Nonsense, horsefeathers, and idle musings from a decade in South Korea (2002-2012).

26 December, 2007

It's a Wonderful Life

By Aaron
26 December, 2007

If I knew for a certainty that a man was coming to my house with the conscious design of doing me good, I should run for my life.
-Henry David Thoreau

I have never known much good done by those who affected to trade for the public good.
- Adam Smith

Taking it as a personal charge to expose my wife to both Frank Capra and an American Christmas tradition, I subjected Na Young to a viewing of It's a Wonderful Life yesterday. Finding an American who's seen this film any less than a dozen times is nigh impossible, so I was curious to see the reaction of someone watching it for the first time.

"Well," Na Young sighed, as final credits rolled, "they sure tried to pack every possible moral lesson into that one."

Indeed they did.1 As a viewer, you'd be forgiven for thinking you had stumbled onto a dramatization of the Beatitudes, complete with the meek, the pure of heart, the merciful, the persecuted, and the poor (but no cheesemakers). The one ideal that Capra failed to incorporate, however, may be the most important of them all: that of enlightened self-interest.

Leaving aside Capra's intentionally idealized portrayal of small-town America (Bedford Falls) for a moment, I found myself on this viewing growing less and less sympathetic to George Bailey (James Stewart) as the film wore on. Sure, he's a goodhearted fellow, but his lack of self-interest regarding his bank - hell, even self-preservation - stands only to drive the town further into the grip of the Scrooge character, Henry Potter (Lionel Barrymore). By the end of the film, Potter has come into $8,000 belonging, presumably, to Bailey's depositors and - because Bailey has so endeared himself to his patrons, many of them poor, through his philanthropy - those same depositors end up, almost literally, bailing him out of prison.

Why was he headed to prison? For losing his investors' money, that's why.

"Oh, you let your senile uncle lose our money? Well here, just let us give you some more and you can lose that, too."

By this point, George has spent the better part of his life trying to play both banker and charity worker, seemingly oblivious to the fact that he's doing both with other people's money. He passes out loans based on personal acquaintance; he doesn't ease his feebleminded uncle out to pasture with a nice pension; and he takes it upon himself, without consulting the board of directors, to solicit a bailout loan from Potter, the very man from whom he is supposedly trying to save the town.

It's a Wonderful Life, like the society it portrays, reflects a common mistake on the part of many people: believing that corporations have an obligation to act as charities rather than as responsible guardians of their shareholders' interests. Milton Friedman put it most succinctly:

...there is one and only one social responsibility of business - to use its resources and engage in activities designed to increase its profits so long as it stays within the rules of the game, which is to say, engages in open and free competition, without deception or fraud.2

By this measure, neither Potter nor George Bailey are fulfilling their duties. Potter, in offering a lousy product at an inflated price, oversees a business model ripe for Schumpeter's "creative destruction," while Bailey is clearly intent on paving the road to ruin with his own best intentions and other folks' money.

My complaint with this film - and the larger demand that companies try to guess just what their "social responsibility" is - is not an endorsement of greed. Quite the opposite, in fact. In the same way that I could, instead of going out to gather firewood tonight, burn my furniture, it is Potter's greedy focus on immediate profit that would, in the face of lean competition, become his undoing. He only survives for as long as he does because, in Capra's world, the only competition he faces is that of George Bailey.


1 "They" being an all-star writing team that included Dalton Trumbo, Dorothy Parker, and Clifford Odets, all of whom did uncredited work on the script.

2 Milton Friedman, Capitalism and Freedom

21 December, 2007


By Aaron
21 December, 2007

One of the great benefits of living in a democracy is that every few years you get to watch an election, and if you're lucky a man like Huh Kyung-Young will throw his porkpie hat into the ring. You hope he doesn't win - although stranger things have happened - but his being in the race just makes the world a bit a brighter. All you have to do is mention his name and you'll bring a smile to the face of all those within earshot.

The Korean presidential election has, of course, come and gone. That Lee Myung-Bak would win was never really in doubt and, as a result, we all had to look elsewhere for suspense and amusement. The suspense never came, but Our Man Huh did his best to keep us amused - and the fact that he happens to be batshit insane certainly didn't hurt his cause.

Shortly before the election, Huh did an interview with the Herald Biz newspaper, for which the Marmot's Hole was kind enough to provide some translation:

About himself:

Like a light from the east, I have appeared for this era, and since I can see the future, I have planned my Internet strategy way back in the past. With my 430 IQ, I can also control the spiritual domain.

I have also read 35 religious scriptures from several religions, and concluded that they have no value. The religions have prepared for my coming and I’m the one who will complete them.

On his party’s funding:

The party’s regional offices raises the needed funds on their own and sends them to the party’s central headquarters, whenever it is needed. The regional branches exist because of my spiritual abilities.

On what he plans to do if he’s elected President:

After I become President, I’ll hold a national election with the aim of “boycotting” the local elections on April and reducing the number of seats in the National Assembly to 100. I’ll also get rid of direct elections for local officials and political parties. I’ll also change the constitution so that a President can run for an another term.

In the end, Huh garnered 0.04% of the vote (about 96,000 in total), not bad when you consider that his only guaranteed constituency probably has to vote from the confines of the Booby Hatch.

Gibberish aside, Huh happens to be emblematic of a larger political issue. Of the many things that troubled me during this week's election - and which also worry me about the US campaign - is the degree to which our political systems operate at the whims of individuals. Every candidate promises that everything will be Rainbows & Skittles if he/she is elected, whereas a vote for that person's opponent is a step down the path to certain ruin. That our political systems may depend so heavily on the people running them is cause for concern: you may have competent, principled people in office today, but what about tomorrow?

To which Huh Kyung-Young merely responded:

If the UN HQ is moved to the Panmmunjon, 500 organizations will move with it, which means our economy will grow threefold.

16 December, 2007

Steroidal Dander

By Aaron
16 December, 2007

The truth is, I was never much of a baseball player. In my first year of little league, at the age of nine with the Yamhill County Sheriff's Department Giants, I went hitless in the first six games of the season - against a pitching machine. That I somehow knocked two home runs in the seventh game remains to this day my only direct evidence of a divine power. I played organized baseball for another season or two - and even played above my age bracket - but it was clear early on that I'd best not neglect my studies. There's just not much getting around a lack of athletic bloodlines.

Which, I suppose, is why I can't get too riled up about the Mitchell Report, released this week, which names 89 current and former Major League Baseball players - including Roger Clemens, Miguel Tejada, and Andy Pettitte - suspected of juicing. The fact is I'm more irritated that this is an issue at all than I am with the substance itself, but here we go.

Let's first set one thing straight: the vast majority of all professional athletes (curlers excepted) are genetic freaks. With or without steroids, your average kid in the schoolyard is nothing like Dwight Howard, Thierry Henry, or Alex Rodriguez and he never will be, no matter how many hours he spends in the gym or in the batting cage. Feed me all the supplements at BALCO and I still couldn't outrun Marion Jones, hit a fastball like Barry Bonds or throw that fastball like Roger Clemens. Steroids could not give me Bill Romanowski's work ethic, Ronnie Coleman's physical composition, or Barry Bonds' hand-eye coordination, just as steroids endowed none of these athletes with any of these qualities. These individuals weren't "normal" to begin with, so let's stop pretending that the steroids transformed Peter Parker into Spiderman.

And even if these drugs could somehow turn David Eckstein into David Ortiz, who cares? Baseball fans, on the whole, watch the sport in hopes of seeing some chiseled giant knock a ball 450 feet over the center field wall, and the more this happens the better. And to the extent that anyone watches track & field events, they do so hoping that the sprinters will be little more than lightspeed blurs. Pro sports, quite simply, is a product and in a free market system there will always be pressure to deliver a bigger bang - or crack of the bat, as the case may be - for the buck. Barry Bonds hitting 73 homes runs in a season is not only good for baseball, it's what capitalism, for better or for worse, is all about. So come on, step right up, let's see who can hit 74.

What's more, I fail to see who's being hurt if Roger Clemens wants to shoot steroids into his butt cheeks. Not the fans, as they get to see exactly what, by and large, they've paid to see. Not the sport, as the level of competition - and thus, presumably, the quality - is raised. But what about the players? Aren't there adverse health effects with which we should be concerned, health effects more deleterious than those of the alcoholic beverages that sponsor every sporting event? I admit I don't know much about the long range health effects of these substances, but even if they eventually killed the athletes I don't see it as my role to tell them not to commit suicide. Their bodies, their careers, their decisions.

As for the supposed "purity" of sports, I'm not sure where the sanctimony comes from. Professional sports in America has a long and storied history of self-medicating athletes. From the alcoholic excesses of Mickey Mantle and Babe Ruth to the cocaine binges of Shawn Kemp and Lawrence Taylor1, we're kidding ourselves if we think professional sports in the United States has ever been an outpost of purity and virtue. Teaching one's kids to idolize and emulate these characters has always been a gamble but unlike the alcohol and cocaine, these steroids were, if nothing else, taken for the express purpose of enhancing one's performance, so let's at least credit these 89 players with a dedication to their sport - and to customer satisfaction, too.

In the end, nothing is ever as it was. In baseball, the bats are better, the training and dietary methods more advanced, and the age at which kids are scouted and groomed for stardom is younger than it has ever been. Perhaps these steroids are part of a slippery slope into all manner of artificial enhancements, but I don't think so (that'll be when Carl Crawford finds a drug that causes him to sprout wings on his back). So just as we don't ban protein powder or mass gainer because it helps build muscle mass, let's not get our panties in a bunch over a few genetic oddities and their growth hormones. We as consumers are getting just what we've paid for.


1 Incidentally, any athlete who can smoke marijuana or snort cocaine - or both - and still compete in a professional sport should be given a green light. God knows my own job would be hard enough if I had a coke habit, so I take my hat off to anyone who can maintain an addiction and still hit a curveball.