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

24 September, 2010

The Rule of Law vs. The Rule of Men

By Aaron
24 September, 2010

The United States, uniquely, was founded upon a distrust of government power, on the belief that humans are born with complete freedom and surrender only discrete portions of this liberty in order to live in a civilized society. And this suspicion of concentrated power has proven wise: after all, most humans are just tyrants-in-waiting. Hell, put me in power and I'd probably run roughshod over your civil liberties just to outlaw gum chewing and the use of "LOL." There is, in short, no reason to simply trust that politicians and bureaucrats will always do the right thing. This is why we have rules - beginning with the Constitution - that constrain government power and prevent it from becoming arbitrary and abusive.

A constitution, however, is merely a piece of paper - in the case of the U.S. Constitution, an old, frail piece of paper. More important than the paper itself, then, is the continual willingness of a country's citizens to defend the ideas written on it. Recently, however, several writers have lamented Americans' obsession with the Constitution, seemingly perplexed at why Americans would want checks on the power of their government. To take two examples:

"This fatuous infatuation with the Constitution, particularly the 10th Amendment, is clearly the work of witches, wiccans and wackos," writes Richard Cohen in The Washington Post.

And, at The Economist: "There is something infantile in the belief of the constitution-worshippers that the complex political arguments of today can be settled by simple fidelity to a document written in the 18th century."

Alright, then, if the Constitution is obsolete, by what set of rules would these fellows have the government operate? I'm all ears: suggest away. But before we just toss the Constitution aside, Don Boudreaux has some questions:

...if government officials and the courts are free to choose which words of the Constitution to “adhere to” and which to ignore, what meaning does the Constitution really possess? And why did the Founding Fathers struggle so hard during the long, hot summer of 1787 over the precise wording of the Constitution? Why didn’t they – to ensure that they would win the respect of future generations of Very Smart Persons – simply draft a document that reads “Government may do whatever it judges to be best for The People” and leave it at that?

Granted, the American Founding Fathers were a flawed group of fellows: they owned slaves, thought women were daft, and didn't trust the common man to keep his wits about him. Fortunately, Madison, Jefferson, et al. thought to include Article V, which provides for a process by which the Constitution may, when absolutely necessary, be modified. And despite its imperfections, the Constitution - or, rather, adherence to its principles - has allowed one of the more cantakerous groups of people in human history to achieve unprecedented peace and prosperity.

This being a holiday week in South Korea, I've had a chance to take in a couple movies, the best of which was Mugabe and the White African. This documentary is an account of one white Zimbabwean farmer's struggle to keep his farm even as the government of Robert Mugabe uses violence to confiscate the land owned by white farmers. Mugabe justifies this policy by claiming that the land belongs to the black peasants, though in fact the land is generally given to the political cronies who keep Mugabe's Zanu-PF party in power. The film's lasting impression of Zimbabwe - one supported by countless other sources - is of a country ruled, not by law, but by the whims of one power-hungry man who couldn't care less if his policies destroy the economy and the lives of the Zimbabwean people.

The film, in short, is a painful example of what can happen when government power goes unchecked. While I'm not worried about America becoming Zimbabwe tomorrow, the film does show why these checks on state power are necessary, and why citizens must constantly fight to enforce them.

Bankston on the Roots of 'Social Justice'

By Aaron

Writing in the latest issue of The Independent Review, Carl Bankston of Tulane University argues that the current popular ideas of "social justice" - which stem largely from the writings of John Rawls - have their roots in the post-World War II consumer boom and the struggles of the Civil Rights Movement. The resulting philosophy/ideology/orthodoxy, according to Bankston, has not been an unalloyed good. A couple quotes:

When we assume that goods, opportunities, and power are simply there to be distributed to passive consumers, we lose sight of the fact that all aspects of political and economic life must be produced. People are actors, not simply recipients.

The most troubling assumption in both the perspective and the theory of social justice involves power. If justice is a matter of organizing society in the best interests of the least advantaged, then the quest for justice necessitates unending efforts to reorganize society in the name of those interests. A society, however, is not a specific institutional entity or even a set of procedures, like a legal system. A society is the total sum of interactions and historically shaped patterns of interactions among people. The goal of reorganizing society as a whole, then, is essentially a goal of reshaping how people choose to live and think. This goal is implicitly totalitarian, although it certainly does not necessarily lead to totalitarianism because of the many real-world barriers to translating moral goals into political action.

Give it a read.

21 September, 2010

On the Myths of Industrial Policy

By Aaron
21 September, 2010

While I'm never sure what to expect from someone who describes himself as a "big government libertarian," James Pinkerton's advocacy of industrial policy in the video above is, hands down, the question-begger of the week. That such an idea has the support of so visible a member of the Republican Party - albeit a veteran of Mike Huckabee's 2008 presidential campaign - is further evidence that hard economic times breed the strangest mutants of political economy.

In his chat with Glenn Loury, Pinkerton argues that, because China is dumping scads of money into favored industries, America should embark on an industrial policy of its own. The argument - and the fears that underpin it - is hardly new: back in 1992, Ross Perot had his knickers in a twist over a "giant sucking sound" that would signal the departure of good American jobs to overseas factories. The proposed solutions are almost always the same: protect domestic industries with tariffs and subsidies and, while we're at it, bar the doors and keep out those dark-skinned foreigners who are stealing jobs from industrious Americans.

I'll admit, Pinkerton's argument has a certain emotional appeal. If America, by some mythical objective measure, "needs" more green technology, then the government should simply funnel more money into that sector, right? And do you, as a patriotic American, want to see Harley-Davidson motorcycles made in China? Well, then, write your legislator and demand that she vote for tariffs on those Honda Sabres that are stealing market share from the Hogs (nevermind that the Sabres are made in Marysville, Ohio).

And, to be fair, all of this is perfectly possible: in our physical world, if we devote more resources to the production of Product X, we can produce more of Product X. Double the recipe for your cookies, and you'll get more cookies. This, however, has nothing to do with the deeper economic problem. To raise the standard of living of a society, people must answer a different set of questions: how do we produce Product X in the most efficient way? Should we produce more or less of Product X? Indeed, should we produce Product X at all, given the alternative uses of the required inputs? And the most important question: Who will answer these questions? Maybe you know that you don't need twice as many cookies today, but it's unlikely that a bureaucrat in Washington has any informed opinion on the matter.

But, proclaims Pinkerton, America must have a new industrial policy because "every country that did develop did it through some kind of conscious husbanding of its factories and industries, whether it was the U.S. in the 19th century, or Germany in the 19th century, or Japan and Korea."

This claim, however popular, rests on the assumption that these countries grew wealthy because of their industrial policies rather than in spite of them. In the case of South Korea, there is ample reason to suspect that while the economy was certainly state-led, the economic growth was not, for the simple reason that the government did not have the superhuman foresight required to predict the future or overcome the realities of comparative advantage. In fact, in the absence of coercive industrial targeting in the 1970s, South Korea might well have grown more rapidly than it actually did. Moreover, Pinkerton ignores the many countries - such as India and much of South America - that have pursued industrial policies to disastrous ends.

A national industrial policy essentially requires that bureaucrats and politicians have a better idea of future growth industries than exists in private capital markets. Yet, if private investors are not persuaded that T. Boone Pickens' wind turbines are the future of energy, why should the government - which must take money by force from you and me - step in and subsidize him? If government officials knew in advance which industries would succeed and which would fail, they wouldn't be bureaucrats - they'd be billionaires.

So if civil servants and politicians have no unique insight into the future, on what will they base their industrial policy? Which industries will receive protection and encouragement, and which will be left to rot? In all likelihood, these decisions will turn on the influence of those who have access to the decisionmakers in Washington. Such access will not be had by the most innovative start-ups (even assuming we could identify such a thing ex ante), but rather by the likes of T. Boone Pickens, labor unions, and big energy companies like, ahem, BP. The resulting industrial policy will be little more than a gift to the interest groups most capable of lobbying for protection of their industry. And, not surprisingly, research suggests that corruption is indeed higher in those countries which pursue active industrial policies.

Ultimately, to paraphrase PJ O'Rourke, a successful industrial policy requires that bureaucrats and politicians know more about everything than we do, and requires them to make smarter decisions than we can. And it demands that a state official make those wise and knowledgeable decisions without regard for his political or financial self-interest. In short, a successful industrial policy can only be produced by Jesus Christ himself. And since JC doesn't exist, neither does a smart industrial policy.

19 September, 2010

Or, there's this...

By Aaron
19 September, 2010

As an addendum to my previous post, I offer this video:

17 September, 2010

Food Fit For a Queen

By Aaron
17 September, 2010

The only thing that the kings and sultans and emperors had that ordinary people today don’t have was power over other people and the ability to command them. They had vast palaces built by slaves or financed by taxes, but no indoor heating or cooling; slaves and servants, but no washing machines or dishwashers; armies of couriers, but no cell phones or Wi-Fi; court doctors and magi, but no anesthetic to ease their agony or antibiotics to cure infections; they were powerful, but they were miserably poor by our standards.

The missus and I went out for dalkgalbi (see picture above) last night at a restaurant near Ewha Women's University which features, as its interior decor, black and white photographs of Old Korea. As a sucker for old pictures, I like the concept. But here's the thing: Old Korea was about as poor a country as you can imagine, which means that the raggedy-ass paupers in these pictures all seemed to be staring longingly at the copious amounts of food on our - and everyone else's - table. In fact, Old Korea was so poor that even the ill-fated Queen Min (above left), whose picture was hanging just over my wife's right shoulder, seemed to be eyeing my chicken.

Which should come as no surprise.

Most royalty of yore, and not just the monarchs of poor little backwaters, would find my modest life (by today's standards) quite comfortable - enviable even. The writer Matt Ridley has pointed out that King Louis XIV of France had 498 servants whose sole job was to prepare his food. Ol' King Lou could simply snap his fingers, announce that he wanted, say, yams and peanut butter for lunch, and these 498 minions would hop to it.

As Ridley further notes, however, you and I have the same luxury and, compared to Queen Min, a helluva lot more.

Yesterday, for instance, the wife and I showed up unannounced at the dalkgalbi restaurant and ordered whatever we wanted from the menu. The staff at this restaurant had no idea we were coming, and couldn't have known what we planned to order. Yet, within 15 minutes, we were gorging ourselves on spicy chicken ribs. And we could have done the same had we wanted Italian, Indian, Japanese, Greek or countless other foods. All over Seoul - indeed, all over the world - thousands of people are right now sitting around in their restaurants and supermarkets, just waiting for you or me to saunter in and order whatever we wish. This means, of course, that you and I have far more than 498 people to look after our food needs.

And I haven't even mentioned all the people who stand ready to tend to our clothing, entertainment and educational demands. No wonder Queen Min seemed envious last night.

15 September, 2010

Downfall of a Karaoke Superstar: Who Cares?

By Aaron
15 September, 2010

Life lessons from Kenny Rogers and the Muppets (video)

When evaluating any piece of social policy, I always first ask myself, "does this law presume that people are capable of running their own lives?" If the answer to that question is "no," then the policy is immediately suspect, resting as it does on the belief that people are ignorant children in need of a babysitter.

For instance, South Korean citizens are not legally allowed to gamble (with a few exceptions). That is, they're not permitted to hit the blackjack tables or blow their monthly salary on the roullette wheel. Oh sure, they can play the stock market, eat raw beef, and ride Seoul's public buses, but heaven forbid they go all in on a high stakes poker game. When it comes to this kind of gambling, the Korean government evidently believes that Korean citizens are a bunch of feckless rubes who can't be trusted with their own money. As you might have guessed, this is a law that does not pass my "Presumption of Competence" test.

Nor does the law prevent Koreans from gambling if they're so inclined, as evidenced by the recent downfall of local pop singer Shin Jung-hwan. As the Joong-Ang reports:

Entertainer Shin Jung-hwan, 35, the host of three popular national television shows, was fired from all three shows yesterday, following allegations that he ditched work to go on a gambling spree in the Philippines, where he is rumored to have lost millions of won.

The Seoul Supreme Public Prosecutors’ Office said Tuesday that it had launched an investigation of Shin.

When Shin didn’t show up for work last week, it was believed that he had once again indulged in his well-known penchant for gambling, which is illegal in Korea.

This is not the first time the entertainer has faced allegations of illegal gambling.

So this karaoke superstar got fired from his job, lost thousands of dollars and, as the article later notes, is now in hiding overseas. Sounds like plenty of punishment to me, so why does the prosecutor's office need to fritter away taxpayer money on an investigation of Shin? More importantly, why should anyone but Shin, his family, and his creditors care that he enjoys gambling? It's no one else's business.

Of course, those who oppose gambling can always point to Shin - and similar cases - and say, "see there, that's why we need to ban gambling." Whether gambling is legal or not, however, there will always be irritating nitwits like Shin who can't manage their money. Where gambling is legal, many people do not partake, others gamble 'responsibly,' and yes, a small number go overboard. For those who can't control themselves, the punishment is immediate and painful. There's no need to punish the rest of us - by taxing us to pay for these silly investigations - for the idiocy of a few.

12 September, 2010

How NOT to Win Friends and Influence People

By Aaron
12 September, 2010

Said a paroled rapist/burglar when asked why he stabbed a fellow to death and severely beat the man's wife in front of their two teenage children: “I hated how society perceives convicts. I was enraged instantly after I heard others living happily while I eke out a living in difficult circumstances.”

A brief note to any paroled convicts who might be among my readers: getting soused on cheap booze and going on a violent rampage is probably not the best way to improve the public image of parolees.

Lee Kuan Yew & His Honorable Purposes

By Aaron

My latest weekend edition of the International Herald Tribune has a brief profile on the aging Lee Kuan Yew, the "father of Singapore" who ruled the city state for 25 years and now holds the title of "Minister Mentor" to his Prime Minister son.

Despite Singapore's obvious rise from poverty to prosperity, Lee continues to come in for criticism - both abroad and, increasingly, at home - for his heavy-handed rule of Singapore. Lee, however, assures us that his heart has always been in the right place:

“I’m not saying that everything I did was right,” he said, “but everything I did was for an honorable purpose. I had to do some nasty things, locking fellows up without trial.”

This seems to be a running theme in politics, whether in a dictatorship or democracy. Political leaders are experts at convincing themselves that they're doing the right thing for society, either because they really believe it or because they believe that doing the wrong thing is necessary in order to be able to do the right thing later. And that's the best that can be said of politics. All too often, political leaders are merely power-hungry narcissists who cloak their desire to rule in noble rhetoric.

But to give these fellows the benefit of the doubt, I suspect that even catastrophes like China's Great Leap Forward and the Cuban and Russian revolutions had as their seed some good intention, perhaps a desire to improve the lot of the local people. Trouble is, intentions don't matter, results do. Lee got results (i.e. widespread economic prosperity) in Singapore, as did Park Chung-hee in South Korea, whereas Mao and Castro ran their countries into the ground.

As I've written before, I wish I knew what it is that makes some dictators - like Lee and Park - use their power to push for economic development, while other autocrats simply wreak havoc. Something tells me the answer does not lie in "honorable purposes."

06 September, 2010

Markets in Everything: Odd Jobs Edition

By Aaron
06 September, 2010

The excellent Marginal Revolution blog has a running series entitled "Markets in Everything." In these posts, the writers offer examples of the peculiar little commercial niches created in a vibrant market economy. A few of my favorites include: testicular implants for pets (the splendidly-named "Neuticles"), raves for deaf people, and rent-a-protestor.

The "Markets in Everything" series is a tribute to Adam Smith's theory of the division of labor. In Book I, Chapter III of his On the Wealth of Nations, Smith points out that as the size of a market grows, each person has more opportunity to specialize in a particular job - and to be well-compensated for it:

As it is the power of exchanging that gives occasion to the division of labour, so the extent of this division must always be limited by the extent of that power, or, in other words, by the extent of the market. When the market is very small, no person can have any encouragement to dedicate himself entirely to one employment, for want of the power to exchange all that surplus part of the produce of his own labour, which is over and above his own consumption, for such parts of the produce of other men's labour as he has occasion for.

In other words, those who insist on being self-sufficient will have to produce everything they use, and will be dirt poor as a result. As more and more people begin to engage in trade, however, each person can focus ever more intently on one job, and then exchange his produce with someone else. The man who makes Neuticles can only do so because he is able to exchange them for the money which he uses to buy his food from the man who specializes in, say, cattle ranching. This specialization results in better quality and increased efficiency, which further enhance human prosperity.

A secondary benefit of the division of labor is that I am constantly amazed by the jobs people have - careers that, had no one told me of them, I would never have imagined. Recently, for instance, I've been reading Mary Roach's wonderful book Stiff, in which the author delves into the, well, "lives" of human cadavers and the many uses to which they are put. The people who work with cadavers don't generally bring the matter up in cocktail party small-talk, so I guess I shouldn't be surprised that I've been so surprised by the jobs that entail such interactions. I'm only about 75 pages into the book, but here are three jobs that, prior to last week, I never knew existed:

  • Cosmetic surgeons who are learning to do facelifts often want to practice their craft on real human tissue, but not on a live human. They thus use cadavers, but only the heads. In some labs, then, a person has the job of beheading the cadavers and getting the disembodied noggins set up in baking pans on table tops for the surgeons' practice sessions. I wonder what's on this person's business card...
  • Many doctors need to learn how to do a pap smear. As Roach writes, "nowadays, enlightened medical schools will hire a 'pelvic educator,' a sort of professional vagina who allows the students to practice on her and offers personalized feedback and is, in my book anyway, a nominee for sainthood."
  • The University of Tennessee Anthropological Research Facility (UT ARF) helps catch killers - sort of, and indirectly. That is, the researchers at this facility study the decomposition of human bodies and thus help law enforcement track down killers. Writes Roach: the folks at the UT ARF have "buried bodies in shallow graves, encased them in concrete, left them in car trunks and man-made ponds, and wrapped them in plastic bags. Pretty much anything a killer might do to dispose of a dead body the researchers at UT have done also." How exactly does a bright-eyed grad student find her way into this line of research?

I daresay even Adam Smith, perceptive as he was about the powers of the division of labor, would be dumbstruck if he could see what sorts of careers it has opened for people.

04 September, 2010

Seeking Enlightenment? Try Booze.

By Aaron
04 September, 2010

I'd really like know who it was that launched the idea that Asia is ground zero for spiritual enlightenment. Perhaps it all dates back to Marco Polo, or maybe it was the Beatles hanging out with the Maharishi in India that prompted all these westernfolk to come traipsing over to the Eastern Hemisphere in search of supreme insight. Probably no one knows for sure, but my money's on the Beatles. Like so many other dipshit ideas, this one probably dates to the 1960s, too.

Not that anyone in Asia is complaining. In fact, whole industries have emerged to cater to the hordes of people willing to shell out money for a shot at nirvana. In South Korea, for instance, the monks at Beomosa Temple in Busan will happily accept your 50,000 KRW (about $45) for a night of prostrations, communal work, and early morning wake-up calls. So while Asians may not be any more spiritually enlightened than anyone else, the folks over here might just be on the path to commercial englightenment. After all, how many Asian tourists do you see forking over their pocket money for a chance to sit in with the Seventh-Day Adventists in Michigan?

The people pushing this Asian religious tourism have long known what the writers of Stuff White People Like only recently figured out: that well-to-do westerners simply love any religion to which their parents don't belong.

White people will often say they are “spiritual” but not religious. Which usually means that they will believe any religion that doesn’t involve Jesus.

Popular choices include Buddhism, Hinduism, Kabbalah and, to a lesser extent, Scientology. A few even dip into Islam, but it’s much more rare since you have to give stuff up and actually go to Mosque.

Mostly they are into religion that fits really well into their homes or wardrobe and doesn’t require them to do very much.

I mention this because there's a new book out entitled 101 Places Not to See Before You Die, and included on the list of skippable activities is an overnight stay at a Buddhist temple in South Korea. In an excerpt published by NPR, the author, Catherine Price, writes:

In theory, an overnight stay at a Korean temple sounds like the perfect activity for anyone struggling to escape the pressures of modern life. You'll meditate, you'll learn about Buddhism, you'll go vegetarian. Concerns and cares will slip away as you drift into a blissful state of conscious awareness.

Unfortunately, that's not what it's like.

Truth is, as Price discovered, the same "blissful state of conscious awareness" - and a more realistic Korean cultural experience - can be had for less money, and with none of the spiritual gibberish, by simply buying a $1 bottle of soju.

(h/t): Brian in Jeollanam-do