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Non-mainstream nonsense

The non-mainstream is an underdog while the mainstream is rich and powerful.
Aug 25,2017
Kim Hyun-chul, a presidential aide on economic affairs, is one of the architects of so-called J-nomics, the economy agenda of liberal President Moon Jae-in. He coined the moniker J-nomics: “J” refers to the name Jae. He identified four pillars — incomes, jobs, balance and innovation — that would support the economic growth agenda of Moon’s administration.

Kim is working on detailing an action plan to support the keystone of J-nomics — so-called income-led growth. He deems himself a member of the “non-mainstream.”

“When the [economic] paradigm changes, the non-mainstream become the mainstream,” he said in an interview with the Monthly JoongAng. “The non-mainstream forms the heart of the economic policy of the incumbent administration. We won’t be deterred by attacks from the mainstream.”

Who is in the mainstream anyway? I regard them as the forces behind public policy, proprietary authority and responsibility. Kim may not think he is part of it, but from my viewpoint, he meets all three conditions. His actions are proof. In a closed-door meeting with senior officials of the Ministry of Trade, Industry and Energy, Kim chided them for slow progress toward the president’s goal of phasing out nuclear power. Minister Paik Un-gyu was present at the meeting. A presidential aide is not entitled to order around a ministry. But he can though he should not. Moreover, Kim is by no means qualified to scorn ministry officials in the presence of their legitimate boss. He would not have acted so arrogantly if he didn’t believe in his own power.

Kim has meddled in interest rate policy, which is the exclusive domain of the central bank. In another interview with local media earlier this month, he criticized the Bank of Korea for keeping the interest rate at a record low of 1.25 percent. He claimed the country is mired in a liquidity trap due to the policy of stimulating the real estate market under former President Park Geun-hye, and support for loose monetary policy. He said the Moon administration will seek to normalize interest rates in the longer run.

A presidential aide more or less has given a direction on monetary policy with little respect for the constitutional sovereignty of the central bank. Again, Kim could not have been so excessive without a sense of authority.

Yet he insists on defining himself as being in the non-mainstream. There can be reasons for such a view. First of all, it is easy that way to avoid accountability. He said there are few cases of similar economic experiments such as the one the new Korean government is pursuing. As there is a high risk of failure, an easy exit would be essential. When things go wrong, he can always lay the blame on the mainstream. He could claim he had to experiment with a novel concept — income-led growth — that cannot be found in textbooks on economics because the past governments or mainstreams made such a mess out of the economy.

Second, it is also easy to differentiate. The mainstream has the connotation of being old school, with worn-out practices that need to be replaced. Such radical language was hugely popular with the support base of former liberal President Roh Moo-hyun. If there are many on their side, it is easier to push ahead with risky policies.

Third, the non-mainstream is an obvious underdog, while the mainstream is comprised of the rich and powerful. Justice must reside in non-mainstream policies.

The real problem is that Kim is not the only one who thinks in this way. Hosting the press conference to mark Moon’s 100th day in office, the Blue House didn’t give the three major newspapers — the JoongAng Ilbo, Chosun Ilbo and Dong-A Ilbo — a chance to ask questions. Yoon Young-chan, the chief press secretary, later claimed that the disregard for certain media outlets had not been deliberate. But the microphone did not go to reporters from the three papers although they were promised it would in advance.

When the pesticide-tainted eggs scandal broke, the administration put the blame on past governments. The ruling power is deliberately trying to avoid accountability by hiding behind the so-called non-mainstream concept. Does the government really want to compare itself with a past administration whose president and key aides are on trial for corruption?

The mainstream does not blame others. The real mainstream respects the non-mainstream. Whoever has the ruling power is the mainstream. It has the legitimate power, authority and support from 80 percent of the population. It must stop feigning to be non-mainstream and live up to its role. A responsible power does not blame things on the past.

JoongAng Ilbo, Aug. 24, Page 30

*The author is a columnist of the JoongAng Ilbo.

Yi Jung-jae