By Deauwand Myers
Korean presidents serve one five-year term. Originally, the limit was created to discourage a perpetual head of state who never leaves office. Because of Korea’s long and bloody history of dictators/pseudo-presidents, this made perfect sense.
Unfortunately, the effect of having one-term presidents is legislative fiat and a lack of political accountability. That is, once elected, any promises the president makes to the electorate can be amended or broken as he/she does not have to worry about seeking re-election.
President Park, not unlike American conservatives represented by the Republican Party, owes her election victory to a large voting bloc of older citizens. Under her leadership, the Saenuri Party promised a bevy of goodies to the elderly, including an increase in pensions and other monetary disbursements to millions of impoverished senior citizens.
She also vowed to make free childcare accessible to all, while the NPAD (The New Politics Alliance for Democracy) already had free lunch programs for students, regardless of income levels.
Through having neither the political will nor legislative fortitude, President Park recanted on these promises. Much of this, like other social welfare goals she touted during her campaign, is due to a fall in tax revenue over the past few fiscal cycles.
This is at the core of her problem, and indeed, the core of so-called “pro-business” conservatism in Korea, the U.S. and elsewhere. The notion that tax cuts for the wealthy and corporations trickle down to the unwashed masses and spur economic growth simply does not happen – it never has.
According to American census data, about 294,000 people were lifted out of poverty under Reagan, a conservative Republican. During the eight years under Clinton, a moderate Democrat, the number of Americans in poverty fell by 6.5 million. I cite Reagan here because he was the first to subscribe to trickle-down economics and be elected to the highest office. Reagan cut taxes on the wealthy from 50 percent to 35 percent, more or less.
Clinton, not a true progressive, did not believe in trickle-down theory or supply-side economics, as well he should not. The disastrous administration of George W. Bush, who aggressively pursued and achieved even lower taxes for the wealthy and very wealthy, has a major recession to show for his endeavors, as well as stagnant wages for the poor, working, and middle classes.
Wealthy people, like corporations, have assets. Money saved from lower taxes does not need to be readily spent (as it would for poor people) if you are already rich. Usually, the rich and corporations keep any extra income saved from lower taxes. They do not hire new people or go on massive buying sprees.
The Korean government discovered this after the Asian crash and lackluster economic activity thereafter, when it decided to lower corporate taxes in the hope that companies would use that money to invest in human capital. This never materialized.
Economic conservatism has not worked wherever it has been tried. The uber-conservative state of Kansas has gone through a conservative experiment led by Tea Party stalwart Governor Brownback. This “experiment” includes hyper-tax cuts and an evisceration of public education to help fund said tax cuts.
The result: poor economic development, an increase in the uninsured, a decrease in the quality of public education, and the sharp and unprecedented downgrading of the state’s credit and bond ratings. A fiscal catastrophe is close. Yet Governor Brownback and his Republican peers were recently, and convincingly, re-elected in state and federal elections.
If economic conservatism worked, besides the aforementioned comparison of Clinton and Reagan (and indeed, over many generations, major economic indicators like wage growth, job growth, and stock growth reveal Democratic presidents with center-left economic policies do much better than their conservative counterparts) why is most of the American South still languishing in poverty and social decay (for decades and decades)?
This is a rhetorical question. In truth, American conservatives’ beliefs are articles of faith. They subscribe to their tenets with a religious fervor regardless of empirical evidence, which is one of the most damning reasons I so vehemently disagree with much of their political ideology.
Luckily, most developed, democratic societies do not have the level or intensity of conservative zealots that we do in the U.S.
As The Korea Times editorial board has said (and astutely, I might add), President Park and the National Assembly should seriously engage in increasing taxes for the upper-middle class, the wealthy, and large corporations to fund the social safety net.
Shamefully, Korea spends less on social welfare programs than most of the other OECD countries. Subsidies for educating children in poor, working, and middle-class families, better pensions for the poor and elderly, and reform of the tax code would help the entire country, and enable Park to keep her campaign promises.
Deauwand Myers holds a master's degree in English literature and literary theory, and is an English professor outside Seoul. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.