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


28 February, 2011

A Tuesday Buffet of Goodness

By Aaron
28 February, 2011


  • The Institute for Humane Studies has a great new website, featuring such useful videos as the one above. (h/t Cafe Hayek)
  • Add me to the list of people who, along with Robert Koehler of The Marmot's Hole, believe that South Korea ought to develop its own nuclear weapons program.
  • Michael Graham and Michael Rizzo expertly lambaste Boston Mayor Tom Menino's efforts to keep Wal-Mart out of Beantown.
  • Anyone who has used a Korean gym has no doubt chuckled at the overweight folks jiggling on those vibrating platforms. Well, you'd better hold your chortles because it turns out that those things - along with tongue scraping and, um, fecal transplants - may actually have health benefits after all.
  • Thomas Sowell once said that, in life, there are no solutions, only trade-offs. The city of San Francisco is now learning this lesson first-hand, as efforts to reduce water usage in toilets has led to a shortage of water flowing through the sewage system. The result? A major stink which can only be eliminated by pouring massive amounts of bleach into the system. (h/t Mises Economics Blog)
  • The World Day of Social Justice recently came and went, prompting Art Carden to propose a topic for the "perfect liberal arts college paper:"
Fill in the blanks. ‘Everyone has the right to ____________ at the expense of __________.’ Write what you put in the first blank on your right hand and what you put in the second blank on your left hand. Between now and the end of the semester, write a twenty-page essay in which you explain precisely how you propose to see that the rights on your right hand are guaranteed by the people on your left hand.



26 February, 2011

The New Zealand Earthquake & the Broken Window Fallacy

By Aaron
26 February, 2011



Last week, a 6.3 magnitude earthquake rocked the area around Christchurch, New Zealand, flattening much of the city and killing, according to the latest reports 146 people. New Zealand's prime minister, John Key, has said that the quake may go down as the worst disaster in the nation's history, with insured losses potentially reaching US$12 billion according to JP Morgan.

But if we put aside the tragic loss of human life for a moment, is it possible that this earthquake will be good for the New Zealand economy? After all, many jobs will be available as the government, businesses, and individuals seek to rebuild Christchurch, and spending on materials will increase as well. Just think of all the new wealth that will be created. And don't just take my word for it: as you'll see in the video above, even Nobel Prize-winning economist Paul Krugman and a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Nicholas Kristof have suggested that acts of terrorism, wars and earthquakes are boons to the economy.

Of course, you hardly need to be a Nobel laureate to see the flaw in this logic. No individual, and no society, becomes wealthier by destroying resources, by razing buildings and then spending money to rebuild them. The French economist Frédéric Bastiat exposed this faulty thinking back in 1850 in his essay "That Which is Seen, and That Which is Not Seen," in which he discussed "The Broken Window Fallacy." In this essay, Bastiat pointed out that when a hoodlum breaks a shopkeeper's window, the society is made poorer, as the shopkeeper must now spend money to repair a window and, as a result, cannot spend or invest that money elsewhere.

The New Zealand earthquake is a terrible blow to the country, both in human and economic terms. Fortunately, I haven't heard anyone - not even Krugman or Kristof - suggest that it will do the Kiwis any good, but if they do, I hope someone will direct their attention to Bastiat's essay.

25 February, 2011

Well, It's About Time

By Aaron
25 February, 2011

As anyone who has tried to take the Graduate Record Exam (GRE) in Korea knows, it ain't easy. In fact, simply registering for the test is often more difficult than the exam itself. According to the Educational Testing Service (ETS), which administers the exam, the situation will soon improve. And it's about damned time, if you ask me.

At present, the GRE is only offered twice a year in Korea, once in June and once in October, which makes for a long gap of time if you're inclined to take the test twice. By contrast, ETS offers the exam once a month in Japan, which prompts many Koreans to simply fork out the money for a plane ticket and head east. In fact, my wife spent a week in Osaka last autumn, taking the GRE once at the end of September and then again when the calendars changed into October a few days later. This allowed her to take the test twice without forgetting everything she'd studied.

A second problem is that, in Korea, the GRE is given in its old paper-based form. This means test-takers must wait for up to eight weeks to receive their scores, whereas the computer-based test (which is used in Japan) gives the test-taker an instant estimate of her score as soon as she completes the test. Knowing one's scores immediately allows a person to decide whether or not to retake the test or simply sit tight, a luxury that folks like my wife can get in Japan, but not Korea, at present.

As most folks in Korea know, ETS also administers the TOEFL exam, which tests for proficiency in the English language. I've heard many complaints from Korean friends about the difficulty of registering for and taking the exam, as well as about the lousy facilities in which the test is often conducted. Obviously, ETS faces no competition for the GRE, and little where the TOEFL is concerned, and part of me wonders if these problems of test administration aren't related to the near-monopoly power of ETS. Would students have easier access to more frequent tests and better facilities if ETS was worried about competition from another testing service? I suspect the answer is yes.



24 February, 2011

From the Makers of "George Ought to Help"...

By Aaron
24 February, 2011


The folks who made the short film "George Ought to Help" - which I recently posted and discussed here - are working on a new film entitled "Edgar the Exploiter." As described by director Tomasz Kaye, "it will help spread understanding of how political interventions, even when enacted with the best intentions, can end up hurting those they're supposed to help."

To help defray the costs of production, the group is seeking donations in amounts large or small. They're a creative, principled group and they do good work, and best of all they use voluntary means to fund their projects - unlike your local public media outlets. Let's help 'em out, then, shall we?

For more info, or to donate, wiggle on over to the group's website.


22 February, 2011

Them Belly Full (But We Hungry)

By Aaron
22 February, 2011



While not the first source I consult for insightful political commentary, Bob Marley was on to something when he sang that "a hungry mob is an angry mob." Apparently, according to the Chosun Ilbo, the North Korean regime is discovering this for itself:

Small pockets of unrest are appearing in North Korea as the repressive regime staggers under international sanctions and the fallout from a botched currency reform, sources say. On Feb. 14, two days before leader Kim Jong-il's birthday, scores of people in Jongju, Yongchon and Sonchon in North Pyongan Province caused a commotion, shouting, "Give us fire [electricity] and rice!"

Before proceeding, the usual caveat is in order: any reports about the internal goings-on of North Korea are immediately suspect and must be taken with that ever-present grain of salt.

As I wrote earlier this month, however, I believe that when regime change (or outright collapse) comes in North Korea, it will come suddenly, without much warning. One day everything will seem normal up there, and then the next day we'll all be wondering what the hell just happened. The United States intelligence community has come under (unjustified) fire for failing to predict the wave of protests now sweeping the Middle East, but the U.S. has even less worthwhile knowledge about what goes on inside North Korea. Perhaps China will be better positioned to foresee big changes in the North, but even with their access and influence, the Chinese are not omniscient. And South Korean spies, for their part, certainly aren't inspiring much confidence these days.

Most likely, a disenchanted faction of the North Korean military would try to seize control of the government, a scenario which becomes even more likely as Kim Jong-il tries to hand the reigns to his son. Whether such a gambit would succeed, however, is a separate matter entirely. Would the current Kim regime be successful in quashing a coup attempt? Would it get away from both sides and simply led to total collapse? Place your bets at the window.

A second possibility, which the Chosun piece highlights, is that some small protest could simply get out of hand and spread. Due to the poor communications networks within North Korea, this is unlikely but with recent reports (again, be skeptical) of food shortages within the military, I wonder if even a few soldiers might not be increasingly disenchanted (see also: the previous scenario) and thus less than enthusiastic about beating back a mob of hungry people.

Simply put, as much as South Korea, Japan, and the United States would like to orchestrate a slow, carefully managed reunification of the two Koreas, my money's on the future arriving unannounced.


A Tuesday Buffet of Goodness

By Aaron


  • Do you favor stronger restrictions on immigration (illegal or otherwise) into your country? Well, it's always useful to hear a cogent challenge to our beliefs and, as such, you'll want to have a look at this lecture by Bryan Caplan of George Mason University (either in the video above, or in this interview on EconTalk if you'd prefer to use only your ears). In his talk, Caplan identifies the four main arguments in favor of strict immigration controls: first, that immigrants depress wages, thus causing poverty; second, that immigrants abuse the local welfare state; third, that restrictions are needed to protect the local culture; and finally, that immigrants might damage the politics of their new nation by voting for counterproductive policies. Having identified these points, Caplan proceeds to knock them down one by one. (And then there's Gary Becker, who proposes selling admission tickets to immigrants).
  • I suppose it's too much to ask that all spies be as slick as James Bond or Jason Bourne, but I sure hope these spooks aren't our last, best hope in the intelligence war with North Korea.

  • Apropos of nothing, this collection of photos detailing the diverse body types of pro athletes is fascinating (H/T to my good friend, Ed).

  • Over at Aid Watch, William Easterly details the development of one New York City block, from wilderness inhabited by the Delaware tribe, to an 1850s red-light district, to one of the wealthiest blocks in the city.

  • The recent events in Wisconsin, and the looming labor protest season in South Korea, are impetus enough to recommend Walter Block's chapter on labor relations, unions, and collective bargaining in Building Blocks for Liberty (pp. 69-99), provided here free-of-charge. Trust me, it makes for more compelling reading than you might expect.

20 February, 2011

Courting the Olympic Ball-and-Chain

By Aaron
20 February, 2011


South Korea better be careful or it might just find itself saddled with host duties for the 2018 Winter Olympics. The country lucked out by failing in its bid to host the 2010 and 2014 events - which were or will be held in Vancouver and Sochi, respectively - but that hasn't stopped the mountain town of Pyeongchang from once again courting this absurdly overhyped and overpriced event.

I've written numerous pieces here before about the boondoggles that are international sporting events, such as the Olympics, the World Cup, and most recently in Korea, Formula One races. They're unprofitable, which means that the government must step in and finance them; they waste money on infrastructure (such as stadiums, ski jumps, etc.) that will be useless or, at best, seldom-used once the event is over; and they don't spur the economic growth needed to create jobs or bring in tax revenue. Politicians, however, love highly-visible events like the Olympics, which give them a chance to boast, falsely, about how much they've done for the local area or nation.

Unfortunately, the International Olympic Committee was impressed this past week by the "strong, passionate support from the public and government" when it visited Pyeongchang. Obviously, as said, the government support for a Pyeongcheong Olympics is passionate: politicians are able to use other people's money to bring attention to themselves. Citizens, however, would likely be less enthusiastic if they knew the true costs of being an Olympic host city.

Pyeongchang is competing with Munich and Annecy, France for the right to host the 2018 Olympics, with the final decision to be announced in July, 2011. Let's hope Korea gets lucky for a third straight time and escapes host duties.



19 February, 2011

Lucky Sevens

By Aaron
19 February, 2011

For your Sunday afternoon (at least, by the clocks in Korea) viewing pleasure, here are two videos sure to both entertain and enlighten. The first is a quick interview with economist David Henderson, editor of the ever-useful Concise Encyclopedia of Economics, on seven myths about free markets and why economics is known as the "dismal science." Henderson's comments on the nature of labor unions are especially relevant in light of the present goings-on in Wisconsin.




Given that many mistakes in public policy stem from a poor understanding of economics, and given that you've just been disabused of some of these mistaken notions, here's Lawrence Reed, president of the Foundation for Economic Education, speaking about his "Seven Principles for Sound Public Policy." If nothing else, you'll enjoy his opening two minute anecdote. Here's part one of his speech:


The Entrepreneur of Big Air

By Aaron


As a six year-old kid in 1980s America, I got my first new bicycle and, for reasons unbeknownst to me at the time, I demanded a BMX bike. Until this weekend I hadn't actually thought about the matter for more than 26 years, but upon watching The Birth of Big Air I finally understood why I wanted such a bike. The reason for such a demand?

Mat Hoffman.

What Michael Jordan was to basketball, what Tiger Woods was to golf, Mat Hoffman was to the world of BMX stunt riding, even before the genre officially existed. Hoffman is simply one of those rare individuals who divide the timeline of a sport into "before" and "after." More deeply, though, Hoffman is a testament to the wonders of innovation and competition.

Hoffman exploded onto the BMX circuit in 1985 as a fearless 13 year-old kid, capable of aerial stunts no one had seen before. He blew through the amateur ranks and very soon, as a competitor put it, everyone else knew they were simply competing for second place. Hoffman was simply both more daring and more creative than anything the young sport had seen before.

In addition to the thrill of seeing men risk their lives just to get higher off the ground, the beauty of The Birth of Big Air is the way in which it extols the art of the possible. Hoffman, for instance, was the first BMX stunt-rider to turn a 900 degree jump-spin, which had hitherto been considered an impossibility. Once Hoffman spun it, however, other riders realized that it could be done, pushing them to new heights. Indeed, by the film's end we see the current generation of BMX riders achieving feats that would have seemed utterly impossible to the riders of the 1980s.

At its core, Big Air is about more than just a daredevil subculture. The film, perhaps unintentionally, shows the way in which competition breeds innovation and pushes everyone not only to be better at what they do, but to do entirely new things. So just as Hoffman pushed other BMX riders to new levels, so too does the pressure of Hyundai push Toyota to make safer, more comfortable, and more innovative cars.

It is important to note, however, that this competition- whether in BMX riding or in making cars - is not of the zero-sum, Darwinian sort. Rather, as the economist George Reisman has pointed out, "economic competition is the very opposite of competition in the animal kingdom. It is not a competition in the grabbing off of scarce nature-given supplies, as it is in the animal kingdom. Rather, it is a competition in the positive creation of new and additional wealth."

Sure, Mat Hoffman might win a single event, which means another person loses, but competition is a process of discovery in which the actors continuously develop their skills and knowledge. Toyota may sell more cars than Hyundai this year, but Hyundai can learn from those figures and build a better car for the next model year. To keep pace, Toyota must also improve its product - and so on it goes. As evidenced by the prosperity of the modern world, this competitive process of discovery continues to yield improvement in countless areas of our lives.

Watching Big Air, then, I was reminded not so much of other athletes, but of high-profile entrepreneurs like Steve Jobs, Mark Zuckerberg and, in the more distant past, Henry Ford. These fellows, and millions of other lesser-known entrepreneurs, defied claims that certain products and services were either impossible to make or, if made, impossible to sell. Fortunately for us, these men, like Mat Hoffman, had no time for naysayers.


18 February, 2011

Rocky Roads for Mom and Pop

By Aaron
18 February, 2011



In the latest installment of its "What I Like About Korea" series, the ROK Drop blog gives some love to local mom-and-pop stores:

Korea is filled with small Mom and Pop Stores which I really like. Every neighborhood seems to have their own little grocer, butcher, video store, etc. When you get to know the owners it adds a sense of community to where you live. Maybe it is just me, but I like the Mom and Pop Stores better than going to a huge department store. That is why I think it is good to see that the Seoul city government has decided to start a program to help Mom & Pop Stores stay open. These small business owners are also organizing to fight off the large department stores from pricing out their businesses as well.

I, too, enjoy knowing many of the shopkeepers in my neighborhood and, like ROK Drop, I appreciate the way in which this familiarity strengthens the local community. Naturally, I wish these small-scale proprietors all the best in their business ventures.

However.

Experience shows that the Seoul city government's plans to backstop these small businesses stands to do more harm than good and may only ensure their future demise. How can this be? To answer that, a bit of history is in order.

As Korea moved toward rapid industrialization and economic development in the second half of the twentieth century, small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) found themselves mostly ignored and marginalized as the state funneled resources into the large conglomerates that have come to symbolize corporate Korea. As early as the mid-1970s, the Korean government began to offer systematic financial assistance to SMEs, but it was not until after the Asian Financial Crisis of 1997-1998 that the government launched its most generous policy support for these small and medium-sized firms.

These policies - which included credit guarantees, direct and indirect policy loans, public credit insurance, and venture capital funds - were both an acknowledgment that the Korean economy had become too dependent on the fortunes of a few large firms as well as compensation for the earlier sacrifices made by SMEs due to the unbalanced economic growth of the country. According to the OECD, by 2005 South Korea had a total of seventy-six government programs in place to assist SMEs, the outlay of which totaled nearly 5 trillion KRW (about $4.5 billion).

Not surprisingly, SME performance initially accelerated with the help of these programs, but in more recent years the Korean government has found itself sheltering a large number of uncompetitive businesses – so-called “zombie” firms – from the winds of competition, thus wasting valuable resources that could be allocated more efficiently elsewhere. Indeed, in 2006, The Economist reported that 40% of SMEs still made no operating profits. Ultimately, it appears that overprotection by the state is the primary barrier to the development of a truly competitive stable of SMEs in Korea.

Thus, while we can sympathize with the owners of small, local stores as they fight to compete against the larger, more efficient supermarket chains, we should remember that intentions are not results. By subsidizing uncompetitive business models, Seoul's efforts to protect these stores reduces the incentives for the proprietors to innovate in the products and services they offer. In the long run, they never acquire the knowledge of how to survive on their own, meaning they will either require state support in perpetuity or fail when state support ends.

Ultimately, our main concern - especially in these inflationary times - should be the consumer. As I wrote last summer, no one forces consumers to shop at E-Mart rather than at the corner store. Consumers flock to the these hypermarkets because they offer lower prices, a wider array of goods, and more convenience. If individual consumers felt it worthwhile to subsidize mom-and-pop stores, they would shop there. By voting with their wallets and feet, consumers have shown that they prefer the large supermarkets. Why punish them for that choice via higher taxes (to subsidize stores they don't choose to patronize) or via higher prices (by restricting the products supermarkets are allowed to sell)?

Come to think of it, I need to stop by E-Mart this afternoon for some grocery shopping.

17 February, 2011

Funding (Public) Media in Korea and the USA

By Aaron
17 February, 2011


Shortly after weaseling his way into power in 1980, South Korea's military strongman Chun Doo-hwan confiscated all of the nation's TV stations and established the Korea Broadcast Advertising Corporation, better known as Kobaco. For thirty years, Kobaco held a monopoly on all television advertising sales in Korea, which meant that individual companies could not deal directly with individual TV stations but, instead, had to buy advertising time through Kobaco, which would then spread the money across the networks as it saw fit. This reign would likely have continued in perpetuity, too, had not the nation's constitutional court declared this state monopoly unconstitutional in 2008. Effective this year, then, Kobaco gave up its grip on the TV advertising market.

Under the military dictatorship of the 1980s, Kobaco served as a way of controlling the local media and using it as a means to advance the regime's agenda. Korea, however, held democratic elections in 1987 and - at least, in theory - the state has had less control over the media ever since.

And yet, Kobaco endured. Why?

Supporters of Kobaco argued that the agency was critical to the survival of smaller media outlets, such as, say, the local Buddhist TV station. Obviously, TV advertising money follows eyeballs - that is, the stations with the most popular programming attract, by definition, the most viewers, and companies thus pay more to hawk their wares on these stations than they would on that Buddhist TV station. Kobaco's proponents argue that the state has a duty to ensure the survival and profitability of that Buddhist station.

Similarly, in the United States right now, a debate has flared up over federal funding for the Corporation for Public Broadcasting (CPB), which oversees National Public Radio (NPR) and the Public Broadcasting Service (PBS). PBS and NPR receive a portion of their funding from the CPB, but they also earn revenue from corporate and foundation sponsorships as well as from contributions from listeners and viewers ("...like you"). The latest budget proposal from Republicans in the House of Representatives, however, includes plans to zero out the $430 million appropriation for the CPB.

Of course, NPR and PBS are awfully popular so it's no surprise that fans of their somnolent programming have their panties in a bunch over such a proposal. Credo pleads:

"...national public broadcasting is remarkably cost effective, providing local news and information, free of charge, for millions of viewers while only receiving about .0001% of the federal budget.

More to the point, it's nearly impossible to put a price tag on the actual value of public broadcasting.


First, public broadcasting is not free. It's $430 million a year. Second, it does have a price tag: $430 million a year. Finally, the fact that a line item is a small fraction of an overall budget says nothing about whether or not it is a worthwhile expense.

More importantly, the logic behind entities like Kobaco or the CPB seems to be this: we must fund these outlets because if we don't, they'll die. Why will they die? Because they couldn't attract sufficient advertising revenue. Why not? Because no one watches or listens to them. So, then, if no one watches the Buddhist TV station in Korea, or listens to NPR's 3:00 AM show on the love lives of elm trees, why is the state subsidizing these organizations?

In truth, I firmly believe that NPR and PBS could survive - and even thrive - on their own, without state funding. Hell, I enjoy a fair portion of their programming: Wait, Wait...Don't Tell Me, Fresh Air, and Marketplace are all fine shows carried by NPR and its affiliates, while PBS's Frontline occasionally turns out an excellent documentary. And I defy you to show me a kid who doesn't love Sesame Street. As I said, NPR and PBS are popular, and they're popular because their audience enjoys both the content and the way in which it is presented. Sponsors recognize this and are reluctant to mess with a successful formula, a fact that would be no less true in the absence of public funds.

A second fear among those who want state funding for America's public media is that, if privately financed, it would become dominated by evil corporate types - you know, like the ones who brought you John Stewart, Stephen Colbert, Andrew Napolitano, and, until recently, Keith Olbermann. Given the spread of the internet, I don't much worry about corporate dominance of the media, but I'm also not sure why government-controlled media is inherently superior to the corporate model. Just ask Harry Shearer, hardly a raving right-wing lunatic, what happened when he had the temerity to criticize the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers on public radio. Given the choice between news financed by Arianna Huffington or the U.S. Congress (or via Kobaco), I'll take Arianna Huffington, though thankfully I'm not limited to those two options.

Sure, in the absence of state funding - or, as in Korea, state control of funding - certain networks and programs may disappear. Those who are fascinated by the love lives of elm trees, or who faithfully tune into the Buddhist TV station, may have look elsewhere for their fix. But if you really love NPR or Buddhist TV and want to their programming to survive, give them some of your money, watch or listen to them faithfully, and get your friends to do the same. Just don't force me, or anyone else who doesn't happen to value their programming, to give them money.


Update: David Boaz has more on this front.


16 February, 2011

Album Rec of the Week: Chester & Lester

By Aaron
16 February, 2011

Obviously, I'm not a professional music critic. In recommending these albums, then, the most I can do is say, "here it is, have a listen, and decide for yourself." Unlike the old days of reading reviews in Rolling Stone or The New York Times, however, I have the luxury of being able to embed YouTube clips, which allows you folks to immediately sample the music and do that deciding a lot more quickly and easily.

Fortunately, a person doesn't need to be a music critic or historian to know how important Les Paul and Chet Atkins have been to the music world. In addition to being two of the best guitarists of the twentieth century, they both left their mark in other areas of the music industry. Les Paul was as much a mad scientist inventor as anything, building innovative new guitars and doing early experiments with multi-track recording back in the 1940s, all in an effort to achieve a certain sound. Atkins, meanwhile, produced many of the biggest country music hits of the 1960s, creating what has become known as the "Nashville sound" (don't judge him too harshly for this sin).

In the late 1970s, these two fellows came together and recorded a laid back album, Chester & Lester, which showcases their distinctive but equally impressive guitar playing. I first happened across a vinyl copy of this album in a thrift store many years ago, and almost wore out the record by playing it so much. Trust me, it'll be a fine addition to your music collection.

Two of my favorite songs from the album are old Duke Ellington pieces. First, here's "Caravan:"




And here's Atkins' and Paul's interpretation of "It Don't Mean a Thing (if it ain't got that swing)." Sorry, the audio quality is less than perfect on this one.

15 February, 2011

Poets of the Barroom

By Aaron
15 February, 2011

As an English literature major in university, my classes covered the poetry of John Donne and William Blake, the novels of Faulkner and Joyce, and even the non-fiction work of writers such as John McPhee and Hunter S. Thompson. But not once did we ever study the songs of Merle Haggard, Roger Miller, Tom T. Hall, or any of the other great country songwriters. Admittedly, American country music is seldom accused of being high-minded literature, but for clever, everyday insights into the human condition, there's no better place to look.

In particular, country songwriters, especially those of the pre-1980s generation, have a knack for wordplay that simply eludes the songwriters of other musical genres. Not that this talent came out of nowhere: as this article from NPR points out, the lyrical style of country music has deep and varied roots in American and English culture.

The wordplay has antique roots. It owes a lot to the language of sermons, particularly in the Baptist and Evangelical traditions, with their attentiveness to the multiple meanings of scriptural passages. But it has earlier antecedents in the sermons and poetry of the metaphysical poets like John Donne and George Herbert. And even earlier than that, you can find its secular echoes in Shakespeare. Take Hamlet's bitter pun about his uncle. "A little more than kin, and less than kind" — when you think about it, that would make a great George Jones title. Like Jones, Shakespeare knew that there was more to wordplay than just fooling around.

For my money, Roger Miller (who gave us "King of the Road") is the champion wordplayer, as these lines from various songs show:

"More and more I think about you less and less."

"Atta boy, girl. That a-way to break my heart."

"Everything's coming up Rose's: the house, the car, the kids and all the cash."

"The last word in lonesome is 'me'"

"Don't we all have the right to be wrong now and then?"

Miller hardly has a monopoly on this skill, however. The Statler Brothers were more than capable of a witty line as well, such as when they sang that "you can't have your Kate and Edith, too" or when they lamented that they were "Ruthless since Ruth walked out on me."

Of course, much of country music involves stories of drinking and bars, generally in the name of forgetting a no-good woman. It's no surprise, then, that much of the wordplay involves booze or the effects thereof. Gary Stewart croons that "she's acting single, I'm drinkin' doubles," while similar experience leads Johnny Paycheck, in one of my favorite hardcore honky-tonk numbers, to sing that "all the spirits of St. Louis can't get you off of my mind," while David Allan Coe vows to "drink Canada dry." Such a lifestyle, however, led Merle Haggard to admit that "my weakness is stronger than I am." But with any luck, that low-down woman will eventually leave, allowing Hank Williams III to sing that "my drinkin' problem left today. She packed up all her things and walked away." And then there's Tom T. Hall, who just plain likes beer.

Now that I think about it, I'm glad my literature professors never thought to put Johnny Paycheck or Roger Miller on their syllabus. After all, there's no quicker way to ruin a good thing than to bring it into a university classroom.


14 February, 2011

A Tuesday Buffet of Goodness

By Aaron
14 February, 2011


  • Remember slot cars? I sure loved mine back in the 1980s. Well, a UK enthusiast has decided to recreate the famous chase scene from Bullit (the 1968 Steve McQueen film, above) in stop motion using slot cars. That people have the time, resources and freedom to embark on such wonderful frivolity is yet another reason we should be thankful to live in such prosperous times
  • But how did the times become so prosperous? For one theory, have a listen to this recent lecture by the incomparable Deirdre McCloskey. From the video description: "According to McCloskey, our modern world was not the product of new markets and innovations, but rather the result of shifting opinions about them. During this time, talk of private property, commerce, and even the bourgeoisie itself radically altered, becoming far more approving and flying in the face of prejudices several millennia old. The wealth of nations, then, didn’t grow so dramatically because of economic factors: it grew because rhetoric about markets and free enterprise finally became enthusiastic and encouraging of their inherent dignity."
  • Here's Milton Friedman discussing Hayek's The Road to Serfdom on C-Span's Book TV in 1994.
  • Speaking of Friedman, he famously quipped that "inflation is always and everywhere a monetary phenomenon," a remark which now invites virtually no dispute from economists. Why, then, wonders The Marmot's Hole, isn't the Bank of Korea raising interest rates in order to combat one of the highest inflation rates in the OECD?
  • We all share the Egyptian people's joy at the departure of Hosni Mubarak, but I share Alex Tabarrok's skepticism about the military's ability and willingness to bring true reform to Egypt. Writes Tabarrok: "Not surprisingly, the military has opposed privatization and economic liberalization. The Egyptian military currently commands a great deal of respect in Egypt but what happens when a nascent democracy tries to reform an entrenched oligarchy?"

13 February, 2011

Rights vs. Possibilities

By Aaron
13 February, 2011


As its name implies, Ewha Womans University, located in Seoul, is distinctly lacking in XY chromosomes. Founded in 1886 by the American Methodist missionary Mary Scranton, Ewha is considered the top women's university in South Korea and is the only all-female university with a law school. If three young men get their way, however, that law school won't be female-only for long.

As the Korea Herald reports, "the Constitutional Court held a public hearing last Thursday, over whether or not the law school’s women-only admissions policy is in violation of constitutional rights, after three male law students filed a petition against the private university in 2009."

Let's put aside the fact that Korea remains a male-dominated society in which men still enjoy better access to the higher rungs of the corporate ladder and instead take a moment to discuss the difference between "rights" and "possibilities."

By excluding male students from its rolls, is Ewha, as a private university, violating their right to choose a school? No, at least no more than lesbians violate the rights of men by refusing to date them. Lesbians are not guilty of violating men's rights because those men's rights do not include a relationship with said lesbians. Such a relationship exists as a possibility, but not as a right. The same applies to Ewha: these three students' rights do not include studying with people who do not wish to study with them.

So go find a different school, boys.


12 February, 2011

Album Rec of the Week: Billy Joe Shaver

By Aaron
12 February, 2011

I'm going to cheat a bit on this week's album recommendation and sneak in two for the price of one. I do this because as great as Billy Joe Shaver's Old Five and Dimers Like Me is, it will be forever linked with Waylon Jennings' Honky Tonk Heroes. Jennings' album is comprised almost entirely of Shaver songs, and in fact was the album that made Shaver known to a mass audience. Unfortunately, this was in many ways indicative of Shaver's career: despite his immense talent, he has the worst luck of any songwriter of his generation. As evidence, simply witness the number of times a record company folded just as he was about to release yet another excellent album. The upshot is that Shaver is better known as a songwriter than as a performer, which is a shame because Shaver is a fine performer in his own right.

Old Five and Dimers is one of those rare albums from which virtually every song has been a hit for someone - usually, as said, someone other than Shaver. In addition to Jennings' Honky Tonk Heroes album (considered by many to be the definitive album of the "outlaw country" genre), numbers such as "Georgia on a Fast Train" and "Ride Me Down Easy" have been recorded by too many artists to count. And for good reason: this is one those rare albums without a bad song, owing mostly to the simple elegance of Shaver's lyrics.

Three fingers whiskey pleasures the drinkers
And moving does more than the same thing for me
Willy he tells me that doers and thinkers
Say moving is the closest thing to being free

Unfortunately, Billy Joe Shaver does not have a large presence on YouTube, but here he is performing the album's opening number, "Black Rose," on Austin City Limits:



And here's Waylon Jennings singing another song from Old Five and Dimers/Honky Tonk Heroes:




Regarding My Random Quote Widget

By Aaron

As you may have noticed, there is a box on the right side of this page, just below the subscription info, that displays a random quote, which changes each time the page is reloaded. At present, I've collected 187 quotes, so you could keep yourself busy for quite some time if you really wanted to read them all. I've recently had several emails from readers asking how I set up this box, as Blogger (which hosts this site) does not offer an in-house application for this purpose.

In answer to those questions, then, I started with the instructions found here. You'll need to set up a simple database over at DabbleDB (which I hope is still offering new accounts), and then tweak the code according to your account name. The process wasn't too terribly difficult, and the site to which I linked provides instructions on how to do most of this, but if you're having troubles, send me an email and I'll just give you the code I use.

Update: As of May, 2011, DabbleDB is no longer hosting such databases, thus rendering these instructions useless. If anyone has a way of replicating this sort of widget, however, please let me know.


When Faced with a Problem, Make it Worse

By Aaron


No one has ever accused me of being a particularly wise person, but I do know this: when faced with a problem, the first thing to do is not make it worse. And if you have two related problems, try not to make either one worse. The Korean government could sure benefit from learning these lessons right about now.

If you've recently had to find an apartment to rent in Seoul, you know that prices are exorbitant and still climbing. Prices are particularly high in the so-called jeonse sector of the rental market. Briefly, for readers unfamiliar with Korea, jeonse is a large lump-sum deposit made by renters in lieu of monthly rent, usually covering a contract period of two years. The landlord then takes this money and invests it, earning interest instead of collecting that monthly rent. At the end of the rental period, this deposit is refunded to the renter.

According to the Joong Ang Daily, however, the average jeonse deposit in the Seoul area has risen for 94 consecutive weeks, as low interest rates prompt owners to demand larger deposits. In fact, the average jeonse deposit rose by almost 1.0% in January, 2010 alone.

Not surprisingly, local politicians are worried about the political backlash of such a tight housing market and have thus proposed to "do something." If experience has taught us anything, however, it's that you'd best grab your wallet and go hide behind the sofa when politicians start looking to "do something."

In this case, "something" involves the Korean Land Ministry offering loans of up to 80 million KRW (about $75,000) - up from the current 60 million KRW - to low-income households for use as jeonse deposits. In addition, the Land Ministry proposes to drop the interest rate on such loans to 4%, down from the current 4.5%

Sounds wonderful, no?

May I suggest, though, that this policy is likely to exacerbate the problem of skyrocketing jeonse rates? After all, what should we expect to happen to prices when more money begins to chase the same number of apartments? Indeed, this loan program will have the most inflationary effect on apartments at the lower end of the market, and will be especially harmful to those who either don't quite qualify for the loans or who prefer not to take on debt for their jeonse deposits. Of course, the government claims that it will also expand the supply of housing available to low-income households, but this can hardly be done with a snap of the fingers. If anything, then, I expect these loans to make the problem of high prices worse, not better.

In related news, Korea's Financial Services Commission (FSC), the local financial watchdog, issued a report back in December, detailing its priorities for 2011. Among them: slowing the growth of household debt. With any luck, the FSC and the Land Ministry will have a chance to sit down together and figure out how to square their two policies.

Seoul's real estate prices have been a hot political issue for years. In large part, this is simply due to the conflicts between a large population and limited land area. Land will always be at a premium in Seoul. That said, the Seoul real estate market comes in for more government meddling than almost any other sector. Could it be that the government's "cures" are simply worsening the disease?


10 February, 2011

When You Spend Someone Else's Money...

By Aaron
10 February, 2011


"Nobody spends somebody else's money as carefully as he spends his own."
-Milton Friedman
In a recent piece, I wrote of the difficulty in determining whether or not projects financed by tax money are successful. In fact, I have come to believe that such a calculation of costs and benefits is impossible, as taxpayers are not given an ex ante choice about whether or not to "invest" in the project. That is, they don't have the opportunity to choose other investments which offer the prospects of greater returns. As you might imagine, my stance on this topic attracted some criticism.

Even critics of my views, however, would be hard-pressed to argue that Korea's local and regional governments have distinguished themselves of late where spending is concerned. Witness the 2 billion won ($1.7 million) Sancheong County museum in South Gyeongsang Province, which was completed in 2007 but has yet to open to the public. Or the 13 billion won (about $11.5 million) Taebaek Historical Theme Park, which receives an average of 12 visitors per day. And then there's the 2.8 billion won ($2.5 million) exhibition hall in Busan, which is on the verge of being demolished only two years after being erected.

Each of these, and other, masterful catastrophes is detailed in an article in today's edition of the Joong Ang Daily. Apparently, local politicians, desiring to leave their lasting stamp on the area, are undertaking these "legacy projects" without regard for their economic feasibility. Fortunately, not all local officials are quite so loose with the public purse:

In December 2009, Kim Min-hwan, then-chairman of Sancheong County Council, raised the issue during a special budget hearing.

“You guys took billions of won from our already insufficient budget to build this museum, and it still remains closed despite receiving a completion permit, not to mention hiring a manager who works 253 days a year in an empty building. If the money was from your own pockets, would you have spent it like this?” Kim shouted at Jo Seong-je, chief of culture and tourism. [emphasis mine]

Kim clearly understands what Milton Friedman meant when he said that "nobody spends somebody else's money as carefully as he spends his own." This problem is made worse when one spends someone else's money without any consideration of expected profits and losses. Why would we expect an amusement park built with other people's money for political, rather than commercial, purposes to succeed? It likely won't be built in the most convenient area for visitors, nor does it need to offer them the most attractive experience. After all, it wasn't built to make a profit.

We can argue over whether the government ought to be responsible for roads, bridges, and other forms of basic infrastructure - and there are strong arguments that the state should do these things - but why does any government need to be in the business of building amusement parks, or even museums? These are not public goods.

Governing competently - providing efficient, non-corrupt legal systems, a police force, and a national defense - is difficult, and it requires exceptional dedication and effort. Why add to this responsibility non-essential waste such as the projects described above?


09 February, 2011

What Would Change Jenny McCarthy's Mind?

By Aaron
09 February, 2011



Having apparently read my recent post on falsifying our deeply-held beliefs, Penn Jillette asks the all-important follow-up question: "What would it take to get former Playboy model Jenny McCarthy to change her anti-vaccine stance?" And isn't this what we've all been wanting to know?

Apparently, despite learning that the vaccines-lead-to-autism scare was based upon fraudulent research (not just mistaken, or wrong, but fraudulent), McCarthy continues to be spooked by the idea of vaccinating her own children. So then, asks Jillette, if the foundational research of your belief has been proven false, what's left to support your belief?

And anyway, why is anyone looking to Jenny McCarthy for pediatric medical advice? As Jillette says, "please don't get your information from a former Playboy model or a douchebag magician."

Sound advice, that.


08 February, 2011

A Tuesday Buffet of Goodness

By Aaron
08 February, 2011

  • Donald Rumsfeld may have been a grade-A troublemaker, but give him credit for at least attempting to reduce the United States' exposure on the Korean peninsula.
  • Speaking of this region, Donald Kirk has a great piece in the Christian Science Monitor on the long-running relationship between North Korea and Egypt. Apparently, despite his busy schedule of looking at things and Mubarak's current troubles, Kim Jong-il still found the time to wish his Egyptian counterpart a happy lunar new year last week. (h/t: One Free Korea)
  • On NPR's "Fresh Air," Terry Gross interviews the great Hollywood stuntman (and director of films such as Smokey & the Bandit), Hal Needham. Among other things, Needham tells of the accident that left him with a broken back, six broken ribs, a punctured lung, and three missing teeth. All in a day's work, it seems.
  • Here's Tyler Cowen on the many ways in which Maryland and Virginia differ, including his theory on why Virginia is simply better-run:
The Pentagon and the military are central to my theory of why Virginia is such a well-run state. Virginia has a major cash cow, to provide employment and taxable incomes, yet unlike Alaska's oil revenue, it is not one that the state government can get its hands on beyond general sources of tax revenue. The Pentagon, as a natural asset, does not foster corruption or complacency in the Virginia state government. It is politically untouchable. It makes Virginia a conservative yet interventionist and technocratic state. Maryland has more inherited blight.
  • Speaking of Tyler Cowen, those of you who live in the Washington, DC, area will enjoy his dining guide.
  • Here's something to make you feel better: In 1973, at average wages and prices, an American had to work about 97 hours to buy a color TV. Today, that American can have a color TV with only 16 hours of work - and that doesn't even account for the fact that the TVs of today are vastly better than those of 1973.

06 February, 2011

The Dictator Lottery

By Aaron
06 February, 2011

This past weekend, the panel on KCRW's Left, Right & Center (more correctly called "Left, Left, Left & Right") took up the topic of Egypt and the political turmoil therein. At some point, the host, Matt Miller, furrowed his brow and wondered why it is that Egypt is mired in poverty under a goon like Hosni Mubarak, and North Korea suffers under the Kim regime, while a nation like Singapore enjoys rising living standards under a non-democratic political system of its own? Add to that question the fact that South Korea enjoyed nearly two decades of widespread economic growth under its own strongman, Park Chung-hee, and we see that dictators clearly come in a variety of flavors. But what explains the difference?

To be sure, this is a puzzle that has long kept many a political scientist and economist in steady employment. And as readers may recall, it's a question that I've pondered here as well - just last summer, in fact:

...what leads some dictators, such as Lee in Singapore and Park in South Korea, to focus on real improvements in living standards for their subjects even as they often disregard human rights, while others such as Robert Mugabe in Zimbabwe or Saparmurat Niyazov in Turkmenistan do little except trample human rights and simply become repressive despots? Like Bruce Bueno de Mesquita I doubt that Park or Lee are simply better, more benevolent individuals than Mugabe or Niyazov. More likely, Park and Lee faced constraints and pressures not felt by the others.

Bueno de Mesquita's theory, laid out in The Logic of Political Survival and, more briefly, in this paper runs as follows:

Institutional arrangements influence the type of policies that leaders pursue. We examine two institutional variables: the size of the selectorate (S)--the set of people who have an institutional say in choosing leaders--and the size of the winning coalition (W)--the minimal set of people whose support the incumbent needs in order to remain in power. The larger the winning coalition, the greater the emphasis leaders place on effective public policy. When W is small, leaders focus on providing private goods to their small group of supporters at the expense of the provision of public goods. The size of the selectorate influences how hard leaders work on behalf of their supporters. The greater the size of the selectorate, the more current supporters fear exclusion from future coalitions. This induces a norm of loyalty that enables leaders to reduce their effort and still survive.

If you're just plain allergic to reading, I highly recommend this 2007 interview with Bueno de Mesquita, in which he lays out, in everyday language, the basic ideas behind his argument. From the show summary:

Bruce Bueno de Mesquita of NYU and Stanford University's Hoover Institution talks about the incentives facing dictators and democratic leaders. Both have to face competition from rivals. Both try to please their constituents and cronies to stay in power. He applies his insights to foreign aid, the Middle East, Venezuela, the potential for China's evolution to a more democratic system, and Cuba. Along the way, he explains why true democracy is more than just elections--it depends crucially on freedom of assembly and freedom of the press.

Given the events in Egypt, and the impending transfer of power in North Korea, this interview is required listening. Now go do your homework.


05 February, 2011

The Problem of Tourism for South Korea

By Aaron
05 February, 2011


In a recent series of pieces, Michael "The Metropolitician" Hurt takes Korea's tourism promoters to task for their lack of success in promoting Korea as a tourist destination. In essence, Hurt argues that building a successful Korean tourism brand will require that Korean promoters overcome what he calls their "ethnocentric myopia." That is, as Hurt puts it, Koreans tend not to know what foreigners like about Korea and, worse, don't know that they don't know this. As a result, promotional campaigns for Korean tourism tend to tout things such as breakdancers, Korean celebrities that no one outside of Korea knows, and factories producing cars or semiconductors - none of which is likely to persuade a family in Michigan to forego that trip to the Great Wall of China in favor of Gyeongbuk Palace in Seoul.

Despite his frustration, Hurt - who is a member of what he calls the "mostly-symbolic" Presidential Commission on Nation Branding - clearly sees potential in Korea as a tourist destination and feels that, if done right, a tourist promotion campaign is worthwhile. While I agree with almost all of Hurt's criticisms of the current campaigns, I'm skeptical of his optimism for future improvements.

Before proceeding, however, I should note that I find Korea to be a fascinating country and my family and friends who've visited all seemed to enjoy themselves. That said, the aspects of South Korea that attract me - such as its relations with North Korea and its recent economic development - are precisely those things which the Korean tourism authorities do not want to emphasize. After all, who wants to visit a recently-poor country that could find itself embroiled in a nuclear war at any time? There aren't many of us.

But anyway...

What if Korea simply has no comparative advantage in tourism? That is, what if tourists simply will never come to Korea in any great number (i.e. not enough to make the investment in tourism promotion pay for itself), regardless of how much money the Korean National Tourism Organization (KNTO) spends and no matter how well-designed (say, by Hurt's standards) the campaign may be? And, other than on the basis of pride, why should this matter?

Even countries that do attract large numbers of tourists (such as the United States) do not attract them equally to all areas. For example, millions of people travel to Colorado each year to ski or hike; millions of others to famous cities like New York, San Francisco and Los Angeles; still others head for the beaches in Florida or the casinos of Las Vegas. But very few tourists ever bother with Oklahoma City, or Portland, or Pittsburgh. This doesn't mean that the latter are bad places - in fact, folks who live there seem to enjoy their hometowns very much - but they simply are not tourist meccas, and probably never will be.

Why should the globe be any different? Just as certain areas within countries have an edge in attracting tourists, so too will certain countries have an edge over other countries. Isn't it enough to know that Korea has a strong economy, a good and rising standard of living, and an ever-improving quality of life? Is there anything wrong with Korea being the "Portland" of the world, as it were?

Of course, tourist attractions can be created where none before existed. Witness Disneyland, the casinos of Vegas, the golf courses of Arizona, or the Great Wall of China (which, ironically, was built to keep "tourists" out). These places lure tourists who, absent those attractions, never would have visited. But it is neither the job nor the competency of the KNTO, or of the government in general, to try to design and build tourist attractions (not that the government doesn't try). The KNTO can only promote what already exists.

All of which likely sounds a tad defeatist - as though I'm saying the KNTO should just close up shop - which is not my intent. I simply worry that when government projects do not succeed, the answer is too often to simply dump more money into them. Not enough tourists coming to Korea? Double the budget! I would simply like to know what exactly is the maximum amount that the KNTO is willing to spend on its tourist promotion campaigns, a point beyond which it would not go even if the money were available. At what point do we say, "Korea just isn't a tourist destination?"


04 February, 2011

1986 Hyundai Excel: Collector's Car?

By Aaron
04 February, 2011

"Note how it's always going downhill."


When you think of collector's cars, your mind generally turns to the vehicles made before about 1970. But the Hemmings Blog is currently going through the 1980s, asking which cars from each year of that decade a person might like to put in their dream garage filled with cars only from that year. A quick look through the options will remind you of just how forgettable - even lousy (outside of the Japanese and, maybe German, cars) - the 1980s were in terms of cars. Only Thomas Magnum was rolling in a Ferarri 308; the rest of us were clunking along in Ford Tempos and Chevrolet Cavaliers.

Not surprisingly, then, let's just say that the class of 1986 is underwhelming: the Dodge Omni, the AMC Eagle, the Ford Taurus, and yesterday, the first Hyundai Excel to be sold in the United States. From Hemmings' post:

It’s a safe bet that nobody reading this (and perhaps nobody in general) is a devotee of mid-1980s Hyundais the same way they are with mid-1950s Chevrolets or Ford Mustangs. If there’s a club for the Hyundai Excel anywhere outside of South Korea, I’d be shocked and amazed. If there’s anybody modifying or restoring these cars, I’d have to wonder what planet they’re from. They were designed, above everything else, to be cheap. Not just inexpensive, not just frugal, but downright cheap...Yet Hyundai remains in business in the United States and is fast becoming a major player in the global automotive scene, which makes the 1986 Excel historically significant as the first Korean car in America, if not desirable.

Sorry, but I'd need more than "historical significance" to get me anywhere near a 1986 Excel. Then again, I wouldn't mind owning a 1957 Toyopet, the first Toyota car imported to the United States.


Disqus Import: Your Patience Please

By Aaron

I'm switching the comments feature of this site over to Disqus, which means any existing comments need to be imported into the new system. So, if you left comments in the past, don't worry: I haven't deleted them, they're just traveling. Feel free to leave any new comments.

Update: Done (or so it seems). Comments should be up and working again.

Update Two: Kevin was kind enough to tell me via email that Disqus isn't cooperating for him in his Firefox browser, although the comments form does seem to be functional in Safari. I've tried the site in four different browsers and have had no troubles, so I'm at loss to explain what's going at the moment. Anyone else having problems?

03 February, 2011

What Would It Take to Change Your Mind?

By Aaron
03 February, 2011

Late last year, The Lancet, a respected British medical journal (albeit one that had its nose bloodied by this incident) published a study which assessed the relative harms - to society, individual health, etc - of various drugs. The conclusion: "Overall, alcohol was the most harmful drug (overall harm score 72), with heroin (55) and crack cocaine (54) in second and third places."

That's right: by the researchers' estimates, alcohol is the most dangerous drug to society (at least, in Britain). Clearly, as the researchers point out, "the findings correlate poorly with present UK drug classification, which is not based simply on considerations of harm." If the findings are accurate, this study would suggest that either A) the government should more tightly restrict access to alcohol, or B) that restrictions on heroin, crack cocaine and numerous other drugs should be eased.

I first read of this story on the BBC one day while at work and casually showed it to my (Korean) co-worker at the next desk, asking him what sort of implications such a study might have on Korea's current drug laws. At present, by 2003 WHO estimates, South Korea ranks in the top 20% of nations in terms of annual per capita alcohol consumption. Just last week, however, actor Kim Sung-Min was sentenced to six months in prison and a 900,000 KRW fine for smoking (not selling, or possessing) marijuana. Did my co-worker believe that alcohol, obviously not a harmless drug, should be more tightly restricted in Korea? Should laws regarding other drugs be changed?

No, he replied. Everything's fine as it is. This study didn't affect his thinking on the matter.

Granted, this one study is not conclusive proof that all drug laws should be changed, so I asked my co-worker, "given your support for the current drug laws in South Korea, what would persuade you to change your mind? What sort of additional evidence would you need to see?"

He replied that nothing could change his mind. The current laws are fine.

This caused me to raise an eyebrow. After all, for any belief we hold, shouldn't we have some idea of what would change our mind? As Mancur Olson wrote in The Rise and Decline of Nations:

It is often said in methodological discussions that every meaningful scientific theory must specify one or more possible events or observations, or experimental results, which would, if they occurred, refute the theory.

More recently, Richard Dawkins recounted this incident in The God Delusion:

When challenged by a zealous Popperian to say how evolution could ever be falsified, J. B. S. Haldane famously growled: 'Fossil rabbits in the Precambrian.'

Of course, many of our beliefs cannot be subjected to the same rigor as the theory of natural selection, but many can and should be. For instance, I believe that what an individual puts into his body is no one's business but his own, that individual liberty is a noble end unto itself. This is a moral belief, however, and hard - perhaps impossible - to falsify. But, many costs of drug prohibition can be tallied up: the increased spending on police and prisons, for instance, due to the higher crime rates caused by prohibition. In the end, I should have some idea of the cost:benefit ratio necessary for me to support drug prohibition. If I see that this is not being achieved, I need to reevaluate my stance.

The same is true for other issues. Whether you oppose or support the death penalty, for instance, what would it take to persuade you to the opposite viewpoint? Or whether you believe that gay marriage - or the adoption of children by gay couples - should be legal or illegal, what would change your mind? What evidence do you need to see?

If we're not able to answer these questions - or, worse, if we refuse to change our minds even when strong evidence refutes our current beliefs - what good are our opinions? Are they any better than the superstitions of prehistoric cavemen?


Album Rec of the Week: Blind Willie McTell

By Aaron




Scrolling through my iPod, I'm struck by the great number of fellows with "blind" in their name, particularly among the old time blues singers of the 1920s and 1930s. Blind Blake, Blind Boy Fuller, Blind Lemon Jefferson, and Blind Willie Johnson.

All of them are excellent, but for today I'm pushing Blind Willie McTell, in particular this box set of his "Classic Years (1927-1940)." Writes Bruce Eder:

Blind Willie McTell was one of the giants of the blues, as a guitarist and as a singer and recording artist. Hardly any of his work as passed down to us on record is less than first-rate, and this makes most any collection of his music worthwhile. A studious and highly skilled musician whose skills transcended the blues, he was equally adept at ragtime, spirituals, story-songs, hillbilly numbers, and popular tunes, excelling in all of these genres. He could read and write music in braille, which gave him an edge on many of his sighted contemporaries, and was also a brilliant improvisor on the guitar, as is evident from his records.

This box set includes my favorites, such as the "Kill-it-Kid Rag" (above) and "Georgia Rag:"




...as well as "Statesboro Blues" (incidentally, that picture is of Blind Blake, not McTell):




...which the Allman Brothers covered thirtysome years later:




If you don't yet need 4 CDs of Blind Willie McTell, check out this single disc collection of his work. Whatever you do, though, check him out.


02 February, 2011

On Egypt, North Korea, and Unforeseen Revolutions

By Aaron
02 February, 2011


Like Joshua Stanton (of the superb One Free Korea), I see no reason to connect the recent events in Egypt with the situation in North Korea. Stanton, echoing this 1979 article by Jeane Kirkpatrick, notes that Mubarak's Egypt is an "authoritarian" regime which holds absolute control over the levers of power but doesn't really seek to control what goes on inside the heads of its citizens. By contrast, Kim Jong-il's North Korea is a "totalitarian" state, which is able to control the whole of society with such ruthlessness as to have reinvented the thought processes of most citizens. This prompts Stanton to write:

Few of Mubarak’s soldiers would kill civilians if ordered to do so. The Egyptian people know this, which means he’s doomed. Mubarak is a dictator, but he’s merely an authoritarian dictator, not a totalitarian on the model of the leaders of Burma, North Korea, China, or Saudi Arabia. His control of ideas in his society has been largely ineffective since the invention of the internet. There is an organized opposition, although it lacked the capacity to challenge the regime until recently.



North Korean soldiers would kill civilians by the thousands if ordered. The North Korean people know this, which is why few challenge the state openly. It’s also why the system can only be overthrown by force of arms. Kim Jong Il is the most totalitarian of dictators in the wide spectrum of dictatorship. His control of ideas, though weakening, remains effective enough to slow their spread and isolate the people from each other. There is no internet as we know it, and there is no significant organized opposition. The only group with the capacity to challenge the state is a hypothetical cabal of military mutineers.


That said, the sudden uprisings across the Middle East are instructive for the Koreas in one regard. As George Will once quipped, the future has a way of arriving unannounced, and anyone who believes that a North-South reunification can be carefully managed and planned in delicate detail should be aware of this fact. Due its internal barriers to information, North Korea does not offer an environment conducive to nationwide uprisings, but who knows what sort of seemingly small incident could escalate into a wider revolt. Maybe a soldier shoots a civilian and starts a riot. Or, more likely, perhaps key military leaders finally decide that enough is enough, an event which becomes a bit more likely when Kim Jong-un ascends to the throne.

In writing this, I am reminded of Timur Kuran's 1989 paper, "Sparks and prairie fires: A theory of unanticipated political revolution," in which he discusses why it's so damned difficult to predict political revolutions. From the abstract:

A feature shared by certain major revolutions is that they were not anticipated. Here is an explanation, which hinges on the observation that people who come to dislike their government are apt to hide their desire for change as long as the opposition seems weak. Because of this preference falsification, a government that appears unshakable might see its support crumble following a slight surge in the opposition's apparent size, caused by events insignificant in and of themselves. Unlikely though the revolution may have appeared in foresight, it will in hindsight appear inevitable because its occurrence exposes a panoply of previously hidden conflicts.

As it happens, I recently finished reading Barbara Demick's excellent book, Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea (do yourself a favor and read it ASAP), in which Demick profiles the lives of six North Korean defectors who now live in South Korea. To be fair, Demick's subjects all hail from the Chongjin region which, as Demick notes, has since ancient times been a region for exiles, dissidents and misfits. Moreover, we have to be wary of selection bias when assuming that North Korean defectors - who, in their decision to flee the country, show themselves to be extraordinary - are representative of the broader North Korean population. Still, passages like this draw the mind back to Kuran's thesis:

Many people I’ve met from Chongjin describe the prevailing sentiment: why can’t the government just go away and let us run our lives? It’s not something that’s said so much as intuitively understood. A coal miner from Chongjin whom I met in 2004 in China told me, "People are not stupid. Everybody thinks our own government is to blame for our terrible situation. We all know we think that and we all know that everybody else thinks that. We don’t need to talk about it.”

If any regime seems unshakable, it's that of North Korea. But if Demick's book is at all reflective of a broader undercurrent of exasperation in North Korea, perhaps an uprising, coup or other form of change would have more support than first glances suggest.


01 February, 2011

Law, Legislation and Flatulence

By Aaron
01 February, 2011


"Intelligent beings may have laws of their own making; but they also have some which they never made."
-Montesquieu

One of the (many) things I appreciate about Jack Vale's series of "Pooter" videos is the way in which they illustrate the difference between "law" and "legislation." Nowhere in the American legal code does it say that a man should not wander the aisles of Wal-Mart farting on random strangers, but I guarantee you this: there is a law against it. No grand council, sitting in a conference room, ever decided that such an activity ought to be against the law, but somehow it is.

While the words "law" and "legislation" are often - and mistakenly - used interchangeably, they in fact have very different meanings. Thus, when someone casually says, "Congress passed a new law today," what they really mean is "Congress passed new legislation" today."

As explained by Don Boudreaux in this Econtalk podcast, legislation is "consciously designed rules, enforced with threat of force." By contrast, law is the "emergent patterns of behavior that is incorporated into people's expectations." Boudreaux notes that legislation often codifies law (in fact, most good legislation does just that), and, if so, the law is then enforced (by the police, for example), but the two are often completely separate.

As an illustration, consider this scenario:

You go into the school cafeteria at the busy lunch hour. Spotting an empty seat, you leave your coat as a way of claiming it. You get your food and return to find that another student has pushed aside your coat and taken the seat for himself.

"What the hell are doing?" you ask the student in the seat you claimed. "That's my seat. Didn't you see my coat?"

"What are you talking about?" scoffs the interloper. Then, producing copies of the nation's constitution, the city by-laws, and the university student handbook, he demands, "Show me where it's written that your coat allows you to claim this seat."

"Of course it's not written down anywhere," you respond in frustration. "But, c'mon, everyone knows how it works."

You go back and forth on the matter for a few minutes and finally decide to ask a third student, whom neither of you know, to arbitrate the dispute. The third student quickly concludes that, yes, your coat gave you reasonable claim to the seat. Why? Because, through emergent social customs, that's become the expectation. The constitution, the by-laws, the handbook - these are merely lists of legislation, but the expectation that your coat serves to claim your seat is "the law," properly understood.

Similar laws hold in areas such as language, traditions, and manners. Nothing in the U.S. legal code requires speakers of English to use correct grammar, but when a person says "I seen that movie last night" instead of "I saw that movie last night," they are viewed as having violated a certain law of language. Similarly, the Korean legal code does not stipulate the amount of money to be given as a wedding gift, yet families often keep detailed records of who gave what to whom, and anyone viewed as a cheapskate - as someone who always gives less than they receive - is likely to face strong disapproval.

Friedrich Hayek wrote extensively on this matter is his aptly-titled three-volume set Law, Legislation and Liberty. Two hundred years before Hayek wrote his books, however, Adam Smith pointed out that humans are very much motivated in their actions by a concern for how other people will view them - a concern which serves to enforce many "laws." In a 1976 paper, entitled "Adam Smith's View of Man," the Nobel laureate Ronald Coase wrote:

The picture, which emerges from Adam Smith's discussion in The Theory of Moral Sentiments, is of man suffused with self-love. "We are not ready," says Smith, "to suspect any person of being defective in selfishness." Nonetheless, man does have regard for the effect of his actions on others. This concern for others comes about because of the existence of sympathetic responses, strengthened because mu­tual sympathy is pleasurable and reinforced by a complex, although very important, influence, which Smith terms the impartial spectator or conscience, that leads us to act in a way an outside observer would approve of. The behaviour induced by such factors is embodied in codes of conduct, which because conformity with them brings ap­proval and admiration, affect the behaviour of the "coarse clay of the bulk of mankind." [emphasis mine]

In short, no one wants to be a social pariah - indeed, solitary confinement is one of the most severe punishments one can receive in prison short of the death penalty. We go out of our way to be polite even though it may inconvenience us. Desiring the esteem of other people, even strangers, we generally adhere to rules of social etiquette, such as not picking our noses in public, not pushing ahead in the check-out line, and not farting on people at Wal-Mart.

Unless you're Jack Vale.

The funniest part of Vale's videos, obviously, is the reaction of the various shoppers when this normal-looking fellow lets rip a fart, and then casually walks away without apologizing. Sometimes they burst into laughter, sometimes they stare in shock, and occasionally they manage to blurt out their disapproval. Regardless, they are all uniformly stunned that someone would so blatantly violate the law - unwritten and unspoken though it may be - against farting in public, and then further the offense by not at least begging the other person's pardon. While no single person ever declared such public flatulence to be officially illegal, or even officially impolite, countless generations of social evolution have trained us to hold it in, or at least try to blame it on the dog.

In other words, it's the law.




Note: In this video, Don Boudreaux lectures on this very topic, with less (audible) farting but with far more eloquence than I can muster.



Update: With perfect timing, the small African nation of Malawi has decided to ban flatulence. Good luck with that, Malawi.