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

29 June, 2008

Woman Disdained

By Aaron
29 June, 2008

Photo by riNux

A friend of mine works in Seoul for a local bank where he handles the bank's relationships with a variety of companies. Some months back, one of his female colleagues was assigned as relationship manager to a Hyundai account, a decision which initially pleased the relevant men at Hyundai who quite enjoyed ogling a woman while slogging through the dry minutiae of, say, a bond issuance. That she was, from what I can gather, good at her job was merely an added bonus for these fellows.

Everything on the account went swimmingly until early this past spring when the Hyundai boys decided to take this woman golfing and, afterward, for drinks over lunch. As it turns out, she wasn't much of a golfer and, what's more, couldn't keep up with the immoderate drinking that so defined professional life for these fellows. Soon, Hyundai was ringing up the bank, asking that a male be assigned to their account - someone who played golf, drank to excess, and could belch, fart and swear like a real man. And so my friend, who hates golf and excessive drinking, ended up with the account.

Korean men of a certain generation, I've learned, only talk to women for one reason; luckily, every woman has one. Too many men in Korea are incapable of talking to a female - other than their relatives - if the possibility of sex is not somehow involved, and dealing with females as equals is certainly beyond consideration. Corporate offices in Korea too often have the feel of recess in elementary school, back when girls were stupid, weak, and never to be picked for the kickball team, and while some males outgrow this stage, it seems that many have simply packed up their callow notions and taken them into the boardroom.

In my experience, it's not enough for women in Korea to be intelligent, resourceful and motivated. No, for their talent to be recognized and for them to earn promotions, women in Korea must be exponentially more intelligent, more motivated and more resourceful than their male counterparts in similar positions. That most work in our modern economy no longer demands physical strength or a pair of testicles seems not to matter. Women, by dint of their unsightly golf handicaps, are presumed incapable of managing an organization of any size because, clearly, there's a direct correlation between golf scores and profits.

The population of South Korea is, at present, about 50% female, which leads me in a crude way to assume that about half of the best potential employees, managers, and leaders will similarly be female. Any company, then, that hires, fires or promotes based on genitalia is doing itself a great disservice, one that in a free market will almost certainly spell its demise. Milton Friedman wrote as much in Capitalism and Freedom:

...there is an incentive in a free market to separate economic efficiency from other characteristics of the individual. A businessman or an entrepreneur who expresses preferences in his business activities that are not related to productive efficiency is at a disadvantage compared to other individuals who do not. (109)

A few years back, Roy Adler of Pepperdine University provided some statistical ballast for this argument by showing, in an extensive 19-year study, that the 25 Fortune 500 firms with the best record of promoting women to high positions are between 18 and 69 percent more profitable than the median Fortune 500 firms in their industries. A number of explanations for this fact have been offered - for instance, that profitable companies are more willing to experiment - but I'd venture that the answer is obvious: these companies have instituted the strictest meritocracies. Performance and potential simply matter more than whether or not you menstruate.

May I be so blunt as to say, 'duh'?

27 June, 2008

Summoning Ill-Repute

By Aaron
27 June, 2008

Protesters kick and hit a policeman who was pulled out of his riot police squad while blocking demonstrators in central Seoul from marching toward the Blue House. (Joong-Ang Daily, 27 June, 2008)

When it comes to lousing up its reputation abroad, Korea - as a collective entity - is not only known to shoot itself in the foot, it often squats down to get better aim. Not content to let news of North Korea dominate international coverage of the peninsula, local demonstrators this week continued to throw themselves into protests with an abandon bred of an immunity to reason, furthering only their prophecy that the policies of President Lee Myung-Bak are destined for failure.

Any week in which North Korea makes the front pages of newspapers around the world is a bad week for South Korea. To be sure, North Korea's demolition of the cooling tower at its ramshackle Yongbyon reactor is, if largely symbolic, a positive development. This news, however, merely reminds the world, yet again, that the Korean peninsula is still officially in a state of war and, what's more, pestered by an indigent nuclear dictatorship. Even when positive, news about North Korea is negative: either the story reminds everyone that the menace still lurks and that war is always possible, or it hints that reunification, and thus economic disaster, is imminent.

South Korea may not be able to keep its northern sibling out of the papers, but one would think the residents of these more liberal climes could at least portray themselves in a more positive light. Instead, pictures and articles of battles between demonstrators and riot police on the streets of Seoul fill my daily newspapers, images which have caused Moody's to warn of lasting damage to Korea's reputation with international investors. What exactly these folks are protesting - American beef, abuse of presidential power, energy prices, dingleberries - is no longer clear, and yet they continue, night in and night out, to storm the Bastille of imagined affronts.

One grievance voiced by the protesters throughout their month-long tantrum has been that the policies of Lee Myung-Bak are destined to bring ruination upon Korea. Lee's goals of privatization and economic liberalization, argue his detractors, will surely drown the peninsula in the Plagues of Job and undo all the "successes" of the Roh Moo-Hyun administration. And these critics of Lee, these militant nitpickers, just may, through their own actions, bring to fruition the economic doom they prophesy.

The "Korea Discount" may not be entirely within the realm of South Korea's control, but sometimes the country, in its endless petulance, seems hellbent on soiling its own good name.

24 June, 2008

O, Children

By Aaron
24 June, 2008

If you have children - and I assume some of you do - I am sorry to tell you this: they are not special. Oh no, please don't get me wrong, folks. I know you think they're special; I'm just telling you they're not.

Did you know that every time a guy comes, he comes 200 million sperm? And you mean to tell me that you think your child is special? Because one out of 200 million sperm, in that load, connected? Gee, what are the fucking odds? Do you know what this means? I have wiped entire civilizations off of my chest with a grey gym sock. That is special. Entire nations have flaked and crusted in the hair around my navel. That is special. And I want you to think about that, you two-egg-carrying beings out there with that holier-than-thou, we-have-the-gift-of-life attitude. I have tossed universes in my underpants while napping.

is special.

- Bill Hicks

I am, in Darwinian terms, a dead end: I don't have kids, don't want kids, and don't particularly like kids. Oh sure, I recognize their utility - as, for instance, someone to plow your fields, carry on the family name, or work while you collect your old age pension - but they're also squirrely, shitty little creatures who sap their parents of time, money and energy and then bugger off for lives of their own. My view on biological spin-offs (especially those spun by me) lies somewhere between my sentiments toward colon cancer and jury duty – that is to say, something interesting but ultimately unpleasant. And yes, the thought of just having a vasectomy and being done with the matter crosses my mind more often than it probably should, though at least it would, amongst other things, ensure that we wouldn’t end up with a son called Oops or a daughter named Shouldapulledout.

I've reached that age at which many of my friends have begun, en masse, to birth babies and, to the extent that they're happy with the new arrivals, I'm happy for them. After all, it's not as though my goal in life is to dampen spirits and edit out joy. Having reached "that age," however, means that I now have to endure frequent questioning about my own refusal to join the parenting club. People with children just can't understand why anyone wouldn't want younguns of their own.

"Because parents find it hard to believe that those without children can be happy, that is the dominant view," says Kate Stanley of the Institute for Public Policy Research in Britain.

The truth, however, is that happiness indices show no clear correlation between having children and being happy.

These interrogations are especially rough on women, who are viewed vaguely as failures - or, at a minimum, oddities - if they opt not to have children. Of course, as Will Wilkinson and Tyler Cowen discuss in the video above, women who have children and attempt to maintain a life of their own are often seen as bad mothers if they outsource much of the childcare. A woman in this modern world just can't win.

I'm not, for the record, anti-children. As I said above, someone needs to have them, otherwise who's going to keep society humming along when free-riders like me retire? Just ask the Japanese. I acknowledge, as well, that there's a biological imperative (or condom breakage) that drives most humans to reproduce, but I'd be curious to know how many children are born due to social, rather than evolutionary, pressures that condition people from a young age to blindly accept parenthood as the inevitable course of life.

Korea's low birthrate shows that Koreans view as a choice the number of children they have, but these same people seem genuinely shocked when someone - e.g. me - suggests that the question of whether or not to have children at all is similarly a matter of choice. Most have simply never considered the idea that they have no particular obligation to procreate and many people - especially those who are already locked into parenthood - don't really want to be exposed to such a notion now. Better to just ignore the idea and pretend that your whole life has simply been preparation for toilet training, curfew enforcement and pretending that the picture taped to the fridge is high art.

But, counter many Korean parents, you'll be lonely in your old age unless you have children. Apparently uncertain of their ability to make and sustain close human relationships, these folks have decided to breed their future social circles, all the while ignoring the countless geriatrics who moan about never hearing from their children. Whether or not your twilight years are lonely, then, depends not on the number of your progeny, it depends on you.

-->So please love your children, raise them well, and teach them to be upstanding pillars of the community. Just please don't call me to babysit them until they're in my phone book.

23 June, 2008

The Electoral Flatline

By Aaron
23 June, 2008

My wife, a Korean citizen and thus ineligible to vote in the US, has offered to buy my presidential vote for the upcoming November elections - and I'd be open to the idea, too, were it not for the fact that such a sale would be a worthlessly circular transfer of the household wealth. But legalities be damned, I'd give her bid a serious think if I thought there was any money to be made from it.1

Na Young, I recently discovered, has her political mojo working in a serious way for Barack Obama and has announced that she'd sure as shit vote for him if she could. In fact, I suspect that if we lived in the US she'd even be out on the campaign trail, assisting Halle Barry on paper cup detail. But we don't and she's not, and so her only path to participation is through my mail-in ballot.

Strange that I'd even consider selling my vote. After all, isn't this 2008 election supposed to be the most exciting political event since Rutherford B. Hayes defeated Samuel Tilden by an angel's asscrack to win the presidency in 1876? Why, then, am I so underwhelmed? Wait, now I remember: beneath the rhetorical veneer of change and transformation, John McCain and Barack Obama are about as conventional as they come.

Oh sure, McCain has broken with Republicans at various times in the past - commendable, to be sure - but where some see a maverick, I see a mash-up of the two main parties. And aside from his face, race and grace, I'm at a loss to explain the vast appeal of Obama, much less able to understand how he continues to pull off his claims of newfangledness.2 Dan Balz of The Washington Post opened a recent post by lamenting just this fact:

A campaign between Barack Obama and John McCain once offered enormous possibilities for something new. Instead, the two presumptive nominees have opened their campaigns for the White House with what looks and sounds like a repeat of the kind of politics both have promised to leave behind.

As such issues as global warming and energy prices come to the fore, Obama may ultimately ride into the presidency on the Democratic Party's reputational rails of caring more about the environment and "the common man" than the villainous GOP. As recent stories such as this one in the New York Times show, however, such a reputation is ill-deserved. As Larry Rohter points out, Obama has continued to support ethanol subsidies to American corn farmers - read: agrigiants like Archer Daniels Midland - despite the inefficiencies of corn-based ethanol as a fuel and the likely role of these subsidies in driving up global food prices. Not, I suppose, that we should be surprised:

Mr. Obama’s lead advisor on energy and environmental issues, Jason Grumet, came to the campaign from the National Commission on Energy Policy, a bipartisan initiative associated with Mr. Daschle and Bob Dole, the Kansas Republican who is also a former Senate majority leader and a big ethanol backer who had close ties to the agribusiness giant Archer Daniels Midland.
Not long after arriving in the Senate, Mr. Obama himself briefly provoked a controversy by flying at subsidized rates on corporate airplanes, including twice on jets owned by Archer Daniels Midland, which is the nation’s largest ethanol producer and is based in his home state.

Wake me up when the "new politics" are ready.

Of course, I'm sure that Obama, as a committed environmentalist, would welcome into the American market ethanol made from Brazilian sugarcane, which has an EROI (Energy Return on Investment) of about 8:1, compared to 1.5:1 for ethanol from, say, Illinois corn. Well, actually, not so much: in fact, Obama has spoken out in favor of the 54 cents/gallon tariff levied on sugar-based Brazilian ethanol. One more item his list of differences with John McCain, I guess.

Mr. McCain advocates eliminating the multibillion-dollar annual government subsidies that domestic ethanol has long enjoyed. As a free trade advocate, he also opposes the 54-cent-a-gallon tariff that the United States slaps on imports of ethanol made from sugar cane, which packs more of an energy punch than corn-based ethanol and is cheaper to produce.
Mr. Obama, in contrast, favors the subsidies, some of which end up in the hands of the same oil companies he says should be subjected to a windfall profits tax. In the name of helping the United States build “energy independence,” he also supports the tariff, which some economists say may well be illegal under the World Trade Organization’s rules but which his advisers say is not.

I'm sure Obama means well and I have little doubt that he wants to cuddle the planet as much as the rest of us, all while achieving energy independence (an overrated notion in itself). The trouble is, modern American liberals - as opposed to those of the classical variety - have enormous confidence in the power of their own good intentions, a personality trait that enables them to ignore the fact that, as Thomas Sowell put it, reality is not optional. Wishing for corn-based ethanol to be the silver-bullet cure for American oil addiction will not make it so, and energy independence at the cost of the environment and the US economy is a bad bargain.

On second thought, then, I better not sell that vote to my wife. But for my own selection, what are the alternatives to Obama? Actually, in addition to McCain, there's no shortage of them, though I fear that the bulk of them are no less nincompoopish than their mainstream rivals. All of which only confirms that in a democracy no one gets a tailored suit. Instead, we all end up buying ill-fitting slacks off the rack. The only question is whether that rack happens to be at Saks or Wal-Mart.

2008 looks like a Wal-Mart year.


1 For economic discussions on the buying and selling of votes, click here and here.
2 For the record, I'm not implying that Obama has come this far as a result of his race, so please don't write and accuse me of being Geraldine Ferraro's alter ego. I don't mean that. As far as I can see, though, Obama's position as the most successful black presidential candidate in US history is one of very few "new" things about him.

20 June, 2008

Podcasts Saved the Radio Star

By Aaron
20 June, 2008

One day, when I was about twelve years-old, I was rifling through our family's garage in search of something long-since forgotten when I came upon an old black & white television. It bore a K-Mart logo and was covered in dust, but it had power and, thus, potential. Our parents were always strictly against my sister and I having TVs in our bedrooms, but in the spirit of nothing-ventured-nothing-gained, I went to my mom and asked her if I might be allowed to have this dusty relic for my room. My mom looked at me as if I'd asked for a playdate with Tiny Tim (below, for your viewing pleasure), but she assented with a shrug, saying only, "if you can stand to watch the thing, it's yours."

I quickly discovered that I'd come into no great treasure. To get any reception at all I had to keep my hand at all times on the makeshift antenna that I'd fashioned out of a coat hanger and aluminum foil, and even then the only station I could get was Oregon Public Broadcasting, the programming of which was limited largely to the reproduction of assorted asexual critters. In the end - that is to say, about three hours later - the television was back in the garage, forgotten until the day some sucker finally bought it, a year or two later, for $2.00 at a garage sale.

By glacial standards, then, I'm fairly young, though not so young that I can't remember a time of black & white televisions - that murky past that preceded the internet and downloads and daily floods of offers for all-y'all-can-eat pornography in our email inboxes. In all of this, I am part of the last generation to come of age before Al Gore invented the internet, a generation that, fortunately, was nonetheless still young enough to adapt - and even profit - as everything began to go digital.

Even more than lousy televisions, though, I remember the joys of radio - of listening to Paul Harvey with my grandfather in his '49 Plymouth; of listening to Mychael Thompson on AM sports radio with my father when he'd pick me up from school. Of course, there were also the days of Focus on the Family, back before my parents finally got wise and skedaddled from the Adventist church, when we had to listen to the long-winded prattling of James Dobson every week. Radio always represented a land of pure language, an arena somewhere between print and television in which the presenters - free of graphics and video - had to rely exclusively on the spoken word to tell their story, deliver the news or make their point. It's both an art and a skill that, until recently, I feared was destined to disappear.

Until, that is, the iPod came along and almost single-handedly resurrected the medium. The missus bought an iPod for me as a birthday gift in 2006 and I've been a devotee ever since, less for the device's ability to hold music files than for the portable world of podcasts to which I, through the iPod, gained access.

I am, in terms of eyesight, rather nearsighted, though not so much so that I have to hold my book two inches from my face when reading. Reading a book on the Seoul subway in the morning or evening rush hours, however, is nigh impossible unless you enjoy reading in the manner of a goddamned myopic. My iPod, therefore - filled with an updated arsenal of podcasts - has become an appendage of sorts for me on my daily commute. My Mondays are largely consumed by the line-up of American public affairs programs, such as Meet the Press, This Week and Face the Nation. Tuesday mornings are for Wait, Wait...Don't Tell Me, while This American Life covers the evening ride home. On Wednesdays, I usually find time for my favorite podcast, EconTalk. And all of this is to say nothing of the dozens of other shows that make my commute marginally more productive when, due to crowds, I can't or don't want to read.

Even more, though, I'm an avid supporter of podcasts for their role in bringing radio into the modern age and saving it from extinction at the hands of cable television and internet downloads. Then again, it is the power of that same internet that allows me to give you, for your weekend viewing, the puzzling brilliance of Tiny Tim: