There are rare moments when a combination of threatening circumstances leads to a wonderful transformation that only a short time before would have been unimaginable. This year may be such a moment. The Republic of Korea could set an example to the world that would bring happiness to millions of Koreans, and to many more around the world.
The risks if politicians are too cautious are enormous. Before COVID-19, the global economy was already heading towards a crisis. For over three decades, more and more of the income and wealth were going to the owners of property, financial, physical, and “intellectual”. The commons, belonging to everybody, were being converted into the source of profits and rents. A new class, the precariat, was growing everywhere, suffering from multiple forms of insecurity, drifting deeper into debt. It was incredibly high debt – private, corporate, and public – that made the global economy uniquely fragile.
Meanwhile, the public across the world were realizing the threat posed by global warming and destruction of the environment. Nothing was being done. If that continues, life for our children and grandchildren will be impaired. And it is clear that mistreatment of nature has helped make this an era of pandemics. The COVID-19 outbreak is the sixth pandemic this century.
In these circumstances, policies that merely try to go back to the old normal will not work. We need a bold transformative vision, one of courage, one designed to give people basic economic and social security, one designed to make the economy work for society and every citizen, not just for the bankers and plutocracy, and one designed to revive the commons and our natural environment.
Jae-Myung Lee is campaigning for the Presidency in the March 2022 presidential election with an exciting and feasible strategy, based on a promise of a basic income for every Korean man and woman, paid equally, as a right, without conditions. It is affordable. What is important at this stage is not to set some ideal amount, but to be on the road towards living in a society in which everybody has enough on which to survive, even if they experience personal setbacks.
What makes the proposal for a basic income so profound is that Jae-Myung Lee has come from a humble background, knowing poverty and insecurity from his childhood. He understands two fundamentals. First, the income of every Korean is due to the efforts of all those Koreans who lived beforehand, and it is based on the commons, nature and resources that make up the country, which belong to all Koreans. Those who have gained from taking the commons, most of all, the land, owe it to all Koreans to share some of the gains. A modest Land Value Tax, or levy, is justifiable and fair, and should help fund the basic income.
He also understands that pollution and global warming must be combated by a carbon tax or eco-taxes. The rich cause more pollution than the poor, the poor experience the bad effects more than the rich, including bad health from exposure to poisonous air. So, the solution must include carbon taxes to discourage global warming and polluting activities. But by themselves such taxes would hit the poor harder, because the tax would amount to more of their income.
The only sensible solution is to guarantee that the revenue from eco-taxes will be recycled through a Commons Capital Fund to help pay for the basic income, as Carbon Dividends. The poor will gain, while society will be on the road to fighting global warming and ecological decay. A basic income will also encourage more care work and ecological work, rather than resource-depleting labor. It will stimulate the desirable form of economic growth.
The second fundamental Jae-Myung Lee and his advisers have understood is that basic security is essential for rational decision-making and mental health. There cannot be individual or societal resilience against pandemics or economic crises unless there is basic security, so that people can behave rationally rather than in desperation. Experiments have shown that a basic income improves mental health and the ability to make better decisions, for oneself, one’s family, and one’s community.
In the Korean edition of my book Plunder of the Commons, I paid respect to the ancient Korean ethos of hongik ingan, which helped found Korea in 2,333 BC. It expresses a historically-grounded wisdom that Koreans should be re-teaching the world in an era of self-centered individualism and consumption-driven “success”. It conveys the sense of not just sharing in benefits of production but sharing in the preservation and reproduction of a sense of community, our sense of participation and our relationships in and with nature. A basic income would pay respect to that ethos. Jae-Myung Lee should be commended for having pioneered it in Gyeonggi Province, and would set the country on a new progressive road if elected President on March 9.
A Korean translation of this article was published by Pressian – a political news website headquartered in Seoul, South Korea.