aspire to, why did mothers seem so apathetic about that quality? Why did they want to be told their children were “smart?” As a boy, I found it strange. Recently, a television drama about academic competition, titled “SKY Castle,” became a big hit, and the trend of valuing smart over nice seems to be prevailing.

I was reminded of my childhood memory because of growing hopes for a smart government since the administration has been trapped trying to be a nice one. People begin to desire a smart government when they realize it would make everyone happy. Why are so many policies implemented and hurriedly corrected? I am worried about the stubborn self-righteousness that they are on the right path and have different DNA. Goodwill cannot be an excuse for incompetence.

After the administration was established, sayings such as the “devil is in the detail” and “the path to hell is paved with good intentions” spread. It was because of the lack of competency to support the good intentions. The sharing economy and innovative growth were not attained while public servants were added and temporary positions created. The rushed nuclear phase-out and energy transition put Kepco in deficit and had to be reconsidered. Instead of hurting the country with cleanup efforts aimed at deep-rooted evil practices — as in purges in the Joseon Dynasty — surgical precision reforms ought to be pursued at once.

You Jong-il, head of the KDI School of Public Policy and Management, said the minimum wage increase and income-lead growth should be coordinated with welfare, macroeconomics, labor, small business and fair-trade policies such as the coordination between coxswain and rowers in crew.

Milton Friedman advised that a bad market was better than a good government. Weak policies can aggravate market conditions. It could be a virtue for a kid to be nice, but the government with good intentions can fall into a populist trap. Instead of a government that addresses all issues, I want a smart, “nudge” government that allows companies to freely operate, as they are the springs of wealth and jobs. Misdirected or unripe policy can be a great risk to the market. I hope that Friedman’s “Bright Promises, Dismal Performance” could serve as “devil’s advocate” to an administration that pursues big government.

In the third year of the administration, the image of a “nice government” seems burdensome. The government used to say, “let’s watch it longer” and “cannot go back to the wrong past,” but this year, it is more stubborn and got angry at people. As preliminary review was exempted on a 20 trillion-won ($17.8-billion) infrastructure project reminiscent of Lee Myung-bak’s construction history, it was described as being “for balanced development of regions.” Putting South Gyeongsang Gov. Kim Kyung-soo under court custody harmed the division of power. The alleged blacklist in the Ministry of Environment is only a checklist.

In retrospect, among the students my teacher described as nice in elementary school, some ignored friends and stubbornly argued they were right.

JoongAng Ilbo, Feb. 27, Page 27