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

31 May, 2012

The Funniest 20 Minutes of My Week

By Aaron
31 May, 2012

Something lighter for a Friday...

On his Econtalk podcast, Russ Roberts occasionally devotes an episode to a particular industry or field, interviewing, for example, an ESPN journalist, a car salesman, or an employee of Frito-Lay. In these shows, a departure from Econtalk's usual focus on traditional economics topics like trade or monetary policy, Roberts expertly finds the fascinating details that make these fields fascinating to the outside observer, while at the same time demonstrating how the often dense theories of economics apply to everyday life. 

The flip-side of the Russ Roberts coin is Huell Howser, a long-time public television host in Southern California who has an incredible knack for showing the audience exactly why inconsequential topics are exactly that. Even when his subjects are clearly bored to tears by their lives and jobs, Howser nevertheless exudes an unfocused enthusiasm, constantly darting here and there, talking not only to his subject but to any random passerby as he informs his audience of...virtually nothing. In other words, Howser is a full-grown four year-old.

Once in a while on the Adam Carolla Podcast, comedian and former Simpsons writer Dana Gould (one of the funniest men alive) stops by for a segment known as "Huell's Jewels," which never disappoints. Indeed, the latest installment is comic gold. Before you listen to the Carolla show, however, have a look at this segment from Howser's show, wherein he visits the famed Baghdad Cafe and on the subject of which Carolla and company open their riff.

Now you're ready for "Huell's Jewels." Skip ahead to the 24:30 mark of this episode and enjoy the funniest 20 minutes of the week: 

Repetition and Variation

By Aaron

First it was the fried chicken pubs, followed by bakery owners, convenience store proprietors, and duty-free merchants, all twisted into fits of petulance by the thought of competition. And now, right on schedule, Korean travel agents have chimed in, demanding that their position be always and forever immune to the threat of new business models.

As the JoongAng Daily reported yesterday, local travel agents are shocked - shocked! - that big box retailer E-Mart would have the gall to get into the business of selling airplane tickets on the cheap. Earlier this month, E-Mart offered tickets to such popular regional destinations as Taipei and Osaka at discounts of up to 40%. The sale was a first for E-Mart, and it lasted only a week, but it was enough to spook traditional travel agents, who quickly fired off a letter to E-Mart demanding that the retailer get the hell off their commercial lawn, as it were.

The travel agents' indignation continues a trend of traditional merchants seeking protection from any new idea that might undermine their old-line models. As mentioned, local fried chicken restaurant owners quickly raised a ruckus back in 2010 when Lotte Mart tried to sell whole fried chickens at steep discounts, while bakery owners continually seek to convince the public that bakeries owned by large Korean conglomerates are a threat to, well, life as we know it. And then there's the mom-and-pop market operators, who have succeeded co-opting government force and thus ordering large retailers like HomePlus and Costco to close their doors on certain days each month. I could go on, but you get the idea.

In each of these cases, the existing business charges the interloper - the upstart competitor - with "stealing business," as though customers were commodities to which a business is entitled. The incumbent businesses rarely, if ever, simply shrug their shoulders and say, "well, I guess we'll just have to get creative and work harder." Heavens, no. Instead, they pout and fume and then do their best to recruit the government in their quest to punish customers for their preferences by restricting or simply banning the newer business.

Ultimately, human behavior, like art, is mostly a matter of repetition and variation, which means that while these travel agents' tantrums are exasperating, they're also merely the latest variation on an old theme and thus not terribly surprising.

30 May, 2012

Doc Watson (1923-2012)

By Aaron
30 May, 2012

Doc Watson, one of my favorite musicians, passed away yesterday at the age of 89. That's not a bad run for a blind guitarist from Appalachia, but the world will nonetheless be a bit lighter on talent now that Doc's left the stage for the final time. For a final send-off, here's a sampling of some of his fine work (also above).

I also recommend this interview with Watson from NPR's Fresh Air.

29 May, 2012

Due Credit to Paul Krugman

By Aaron
29 May, 2012

As much as I may disagree with another person, I believe it's always important to credit them when credit is due. Take Paul Krugman, for instance. No really, take him. Sorry, I couldn't resist the ultra-hip nod to Henny Youngman.

Anyway, I regularly find myself in hearty disagreement with Krugman, but the fact is that in his earlier incarnation as an economist  - rather than his current position as whiny pop pundit - he was an excellent communicator of economic ideas.

As evidence, I give you this 1996 article, which offers a wonderful meditation on the understanding of Ricardo's law of comparative advantage among intellectuals and the public. In addition to being thought-provoking in its abundance of economic ideas, it's also superbly written. 

A sample from the intro:

My objective in this essay is to try to explain why intellectuals who are interested in economic issues so consistently balk at the concept of comparative advantage. Why do journalists who have a reputation as deep thinkers about world affairs begin squirming in their seats if you try to explain how trade can lead to mutually beneficial specialization? Why is it virtually impossible to get a discussion of comparative advantage, not only onto newspaper op-ed pages, but even into magazines that cheerfully publish long discussions of the work of Jacques Derrida? Why do policy wonks who will happily watch hundreds of hours of talking heads droning on about the global economy refuse to sit still for the ten minutes or so it takes to explain Ricardo?

In this essay, I will try to offer answers to these questions. The first thing I need to do is to make clear how few people really do understand Ricardo's difficult idea -- since the response of many intellectuals, challenged on this point, is to insist that of course they understand the concept, but they regard it as oversimplified or invalid in the modern world. Once this point has been established, I will try to defend the following hypothesis:

(i) At the shallowest level, some intellectuals reject comparative advantage simply out of a desire to be intellectually fashionable. Free trade, they are aware, has some sort of iconic status among economists; so, in a culture that always prizes the avant-garde, attacking that icon is seen as a way to seem daring and unconventional.

(ii) At a deeper level, comparative advantage is a harder concept than it seems, because like any scientific concept it is actually part of a dense web of linked ideas. A trained economist looks at the simple Ricardian model and sees a story that can be told in a few minutes; but in fact to tell that story so quickly one must presume that one's audience understands a number of other stories involving how competitive markets work, what determines wages, how the balance of payments adds up, and so on.

(iii) At the deepest level, opposition to comparative advantage -- like opposition to the theory of evolution -- reflects the aversion of many intellectuals to an essentially mathematical way of understanding the world. Both comparative advantage and natural selection are ideas grounded, at base, in mathematical models -- simple models that can be stated without actually writing down any equations, but mathematical models all the same. The hostility that both evolutionary theorists and economists encounter from humanists arises from the fact that both fields lie on the front line of the war between C.P. Snow's two cultures: territory that humanists feel is rightfully theirs, but which has been invaded by aliens armed with equations and computers.

H/T: Paul Jacob

The JoongAng Daily on Korea's SOE Debt Problems

By Aaron

In a world beset by the ongoing economic troubles in Europe - as well as by the hangover of the 2008 financial meltdown - it may seem quaint to ask if anyone remembers the 2000 dot-com collapse, in which the dreams of many a young internet entrepreneur were dashed by reality. A story in yesterday's JoongAng Daily about the mounting debts at Korea's state-owned enterprises, however, sent my mind back those simpler times.

As the internet bubble inflated, scads of web-based companies - many sporting business models that, in retrospect, had to fail - managed to convince investors that what consumers really wanted were products like, which offered a virtual currency designed to replace credit cards but which offered none of the advantages of a credit card. Inevitably, the bubble had to burst, sending employees, entrepreneurs and investors back into the world in search of actual value creation.

Perhaps the most important lesson from the dot-com collapse is that no company was bailed out by the government, no investor was forced to continue dumping money into a failed business model like, and no customer was forced to buy his groceries from Webvan simply to preserve the company in perpetuity.

Compare and contrast the bursting of the internet bubble with the current situation at many of Korea's 27 public corporations. As the graphic above shows, the Korea Land and Housing Corporation is more than 130 trillion KRW in debt, Korea Electric Power Corporation (KEPCO) more than 82 trillion KRW in debt, and Korea District Heating 28 trillion KRW in debt.

What's more, the Korean government is showing no inclination to tidy up the financial situation of these firms. Indeed, the government is making the problems worse. In the midst of a stagnant real estate market, the Land and Housing Corporation (LH) has nevertheless devoted itself to constructing low-cost housing and supposedly "innovative" cities (see: the Sejong City boondoggle), none of which are ever likely to pay back their costs.

Meanwhile, KEPCO management rightly complains that the the price of electricity - as mandated by the government based on political considerations - is not high enough to cover the firm's operating costs. Not only do these price controls on energy distort incentives for electricity use (which should concern you if you're worried about the environment), but they result in mounting debts which will have to be paid by taxpayers, regardless of whether those taxpayers were guilty of overusing subsidized electricity.

In essence, then, the government is forcing taxpayers - the true "investors" in state-owned companies - to throw their money into failed business models. Unlike the dot-com collapse, however, the Korean government will not simply shut down (as it should do for the LH) or privatize (KEPCO, for instance) these firms, instead allowing debts to continue to accumulate as these poorly-run companies crowd out better market-based alternatives.

27 May, 2012

These Online Tools Have Stolen My Heart

By Aaron
27 May, 2012

Just a couple quick recommendations for web tools that have weaseled their way into my good graces - and they're all free.

  • Full Text RSS Feed: I'm a Google Reader addict, but the RSS feed for some websites only offers up a partial preview within Reader, thus forcing my lazy, hyper-annoyed ass to navigate over to the original website. This tool will eliminate that irritation for about 90% of your feeds.

  • Tinderizer: I'm also in love with my Kindle, which most folks see only as an e-book reader. Occasionally, however, I come across a longer news article that would be much more pleasant to read on my Kindle (or on my iPhone Kindle app). Well, if you use Firefox, this plugin allows you to send the article to your Kindle with one click.

  • Clippings Converter: Another Kindle accessory. You know all those highlights and notes you make to books while reading on your Kindle? Well, this tool allows you to quickly and easily export them as text or MS Word files.

  • KeepVid: This one's been around for a while, but I still find myself telling folks about it on a weekly basis. Let's say you find a Youtube video you want to keep. Perhaps it's long and you want to watch it offline later, or perhaps it's just the best karaoke version of Air Supply's "Even the Nights are Better" that you've ever seen - either way, this site lets you save the video or audio to your computer. (Note: the site doesn't like Firefox on Macs, but it works fine in Safari).

26 May, 2012

Damn Good Questions from Don Boudreaux

By Aaron
26 May, 2012

Wow. One data point and you’re jumping for joy
the Last time I checked, wars only destroy
There was no multiplier, consumption just shrank
As we used scarce resources for every new tank
Pretty perverse to call that prosperity
Rationed meat, Rationed butter… a life of austerity
When that war spending ended your friends cried disaster
yet the economy thrived and grew faster

I'm one of those loons who sees spending on war as a cost, not a benefit - that is, I'm someone who believes that taking scarce resources out of the economy and sending them overseas only to blow them to smithereens cannot in any way, shape, or form be productive. Such destruction may, in some instances, be necessary in the name of self-defense (a separate question), but it ain't productive.

For some reason, though, not a few folks believe that the American government's spending on World War II was the kick in the economic pants that snapped the nation of its Great Depression. 

Simultaneously, however, not a few of those same folks believe that the last ten years of wartime spending on the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have been a drag on the U.S. economy. All of which prompts Don Boudreaux to rightly ask:

If – as pop fiction and the opinions of many experts contend – the American economy was rescued from the Great Depression by World War II, why do a number of people today place part of the blame for America’s current fiscal woes on Uncle Sam’s unnecessary military adventures abroad?

This Weekend's Lesson in Humility

By Aaron

Standing on the sidewalk this afternoon, waiting for something (a bus, a friend, Godot, I don't remember), I noticed that a pair of fetching young women seemed to be subtly pointing at me, discussing something seriously, and laughing nervously.

A few seconds later, they were marching toward me, clearly establishing eye contact.

Well, okay! I may be married, but I was abundantly prepared for the flattery that comes with being approached by random groups of young, beautiful females. 

Yes, my dears? 

This being Korea - and they being Korean and I being a foreigner - the girls did their best to communicate in somewhat broken English, though their message quickly became clear. As they pointed across the road, I noticed a small group of folks with movie cameras. 

"Would you mind," one of the lasses asked, in broken but painfully clear English, "getting the fuck out of our shot?" 

25 May, 2012

Bootleggers & Baptists: UFC Edition

By Aaron
25 May, 2012

In New York State, professional mixed martial arts fights (e.g. UFC) are illegal, even as other violent athletic events such as professional boxing, football, ice hockey, and rodeo are permitted. In addition, amateur fights in disciplines such as judo, tae kwon do, karate, and kenpo are allowed. What gives?

On this episode The Adam Carolla Show, comedian and UFC host Joe Rogan offers his explanation for why the UFC (Ultimate Fighting Championship) is banned in New York, a situation which obviously precludes some cash-cow events at the famed Madison Square Garden.

"Unions," says Rogan, simply.

Some quick background: the Fertita brothers, Frank and Lorenzo, are the majority owners of the UFC's parent company, Zuffa. The Fertita boys' wealth, however, originally comes from their casino business - specifically Station Casinos - which is mostly non-union. According to Rogan, New York's unions have devoted considerable time and money to lobbying efforts aimed at revenge against the Fertita brothers.

Back in 1983, the economist Bruce Yandle proposed his "Bootleggers & Baptists" explanation for the peculiarities of state regulation. As I've discussed before, the name of Yandle's theory comes from the bootleggers who like for alcohol to be banned - either entirely or on certain "dry" days - because it pads their pocketbooks, while the baptists push for such bans out of religious conviction. These two groups have no great love for each other, but they cooperate on this issue and, as such, society is stuck with lasting regulation.

I can thus imagine a scenario in which New York's labor unions, wishing to punish the Fertita brothers, push for bans on professional UFC fights. UFC is hugely popular, however, so the unions cannot achieve their goal by themselves. To get their way, the unions must succeed in convincing other slices of society - churches perhaps, maybe do-gooder politicians, I'm not sure - that the UFC is a unique form of savagery unfit for the consumption of Empire State residents. Anytime you see cooperation between moral crusaders and money grubbers, watch out.

While I don't know enough about the particulars of this story or New York politics to verify Rogan's claim, it certainly is plausible. I'd like to know, however, how the New York unions succeeded in quashing the UFC in their state while unions in other states - say, California, Illinois, or Michigan - have not. What is it about New York's political economy that led to this outcome?

24 May, 2012

From Giza to Khurais

By Aaron
24 May, 2012

The Great Pyramids at Giza (left) and the Khurais Oilfield Development in Saudi Arabia (right).

As impressive as the Great Pyramids of Giza may be, they're mostly impressive for their time. Of the 12 million tourists who stream through Egypt each year, a great majority of them swing by the pyramids to admire these ancient relics and to wonder "how did they build those damn things?" The ancient Egyptians obviously had no modern earth-moving equipment or flat-bed trucks, much less giant cranes of the sort that dot major city skylines today and which prove so useful when it comes to lowering heavy objects into place. Over the span of several decades, however, hundreds of thousands of laborers managed to erect the Pyramids and there they've stood ever since, holding the remains of dead pharaohs and drawing tourists for some 4,500 years.

Now hop across the Red Sea to Saudi Arabia, home of the massive Khurais oilfield development, one of the largest projects ever undertaken by the energy giant Saudi Aramco. Beginning in 2006, the project required 6 contractors, 106 subcontractors and 22,000 workers from all corners of the globe to lay thousands of miles of pipelines and cables, not only to carry oil but also to supply the seawater (from hundreds of miles away) required to force the black gold out of the ground. By 2009, a mere three years after construction began, Khurais was producing 1.2 million barrels of oil per day (as well as natural gas). Tourists will probably not be visiting Khurais 4,500 years hence (hell, they can't even visit it now), but by virtually any measure Khurais deserves to stand beside Giza's Pyramids as a marvel of human achievement.

One such measure: coordination. In his 1958 essay "I, Pencil," economist Leonard Read pointed out that no single person knows how to make an item as simple as a pencil, as this would require that person to be proficient in logging, mining, rubber extraction, paint manufacture, and countless other specialized niches. Read made the obvious but eloquent point that this lack of concentrated knowledge requires that untold thousands - perhaps even millions - of people work together in unseen and spontaneous ways to manufacture the lowly #2 pencil. And that's just a pencil. Imagine the web of interactions required to bring the Khurais project online. Again, while the pyramids are impressive for their time, the scale and scope of human cooperation required at Khurais make the pyramids look like a your children's sand castles.

The pyramids at Giza are not the Sistine Chapel, the Taj Mahal or Casa Battlo (Gaudi's house in Barcelona) - creations of such artistic vision that they'd rightly draw eyeballs and tourists regardless of their vintage. Just about any modern-day, oddball dictator, could build for himself a pyramid tomb and, while we'd likely mock his self-aggrandizement, we wouldn't give him many points for technical ingenuity.

So much do we romanticize past achievements - and take for granted the wonders of the present day - that a project like Khurais, which embodies the cumulative sum of humanity's technical, intellectual, and social development, barely merits a mention when folks discuss the wonders of of the world. Of course, the Saudis don't help matters by blocking all non-Mecca tourism, but still, how many tourists would flock to Khurais even if they could? Not many, I suspect, though I certainly would.

* * *

This topic brings to mind this 2010 talk by Matt Ridley, who here discusses the notion of "ideas having sex." To my mind, the Great Pyramids sit somewhere between his examples of the Acheulian hand axe and the computer mouse in terms of complexity. Again, impressive...for its time.

And, as it happens, 60 Minutes sent a crew out to Khurais a few years back (I've set the video to start playing at the Khurais point):

23 May, 2012

Penn Jillette Lays Into the President's Drug Policy

By Aaron
23 May, 2012

I wanted to post Penn Jillette's tongue-lashing of President Obama after first hearing it on his Sunday School podcast last week but couldn't find it excerpted anywhere. Thankfully, Jillette's crew has posted this short video of  the rant, which I hope will make its way to the White House (not that it would make any difference to the current occupant).

Life Lessons From Improv

By Aaron

TED talks have a way of annoying me, but I liked this one featuring Dave Morris, who teaches improvisational comedy.  In this presentation, he discusses the ways in which the principles of improv apply to our everyday lives. A crucial part of improv: listening, which Morris describes as "the willingness to change." 

"If I'm not willing to change based on what you're telling me," says Morris, "I'm not really listening. I've already made up my mind. I've decided how I feel. I've decided what I think, and I'm just going to let you talk at me and then I'm going to respond."

Morris must find political debates as maddening as I do.

20 May, 2012

Royal Nonsense

By Aaron
20 May, 2012

The Yeosu Expo, which opened in the South Korean port city last week, may not be attracting the crowds for which organizers had hoped, but the event is drawing one particular kind of guest: royalty.

Denmark's Crown Prince Frederik, accompanied by his missus, Crown Princess Mary, turned up on the opening day of the Expo, stopping by on their swing through Korea. Crowns from Monaco, Sweden, Norway, the Netherlands and Belgium will follow in the weeks to come. 

Perhaps, as an American, I'm genetically incapable of understanding the purpose of royalty, but this parade of sovereigns has once again reminded me of the absurdity of kings, queens, and their offspring. The North Koreans may still believe that one's birth is qualification enough to order others around, but haven't other people overcome such beliefs, even if most royalty is now, at most, largely symbolic (although, as I wrote last week, not empty symbols enough in places like Thailand)? 

These princely visits to Korea also sent me back to The Man Who Would Be King, John Huston's 1975 adaptation of Rudyard Kipling's novella. In the film, a pair of ex-British colonial army n'er-do-wells, Danny (Sean Connery) and Peachy (Michael Caine), set out from India for the distant land of Kafiristan, where no white man has set foot since Alexander the Great. Our two protagonists succeed in conquering the land by passing off Danny as a god, thereby making him king. In the spirit of "absolute power corrupts absolutely," Danny quickly buys into the myth of his own grandeur and believes himself capable of remaking Kafiristan into a modern state. In case you haven't seen the film, I'll not spoil the film, except to say that heads certainly roll.

While Huston's film, like Kipling's story, is a work of fiction, I suspect that it accurately captures the process, back in the deep recesses of human history, by which someone first succeeded in making himself king. That is, this ancient shyster likely convinced his fellows that he had a direct line to the heavens and set about spoiling the day of anyone who dared question god's authority. He then proceeded to hand off his scepter to his future generations. And that, right there, is about the extent of any person's qualification to be king or queen.

Put me down as unimpressed, then, by the royal visits to Yeosu.

A Weekend Buffet of Goodness

By Aaron

If you follow me on Twitter, you may have already seen my links to these recent bits of internet excellence. For everyone else, however, here they are in one place. 

  •  The video above, in which a young man sings of his dream of joining the Chinese Communist Party is the perfect blend of creepiness and unintentional comedy - and it would be even funnier if that same Communist Party wasn't responsible for tens of millions of deaths.

  • Lawrence Reed offers this superb Open Letter to Statists Everywhere. A snippet:
Don’t invoke democracy, unless you’re prepared to explain why might—in the form of superior numbers—makes right. Of course, I want the governed to have a big say in whatever government we have, but unlike you I have no illusions about any act’s being a legitimate function of government if its political supporters are blessed by 50 percent plus one of those who bother to show up at the polls. Give me something deeper than that, or I’ll round up a majority posse to come and rightfully claim whatever we want of yours.
...we spend trillions fighting terrorism, but mere billions reducing traffic fatalities.  And the reason isn't that terrorism readily responds to money, while traffic fatalities don't.  We spend 10% of our budget helping relatively poor Americans, but use the Coast Guard to prevent Haitians from sailing here to shine shoes to save their starving kids.  Again, the reason isn't that cash is a panacea for relative American poverty, or that Haitian immigration doesn't put food on Haitian kids' tables.  Once you make a token effort to suppress your Just World bias, actually existing government intervention looks incredibly arbitrary.
  • And finally, Jonah Goldberg takes on the slippery concept of "social justice" over at National Review Online
A cry for social justice is usually little more than a call for goodness; “progressive” has become a substitute for “all good things.” But sometimes the word is too vague. So if you press a self-declared progressive to say what it means, he’ll respond, eventually, with something like, “It means fighting for social justice.” If you ask, “What does ‘social justice’ mean?” you are likely to get an exasperated eye roll, because you just don’t get it.

16 May, 2012

The Hyundai i30 and 40 Baboons

By Aaron
16 May, 2012

How is it that this video (above) has been online for at least a week and I'm just seeing it today for the first time? I mean, this is the sort of random piece of brilliance for which I live. It's also, to my (no marketing experience whatsoever) mind, the sort of thing that could add an additional coat of coolness to Hyundai's brand image, as it not only shows the i30 to be tough (if now coated in baboon crap) but also shows that the Korean car company has a sense of humor. And hell, the fact that I'm posting the video online shows that the idea might have some viral traction. 

14 May, 2012

Where, Oh Where, Is the Omelette?

By Aaron
14 May, 2012

In 2009, New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman wrote: "One-party autocracy certainly has its drawbacks. But when it is led by a reasonably enlightened group of people, as China is today, it can also have great advantages. That one party can just impose the politically difficult but critically important policies needed to move a society forward in the 21st century."

I've discussed the difficulty dictators face in identifying these supposedly "important policies" elsewhere, so today I'd like to pause for a moment and ponder these "drawbacks" of which Friedman writes.

Over the past several weeks, the “reasonably enlightened” Chinese government has found itself on the defensive after a blind human rights lawyer, Chen Guangcheng, slipped his house arrest in rural Shandong and made his way to the U.S. Embassy in Beijing, where he sought asylum. Chen originally became a criminal in the eyes of the Chinese state in 2006 when he had the temerity to organize a class action lawsuit against the harsh measures employed by officials in their enforcement of China's one-child policy, measures which included torture and forced abortions. The fate of Chen, who departed the U.S. embassy due to fears for his family's safety, remains uncertain.

Meanwhile, in Thailand last week, Amphon Tangnoppakul died of cancer at the age of 62 in a Thai prison where he was serving a 20-year sentence. Mr. Tangnoppakul’s crime? Uttering unkind words about the nation's monarchy, a charge he denied. And Tangnoppakul is hardly an isolated case: the activist group Action for People’s Democracy in Thailand reports that, in 2010 alone, more than 500 people were prosecuted for lese majesty. These laws have been a convenient tool for the government in silencing its critics, particularly those who dare to quibble with the nation’s uneven system of justice.

Among scholars and pundits, the idea that “benevolent autocrats,” operating free of the messy and cumbersome limits imposed on political power by democracy, can wave their baton and orchestrate growth has enjoyed widespread acceptance for decades. Perhaps this celebration of the strongman has its roots in the early years of development economics as its own discipline in the years immediately following World War II, when the Soviet Union under Josef Stalin was humming along and appeared to offer a challenge to the Anglo-American model of capitalism. Much of early development economics, then, emphasized a heavily interventionist state and, due to the need for Cold War allies, dictators were tolerated provided they were friendly to the right parties. Of course, with the passage of time, the limits of the Soviet economic model – and, particularly with Stalin’s purges, its political model – became apparent for all to see.

The poster child of rapid Cold War economic growth was South Korea. As one of the poorest nations on earth in the 1950s, South Korea rocketed to prosperity under the military regime of General Park Chung-hee in the 1960s and 1970s. As in China, the South Korean state did its best to control the economy and brooked no dissent, imprisoning those who objected to the notion that an individual human was a mere cog in the nation’s economic engine. Most famously, future president and Nobel Prize winner Kim Dae-jung "endured a run-in with a 14-ton truck, a kidnapping, repeated arrests, beatings, exile and a death sentence during his decades-long struggle as an opposition leader." Kim went on to win international recognition as a crusader for peace, but consider that thousands of victims of the Park regime are known only to their immediate loved ones. Nevertheless, in high profile international events such as the 2010 G-20 summit and last year's High Level Forum on Aid Effectiveness, the South Korean government continues to advertise a “Korean Model of Development.”

Yet, in praising the likes of China, Thailand, and Park-era South Korea for their “strong leadership” and rapid growth, writers like Friedman treat too glibly the question of how the leaders of these nations deal with those who dare question the affairs of the state. Perhaps population growth in a developing nation like China poses a threat to its development (which I doubt), but unless the state owns every one of its citizens in the way that a master owns a slave, by what rights is the government justified in torturing or forcing abortions on women who risk a second pregnancy, much less imprisoning those like Chen who seek to help those women? Or, as in the case of Thailand, what is to become of those who do not violate the government’s plans for their lives but who merely mention that such plans aren’t to their liking?

According to a (probably apocryphal) story, one of Vladimir Lenin's fellow Bolsheviks asked him to explain the rising number of atrocities they were committing in the name of a socialist future.

"If you want to make an omelet," Lenin insisted, "you have to be willing to break a few eggs."

To which the Bolshevik replied, "Comrade, I see the broken eggs everywhere. But where, oh where, is the omelet?"

As William Easterly points out (and as Dani Rodrik has also discussed) autocrats, in addition to being far less than benevolent, most often preside not over growth miracles but, instead, over disastrous economic outcomes (think Robert Mugabe, the Kims of North Korea, Castro in Cuba). These despots seldom hesitate to cart citizens off to prison, pull out their fingernails, and "disappear" them for any perceived deviation from the national plan, but most often this national plan produces nothing but more poverty. 

Authoritarians, by definition, are not known for their open-mindedness when it comes to constructive criticism of their desired policies. Those who champion such a model of political economy should therefore ask themselves how far they’re willing to go in implementing their plans in the event that the citizenry takes umbrage with the policies.

10 May, 2012

Want More Government? Prepare for More Violence

By Aaron
10 May, 2012

The above image, which depicts protestors - let's assume they're from Occupy Wall Street (OWS) - being tear-gassed by riot police, has been making the rounds of Facebook in recent weeks. The photograph in its original, unmolested form should be enough to arouse your ire, but the added captions have spawned further rancor from all points on the political compass.

Before proceeding, I should confess that I've never attended an OWS event, but from what I gather via the news and conversations, I share many of the movement's gripes against the bank and auto bailouts, crony capitalism, and the general arrogance of the political class. Yet, while not all OWS participants advocate statist approaches to these problems, many do. In fact, the common "solution" to most of the problems in OWS circles is "we need another law, regulation, or subsidy. Hell, how 'bout all three?" In other words, we need more government.

When we talk about government, let's be clear about one thing: the state is force. In its most basic form, an ideal state is little more than the ability to put a man with a gun on the street to prevent you from harming me. Of course, by now, the modern state has extended far beyond this function, and we can debate the degree to which this expansion of state activity is beneficial or harmful. 

But let's not kid ourselves. Any state function which extends beyond the prevention of violence by one citizen upon another is itself a form of violence. For example, perhaps that protestor - the one getting a mouthful of gas in the photograph above - believes that the United States government should provide "free" health insurance to all citizens. Perhaps she believes that this will lead to better overall health outcomes for the population, or that it will lubricate the country's economy by untying health insurance from one's place of employment, thereby making the labor market more dynamic. And perhaps she's correct. I doubt it, but hey, it's possible. 

How, though, does this young woman think the government will finance such a system of health insurance? Unlike, say, your local carpenter, the state creates no wealth of its own through voluntary trade, so it must look elsewhere for its resources. That is, it must use its powers of taxation, and in case you hadn't noticed, paying taxes ain't exactly voluntary. If you doubt this, go ahead and try to opt out of paying your income taxes next year and see what happens. And don't try itemizing your payments either, by, for instance, paying your share of the national defense, police, and courts, but politely declining coverage under the state's pension and health care schemes. The response to your selective payment will be the same as if you pay nothing at all.

First, you'll get a strongly worded letter from the Internal Revenue Service notifying you that you're delinquent in your payments. If you don't fire off a quick check for the full amount, you'll probably receive a few more terse letters, followed perhaps by a lien on your assets. Should you display the fortitude to withstand this badgering, you'll eventually get a visit from the police - who may or may not be better dressed than those in the pic above - and the prosecutor who stand ready to toss you in the clink on tax evasion charges. Go ahead and try to escape: there's a feller with a gun up in a guard tower ready to see that you don't. And you'll be sitting in prison not because you initiated violence on another person, but rather, simply, because you, for whatever reason, didn't want to participate in the state's health insurance shindig.

Some have accused the creator of that image of making a straw man argument against those who support a larger government role in society and in the economy. Well, obviously, no member of Occupy Wall Street parades around with a placard reading "Tear Gas the Masses!" I'm willing to place a hefty bet, however, that most of the people angling for more state programs, more regulations, and more taxes to pay for them haven't given much thought to the coercive force that necessarily undergirds such government activity.

Here's hoping they find the time to ponder it before calling for any further state programs.

07 May, 2012

Two Questions

By Aaron
07 May, 2012

My first query was inspired by the latest episode of Uncommon Knowledge, in which Peter Robinson once again interviews Thomas Sowell. In discussing the revised edition of his book Intellectuals and Society, Sowell points out that far too many people are concerned with the how wealth is distributed and yet remarkably uninterested in how it is created.  And so, to my friends who believe that the state should play an active role in redistributing wealth, I pose the following question:

From where does wealth (or, if you prefer, value) come?

The second question, not entirely unrelated to the first, comes from the recent Supreme Court arguments over the fate of the Affordable Care Act, a.k.a. ObamaCare. At some point amidst all the jawboning, Justice Anthony Kennedy asked Solicitor General Donald Verrilli (the man tasked with defending ObamaCare) what limits he (Verrilli) saw on the Commerce Clause of the U.S. Constitution, which the Obama administration insists gives the government the right to compel individual citizens to buy health insurance. This has become known as the "limiting principle" question, and it provides the basis for my second question, addressed to the same folks as above:

What is your limiting principle concerning the role of government? That is, what can the state not do (either ethically or practically)? 

06 May, 2012

Suggestions for Teachers, Policymakers, Bosses, Etc.

By Aaron
06 May, 2012

From Bertrand Russell (h/t: Marginal Revolution):
  1. Do not feel absolutely certain of anything.
  2. Do not think it worth while to proceed by concealing evidence, for the evidence is sure to come to light.
  3. Never try to discourage thinking for you are sure to succeed.
  4. When you meet with opposition, even if it should be from your husband or your children, endeavor to overcome it by argument and not by authority, for a victory dependent upon authority is unreal and illusory.
  5. Have no respect for the authority of others, for there are always contrary authorities to be found.
  6. Do not use power to suppress opinions you think pernicious, for if you do the opinions will suppress you.
  7. Do not fear to be eccentric in opinion, for every opinion now accepted was once eccentric.
  8. Find more pleasure in intelligent dissent that in passive agreement, for, if you value intelligence as you should, the former implies a deeper agreement than the latter.
  9. Be scrupulously truthful, even if the truth is inconvenient, for it is more inconvenient when you try to conceal it.
  10. Do not feel envious of the happiness of those who live in a fool’s paradise, for only a fool will think that it is happiness.

Over at Our Dinner Table, Seth has added his always-insightful additions to this list, including this one that I particularly like:

If you are to point out a problem, you must follow it with, “…and this means we should do…” to show that not only have you discovered a problem, but you thought of a solution and you are willing to publicly advocate that solution.

05 May, 2012

Blaine Harden Discusses "Escape from Camp 14"

By Aaron
05 May, 2012

A couple weeks back, I offered my thoughts on Escape from Camp 14, the story of Shin Dong-hyuk, who arrived in Seoul in 2005 as the first person known to have been born in and to have escaped from one of North Korea's notorious prison camps. In the video above, which you can also watch here, author Blaine Harden discusses writing the book, working with Shin, as well as his general career arc. 

01 May, 2012

Seoul's Subways: Something Stinks

By Aaron
01 May, 2012

Korea's netizens, ever-ready to flip their conniption switch, got themselves worked into a tizzy last week after a woman decided to evacuate her innards on the Bundang line of the Seoul subway system (you can see a picture here, if you feel you must). Not that I blame them for their outrage, of course: public BMs are rather unseemly.

Anyone who's been in Korea for more than a three-Mississippi - and who was here during the "Dog Poo Girl" incident - knows just how devoted Korea's internet community can be when it comes to tracking down those who have supposedly misbehaved in public. Of course, these online lynch mobs often go overboard in their vigilante justice: as The Korea Times reports, the woman who soiled the subway carriage last week was apparently a few beans short of a burrito (else why would you loose your bowels on the Bundang line?). 

On a personal level, this latest incident simply reinforces my ambivalence toward public transportation. Sure, I enjoy being able to read while I commute instead of watching the car in front of me, and I don't miss searching for parking spaces every day. That said, try getting the subway to go to your front door when you need to do some heavy grocery shopping. And, perhaps more importantly, no one has ever dropped a deuce in my Honda. All of which is why I have little patience for my friends back in the United States who pine for mass transit. 

And there's another aspect to public transportation that sets me to furrowin' my brow. As Robert Neff, commenting on our Bundang Shitter over at The Marmot's Hole, writes:

I generally have nothing but the greatest praise for Seoul’s subway system.  It is extensive, cheap and, until quite recently, sane when compared to many other countries’ subways...

Extensive? Absolutely (see map above). Sane? Well, public transportation attracts all kinds. But cheap? Ah, here's the problem. The retail price of a trip on Seoul's subway is about 1,100 KRW right now (just south of US$1.00), which indeed appears to be a bargain. Trouble is, the system has been running deficits for years now, which means that taxpayers - some of whom likely never use the subway - will eventually be saddled with the (hidden) costs that have not been adequately priced into their tickets. The system is thus a bit more expensive than it seems - even more so when you factor in the cost of other riders using the carriages as their own personal latrine.