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

30 April, 2012

When Peter Thiel Talks, You'd Best Listen

By Aaron
30 April, 2012

Even if a computer could model all the narrowly economic problems a company faces (and, to be clear, none can), it wouldn’t be enough. To model all costs, it would have to model human irrationalities, emotions, feelings, and interactions. Computers help, but we still don’t have all the info. And if we did, we wouldn’t know what to do with it. So, in practice, we end up having companies of a certain size. 

That is from Lecture One - as transcribed and essayfied by one Blake Masters - by Peter Thiel, as delivered at Stanford University. I highly recommend that you make time in your day to read Thiel's thoughts. As Tyler Cowen, writing at Marginal Revolution, asked in linking to these lecture notes: 

To pose a simple question, how many other people are there in the world you would rather listen to?  Does that not mean Peter is one of the seminal public intellectuals of our time, albeit working through some non-traditional media of communications?

28 April, 2012

Charles Murray on Why America Is Coming Apart Along Class Lines

By Aaron
28 April, 2012

Having recently completed Charles Murray's new book, Coming Apart, this recent video interview with Ronald Bailey of Reason caught my eye. I've long admired Murray - and envied his intellectual creativity - and cannot recommend Coming Apart strongly enough. Enjoy the video!

From Reason:
Charles Murray, one of America's most influential social policy thinkers, has come out with a widely discussed new book called Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960-2010, which argues that Americans are splitting into two divergent classes, and that this growing divide could end American life as we have known it.

A self-described libertarian, Murray started his career as a liberal Democrat who spent six years in the Peace Corps and voted for Jimmy Carter in the 1976 presidential election. His political transformation came while he was researching his landmark 1984 book, Losing Ground: American Social Policy 1950-1980, which marshaled exhaustive evidence that American welfare programs were harming the very people they were supposed to be lifting out of poverty.

Losing Ground was fiercely denounced by the political left, but soon won mainstream acceptance that the War on Poverty was failing. The simple fact is there wouldn't have been welfare reform in the 1990s without Losing Ground.

The Bell Curve: Intelligence and Class Structure in American Life, Murray's 1994 collaboration with Harvard psychologist Richard Herrnstein, was more controversial. The book maintained that differences in genes contribute to differences in IQ, which in turn play a significant role in the life outcomes of individuals. Most controversially, Herrnstein and Murray argued that various ethnic groups have distinct in inherited intelligence. (Economist James J. Heckman reviewed The Bell Curve for Reason back in 1995.)

Murray has written more than 20 books, including What It Means to Be a Libertarian: A Personal Interpretation, and he's currently the W.H. Brady Scholar at the American Enterprise Institute .

Reason's Ronald Bailey sat down with Murray in March for a wide-ranging discussion of how his earlier work informs Coming Apart, why he remains libertarian in his outlook, and whether younger Americans face an relentlessly negative future.

27 April, 2012

Koreans and the LA Riots: 20 Years Later

By Aaron
27 April, 2012

The trailer for Clash of Colors, a new documentary on the LA riots.

As a kid growing up in rural Oregon, my only knowledge that a country named Korea even existed came from the vague awareness that my uncle had done a stint on the peninsula with the US Army back in the 1950s, a period about which he spoke little. As a result, I couldn't have told you anything about Korea's people, its culture, or even its location, except that it was somewhere way the hell overseas. 

Thanks to the 1992 Los Angeles riots, however, I can clearly remember first becoming aware of Koreans and forming an impression of them. As the riots unfolded, and as the LA Police Department failed to provide any measure of protection to local business owners, Korean merchants - who turned out to be the primary targets of looters and vandals - did what Koreans do so well: instead of sitting around and waiting for the government to rescue them, they formed their own spontaneous militias and stood their ground. To this day, I still recall watching news footage of the riots - with Koreans on rooftops and in the streets with their rifles - and  thinking, "these are some tough sonsabitches."

* * *

This weekend marks the 20th anniversary of the LA riots, an event which is sure to inspire among the commentariat hand-wringing aplenty about the state of race relations in America and the lack of opportunity in places like South Central Los Angeles. Take, for example, this piece from the Associated Press:

South Los Angeles, where the riot began, has changed considerably two decades later, as has Watson. But many things remain the same.

While racial tensions fanned by the verdict and the general feeling of disenfranchisement and distrust of police among LA’s black population have moderated, residents of the city’s largely black and Hispanic South Side complain that the area still is plagued by too few jobs, too few grocery stores and a lack of redevelopment that would bring more life to the area.

But let's pause for a moment to ask ourselves why any entrepreneurial class of people should be attracted to South LA. As Charles Johnson writes in this City Journal article, the area's pisspoor civic culture has a way of punishing people for success, as happened to those Koreans who brought grocery stores, jobs, and development to the area only to find themselves fending off looters as recompense for their efforts.
Koreans began arriving in the United States en masse after the liberalization of American immigration laws in 1965. The highly educated immigrants arrived with little more than a work ethic, having left behind economic stagnation and, prior to 1987, military dictatorship and political repression. They adapted quickly, however, and soon came to dominate the corner grocery stores in South Central and downtown L.A. Many blacks openly resented the newcomers’ success and worried aloud how the Asian minority’s growing presence would reshape their neighborhoods.

Indeed, as Johnson notes, LA's Korean community sustained more than half of the estimated $1 billion in property damage caused by rioters. Not surprisingly, in the wake of the riots, many Korean businesspeople elected to take their talents elsewhere rather than rebuild in Los Angeles. 

To be fair, however, the Los Angeles and California governments also deserve a boatload of blame for buggering the motivation of would-be entrepreneurs in the city and throughout the state. A few days ago - in, um, celebrating my own upcoming move to the Golden State - I discussed demographer Joel Kotkin's condemnation of the state's political class, which now exists mainly to coddle old money, the poor, and public employees. Today, over at, Steven Greenhut discusses a new study from USC which confirms what Kotkin and most others have long known: that California just isn't attracting or keeping people like it once did. And those who are leaving - or not arriving in the first place - include packs of small business owners, young families, and potential taxpayers, all scared off by the state's nightmarish tax and regulatory policies.

It is certainly convenient for politicians and community leaders to blame the enduring troubles of South Los Angeles on racism - and the 20th anniversary of the riots will provide ample opportunity to do so - but when a city, state, and civic culture does its best to punish those who bring momentum to the area, it shouldn't be surprised when the end result is stagnation.

26 April, 2012

Fightin' Words: Better'n Just Plain Fightin'

By Aaron
26 April, 2012

As part of this week's 2012 Asan Plenum, I had the opportunity today to attend a panel discussion entitled "Social Polarization in the United States: Searching for Civility," which featured three fellows from Stanford's Hoover Institution - David Brady, Bill Whelan, and Tod Lindberg -  as well as Jiyoon Kim of the Asan Institute.

As the title of the session would suggest, this discussion was less about how to address the problems about which folks in America argue - the economy, gay marriage, abortion, allowing women to ride bicycles - and more about how people talk about such matters. The assumption underlying this little pow-wow, and which holds in most folks' minds, is, of course, that political discourse has become nastier, less civil, and just downright uglier in recent years. The proffered explanations for this bad behavior range from an expanded media landscape with too much time on its hands, to (as Brady suggested) a "political sorting" in the 1980s which pushed the political right and left further toward their respective poles and thus away from one another.

To my relief and great amusement, Bill Whelan noted that pointed words are hardly a new thing in the American political conversation, providing as examples the 1800 presidential campaign between Thomas Jefferson and John Adams, wherein Jefferson accused Adams of being a blind, toothless, crippled old man determined to marry his son off to the daughter of King George. Adams fired back by referring to Jefferson as a "hideous, hermaphroditical character" whose election would lead to the open practice of murder, robbery, rape, adultery and incest (these volleys are comically reenacted in this video). 

And those were simply the spats that stayed within the realm of words. Whelan also reminded the audience that a political row between Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr resulted in a duel between the two men that left Hamilton dead, though he elected not include the story of Representative Preston Brooks who, in 1856, beat Senator Charles Sumner to within an inch of his life over a political disagreement. Now that's uncivil discourse.

I remain unconvinced, then, that public political discussion is nowadays characterized by any less decorum than in the past. To be sure, I've been hiding in South Korea for the past ten years and this has undoubtedly skewed my view of the matter, but it seems to me that, if anything, the timeless incivility of political discourse has merely been exposed - rather than caused - by the expanded array of media and the need to fill airtime. Moreover, it's not clear to me just how much influence these media outlets have. Rush Limbaugh may get 20 million sets of ears on any given day, but your average ignoramus on cable television grabs very little attention relative to the size of the American population and often finds his show cancelled after a few months (see: Olbermann, Keith)

Every scholar and researcher has a tendency to overestimate the importance of his/her field in the wider world, and political scientists who study the nature of political discussion are no exception. Thus, for those of us who pay more attention than is healthy to the Yapping Knobs on cable television and talk radio, they seem awfully important and incite bouts of hand-wringing among those of us who pay them any mind. I have to wonder, however, how much they matter to the average mother of four in, say, Temecula or Bowling Green.

In closing the session, David Brady provided perhaps the best encapsulation I've heard to date of why fights over politics become so nasty.

"Consider the TV commercials for McDonald's and Burger King," said Brady. "They're mostly fairly boring, showing happy people eating burgers and drinking milkshakes. They're pretty innocuous and make little or no mention of their competitors. But imagine that on the first Tuesday in November, we all went to the polls and cast our votes for which restaurant chain had the best burgers. The votes would be tallied and whichever chain had the most votes would be the only one allowed to sell burgers for the next four years. You can imagine how nasty their adverts would quickly become, with McDonald's showing 800 pound Burger King customers and BK telling you how you'd die if you ate at McDonald's."

Indeed, nastiness is not a recent blemish on the political discourse. Rather, politics is an inherently ugly sport which, though occasionally necessary, nevertheless reduces decisions to a zero-sum fight over the ultimate spoils. The answer, then, as I've written before, is not to plead with people to be polite or hope that candidates won't use negative campaign advertising, but rather to remove as many decisions as possible from the political realm and return them to society where one person's choice for himself (McDonald's) does not preclude another person making a different choice for herself (Burger King). Only then will people stop squabbling about such matters. 

24 April, 2012

With Help Like This, Who Needs Harm?

By Aaron
24 April, 2012

In his indispensable book Applied Economics, Thomas Sowell suggests that the first question a person must learn to ask when analyzing public policy is, "And then what?"

"Simple as this little exercise might seem," writes Sowell, "it [goes] further than most economic discussions about policies on a wide range of issues. Most thinking stops at stage one."

As I discussed a few weeks ago, the Seoul city government recently decreed that all big box retailers (e.g. E-Mart, Lotte Mart, HomePlus) must close their doors one or two days each month in an attempt to boost the fortunes of traditional markets and mom-and-pop stores. The folks down at City Hall, of course, insist that if Costco, Emart, etc., are not open, consumers will choose to do their shopping in smaller outlets and, just like that, all will be well for Mom and Pop. Why, then, should we trouble ourselves by proceeding beyond this first stage of thought?

Here's why: even if we put aside the moral implications of the government's thuggish intervention into the lives of private individuals, we have reasons aplenty to believe that such measures will do little to help their intended beneficiaries. As The Korea Herald reported yesterday, the American warehouse retailer Costco sits right alongside Korean retailers as a target in the government's war on size, meaning that it, too, will face closure at the whims of local politicians.

Problem is, as Costco's country manager, Preston Draper, points out, small merchants - whom the government is supposedly aiming to help - make up the majority of Costco's customer base and they, just as much as the average housewife, will suffer as a result of the government's campaign against any retailer larger than a broom closet.

Not that this will matter much to our local mandarins, who - unlike retailers, large and small -  face no immediate consequences for their actions, especially when they are imposing their preferences on distant parties. Your local city councilman, for example, suffers not at all if a single small businessman cannot get his supplies at Costco, or if Costco's performance suffers as a result. Oh sure, he might lose a vote or two in the next election, and these votes might hurt his chances of staying in office, but the likelihood that more than a handful of people will connect their troubles back this councilman's intrusion into their affairs is negligible. The small businessman and Costco, however, face very real, tangible, and immediate consequences.

The French economist Frédéric Bastiat wrote that "in the economic sphere an act, a habit, an institution, a law produces not only one effect, but a series of effects. Of these effects, the first alone is immediate; it appears simultaneously with its cause; it is seen. The other effects emerge only subsequently; they are not seen; we are fortunate if we foresee them.”

The only way to foresee these effects, however, is to play Sowell's "And then what?" game. But why would Seoul's politicians want to do that?

23 April, 2012

The Marvels of a Voluntary Society

By Aaron
23 April, 2012

 This opinion piece of mine ran in The Korea Herald on 19 April, 2012. 

"HOPE Epitomizes Marvels of a Voluntary Society"

At the risk of using one too many Annie references (which is to say, one), it’s natural, upon becoming aware of the hard-knock life which orphans face, to suggest that someone should help them. Most of the time, however, this “someone” means “someone else,” whether it be the government, corporations, rich people, or simply “anyone but me.”

Such was not the reaction of Joohwan Baek, who, upon becoming aware of the challenges faced by Korean orphans, as well as the barriers facing foreigners who wished to help them, co-founded HOPE (Helping Others Prosper Through English) in 2008. Rather than simply shrugging his shoulders and assuming that these were someone else’s problems, Baek and three Canadian friends took it upon themselves to improve the lot of local orphans and children from low-income families by doing what they already knew how to do: teach English.

Over the past four years, with the help of donations, volunteers and partnerships, HOPE has placed more than 200 teachers in approximately 20 different learning centers scattered about the Seoul area.

While Baek may not view his activities at HOPE as anything more than a simple good deed, his dedication to this cause is in fact a prime example of not only the entrepreneurial spirit that undergirds a capitalist economy, but also the ethos of voluntarism that holds it together. Defenders of the free market spend the bulk of their time explaining the necessity and virtue of profits, and perhaps this is as it should be. After all, a profit earned through peaceful exchange is simply a sign that one has successfully catered to the needs and desires of his fellow man. This emphasis on profit, however, too often obscures the importance of the non-profit sector.

For much of human history, and long before governments emerged as the chief providers of social services, private citizens worked together in spontaneous, bottom-up organizations to advance public welfare. And though it may appear that for-profit and non-profit organizations could not be more different, they share the same foundation, specifically, groups of individuals who voluntarily come together to accomplish a particular goal, be it getting rich by designing the next hot gizmo or, like the folks at HOPE, giving disadvantaged kids a better start in life.

Humans as a species are naturally social creatures and under conditions of peaceful prosperity, it’s hard to keep them indoors and alone. In this regard, Korea is no exception. As in virtually every culture, the family in Korea has traditionally been the first line of defense against hardship, but by no means does the human propensity to help others stop at the doorstep.

Look around a Korean neighborhood and you will see troupes of senior citizens on litter patrol, university and military alumni organizations helping each other through rough times, and groups holding benefit concerts for everything from animal shelters to North Korean refugees. As extraordinary as HOPE is, then, it is merely one piece in a larger patchwork of such voluntary efforts.

Such activities give the lie to the central justification for the welfare state, which asserts that humans lack compassion and will not lift a finger to help those in need. The efforts of HOPE and similar organizations also suggest that humans are capable of meeting each other’s needs without resorting to the use of force implicit in all state-funded programs. After all, in a society based on the principles of voluntarism, one can appeal to his neighbors’ sense of community, pride, or compassion as he seeks their help in addressing a local challenge, such as educating disadvantaged kids.

He may not, however, use or threaten violence if his neighbors decline to assist him. The national tax office, by contrast, is under no such constraint when it collects funds for state programs. If you doubt this, try to deduct from your next tax payment your share of the cost of any program of which you disapprove.

Despite its supporters’ claims to the contrary, the welfare state does not so much create new institutions as crowd out the civic organizations that people tend to spontaneously fashion of their own accord. That this has not stopped folks like Joohwan Baek from doing his own small part to help Korea’s least-fortunate kids is testament to the irrepressible human desire ― a constituent part of our very nature ― for the sense of community that comes from peacefully improving the lives of those around us.

Note: The views expressed in this article do not necessarily represent those of Joohwan Baek or of HOPE. I am, however, indebted to Mr. Baek for the time he took to tell me more about his organization

21 April, 2012

After Reading "Escape from Camp 14"

By Aaron
21 April, 2012

Fantasy vs. Reality

In reading Escape from Camp 14, Shin Dong-hyuk's account of his life and escape from North Korea's most notorious prison camp, one is left with two competing thoughts. The first is "good lord, I hope the North Korean regime collapses sooner rather than later." The second is, "good lord, if the North Korean regime collapses, how will South Korean society handle folks like Shin Dong-hyuk?" For most readers, however, such larger questions of geo-politics will be secondary to - or entirely eclipsed by - the sheer human drama of the story. Regardless, this book will hang with you for a while and is likely to provoke in the reader more questions than firm convictions about the future of the Korean peninsula.

Shin Dong-hyuk gained fame when he arrived in South Korea in 2005 as the first North Korean known to have escaped the country after being born in its horrid prison camps. Everything about his life in North Korea, beginning from conception, was owned and controlled by the state, his parents having been thrown together in marriage by prison guards as a reward for their good behavior. Growing up, Shin rarely saw his father and would eventually witness the execution of his own mother and brother after they tried to escape (an attempt for which Shin himself endured severe torture). Not that family affection had a place in prison life:

During his years in the camp [Shin] said he had never once heard the word “love,” certainly not from his mother, a woman he continued to despise, even in death. He had heard about the concept of forgiveness in a South Korean church, but it confused him. To ask for forgiveness in Camp 14, he said, was “to beg not to be punished.”

Is it any wonder that a person so deprived of such basic human emotions would eventually have trouble adapting to life beyond the prison fences and, eventually, in South Korea?

Even by the standards of North Korea, Shin was cut off from the outside world. At Camp 14, where the North sends its most ideologically "hopeless” citizens, prisoners are not even considered worthy of learning the state's official propaganda and are instead taught only such rudiments of reading and counting as are necessary to their future camp labors. As a result, the young Shin had only a vague idea of who dictator Kim Il-Sung and his son, Kim Jong-il, were, and to this day he still hasn’t quite mastered multiplication and division. This ignorance of the world extended even to the trivialities of human life: it wasn't until he was in his 20s and had escaped into China that Shin saw a soccer ball for the first time.

As lost causes in the eyes of the North Korean state, the prisoners of Camp 14 are nothing more than expendable human labor - slaves, to put the finest possible point on it. The prisoners begin performing back-breaking labor – mining coal, building dams, tilling garden plots - while still children and work until they keel over from exhaustion or, all too often, until they are beaten to death or shot by prison guards for reasons ranging from attempted escape to the guard's bad mood. Such executions are so much the norm that, as Shin notes, when he witnessed a six year-old female classmate beaten to death in front of the class for having a few kernels of corn in her pocket, he felt no shock or terror, only understanding. As the book's author, Blaine Harden, puts it:

[Shin] had been trained by guards and teachers to believe that every time he was beaten, he deserved it - because of the treasonous blood he had inherited from his parents. The girl was no different. Shin thought her punishment was just and fair, and he never became angry with his teacher for killing her. He believed his classmates felt the same way.

Not surprisingly, Shin's transition to life outside of of the gulag has been bumpy, to say the least, as he's struggled with matters as big as love and trust as well as the more mundane aspects of daily life like keeping a job and managing money, none of which is made easier by what must be one of the most intense cases of post-traumatic stress disorder imaginable.

To be sure, not all North Koreans are as psychologically and physically damaged as Shin, but as I’ve written before, if and when reunification occurs, the Korean notion of 우리민족 ("one blood, one race") will quickly be exposed as the fiction that it is. As a result of decades of malnourishment, North Koreans are, on average, 12 centimeters shorter than their counterparts south of the 38th parallel. And even if such nutritional deficiencies have not had a lasting and negative impact on cognitive abilities (which they almost certainly have), the lousy educational system of the North will leave entire generations of North Koreans ill-equipped for a life the fast lane of capitalism where South Korea travels. South Koreans may pay lip service to the “one race” idea, but this will likely dry up when an underclass of 25 million North Koreans comes knocking at reunification’s door. Indeed, even as North Koreans continue to suffer under the nastiest leftover of the Cold War, South Koreans are, by and large, remarkably disinterested in the suffering of their supposed brethren.

Nations and cultures are as much, if not more, the products of their shared virtues and common expectations as they are of ethnicity, and sixty-plus years of division have sent the two Koreas down radically divergent paths. Thus, while North and South Koreans share a certain genetic background, reunification will in effect be a combination of two wildly different attitudes toward the world. Not all North Koreans will be as difficult to integrate as those from the prison camps, but if the woes of the current population of North Koreans living in South Korea is any indication, the peninsula is in a for a rough post-reunification ride.

There is, however, a chance – slight, to be sure, but non-zero – that the reunification scenario will simply never come to pass. Speaking at the Royal Asiatic Society on 10 April, 2012, North Korea expert Andrei Lankov noted that, while young South Koreans say all the politically-correct things about reunification, they typically qualify their wish for One Korea by saying that it should happen gradually – over a period of, say, 50 or 75 years, which is to say, essentially, never.
According to Lankov, it’s only a matter of time before a gutsy South Korean politician steps forward and suggests that perhaps reunification should not be the goal after all. Once this unspeakable idea has been spoken, an honest conversation can begin about such questions as “In the event of a North Korean collapse, what should the South’s role be?” and “Just how much extra are South Koreans willing to pay in taxes and social strife to back up their ‘one race’ claim?”  Give North Korea another 10-20 years to fester in its own juices and the answer to these questions could become “nothing” and “nothing,” or at least, nothing that would endanger the swell life that South Koreans have built for themselves over the past 50 years. 
And here we have a topic that few people - if anyone - has bothered to discuss: what would the future of a post-Kim, independent North Korea (that is, a North Korea separate from the South but freed from the grip of the current regime) look like? And what would it mean for those who, unlike Shin Dong-hyuk, have not managed to escape the North Korean nightmare? 

01 April, 2012

The Loss of Unearned Privilege

By Aaron
01 April, 2012

Here's a letter to the JoongAng Daily:

As a protest against the government’s decision to allow zero-tariff pork imports, the Korea Swine Association (KSA) has announced that its members will stop all distribution of domestic pork starting 2 April. Farmers claim that the imports will cripple the local pork industry and are demanding that the government reinstate barriers to such competition. (“Angry Farmers Threaten Spring Pork Shortage,” 30 March, 2012)

The KSA is but the latest in a long line of special interests who believe that they deserve compensation for the loss of an unearned privilege. For years, the KSA has colluded with local politicians to prevent or penalize pork imports and has thus been able to charge Korean consumers inflated prices for an item which makes up a substantial part of the local diet. Such an arrangement was always ethically indefensible, and considerable gall is required on the part of farmers who insist that it should continue in perpetuity.

If the Korean market were as open to international markets as it should be, any threat by local swine farmers to withhold their product would garner little more than a collective shrug. After all, if Korean producers wish to harm their bank accounts by not selling pork to willing consumers, plenty of overseas farmers stand ready to supply this country with all the pork it can handle. In the current instance, the only cause for concern is that that government could seek to assuage this coddled interest group by reinstituting tariffs on pork imports.

If the government is smart, however, it will heed the advice of the 19th century French economist Frederic Bastiat, who argued that we must “treat all economic questions from the viewpoint of the consumer, for the interests of the consumer are the interests of the human race.”

Aaron McKenzie
Research Fellow, Center for Free Enterprise