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[Justin Fendos] Beware of those who only complain

A brisk perusal of recent headlines quickly communicates that very few people approve of President Moon Jae-in’s economic policies.

Online and coffee conversations are dominated by an incessant stream of negativity, replete with words like “disaster,” "disgrace,” and “unforgiveable.” To these critics, I submit a very simple but important question: “What alternatives do you suggest?”

In communication studies, there is something called constructive criticism. This is a form of commentary that focuses on what a person has done and not what a person is. Saying Larry has made a mistake by forgetting his wife’s birthday, for example, is constructive while calling him an “idiot” is not. A frequently overlooked tenet of effective constructive criticism is the ability to offer alternatives or solutions. Suggesting Larry set an alarm on his phone would be a good example.

But where are these suggestions amid the cacophony of criticisms of Moon? It seems he can do no right lately. Last month, I watched an entire segment of television news devote a whopping eight minutes in berating his mistakes when attempting to speak Malaysian greetings during press conferences in Kuala Lumpur. Not a moment was spent mentioning the memorandums he signed with Prime Minister Mahathir, outlining the expansion of Korean involvement in Malaysian infrastructure projects, agreements that will bring jobs and revenue to Korean companies.

The real issues are getting lost in the negativity. Korea currently suffers four serious economic problems: shrinking exports; stagnating domestic consumption; extreme economic inequality; and blooming household debt. In 2014, this combination plunged Brazil into the greatest recession of its history. Nevertheless, here we are talking about whether Moon can speak Malay.

It is not my intention to defend Moon. Nevertheless, it is instructive to point out that I can at least identify how each of his major policies are an attempt to solve one of the above problems.

Relaxing financial regulations? An attempt to improve domestic consumption and exports, especially through foreign investment. Raising taxes on the rich and providing subsidies for lower-income families? A direct intervention against inequality. Raising the minimum wage? An attempt to address debt, consumption and inequality.

So, what alternative solutions can you offer? When I put this question to Moon’s critics, the vast majority throw up their hands and say, “Oh, I am not an economist. I am not qualified to offer alternatives.” I immediately ensnare them with a follow-up: 
“If you really feel unqualified, how can you dispense criticism with such ease?” Most will shrug, cross their arms, and reply, “Well, everyone agrees Moon is doing a terrible job, right?”

But is he? The unfortunate truth about economic policy changes at the national level is that they usually require two or three years to take full effect. Even in the US, the last two years of sumptuous growth under Trump have had very little to do with his policies. As Nobel laureate Paul Krugman will tell you, most of these outcomes are directly traceable to Obama-era reforms.

In a similar way, many of the economic conditions currently afflicting Korea can be linked to missteps by Moon’s predecessors. Take, for example, former President Park Geun-hye’s abortive “creative economy” program. On a macro scale, these investments created a glut of uncompetitive small businesses that are still in the process of going out of business, contributing directly to unemployment and rising debt.

The bandwagon motivating Koreans to assume something is true just because everyone is saying it should be a warning to those of us privileged to have voices in the media. I too agree Moon’s policies are not perfect. But at the very least, I can offer alternatives with my criticisms. I hope more voices will start engaging in this type of constructive dialogue, discussing solutions rather than focusing on blind and destructive pessimism. After all, aren’t we all on the same team when it comes to the nation’s well-being?

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Justin Fendos

Justin Fendos is a professor at Dongseo University in South Korea and the associate director of the Tan School at Fudan University in Shanghai. The views expressed in this article are the writer‘s own. -- Ed.