It is a platitude that the pandemic has been a game-changer. It is a banality that catastrophes are not always uniformly bad news for everyone. The lucky few may unwittingly benefit. Lee Jae-myung, governor of South Korea’s most populous province, is probably one of them.
So is the bold concept known as universal basic income.
Mr Lee has risen to the top of opinion polls for the next presidential election in 2022, on a push to make the country the first in Asia to introduce a universal basic income.
Despite having lost the governing Democratic Party primaries to current President Moon Jae-in just three years ago, Mr Lee is now doing exceptionally well. And it’s at least partly because he sees the inherent contradictions of pushing endless consumption in a society hit by a pandemic and reduced to making do.
The economic system is built around consumption but Mr Lee says “the capitalist system could fall apart if consumption and demand aren’t supported”. He adds that income disparity would make markets unsustainable, but universal basic income would “fix and further develop” capitalism.
This is as true in South Korea as it is in the United States, if only Donald Trump’s Republican Party would recognise it. The Republicans’ economic framework of trickle-down economics is not working any longer. In fact, the financial markets have now become an end game in and of themselves, without any logic or rationale for how they go up and down.
The US has a lot of income inequality but it doesn’t yet have someone like Mr Lee, who is heading for the presidency with a fair wind at his back, at least for now. Andrew Yang, who contested the US Democratic Party’s presidential primaries, made a pretty good fist of getting the universal basic income message out. But Mr Yang was never going to be the Democratic Party’s nominee, so the difference between his candidature and Mr Lee’s is immense.
Mr Lee’s message resonates because income inequality in South Korea remains among the developed world’s highest, according to OECD data. Mr Lee believes that an annual basic income of about $430 would be a good way to start. Eventually, 10 to 15 years on, the goal would be to offer the same amount every month.
The 56-year-old governor of Gyeonggi has already suited actions to words, in a small way. Early in the pandemic, he provided handouts to boost the regional economy surrounding Seoul. This helped prod the central government to take action at the national level.
Analysts say that massive government spending in Korea is helping Mr Lee’s popularity. The race, however, remains tight at this point.
Even if Mr Lee’s star wanes, universal basic income seems set to shine brightly. Progressive sections of the current president’s circle also seem sold on the idea of a basic income. And it’s becoming popular in the top opposition conservative group.