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

08 June, 2012

Surprise: The Olympics are a Boondoggle

By Aaron
08 June, 2012

The history of the modern Olympics (and of other large-scale sporting events) reveals a consistent pattern. Organizers or local politicians in the host city commission “impact studies,” which almost always promise extravagant economic benefits. Studies performed after the event, however, find no positive effect at all—let alone one approaching the initial estimates. So it isn’t surprising that a PriceWaterhouseCoopers study commissioned by the British government forecasts that the Games would add about $9.4 billion to London’s GDP between 2005 and 2016. That seems like a large number until you realize that the London metro area’s GDP is roughly $712 billion annually. If the Games’ benefits were spread evenly throughout the decade, they would increase London’s GDP level by 0.1 percent each year.

Further, that $9.4 billion benefit pales compared with the cost of hosting the Olympics. In 2002, the UK’s Department for Culture, Media and Sport estimated that the cost would be $2.8 billion. Ten years later, London’s budget for hosting the Games is $15 billion. Costs already run above that figure and are likely to rise to approximately $38 billion, according to an investigation by the TV network Sky Sports. That would easily dwarf the economic benefits that the PriceWaterhouseCoopers study predicts. Security alone will be extremely costly: more British troops will patrol London than there are currently at war in Afghanistan. And these figures don’t count many hidden and indirect costs of hosting the Olympics—most prominently, disruption to business and traffic congestion. Traffic in London is already difficult; with special lanes for Olympics-related traffic, daily commutes will become a nightmare. (London’s transportation commissioner, Peter Hendy, helpfully advises commuters to go to the pub to avoid rush hour.)

This is from the Legatum Institute in London, via City Journal (which, by the by, is one of the best publications out there today, so make sure you get them in your RSS feeds or mailbox). 

As I've written, the Olympics - and other such occasions of nationalist preening - are the textbook example of "boondoggle."

Video: The Vice Guide to Karachi

By Aaron

A friend of mine is a Chinese diplomat who, prior to coming to Korea, spent four years in Pakistan. He's spent years working in other countries as well, but when I asked him about his impressions of this chunk of South Asia, he replied simply, "the scariest, most dangerous place in the world. Any future problems in South Asia will start there." 


The weekend, of course, is an ideal time to hunker down and take in some video, and so, following on my previous post, here's another bit of visual goodness for you. In this video, the crew at Vice takes a tour of Karachi, of which Michael Totten writes: "Pakistan is a powderkeg and Karachi is the detonator."

The Vice video, which I've only been able to find on Youtube, may not allay your fears about Pakistan, but it will certainly hold your attention. 

Video: Ben Ryder Howe Discusses "My Korean Deli"

By Aaron

Video: My Korean Deli with Ben Ryder Howe

Late last year, I reviewed My Korean Deli, Ben Ryder Howe's memoir of his stint as an over-educated manager of a Brooklyn deli with his Korean in-law. Howe's book ranked among my favorites of 2011 and, though it doesn't take place in Korea, I never miss a chance to recommend it to people in search of reading material on the country.

In the video above (which you can also view here), Howe discusses the book and his experience with Laura Vanderkam of City Journal (whose review of the book is here) at the Korea Society in New York. I hope it piques your interest and sends you in search of his book

07 June, 2012

There is No Mutant School for Prescient Policymakers

By Aaron
07 June, 2012

In Marvel's X-Men comic series, young mutants with nascent powers often find themselves in the Xavier Institute, a special school where these talented youngsters can hone their skills and learn to control their unique powers, becoming fully and truly super-human in the process. 

Based on the seemingly endless support for state industrial policy, I can only conclude that proponents of such interventions know of a similar school for aspiring bureaucrats and politicians. How else to explain their belief in the preternatural abilities of policymakers to foresee the future? 

In today's Korea Times, former prime minister Han Seung-soo - who now heads the Global Green Growth Institute in Seoul - implies that he is a graduate of this Mutant School for Prescient Policymakers when he insists that the Korean government must lead the nation's economy into its "green" future:

Green growth cannot be achieved if the national and global economy is left to the free market. So the government needs to play a role in providing economic incentives and disincentives, subsidies, regulations and other macroeconomic planning tools, especially in developing countries.

While Han does not explicitly invoke the term, the Korean government's "green growth" policies can only be seen as the latest trend in industrial policy. The notion of industrial policy has different meanings to different people, but in essence, it refers to any type of selective intervention or state policy that attempts to alter the structure of production toward sectors that are expected to yield better prospects for economic growth than would occur in the unmolested market. 

Trouble is, there is no Mutant School for Prescient Policymakers, nor do bureaucrats undergo a magical intellectual transformation upon entering office. In placing our faith in state industrial policies, then, we are assuming that these bureaucrats have superior knowledge of the future compared to investors in private capital markets. This being an unrealistic assumption, we can only hope that policymakers will get lucky in their bets and not simply turn their powers into a form of cronyism. Alas, history is not a source of optimism on this front.

If Han is as certain as he seems about the spectacular prospects for green growth, he would do well to leave his current post, set up his own investment fund, and start raking in the profits from the green growth he predicts. As it stands, however, he seems only willing to risk other people's money on such ventures. This alone should be enough to discredit his claims about the need for such government puppeteering of the economy.

06 June, 2012

Nick Gillespie Interviews Jonah Goldberg

By Aaron
06 June, 2012

I look forward to reading Jonah Goldberg's new book, The Tyranny of Cliches, which appears to take as its starting point George Orwell's caution that "the slovenliness of our language makes it easier for us to have foolish thoughts." In this video (also above), Goldberg sits down with Reason's Nick Gillespie to discuss his book, the early days of National Review Online (of which Goldberg was the first editor), the recent firing of controversial NR writer John Derbyshire, and the tenuous alliance between conservatives and libertarians.

This video is recommended watching, as Goldberg and Gillespie both offer a combination of thoughtfulness and good humor that is sorely lacking in most current political discussions.

Not Every Annoyance Requires a New Law

By Aaron

Since last Friday, the Seoul City Government has stepped up enforcement efforts on its no smoking policy in the Gangnam area of the city. According to the Joong Ang Daily, last weekend's dragnet resulted in the punishment of 114 violators and 6.05 million KRW (about $5,900) in imposed fines. In a city where pedestrians regularly do battle with motorcycles on sidewalks, in which traffic fumes cloud the air, and where one's morning walk to work often involves a quick stutter step to avoid stepping in a puddle of a drunkard's vomit, it's refreshing to see that the Seoul authorities have their priorities straight.

For the record, I don't smoke and I'm often annoyed by the behavior of smokers. They camp out in front of doorways, subjecting everyone who enters or exits a building to a blast of their fumes; they puff away as they walk on crowded sidewalks, blowing smoke in the faces of other pedestrians; and they get more breaks from work than the rest of us.

Having established my non-smoker bonafides, however, I now feel safe in saying that not every annoyance requires a new law. This is especially true when the bans restrict what people may peacefully do on their own land. Many American states, for example, ban smoking in restaurants and bars, an egregious overreach of government authority.

On public property, however, such bans may be superficially justifiable. In a private restaurant, no one is forced to breathe cigarette smoke, as customers who dislike such smells are free to go elsewhere, as are would-be employees of that establishment. City streets, however, are not designated 'smoking' and 'non-smoking.' Given that a minority of people are smokers, then, banning smoking in publicly-owned areas such as streets, parks, and bus stops seems reasonable.

The enforcement of such bans, however, requires more tax revenue and the diversion of scarce resources away from more pressing matters. So how 'bout we get our priorities straight? Here in Seoul, for instance, I'd like to see the police first focus on getting the motorbikes off the sidewalks. Once they accomplish that, we can talk about this scourge of public smoking. 

Besides, in the long run, social pressure tends to be both stronger and cheaper when it comes to enforcing standards of decorum - indeed, if social mores weren't as strong as they are, no government or police force could possibly hope to contain the chaos. There is, for example, no law (that I'm aware of) against farting loudly in a crowded elevator, yet most people try to avoid breaking wind in such a setting, if only to avoid that brief moment of social - and olfactory - blowback that is sure to follow.

Over time, if enough individual members of society decide that public smoking is truly an anti-social behavior, new standards of conduct will emerge. This may, in fact, already be happening. I have no data at hand, but from my observation the number of smokers in Seoul has declined substantially since I first arrived here. Moreover, many restaurants have adopted 'no smoking' policies, not because they were forced by the government to do so but rather because social customs and expectations moved them in that direction. 

Yes, I'd be thrilled if people ceased smoking on public streets, but I also realize that the occasional breath of second-hand smoke is less a health issue than a simple irritation, one which scarcely requires yet another layer of bureaucracy.

* * * 

One final, tangentially-related note: I wrote above that governments don't ban farting in public. Well, that's not entirely true. As this video report explains in hilariously serious language, at least one government has sought to penalize people for 'fouling the air' in public places:

04 June, 2012

Michael Bloomberg: The Embodiment of Statist Self-Parody

By Aaron
04 June, 2012

"What is ominous is the ease with which some people go from saying that they don't like something to saying that the government should forbid it. When you go down that road, don't expect freedom to survive very long."
- Thomas Sowell

In his latest attempt to save New Yorkers from themselves, Mayor Michael Bloomberg  - that embodiment of statist self-parody - is attempting to ban the sale of soft drinks in containers larger than 16 ounces. But lest you see this as the most recent bit of petty bossiness to come out of the mayor's office, Bloomberg would like to set the record straight: "“We’re not taking away anybody’s right to do things, we’re simply forcing you to understand that you have to make the conscious decision to go from one cup to another cup." 

To Bloomberg's credit, he at least acknowledges that this ban on the sale of large sodas relies on the use of state force to interfere in the peaceful decisions of private citizens. Trouble is, this ban amounts to an abuse of government power, enabling Bloomberg to foist his preferences onto society.

Preferences, though, are subjective matters of individual choice. Perhaps Bloomberg, like me, is obsessive about his diet and exercise regimen, desiring ripped abs and a six-minute mile time over the occasional cheeseburger and cold Pepsi. Good for him. 

But Bloomberg's and my ordering of preferences are not "correct" in any objective sense. That is, there is nothing wrong with another person's choice to drink a six pack of Pepsi each day and thus forgo the six-pack abs. These are not moral choices and it is therefore impossible to say that Bloomberg's anti-soda initiative will lead to "better outcomes" (in any generic sense), as the definition of "better" in this instance is entirely in the eye - or pot belly, as the case may be - of the beholder.

The true problem in the United States is not that any given person may often make unhealthy lifestyle choices (after all, it is herlife), but rather the fact that the healthcare "system" forces others to pay for the consequences of that choice. Consider that, in the United States, approximately 50% of all healthcare spending is controlled - either directly or indirectly - by the government, a statistic which provides ample ammunition to meddlesome busybodies like Bloomberg who claim that one person's cup of Fanta imposes costs on everyone else. Instead of banning large sodas, however, the goal should be to ensure that every person is free to live as he pleases provided he bears the costs of his choices.

Yet, for men like Bloomberg - and those who support his policies - very little justification is needed when it comes to interfering in the private lives of other people, as arrogance alone provides ample thrust. But here's a suggestion for those who support policies like the large soda ban: next time you think you know what's best for someone else, try to persuade them, peacefully, to adopt your idea. If you fail to do so, and instead have to start calling for the use of state coercion to force people into line with your ideas, your idea probably wasn't worth a damn in the first place.