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

23 December, 2012

Watch Penn Jillette Play Wack-A-Mole With TV Nonsense

By Aaron
23 December, 2012

How 'bout we airdrop Penn Jillette into every panel of TV talking heads? He makes his fellow panelists work for everything they get and allows no easy points, a welcome change from the usual potlucks of conventional wisdom that dot the talk shows. 

Here's Jillette doing his best to keep folks honest - or at least make them use their heads instead of their guts when voicing an opinion - about guns, violence, video games, and Asperger's Syndrome on the Wendy Williams show. And, goodness, does he ever has his hands full on this one:

Embedded Video: Penn Jillette brings a dose of sanity to the Wendy Williams Show

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22 December, 2012

I'll Be Home for Christmas: Felonious Pervert Edition

By Aaron
22 December, 2012

Embedded Video: ...Because I just can't bring myself to abandon Bing Crosby

Way back in 2004, in the halcyon days of this site's infancy, I made brief mention of one Sung Koo Kim, who had just been arrested after police found in his possession 3,000 pairs of panties stolen from young females in the Yamhill County region of Oregon. As I wrote in '04:

Apparently, Kim would follow young college students home to their apartments or dorm rooms and then, while they were out or sleeping, he would sneak in and steal their underwear and - get this - dryer lint. He also liked to videotape himself in the act of, um, gratifying himself while in the students' homes. Returing home from these outings, Kim would seal the lint and panties in ziploc bags and file them away with all the dutiful care of a national archivist.

Flash forward to this coming Monday (yes, Christmas Eve) and Mr. Kim, fresh off an eight-year stint in the clink, is scheduled for release. If you thought Kim's proclivities were odd when you first read about him, however, you'll love what McMinnville, Oregon's News-Register brings to light about him now:

He amassed 40,000 images of women being raped, murdered and dismembered, along with 3,000 pairs of stolen panties, all meticulously catalogued. He amassed an arsenal of seven assault rifles, two handguns, a set of body armor and a stockpile of ammunition. And he amassed hours in chat rooms with names like Strangling Whores, researching techniques to carry out slow, painful and lethal acts of strangulation.

In the words of George Takei, "oh, my." 

Releasing Kim on Christmas eve almost seems like an added measure of punishment on the part of the Oregon Correctional authorities. I mean, would you want to be the one answering the "So, whatcha been up to since I saw you last?" question that awaits Kim on Christmas afternoon? In the event, methinks an extra month or two in the pokey wouldn't sound so bad.

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21 December, 2012

So We're Still Doing That Christmas Music Thing, Eh?

By Aaron
21 December, 2012

After a decade in Korea - where, for most folks, Christmas means little more than an extra day off work - I confess that my first holiday season in the United States since 2001 has caught me off guard. I'm not talking about all the Christmas decorations that begin to appear on the day after Halloween - I remembered those. I haven't been surprised to see It's a Wonderful Life listed each day in my TV Guide (though I am surprised that Elf has evidently become mandatory holiday viewing) - Jimmy Stewart has owned December since before I was born. And the "Buy, Buy, Buy" commercialism of Christmas doesn't seem to be any worse than it ever was - people have always bought, bought, bought at this time of year. 

But the music: I had forgotten just how unlistenable the great bulk (+/-99.87%) of Christmas music is. Not that this should be a surprise. Imagine that we as a society decided that, for one month each year, we'd devote our ears to songs celebrating truck-driving. To be sure, we'd get the occasional "Six Days on the Road" and "Broke Down South of Dallas," but there's only so much to say about truck-driving and only so many ways to cover "Six Days on the Road" (see here and here for two of the better covers). Pretty soon, we'd all begging to hear anything except another damn song about big rigs, lot lizards, and the lonely life of the highway. 

So, too, for Christmas music: what can be said about the holiday has, it seems, already been said and the only thing to do now is to annually recycle the output of bygone years. Thus, while Pavarotti can sing "O Holy Night" for me anytime of the year, I will live happily ever after if I never have to hear another droning version of "Silver Bells," an unbearably unabridged version of "The 12 Days of Christmas," or the Beach Boys ruining "Little Deuce Coupe" with their 1964 exercise in blasphemy, "Little Saint Nick." Most of this music, were it any good, would remain in our playlists throughout the year. That it does not ought to tell us something about what we force-feed ourselves each December.

Among the nominees for worst Christmas train wreck of all time, this music video featuring Bing Crosby and David Bowie stands alone (h/t Mike Munger). These two could have at least assumed names for their characters in the video so that, even as a young child, I wouldn't have constantly asked myself why I was supposed to believe that David Bowie wouldn't know who Bing Crosby was but could nevertheless settle into instant harmony with the old codger. Goodness do I hate to see a great like Crosby - whose renditions of "Misty," "Moonglow," and "My Funny Valentine" are among my favorites - doing this to himself.

Fortunately, we share this world with Will Ferrell and John C. Reilly, who've brought us their version of the Crosby-Bowie paring:

Even better, we're nearing the end of the Christmas Music Gauntlet. Just a few more days...

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The Splendor of Liberal Capitalism

By Aaron

From philosopher Stephen R.C. Hicks (author of the excellent Explaining Postmodernism) comes this wonderful flowchart diagramming the benefits of liberal capitalism and identifying the thinkers most strongly identified with a defense of each point. I am posting the image here, but I encourage you to visit Hicks' website and subscribe to his RSS feed.

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20 December, 2012

South Korea: Donor of Foreign Aid to the United States

By Aaron
20 December, 2012

Suppose that your neighbor showed up one day and offered to take over the landscaping of your yard, free of charge, for the next year. Seeing that he's done good work on his own lawn, you waste little time questioning his motives and instead quickly take him up on his offer.

Now that you no longer have to worry about mowing your lawn, pruning your shrubs, and weeding the flower beds, you have a few extra hours each week to spend with the kids, tinker in your wood shop, and work at your real job making money. This additional time has, in short, made you wealthier.

In this scenario, your neighbor's wife and children might not be very happy that he's donating his time to you, as he now has less time for them and his own yard, and the local landscaping companies might wish that you'd paid them to do your mowing and pruning, but the bottom line is that you and your neighbor came to a voluntary agreement.

What would be your reaction, then, if the city council got wind of this agreement and, in the interest of "protecting" that landscaping company from "unfair" competition, decided to punish your neighbor and his wife for "dumping" subsidized (in this case, free) lawn care into your life? I feel safe in saying that you wouldn't take kindly to the city council's meddling in what is a private affair between you and your neighbor.

I offer this little horticultural parable after reading this in today's Joong Ang Daily newspaper:

The U.S. Commerce Department said Wednesday that it has reached a final decision to slap heavy anti-dumping duties on Korean-made washing machines.

In a ruling described by the American firm Whirlpool, the department determined that LG, Samsung and Daewoo have sold large washers in the U.S. at “dumping margins of 9.29 percent to 82.41 percent.”

The anti-dumping duties for the two leading Korean makers of electronics products - LG and Samsung - were set at 13.02 percent and 9.29 percent, respectively. 

It added that the three firms have also received “countervailable subsidies” of 0.01 percent to 72.30 percent.

The story goes on to note that, in Whirlpool's eyes, the Korean appliance makers have come to dominate the U.S. market through "unfair trade." I understand why Whirlpool's not happy about the Korean government's (alleged) subsidies to Korean firms, but why - in moral terms - is this a concern of the U.S. government? After all, if the Korean government - with the help of Korean taxpayers (who, like the wife and kids in my story above, deserve to be angry parties here) - wishes to provide cheap appliances to American consumers, why should Uncle Sam intervene? 

Put more accurately, the Joong Ang story would thus read: "The U.S. Commerce Department has announced that it will force U.S. consumers to pay more for Samsung and LG washing machines. Those consumers will now have less money available to save or spend elsewhere."

In the interest of consistency, I hope that the U.S. government will not utter a peep the next time a foreign country decides to slap tariffs on cars made by General Motors.

Bottom line: when someone is willing to give you products or services cheaper than another party - and even at a loss to themselves - you ought to take it and not complain. Yes, the folks who'd like to charge you more for these items will throw a tantrum, but they have no more right to your wallet than does any random pickpocket. 

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19 December, 2012

Park Geun-hye Becomes Korea's First Female President

By Aaron
19 December, 2012

Voters in South Korea have returned Park Geun-hye to the Blue House, the nation's presidential residence. Park knows the grounds of Cheongwadae (as the house is known in Korean) well, having grown up there in the 1960s and 1970s as the daughter of the dictator Park Chung-hee. Park's election also completes a peculiar Northeast Asian triumvirate, as Park, Japan's Shinzo Abe (grandson of former Prime Minister Nobosuke Kishi), and North Korea's Kim Jong-un (son of Kim Jong-il) are all descendants of former leaders/rulers of their respective nations.

Having run through the trivia, here's a bit of analysis...

Park won with approximately 52% of the vote, making her the first president to receive an actual majority of the popular vote, rather than a simple plurality. Turnout, at almost 76%, was surprisingly high given that Korea's domestic political scene has been remarkably stable in recent years. Moreover, the battle between Park and her main opponent, Moon Jae-in, was hardly a contrast in sweeping visions for the future of the country. Both Park and Moon had their moments of "welfare populism" - i.e. promising voters goodies bought with other people's money - although as the election neared, Park focused more on promises of "national unity" and "motherly" leadership. That both Park and Moon are professional politicians who see the road to all things great and wonderful as running through the state likely explains the tedium involved in parsing their differences.

Truth is, Park and Moon would not have differed much when the time came to direct domestic economic and political affairs. Last summer, I attended a discussion with Swiss economist Henrique Schneider who pointed out that, while Korea's political rhetoric often makes the place sound like a Venezuela in the making, the country has moved with remarkable speed toward greater economic liberalization and openness. Consider, for instance, that it was Kim Dae-jung - no right-wing ideologue - who responded to the 1997 financial crisis with a wave of privatizations and government reforms that greatly boosted Korea's economic prospects. And let us not forget that it was Roh Moo-hyun, Kim's leftist successor, who initially kicked off negotiations for the recently-ratified Korea-US free trade agreement. Meanwhile, the nominally-conservative Lee Myung-bak government has seldom hesitated to meddle in the markets, even as Lee's administration has essentially moved the country toward greater engagement with world trade. I'm not convinced, therefore, that Park and Moon offered the study in contrasts that their camps were trying to peddle. 

Except, that is, on one key issue...

Where Park and Moon differed most was in their views on how to handle South Korea's troublesome neighbor to the north. Moon, former chief-of-staff to President Roh Moo-hyun, favored a return to the Sunshine Policy (read: bribe North Korea to be nice), while Park's stance toward the DPRK will likely hew more closely to that of outgoing President Lee Myung-bak (read: play nice and maybe - maybe! - we'll talk). After North Korea's 2010 attacks on a South Korean naval ship and on Yeonpyeong Island, many South Koreans were openly wondering if perhaps bribing North Korea for good behavior wasn't a better deal, but memories of these events were apparently not enough to sway the election in Moon's favor. 

Finally, I guess we have to address the matter of Park's gender. She is, in case you hadn't noticed, a woman. Throughout my time in Korea, I met many folks who weren't fans of Park Geun-hye, but seldom was her womanhood central to their gripes. Some people harbored resentment toward her father, others disliked her style or political stance, but I can only recall one individual who thought that Park's gender disqualified her as a presidential contender (and he likely held his nose and voted for her anyway). As anyone who's spent time in Korea knows, the nation's culture is a tad patriarchal, to put it mildly, and no more so than in the traditional conservative circles. For years, however, Park has represented the city of Daegu - arguably the most conservative corner of Korea - and the city voted overwhelmingly for her in yesterday's election. I look forward to hearing a sociologist's take on the meaning of Park's ability to unite the conservative base and get her XX chromosomes into the Blue House. 

For now, however, I'm looking to the future and, along with Kevin Kim, wondering when Korea will get its first black president. 

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Many Solutions to School Shootings, Most of them Neat, Plausible, and Wrong

By Aaron

"There is always an easy solution to every problem - neat, plausible, and wrong."
- H.L. Mencken
In the five days since the mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, I've managed to resist writing anything - even in the form of tweets or Facebook status updates - about the massacre. My silence on the matter stemmed not from any lack of gut reaction, but rather from my own sense that an airing of my gut reactions would add nothing to the surfeit of other people's gut reactions currently clogging the webosphere. With this piece, you can now add my thoughts to that glut.

In the wake of such awful events, most folks seem only too ready to rush forward and announce that if the world had only heeded their advice in the first place, we wouldn't be in this mess and that, in the case of Newtown specifically, 26 people would still be alive. Thus did those already predisposed to tighter controls on gun ownership immediately shout, "see, we told you so." Thus did those who advocate for fewer restrictions on gun ownership, and who believe that a prevalence of firearms serves to prevent crime, yell, "see, we told you so." Not surprisingly, such an environment encourages the political class - ever-hungry for attention - to insist that we "do something" and do it right away. 

Amidst this din, those of us who struggle to simply make sense of such horrific actions tend to just keep quiet, both because we're not exactly sure what to say about the matter and because our voices wouldn't rise above the ruckus anyway. In the aftermath of events such as those in Newtown, few people care to hear from those whose first reaction is uncertainty and circumspection.

After a few days of reflection, however, my reaction to the events at Sandy Hook Elementary has come to rest on two essential points. First, if it's human life we wish to preserve, school shootings are scarcely the place to start and, second, there is very little - either in practical or legal terms - that can be done to prevent such awful statistical oddities.

As I wrote following the shootings earlier this year in an Aurora, Colorado movie theater, we should remember that, on the whole, the world has become a remarkably safe place to live - a fact which does nothing to comfort those who've lost loved ones to violence, but which should temper our reactions to such events. Moreover, I worry that policymakers, in seeking legislative responses to events like those in Connecticut and Colorado, will fail to place such events in their proper context. Writing earlier this week, Diego Basch gets right to this point:

I would start by measuring the magnitude of mass shootings as a problem. How does it compare to other issues such as preventable diseases, regular crime, terrorism? I searched for data, and found out that in the past 30 years, 543 people have been killed in 70 mass shootings. That’s an average of 18 deaths per year. For comparison, three times as many die from lightning strikes.

The New Republic article linked in the previous paragraph states “I can’t say exactly why mass shootings have become such a menace over the past few years, and especially in 2012.” Given the low numbers, it’s likely that it is just a random fluctuation without statistical significance.

To put things in perspective again, half a million Americans die every year from tobacco use. Two hundred thousand die from medical errors. Those numbers are large enough that it’s possible to track changes with statistical significance, and evaluate the effect of public policy. There must be a fair amount of low-hanging fruit. For example, it’s feasible that a 100% tax on the price of cigarettes would save thousands of lives ever year. Why is this not attempted? Probably because the special interest group that controls tobacco sales is powerful enough to stop it.

For mass killings, the numbers are already so low that the logical question would be: is it worth doing anything to try to reduce even more the chance of mass killings? What could be the undesired side effects of implementing policies to that effect? For example, let’s say that someone came up with a vaccine that guaranteed that a child who received would never be a mass killer. However, one child in 100,000 dies from an adverse reaction to the vaccine. Clearly the vaccine itself would cause more deaths than mass killings, so it’s a net negative if we are trying to minimize unnecessary deaths.

And if it's the death of children, in particular, that you're keen to prevent, I might also mention the obscene numbers of kids killed by U.S. drone strikes in Afghanistan, Pakistan, and elsewhere.  Are they merely collateral damage, an unfortunate cost in the pursuit of some larger goal? If so - and, yes, I realize that this is veering away from my main topic - what is that larger goal and how will you know when it has been achieved?

But back to the topic of school shootings. Suppose you believe that, regardless of the low-hanging, life-saving fruit mentioned in Basch's piece, events like those at Newtown nevertheless deserve special attention and resources. What, specifically and in concrete terms, would you propose to do? As ever, calls for sweeping general action ("ban guns," "provide better mental health services," "secure schools") are cheap and easy, while few care to soil themselves with the details and actual costs of implementation. Writing at The Daily Beast, Megan McArdle takes on just this problem and concludes - correctly, I believe - that there's not much we can do to prevent another massacre like the one in Newtown. More likely, whatever action policymakers take will provide only a false sense of security:

There's a terrible syllogism that tends to follow on tragedies like this:

1. Something must be done

2. This is something

3. Therefore this must be done.

. . . and hello, Gulf War II.

It would certainly be more comfortable for me to endorse doing something symbolic -- bring back the "assault weapons ban"-- in order to signal that I care.  But I would rather do nothing than do something stupid because it makes us feel better.  We shouldn't have laws on the books unless we think there's a good chance they'll work: they add regulatory complexity and sap law-enforcement resources from more needed tasks.  This is not because I don't care about dead children; my heart, like yours, broke about a thousand times this weekend.  But they will not breathe again because we pass a law.  A law would make us feel better, because it would make us feel as if we'd "done something", as if we'd made it less likely that more children would die.  But I think that would be false security. And false security is more dangerous than none. 

Truth is, as Coyote Blog points out, if we're to live in a free American society shaped by America's culture, we're bound to accept certain risks. Where gun habits are concerned, America may eventually evolve into Switzerland (with its widespread firearms and relative lack of violence), but conscious action by policymakers cannot transform America into Switzerland. 

As with most social challenges, then, the "solution" lies not in Big Ideas or with bureaucrats in  Washington but rather in ourself and our own communities. So, if you own a firearm, get professional training on how to safely handle it and, when not handling it, be sure to keep it locked away in a safe place (why didn't Adam Lanza's mother have hers in a safe-within-a-safe?). Take care of your kids and, if they show signs of mental illness, get them the help they need. If you're worried about crime in your neighborhood, form a neighborhood watch group. Get to know your neighbors, not for purposes of snooping (well, okay, for a little snooping) but for purposes of mutual aid. 

Will any of these steps prevent every last lunatic from shooting up the local elementary school? Certainly not, but neither will any of what's presently being proposed on Capitol Hill. 

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14 December, 2012

Seeing the Worst in Others But Not In Oneself

By Aaron
14 December, 2012

Citing her desire to avoid a "very prolonged, very politicized, very distracting, and very disruptive" confirmation process, Susan Rice yesterday informed President Obama that she's no longer a candidate to replace Hillary Clinton as Secretary of State. Rice's decision comes after months of criticism over her response to the attacks on a U.S. diplomatic mission in Benghazi, Libya back in September, with Republican legislators making it clear that they were prepared to use Rice's confirmation hearings as a platform to litigate the scandal surrounding the events in Libya. Questions regarding Rice's role in policymaking during the 1990s Clinton Administration - in particular, as it pertained to the Rwandan genocide and the hunt for Osama bin Laden - may well have come up, too. 

Rice may or may not have been a qualified candidate for the job of Secretary of State, and she may or may not be a victim of the inherent political nastiness that characterizes Washington, DC. One thing's for certain, however: Susan Rice is a female of African-American descent, and it thus didn't take long for various media outlets to bring up the issues of race and gender. 

The editorial board of The Washington Post, for instance, wondered:

Could it be, as members of the Congressional Black Caucus are charging, that the signatories of the letter are targeting Ms. Rice because she is an African American woman? The signatories deny that, and we can’t know their hearts. What we do know is that more than 80 of the signatories are white males, and nearly half are from states of the former Confederacy.

Of course, the suggestion that any white male from the Deep South is a racist misogynist - at least until proven otherwise - is not itself the least bit racist or it? Apparently not. In the eyes of the Post, however, Rice's downfall could not simply be the result of either her own incompetence or of simply being in the wrong place at the wrong political moment. 

I am confident that the individuals who comprise the editorial board of The Washington Post and the Congressional Black Caucus (CBC) are not racists or sexists, and that they would object to anyone who tried to characterize them in this way. Strangely enough, however, these folks are quick to ascribe such sinister motivations to other people, even in the absence of any confirming evidence.

After all, has any opponent of Susan Rice's nomination stated - or even implied - that he or she opposed Rice as Secretary of State simply based of Rice's race or gender?  Rice is obviously a black female, but it does not automatically follow that any and all doubts about her ability must be rooted in racial or sexual animus. 

The kerfuffle surrounding Rice's nomination has brought to the front of my mind an issue that has long troubled me - specifically, the seemingly innate tendency of humans to see in others the sort of ignoble intent that we do not believe to exist in ourselves. Much like the folks at the Post and the CBC, I don't consider myself to be motivated by any sense of racial resentment (indeed, a person's skin color is usually the least interesting thing about him or her), but neither do I consider myself to be especially enlightened or noble. Why, then, would I simply presume others to be guilty of such malevolence?

My suggestion, then, is this: in any debate or discussion - political, economic, social, religious, whatever - you will always do yourself a favor if you choose to confront your opponent's strongest possible argument (even if they don't always directly make it themselves) and, further, if you assume that your opponent is motivated by the best possible intentions. Don't assume, for example, that simply because your interlocutor is critical of Barack Obama's economic policies or his nominee for a certain cabinet position that your fellow debater must therefore hate black people and wish only to perpetuate a system of white privilege.  In a debate over such policies, both sides will be better served if they assume that each person truly wants the best for all citizens and if they then proceed to discuss how best to achieve that outcome. Not only will such an approach yield a more enlightening conversation, it will also do your brain some good as you find yourself forced to deal with an argument of more nuance and detail than simply "he hates black people." 

Similarly, I don't claim to know whether Susan Rice was qualified to be Secretary of State, but I'm also willing to bet that her race and gender were not responsible for her failure to win that position. To assume otherwise would be to shortchange not only Rice (as though her career could be boiled down her skin color and XX chromosomes) but also my own intellect by ignoring the stronger objections to her candidacy.

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Vice Presents: The Mexican-Mormon War

By Aaron

Embedded Video: Mitt Romney's Mexican family battles the drug cartels. 

For a person who uses no illegal drugs, I sure am interested in the damn Drug War (see these posts). Of course, I also have no children but find education policy to be of great import (see yesterday's post). Whether they directly impact you or not, certain issues simply matter and thus demand your attention. 

Fortunately, we're blessed to share an atmosphere with the daredevil journalists over at Vice Magazine, and specifically Shane Smith (profiled by the NYT back in 2010), who traveled to Mexico to explore what may be the most bizarre confluence of cultures wrought by the U.S. War on Drugs. The short synopsis of this video: small colonies of offshoot Mormons - including cousins of one Mitt Romney - have found themselves at war with Mexican drug cartels. The long synopsis: ah hell....just do yourself a favor and watch it.

It is, to say the least, quite a story and one that demands your attention.

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13 December, 2012

Moving Beyond Schooling As We Know It

By Aaron
13 December, 2012

Suppose you could hop aboard a time machine and travel back to 1850s America. Upon arrival, you shanghai the first Man on the Street you meet and return with him to 2012, just to get his opinion on our 21st century world. You show him around and he's thunderstruck at modern transportation, retail, communication, entertainment, sports, art, music, construction, health care, and damn near everything else. He can scarcely believe that 1850 and 2012 were merely different years on the same planet. There is, however, one "industry" which he instantly recognizes: education.

Sure, the educational facilities of today are a wild improvement on the one-room schoolhouse of our hostage's era, and modern students are likely to have iPads and clothes made of materials other than gingham, but the basic set-up - that is, of a teacher lecturing to a captive audience of students - has changed remarkably little from the time of my parents, my grandparents, my great-parents, and so on back to the middle of the 19th century. Indeed, in the United States, the school year still follows a  schedule based largely around an agrarian economy that demanded the labor of all able bodies during the summer months. 

If Joseph Schumpeter was correct about "creative destruction" - and he sure seems to have been - wouldn't we expect its forces to reshape education? Or is there something sacred and immovable about the "Teacher Talks, Students Listen" model of schooling? 

Along with finance and health care/insurance, K-12 education is among the most regulated industries in the United States - perhaps even the most regulated. Governments not only dictate curriculum and decide which public schools students will be allowed to attend, but also mandate that students spend a certain number of years in a school meeting certain criteria. At the risk of sounding conspiratorial, such a system is marvelously efficient at producing obedient little citizens, but surely someone, somewhere has a better idea for how to actually "educate" kids. 

But how would we know? Entrepreneurs have had little opportunity to tinker with, let alone overhaul, the calcified system of K-12 schooling in America. Sure, we have experiments in private schools (e.g. Montessori schools), charter schools, and home schooling, but students are still subject to the underlying compulsory attendance laws and the market as a whole remains distorted by a public school system that extracts taxes from citizens to fund what appear to be outmoded models of learning in those schools. 

My (uber-realistic) question, then, is this: what if, starting tomorrow, the government removed itself entirely from the field of education, and especially from the K-12 years, including taxes, funding, and all laws pertaining to curriculum and compulsory attendance? Would disaster ensue, with parents ceasing to educate their younguns and instead sending them back to the coal face to earn a few extra nickels for the family? Or might we begin to see the emergence of new paths to becoming an "educated person?" In this scenario, what would education look like in 2022, or 2052? 

Of course, I don't know the answer to this question. But then, if you'd asked me - or, really, anyone other than Steve Jobs - in 2002 about the future of digital communication, I could never have predicted the iPhone. And what will cell phones look like in 2022? Again, I have no idea, but I'm fairly confident they'll be pretty nifty. Similarly, in education, I haven't the foggiest notion of what "schooling" would look like in a free and open environment, but I suspect that it might be an improvement on schools as we now know them.

Obviously, speculations like mine are way off the radar of most education reformers. For something a bit more conventional - and a smaller step in the right direction - there's this short video:

Embedded Video: What You Should Know About School Choice

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11 December, 2012

Korea’s Elections: A Referendum on the Past and a Choice About the Future

By Aaron
11 December, 2012

Embedded Video: The Financial Times' Simon Mundy reports on South Korean attitudes toward the nation's conglomerates

"Do you believe that the government should serve as a neutral guardian of the rule of law, or that it should it favor one special interest group at the expense of everyone else?

To this question, the average "Citizen on the Street" would likely respond that governments ought to refrain from playing favorites, as any distinctly favorable or unfavorable treatment toward a particular group is, in a word, unfair. When pressed for an opinion on specific policies, however, our Citizen is likely to favor policies that are distinctly favorable toward his particular group. If he's a businessman, for example, he might tell you that, sure, free trade is great, but that his industry is "unique" and clearly in need of protection. If he's a university professor upset by government bailouts to a certain well-connected conglomerate, he might lament the rampant cronyism of the age while insisting that, obviously, government subsidies to universities are essential to the nation's wellbeing. We humans, it seems, have an innate tendency to see ourselves, and the groups to which we belong, as special and therefore deserving of special treatment. 

"Because people tend to view policies from their own vantage points," writes Randall Holcombe, "they tend to see policies that benefit them as policies that are also in the public interest." 

This is pertinent because, on 19 December, Koreans will go to the polls and vote for their next president. The election will pit nominal conservative Park Geun-hye against the Democratic United Party's Moon Jae-in. It is the presence of Park, however - as the daughter of former dictator Park Chung-hee - that makes this election as much a referendum on the nation's past as it is a choice about the future. 

Park Chung-hee, who headed Korea during the years of its explosive economic growth (1961-1979), is considered by a majority of the Korean public to have been the most effective president in the nation's history, but he is also the most divisive. Park's fans attribute to him the unprecedented gains in prosperity achieved during his time in office, while his detractors argue that Park, even as he singlehandedly produced a higher GDP, brooked no dissent and had few qualms about imprisoning, torturing, and even murdering those who challenged his vision for Korea's future. 

Both views of Park give him too much credit for the economic growth of the period. To be sure, if Koreans were destined to play the Dictator Lottery, they lucked out by getting Park instead of, say, Mobutu or the Kims of North Korea, as Park was at least willing to change course when a policy was clearly courting ruin. Yet, as Benjamin Powell points out, while Korea’s industrialization was government-led, its development (that is, the quality-of-life improvements we should care about) was not. Instead, that economic development came as the result of individual knowledge responding to market incentives, and to the extent that the Park government allowed this knowledge to follow these incentives, prosperity grew. The more the government intervened and tilted the playing field toward one group instead of others, the more the economy floundered. 

Government, of course, produces no wealth of its own and, as a result, cannot give something to one group without first taking it from someone else. In modern-day Korea, therefore, many citizens feel that the nation's family-owned conglomerates (chaebol) have exploited their close ties to the state and thus see the success of these firms as illegitimate. Such indignation is not without merit: these ties were cemented in the 1970s as the government ratcheted up its economic interventions, during which time the state greatly favored large industries at the expense of small businesses.

In a piece that should be required reading for anyone with an opinion on Park Chung-hee (see “references” below), Young Back Choi points to the many sacrifices that were foisted upon the Korean people by the Park government during the 1960s and 1970s. These included, among other offenses, forcing Korean citizens to buy long-term bonds that quickly became worthless even as the state handed out interest-free loans to favored businessmen; forcing Koreans to "pay exorbitant prices for shoddy products in protected consumer goods markets dominated by government-sanctioned monopolies and oligopolies"; and, as mentioned, brutally suppressing anyone who dared to protest this unfairness.

As such, this year's presidential race has included much talk about "economic democracy," an idea which includes government restrictions on the ability of chaebol to sell particular items in certain places; subsidies to uncompetitive business models, mostly among small and medium-sized businesses; and increased welfare spending. The widespread, albeit mistaken, belief is that the Korean government orchestrated the nation’s rise by favoring certain groups. Why, then, can it not now simply direct its magical largesse toward different groups? And if the chaebol can be punished for their sins – either real or imagined – in the process, so much the better. 

Unfortunately, while the proposals which make up economic democracy certainly appeal to the human appetite for vengeance, such sentiments have seldom been the basis for sound public policy. Indeed, the policies packaged as economic democracy merely double down on the political-economic model that so angers Koreans, that is, one in which the state accords privileges to one group at the expense of another. Ultimately, neither the repressive industrial policy of years past nor “economic democracy” of the sort promised by current presidential hopefuls best serves Korea, as both tie economic success to a group’s ability to capture the political system. 

Instead, as Holcombe writes, the goal should be a government that “is neutral toward everyone and supports neither business nor workers.” Korean voters should demand that the government strip away the last remaining privileges of industrial policy (subsidies, trade barriers, etc.) and force large firms to compete on their merits. In the interest of consistency, however, voters must also resist the urge to demand that new privileges be created and directed toward their own particular group. 

References (and recommended reading):

Young Back Choi. "Industrial Policy as the Engine of Economic Growth in South Korea: Myth and Reality." The Collapse of Development Planning. Ed. Peter J. Boettke. New York: New York UP, 1994. 231-55.

Randall G.Holcombe. "South Korea's Economic Future: Industrial Policy, or Economic Democracy?" Journal of Economic Behavior & Organization (2011).

Benjamin Powell. "State Development Planning: Did It Create an East Asian Miracle?" The Review of Austrian Economics 18.3-4 (2005): 305-23.

Jungho Yoo. "The Myth About Korea's Rapid Growth." Institutional Economics and National Competitiveness. Ed. Young Back Choi. New York: Routledge, 2012. 154-66.

10 December, 2012

Deck the Halls with Macro Follies

By Aaron
10 December, 2012

Embedded Video: The EconStories team delivers another winner.

I have, shall we say, a conflicted relationship with Christmas. An avowed atheist, I find secular Christmas music unlistenable (how the hell does one "rock" around a Christmas tree?) but keep my favorite sacred holiday hymns in my iTunes playlist throughout the year. A fierce defender of free markets and of commercial exchange, I nevertheless sigh in exasperation when I walk into Target on the day after Halloween to find the Christmas bric-a-brac where only a day before the Chinese-made Scream masks had been stacked. And, even as a man who values the human mind's ability to rationally calculate costs and benefits, I accept and appreciate the seemingly irrational tradition of exchanging Christmas gifts

All of which probably just means that I'm overthinking the Yuletide.

Fortunately for overthinkers like me, John Papola and his EconStories crew (they of the marvelous Keynes vs. Hayek rap videos) have come through once again with a Christmas-themed overview of economic thought. Suffice it to say, this video portrays my idea of the perfect Christmas - that is, sitting around a roaring fire, getting drunk, and debating the Paradox of Thrift. In reality, I'll probably end up rocking around the Christmas tree. 

But at least I'll have "I view your savings with scorn" in my head while I do so. 

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04 December, 2012

The Passive Voice is Ugly and Must Be Avoided

By Aaron
04 December, 2012

Over on Facebook, Professors Sarah Skwire and Steven Horwitz have recently been fighting the never-ending war against the passive voice. Together, they offered this clever admonition to their students:

Last week papers were handed in in which the passive voice was used, even though it has been indicated that this is unacceptable. I was not made happy. The passive voice is most often used by government agencies or other bureaucracies who would like to deny or hide responsibility for something. When writing in the passive voice, responsibility for the ideas is deflected and neutered. It has been shown that it is thought by many students that the use of the passive voice produces a more sophisticated or "academic-sounding" paper. The passive voice is often employed to hide a lack of research. The passive voice. It is weak. It is ugly. It is sneaky. It is ineffective. Learn to hate it.


A few minutes after reading of the Skwire-Horwitz Passive Voice Embargo, I happened across the following video, put together by the fine folks over at Learn Liberty. The topic of this particular piece is "Social Justice and Its Critics," and as such, the filmmakers had to define "social justice." Their definition: 

Social Justice: A moral assessment of the way in which wealth, jobs, opportunities and other goods are distributed among different persons or social classes [emphasis mine].

Although the presenter, Professor Matt Zwolinski, does not explicitly address the film's use of the passive voice in that definition of social justice, his critique of the concept speaks directly to the problem of such phrasing. After all, as Zwolinski points out, we must determine who it is that's doing the distributing.

And no, I have not clarified matters if I say that "we all decide - via, say, the democractic process - how we achieve distribution."

Embedded Video: Social Justice and Its Critics 

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03 December, 2012

Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy: Football's Seed of Destruction?

By Aaron
03 December, 2012

Football as it was meant to be played? Georgetown vs. Bucknell, 1924.
(From the splendid Shorpy Historical Photo Archives)

Baseball may be known as "America's Pastime" but let's not kid ourselves: what this country really loves is football. Whether at the high school, collegiate, or professional level, the ol' gridiron has arguably never been more popular than it is today. 

Trouble, however, appears to be brewing on the horizon. As an increasing number of deceased football players are found to have suffered from chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), the game itself is drawing scrutiny and leading some observers to wonder if this might be the beginning of the end for the sport. Writing at Grantland earlier this year, for example, Tyler Cowen and Kevin Grier speculated on how football - at least, as a professionalized institution - might fade from prominence: 

Before you say that football is far too big to ever disappear, consider the history: If you look at the stocks in the Fortune 500 from 1983, for example, 40 percent of those companies no longer exist. The original version of Napster no longer exists, largely because of lawsuits. No matter how well a business matches economic conditions at one point in time, it's not a lock to be a leader in the future, and that is true for the NFL too. Sports are not immune to these pressures. In the first half of the 20th century, the three big sports were baseball, boxing, and horse racing, and today only one of those is still a marquee attraction.

The most plausible route to the death of football starts with liability suits. Precollegiate football is already sustaining 90,000 or more concussions each year. If ex-players start winning judgments, insurance companies might cease to insure colleges and high schools against football-related lawsuits. Coaches, team physicians, and referees would become increasingly nervous about their financial exposure in our litigious society. If you are coaching a high school football team, or refereeing a game as a volunteer, it is sobering to think that you could be hit with a $2 million lawsuit at any point in time. A lot of people will see it as easier to just stay away. More and more modern parents will keep their kids out of playing football, and there tends to be a "contagion effect" with such decisions; once some parents have second thoughts, many others follow suit. We have seen such domino effects with the risks of smoking or driving without seatbelts, two unsafe practices that were common in the 1960s but are much rarer today. The end result is that the NFL's feeder system would dry up and advertisers and networks would shy away from associating with the league, owing to adverse publicity and some chance of being named as co-defendants in future lawsuits.

New findings from researchers at Boston University only make the Cowen/Grier scenario more plausible (h/t Kids Prefer Cheese): 

Previously, CTE had been found in 18 of the 19 former NFL players whose brains were examined. The 15 new cases in the BU study mean that of the 34 brains of former NFL players that have been examined, 33 had the disease. Linemen made up 40 percent of those cases, supporting research that suggests repetitive head trauma occurring on every play — not concussions associated with violent collisions — may be the biggest risk. BU also reported CTE in four former NHL players.

Well, you might argue, why not just outfit football players with better helmets, which would prevent their brains from being rattled around so much? Sounds like an airtight solution, right? 

Unfortunately, not so much. As it turns out, when you give humans better safety equipment, they simply take more risks, quite often offsetting any increases in safety. This is known as Risk Compensation, or the Peltzman Effect, named for economist Sam Peltzman who found that mandatory seatbelt laws had the effect of inducing drivers to exercise less caution in their motoring habits, as they now felt safer.  Not surprisingly, then, as this 2010 Freakonomics episode explicitly points out, NFL players respond to safety advances in their helmets by - you guessed it - becoming more likely to use their heads as weapons. 

The recent suicides of ex-NFL players Junior Seau and Dave Duerson, and the murder-suicide this weekend involving Kansas City Chiefs linebacker Jovan Belcher, will only heighten discussion of these matters. Seau's and Duerson's brains are among those being studied at BU, and Duerson - while a safety, not a lineman - is among those found to have suffered from CTE. It's obviously too soon to know what drove Belcher to kill his girlfriend and then himself, but I imagine that Football, Inc. must be lawyering up right about now just in case Belcher turns out to be another casualty of the game. 

And so, as Cowen and Grier put it, "Tennis, anyone?"

Subscribe to Idiots' Collective (RSS) or receive updates via email. I also invite you to follow me on Twitter. Profiles Shin Dong-Hyuk

By Aaron

Embedded Video: profiles Shin Dong-Hyuk

Goodness, Shin Dong-Hyuk is all over the place. As I mentioned earlier today, 60 Minutes did a piece on him over the weekend, and now I see that has a new short video on his story (above). 

Perhaps Shin is becoming the yin to Psy's "Gangnam Style" yang, that is, the man who finally brings to a mass audience the worst aspects of the Korean peninsula while Psy highlights the best. 

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60 Minutes Profiles Shin Dong-Hyuk

By Aaron

Embedded Video: Anderson Cooper of 60 Minutes interviews Shin Dong-Hyuk

Earlier this year, I read and offered my thoughts on Escape from Camp 14, the story of Shin Dong-Hyuk, a North Korean refugee who was born and raised in a North Korean gulag and who finally escaped in 2005. He is thought to be the only such person ever to reach the outside world. Yesterday, 60 Minutes ran the above profile on Shin. 

For more on Shin, check out this C-Span interview with Blaine Harden, who co-wrote Camp 14 with Shin. 

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01 December, 2012

Surprise: Killing Drug Lords Fails to Stem the Flow of Drugs

By Aaron
01 December, 2012

Embedded Video: Ted Galen Carpenter on his new book The Fire Next Door

Amidst all the hoopla and bellyaching surrounding the U.S. presidential elections last month, it was easy to overlook the fact that Mexico recently went and got itself a new president, too. Enrique Peña Nieto, who took the oath of office today, comes to power amidst a sluggish economy and a full-fledged war between the Mexican government and the drug cartels. 

Outgoing President Felipe Calderon did his damndest to take the fight to the cartels, but the results have been...less than satisfactory. From today's Los Angeles Times

...Peña Nieto is inheriting a bruised, terrified and polarized nation that has lived through its most violent period since its revolution a century ago. Tens of thousands of people — mayors, police, journalists, lawyers, officials, businessmen as well as criminals — have been killed. Thousands are missing, and human rights abuses by authorities have skyrocketed in the six-year campaign against the drug gangs.

Despite the elimination of several top drug lords, the flow of narcotics has not slowed. [emphasis mine]

You don't say. I imagine that, in tomorrow's paper, the LA Times will inform me that, despite the demise of Hostess, junk food is still readily available on store shelves and in vending machines. Of course, rival gangs of Ding-Dong smugglers never left severed heads in duffel bags in the middle of American streets as they sought to control their Ding-Dong turf. 

So, if you're one of those Americans who'd prefer to simply shrug their shoulders and write off the violent dysfunction down south as "Mexico being Mexico," consider that this violence and instability is right on your own doorstep. Moreover, this chaos has its roots in U.S. drug policy. And if you're one of those folks who points to Colombia - where drug-related violence has fallen considerably from its peak in the 1980s and 1990s - as a model for how to deal with Mexico, consider that "success" in Colombia merely squeezed the balloon, as it were, and shifted the problem to Mexico. So go ahead and squeeze that balloon again. Let's see where the violence goes next.

Whatever your stance, you might think that an ongoing war on the U.S. border - one which has killed 60,000 people in Mexico alone in the past six years - would be a hot topic on every Sunday morning news show, but you'd be wrong. Indeed, the issue never even came up during the U.S. Presidential debates.

But, by all means, please tell me again why the "maybe it's a scandal, maybe it's not" story of Benghazi is more important than what's happening in Mexico. Now that's a scandal.

For superb coverage of the domestic impact of the Drug War, be sure to make the writings of Radley Balko (@radleybalko) part of your daily diet.

On a semi-related note, here, according to the Republic Report, are the top five special interest groups lobbying to keep marijuana illegal. They are: 1) Police unions, 2) Private prison corporations, 3) Alcohol and beer companies, 4) Pharmaceutical corporations, and 5) Prison guard unions. But I'm sure their motives are pure.

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