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A world in black and white

Aug 01,2018
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Bae Myung-bok
The author is a senior columnist of the JoongAng Ilbo.

Kim Hyung-suk, professor emeritus of Yonsei University, was born in 1920. He will turn 100 in two years time. He still writes and teaches. He is more famous as an essayist than a philosopher. I remember one passage from his latest book of essays, “After Living a Century.” He wrote on the fallacies of false dichotomy. “When asked what is the biggest shortcoming of the Korean people, I do not hesitate to answer it is the black-and-white reasoning that backs absolutism,” he wrote.

The professor of philosophy traces the roots of black-and-white thinking in Korea to a Joseon dynasty dominated by neo-Confucianism. The writings of Zhu Xi (1130-1200) helped build a rigid, disciplined and ceremonious lifestyle for Koreans over a span of the 500-year Joseon dynasty, to this day putting the Korean people in the habit of narrowing options to the most extreme two without regard to shades of gray in between. Although there cannot be absolute right or wrong and instead exist infinite possibilities, ancient Koreans deplored the color gray. Narrowing the world down to two extremes of black and white led to persistent bickering that has sickened society, Kim claimed.

President Moon Jae-in’s approval rating has skidded from near 80 percent to just above 60 percent. According to a Korea Gallup poll last week, his rating was 62 percent, compared to 79 percent after the ruling party won the June 12 local elections by a landslide. His rating among people in their 20s hovered below the average of 60 percent. It fell to 55 percent among the self-employed. Moon would be envied by leaders in the United States, Japan or France, where approval ratings are far lower.

The downward trend — falling for the sixth consecutive week — could be worrying. Economic and livelihood woes have taken a toll on the government. The Blue House does not have a magic wand to instantly resuscitate the economy and create jobs. So it instead came up with the idea of the president talking with ordinary people over beer in downtown Seoul.

The Moon administration’s economic policy is based on three pillars: income-led growth, innovative growth and a fairer economy. His income-led growth slogan has been tweaked to “inclusive growth” thanks to its major failures. The growth policy aims to ease disparities through minimum wage hikes and welfare increases for the working class to generate spending and growth. Innovative growth proposes to remove regulations and nurture new growth engines for the economy. Economic fairness is aimed at lessening economic concentration on the chaebol and leveling the playing field by correcting unfair and unjust practices. The progressive platforms are under fire for being risky and experimental, but they are nevertheless widely adopted in many European countries.

No policy can bring immediate results. An attempt to change Korea’s economic paradigm requires persistence, but it is not easy to ask for patience from the people. The poor who lost jobs due to the minimum wage hike and shopkeepers who are at risk of closing down due to low profits are displeased with the government.

In a show of commitment to job creation, Moon put up a job board in his office as soon as he was inaugurated in May last year. But job conditions have worsened since. There is a limit to government hiring. The government cannot force companies to increase hiring, either. Its will has been shaken due to escalating criticism of its economic agenda. The government’s drive to reform the chaebol has lost steam, stirring protests from the liberals, civic groups and labor unions. The governing power is mired between the left and right.

If the administration steered clear of the fallacy of dichotomy and sought gray common ground, its policy may have had better results. The attempt to push up the minimum wage by nearly 30 percent in just two years has been most catastrophic. Conservatives should refrain from knee-jerk opposition. They should be both engaging and critical.

The old philosopher advises dialogue to escape the fallacy of excluding the middle. Finding a more acceptable solution and compromise through dialogue is the way of improving the lives of people. Moon’s economic agenda can only survive if fixes are made through dialogue.

JoongAng Ilbo, July 31, Page 31