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(EDITORIAL from Korea JoongAng Daily on Sept. 17)

07:10 September 17, 2020

The smell of populism

The outline of subsidizing 20,000 won (US$17) for everyone aged 13 or older for their monthly mobile phone fee is stalling the endorsement of the fourth supplementary budgetary bill designed primarily to give immediate aid to the self-employed and merchants whose businesses suffered from the weeks-long social distancing measures. Political wrangling over the plan has become the biggest stumbling block to the legislative review and approval of the extra spending scheme.

The dispute could have been avoided if policymakers had focused on people's needs -- not political gain from handing out disaster relief grants. Most agreed to the unprecedented fourth supplementary budget because of the resurgence of COVID-19 that closed education, leisure, sports and other facilities as well as shortened business hours. President Moon Jae-in said the funding would be a selective relief to those most aggravated by the virus and flooding woes.

But the plan hit a snag after Democratic Party (DP) Chairman Lee Nak-yon proposed to include a 20,000 won subsidy in monthly phone bills for every citizen aged 13 and older in the new budgetary bill during his meeting with President Moon Jae-in. The proposal entirely had a populist design for Lee, a leading presidential candidate from the ruling party.

The public response was cold. A poll showed 58.2 percent disapproved of the plan, whereas only 37.8 percent approved.

Policymakers cannot accept any wrong in the plan. Lee Ho-seung, senior presidential secretary, said he could not "understand the claim that saving as much as 80,000 won monthly phone bills for a family of four is insignificant." But he has gotten the point entirely wrong. Actually, people are questioning why the blanket subsidy is needed when there is not enough money to help out the needy. The money amounts to 930 billion won. Even the National Assembly Budget Office pointed out the unfairness in the plan because those who are not subscribed to local wireless carriers are excluded.

If something is wrong, it should be fixed. Keeping a hot potato and delaying the overall aid for the self-employed and the poor cannot be right. The self-employed and small merchants are struggling on loans and cannot even pay their taxes on time. The funding should be well spent and restricted to the socially-weak. The stumbling block must be removed so that the aid can reach them before the Chuseok holiday.

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